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The Hebrew Calendar in Old Testament Times
I. Origin of the Hebrew Calendar
Those who have Jewish neighbors know that they celebrate their New Year’s Day, which they call Rosh Hashana, in the autumn. If we ask a rabbi the date of Rosh Hashana, he will explain that it is the first of the Jewish month Tishri, but that it falls on different dates in our September or October in successive years, since it comes approximately at the new moon. The reason for this is that the Jews have a lunar calendar, now modified in form but originally reckoned by the moon. In ancient times the appearance of the new crescent after sunset, following several moonless nights, marked the beginning of the first day of each new month. The rabbi may explain further that the New Year season lasts through Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), on the 10th of the month, the most solemn day of the whole year, when Jews attend special synagogue services.
If we consult the Bible on these points, we find that New Year’s Day (called the Blowing of Trumpets) and the Day of Atonement are the 1st and 10th of the 7th month (Levites 23:24-32), not of the 1st month; and that the Passover, which always comes in the spring, is in the 1st month (Levites 23:5). We find the answer to this puzzling situation, and to other problems, by a study of the origin and nature of the Jewish calendar as set forth in the Bible and other ancient records.
The early Hebrew calendar as given in the Bible was admirably adapted to the needs of an ancient people who had no clocks, no printed calendars, and, as far as we know, no astronomy. It was based on simple principles—the day beginning with sunset, the week counted by sevens continuously, the month beginning with the crescent moon, the year regulated by the harvest season.
Of course such a calendar must be adjusted to keep the year in step with the seasons, but so also must our solar calendar, used in most of the world today. The difference is that our year is only about a fourth of a day less than the true year of the seasons, determined by the sun, whereas the common lunar year of 12 “moon” months is 10 or 11 days shorter than the true solar year. We adjust our solar-calendar year by letting the error run for 4 years, until a whole day is accumulated, which we add as the 29th of February. In the lunar calendar the larger error of 10 or 11 days is allowed to run until a month is accumulated; by adding a 13th month every 2 or 3 years (7 times in 19 years) this difference is compensated for.
The Israelites did not possess the advanced astronomical knowledge required for the development of the modern solar calendar with its leap-year adjustments, but God instituted at the Exodus a simple yet efficient method of keeping the calendar year from moving permanently out of step with the seasons of the natural year.
The Hebrews inherited the elements of the calendar from their Semitic ancestors, who from time immemorial had reckoned their months by the moon. To Abram, presumably, as to his Mesopotamian neighbors in Ur, each new month, and consequently the first day of the month, began with the evening of the visible crescent moon, and his descendants would have no reason to change the practice. Even when they were in Egypt there was no need of their abandoning their evening-to-evening day and their lunar month for the 365-day Egyptian solar calendar, for these bearded Semitic shepherds, who were an abomination to the Egyptians, lived apart in Goshen and followed their own customs.
Though they largely disregarded the Sabbath they undoubtedly preserved the knowledge of this weekly holy day and of the lunar month—for even a slave brick maker can count seven days and can keep track of the return of the crescent. But it is quite possible that they became confused as to which new moon was to mark the beginning of the calendar year. If they had retained the method of adding a month periodically, as was done in Mesopotamia by the Babylonians and Assyrians, we have no record of it. Indeed, there is no mention of the practice in the Bible, although it is evident that the Mosaic calendar implies it.
Either because they had lost track of the year, or because God wished to cut them off from the heathen worship associated with the Canaanite year that began in the autumn, God definitely pointed out the spring month from which they were to reckon the year. Shortly before the Exodus He instructed Moses that “this month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). There was no systematic code of calendar rules, but the civil and ceremonial laws given through Moses contain incidental references to the elements of the calendar.
II. The Elements of the Hebrew Calendar
The Day From Evening to Evening.—The day began for the Hebrew in the evening, as we know from the rule that the 10th day of the 7th month was to begin on the evening of the 9th (Levites 23:32), that is, when the sun set at the close of the 9th day. The fact that the day ended at sunset is shown in the directions for purification: One who was ceremonially unclean 7 days went through certain purifying ceremonies on the 7th and was clean again “at even” (Numbers 19:16, 19); and one who was unclean until even was said to become clean “when the sun is down” (Levites 22:6, 7). Obviously then, if the 7th day of a period ends at sunset, then all the days of the period must end at sunset.
