Galilee Diary: Keeping Time
On the fifteenth day of the eighth month – the month in which he had contrived of his own mind to establish a festival for the Israelites – Jeroboam ascended the altar that he had made in Bethel.
– I Kings 12:33 [an act of rebellion: see Leviticus 23:34]
As I wrote a few months ago, this Jewish year is a leap year, in which a second month of Adar was inserted; were it not for this extra month, Pesach would have fallen before the spring equinox, and thus would not have been the Festival of Spring. The Jewish calendar's 19 year cycle of leap years is designed to harmonize the solar and lunar calendars, synchronized with the seasons of the year in the Land of Israel, while still based on a year of 12 lunar months. The Muslim calendar was not attached to agricultural life and so does not take the seasons into account; thus the Muslim holidays cycle through the solar year every 32 years or so (e.g., in every solar year Ramadan falls 11 days earlier than in the preceding year).
The Christians have their own calendrical issues, which have come to an interesting historical resolution here in Israel in the past year. At the Council of Nicaea, in 325, the leaders of Christianity decided to separate the date of Easter from its Jewish roots, and established a formula for setting the date. This involved creating a table of predicted post-equinox full moon dates, calculated into the future, that would be used each year to set Easter. These "Paschal Full Moons," over time, diverged from the actual astronomical full moons by as many as three days. Later, after the split between the Roman and Eastern (Orthodox) churches, and the Gregorian correction to the calendar in 1582, the Eastern church stayed with the Julian calendar, resulting in a difference of up to two weeks in the dates of Easter between the churches (though there are some years, like 2014, when the two dates coincide).
In Israel, about 10% of the 20% Arab minority are Christians, divided equally between Catholics (Roman and Melkite) and Greek Orthodox. Many villages in the Galilee with Christian populations have two churches, Catholic and Orthodox. And while Muslim-Christian intermarriage is rare, Catholic-Orthodox intermarriage is not. So there are mixed families. Thus, the gap between Easter dates is a major headache for employers, schools, and families (at a time of year in which the Jewish environment seems to have more special days than ordinary days). Last year, my wife came home and reported that her Christian co-workers had told her that the gap between the two Easters was being eliminated. Knowing the history of tensions between Christian denominations in the area, I was sure there was a misunderstanding. But, indeed, the regional assembly of Catholic bishops had announced that, as a measure of reconciliation and a way to make people's lives easier, it would begin, as of 2015, to observe Easter according to the Julian calendar, the same as the Orthodox Church. In 2013 the shift was optional, and some communities adopted it while others did not. This year it is not relevant as the two Easter dates coincide. This rather historic decision had of course not made it into the Israeli media.
The decision affects Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Cyprus. It means that Catholics in the Middle East and Catholics elsewhere in the world will not be celebrating Easter at the same time. Because of the many pilgrims who come to observe Easter here, and because of the complex choreography of the jurisdictions and rights of the different churches at certain holy sites, the change will not apply to Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
We know all about this stuff: Reform Jews and Israelis celebrate Simchat Torah a day before Orthodox and Conservative communities of the Diaspora – and Purm is observed in Jerusalem a day later than in the rest of the country and the world (Esther 9:17-19). It seems that the calendar has a lot of power – to unite us and to divide us.