The Week Marked Off by the Sabbath.—The week was divinely marked out, even before the giving of the law, by the double portion of manna on the 6th day and the withholding of it on the 7th (Exodus 16). It was the only element of the calendar enshrined in the Decalogue, for the Sabbath has a moral aspect that is not connected with mere dates and calendars. It is a sign of allegiance to the Creator, and it was revealed to Israel as part of the moral law, and as a symbol of sanctification (Exodus 31:13), not only of Gods power to create, but also of His power to re-create. Therefore the week is independent of all calendars. Its purpose is not to reckon dates. Indeed, it is incommensurate with any calendar month or year.
The Month Regulated by the Moon.—The two Hebrew words for “month” are (1) yerach, related to yareach, “moon,” and (2) chodesh, literally “new one,” referring to the “new moon,” the “day of the new moon,” and thus a lunar “month,” from the root chadash, “to renew.” Yareach is used infrequently, the common word being chodesh. The month in which the Israelites left Egypt was set as the first of the year. This was called Abib, the “month of ears” of grain. It was the spring month of the opening Palestinian harvest, later called Nisan, as it is known to the present day (see Exodus 23:15; 34:18; Deuteronomy 16:1; Esther 3:7). This was evidently a lunar month to which the Hebrews were already accustomed, because nothing is said of instituting a new kind of month. If the change had been from a solar to a lunar type, some sort of instructions as to how to reckon the new month would have been necessary. The innovation was merely that “this month” was to be the first, as it had presumably not been before.
The first of the month was considered a special day, celebrated by the blowing of trumpets and by extra sacrifices (Numbers 10:10; 28:11-14). New moons are frequently mentioned along with Sabbaths and festivals (2 Kings 4:23; Isaiah 1:13, 14; 66:23, etc.).
That the month began with the new moon is shown by an incident in the time of David. After Saul had sought his life, David tested the king’s attitude toward him by absenting himself from the royal table on a new moon feast. Saul said nothing on the new moon, but his wrath burst forth when David’s place was empty again “on the morrow, which was the second day of the month” (1 Samuel 20:24-27). Obviously, then, the first day of the month, as would be expected in a lunar calendar, was the new moon.
Pre-Exilic Names of the Months.—We have very little information about the Jewish months before the Babylonian Exile. There were 12 months (1 Kings 4:7), but we do not even know their names, except for the 1st month Abib (Exodus 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deuteronomy 16:1), the 2nd month Zif (1 Kings 6:1), the 7th month Ethanim (1 Kings 8:2), and the 8th month Bul (1 Kings 6:38). These were evidently Canaanite names; Phoenician inscriptions have been found that mention Ethanim and Bul. This is not surprising, since the Hebrew and Canaanite languages were closely related. More often the Bible refers to the months by number, previous to the Exile, rather than by name (Exodus 12:2; 16:1; 19:1; 1 Kings 12:32; Jeremiah 28:1; 39:2).
Length of the Month.—Nothing is said of the number of days in a month. In later times the lengths of the months and the intervals between the 13-month years were calculated by astronomical rules and fixed in a systematized calendar. But in the beginning the months must have been determined by the direct observation of the moon. Since the phases of the moon repeat themselves every 29 1/2 days, approximately, the crescent would reappear in the evening at the close of the 29th or 30th of the month. Ordinarily the months would alternate 30 and 29 days, but this was not always true. There are not only minor variations in the motion of the moon that affect the uniformity of the intervals, but also weather conditions that sometimes prevent the visibility of the crescent. We are told in later Jewish writings that it was the custom to look for the moon at the close of the 29th. If it was visible in the evening sky after sunset, the day then beginning was reckoned as the first of the new month; if it was not yet visible, or was obscured by clouds, that day was the 30th. The day following the 30th always began the new month, even if the moon was still obscured by clouds. Thus there could be two or even three 30-day months in succession, although this was not usual.
The Moslems of the present day count their months by the observed moon (except that they use the Gregorian calendar also in their contacts with the Western world), and thus in isolated districts the lunar date may be one day behind or ahead of the date in a neighboring village. But the Jews, living in a relatively small area, seem to have had a centralized system controlled by the priests at Jerusalem. There are traditional accounts of witnesses reporting the appearance of the crescent, and of fire signals heralding the beginning of the new month from hilltop to hilltop throughout the land, so that all Israel could begin the month together.
In later times, certainly in the revised form of the calendar instituted some centuries after the time of Christ, the 6 months from Nisan through Elul ran 30 and 29 days alternately, and any adjustments required by the moon’s variation were made in the other part of the year, so as to leave the intervals between the festivals always the same. Such adjustments would not have been made while the beginning of each month still depended on the observation of the crescent. David’s remark that “to morrow is the new moon” (1 Samuel 20:5) does not necessarily indicate that the months were fixed in advance by calculation. David could have estimated it from the preceding month without being more than one day off, and he may have been speaking on the 30th, which would necessarily be the last day of the month. We have no way of knowing when any system of regular calculation came in, but it was probably a late development. The dates on clay-tablet documents from Babylonia, written many centuries after David, show no fixed sequence of 30-day and 29-day months, and Babylonian computations made in advance for a specific month often left a days uncertainty.
Lunisolar Year.—The number of months in a year was not specifically mentioned in the Law (for a later period, see 1 Kings 4:7), though that was probably taken for granted from the beginning, for both Egypt and Mesopotamia had 12 months. The 13th lunar month was always one of the 12 doubled. But 12 lunar months end approximately 11 days earlier than a complete solar year reckoned from the same starting point. Hence it would have become evident very early that in a series of uncorrected lunar years (such as the Moslems use to this day), the calendar would move gradually earlier in relation to the seasonal year, at the rate of about 11 days annually. Eventually it would make a complete circuit of the seasons and count an extra year in about 33 solar years, or about 3 years extra in a century. The effect on chronology is obvious. But no known Semitic calendar of ancient times was allowed to run uncorrected. The adjustment was made in Babylonia by the periodic intercalation, or insertion, of an intercalary month every few years—that is, by repeating either the 6th or the 12th month—at first in a rather irregular fashion, later in a 19-year cycle.
Such a lunar calendar, of 12 and 13 months, adjusted in this manner to the solar year, is sometimes called a lunisolar year. It varies within a month in relation to exact dates in the solar calendar. That is why Easter, dated originally from the Passover, and still calculated by a lunar-calendar system, wanders over different dates in our calendar, within the range of about a month. Yet the lunisolar calendar, such as that of the Mesopotamians and the Jews, was nearer correct in a long series of years than the Egyptian solar calendar, which was reckoned as 365 days continuously without a leap year. It is true that a single Egyptian year of 365 days was nearer the true year than a Jewish or Babylonian year of 354 or perhaps 384 days, but the Egyptian calendar never corrected its smaller error, and therefore wandered off a day every 4 years, and accumulated this difference. On the other hand, the lunisolar calendar, with a larger variation each year, periodically corrected itself, so that a given number of Jewish years equaled the number of true solar years in the same period. There could never be an extra Hebrew year in 33 seasonal years, for every Jewish year had a Passover, held in connection with a harvest, and there can be only 33 harvest seasons in 33 years.
The Year Regulated by the Festivals.—The Hebrews needed no astronomical cycles to correct their calendar year so long as they kept the Passover as it was prescribed in the Law. Since God wished to give the Israelites a system of annual festivals to teach religious lessons in connection with seasonal events, He provided for a calendar system that would enable them to know in advance the regular times for these gatherings and to observe these feasts at the proper season. This lunar system, similar to that long used in Mesopotamia, was easy enough to follow by observing the moon. Even the needed periodical correction could be determined in a simple fashion. Upon leaving Egypt, the Israelites had not accumulated a body of astronomical knowledge on which to base a dating system, and God did not give Moses elaborate technical instructions for regulating the calendar. He indicated the “month of ears” as the first month (Abib, or Nisan), and from it the simple directions for the spring festivals provided a rule for an accurate calendar.
The clue to the correction of the lunar year to harmonize with the seasonal year was to be found in the rules that linked the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread with Abib, the “month of ears” (Deuteronomy 16:1; Exodus 23:15; 34:18), and with the opening of the harvest. A sheaf of ripe grain was to be offered as first fruits during the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Levites 23:10-14), after which the new crop of barley could be eaten. Thus the middle of Abib must not be too early for the beginning of barley harvest, the earliest grain that ripened in Palestine. And further, it must not be too late for the Feast of Weeks to come during the wheat harvest, seven weeks later, for the latter feast was called “the firstfruits of wheat harvest” (Exodus 34:22; cf. Levites 23:15-17; Deuteronomy 16:9, 10). Less specific are the references to the time of the Feast of Ingathering (or Tabernacles), in the 7th month as coming at the end of the harvest after the vintage (see Exodus 23:16; Levites 23:34, 39). But the emphasis is unmistakably placed on the exact timing of the month of Abib in the spring, the month from which all the others are numbered.
The Barley Harvest the Key.—In order to keep Abib in alignment with the barley harvest, it was occasionally necessary to insert a 13th month, as often as the error had accumulated (during two or three years) sufficiently to move the 1st month too early for the grain to be ripe at the Passover season. A hypothetical example will illustrate this. The Israelites crossed the Jordan and observed their first Passover in Canaan in the time of harvest (Joshua 4:19; 5:10-12). The next year the feast would have shifted about 11 days earlier in relation to ripening time, and by the third year about 22 days earlier. By the third (certainly by the fourth) year Abib 16 would have moved out of range of the barley harvest, so that a sheaf of ripe grain could not be offered. Thus in that year the month that would have begun the new year would be a 13th month instead, later called Veadar (Heb.wa’adar, literally, “and-Adar”), a second Adar; then the following new moon would begin Nisan (See note) late enough for ripe barley on the 16th. There is no proof of the use of the 13th month as early as Joshua’s day, but something like that must have happened if the Israelites followed the wave-sheaf rule literally.
NOTE: Since the name Veadar has been introduced here for the 13th month, the term Nisan may as well be employed hereafter for the first month, as well as the other names that were taken over from the Babylonians after the return from captivity. The Bible more often designates the months by number only, and mentions but four pre-exilic month names. Therefore it is better to avoid burdening the reader with more than one name for a single month, and to employ from here on the better-known names that have been in use in Jewry from the Exile down to the present day. It must be kept in mind, however, that these later names were not actually used in the period covered by this volume.
Later Jewish tradition tells us that the priests responsible for the decision examined the crop in the 12th month, and that whenever it appeared that the barley would not be ripe by the 16th of the following month, they announced that the next month would be called Veadar, and that the month after this second Adar would be Nisan, the 1st month.
Many authorities hold that throughout the Biblical period the Jewish month was based on direct observation of the moon, and that the insertion of the second Adar was determined by the Judean barley harvest. Others find evidence in the postexilic period for the method of arbitrary calculation, such as a regular scheme of 30-day and 29-day months, and the 19-year cycle. Whenever computation was introduced it was probably checked and regulated by observation for a long time afterward.
Thus the years instituted at the Exodus began with Abib, or Nisan, which was evidently to be kept in step with the barley harvest by the insertion of a 13th month every two or three years.
III. The Religious Festivals
Passover.—The series of religious festivals (see on Levites 23) at the basis of the Jewish calendar began in the first month with the Passover (see on Exodus 12:1-11; Levites 23:5; Deuteronomy 16:1-7). On the 10th of the month a lamb was selected for each family or group, and penned up until its slaughter on the 14th. Preceding the 14th all traces of leaven were removed from the houses, preparatory to the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Then on the afternoon of the 14th, literally, “between the two evenings” (Deuteronomy 16:6), the Passover lambs were slain. With the establishment of the Temple all sacrifices, including the Passover lamb, were required to be offered there (Deuteronomy 16:5, 6). Every male Jew over 12 years of age was required to attend, and many women and children came voluntarily. Thousands of pilgrims gathered at Jerusalem annually for the Passover and the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread that followed. (The term “Passover” was often used of the whole period.)
Feast of Unleavened Bread.—The 15th of the 1st month was the first of the 7 days of unleavened bread (Exodus 23:15; 34:18; Levites 23:6-14; Deuteronomy 16:3-8), sometimes called the first day of the Passover (Ezekiel 45:21). It was a festival sabbath, on which no work was to be done (Levites 23:6, 7; for the term “sabbath,” cf. verses 24, 32). This was not a weekly Sabbath, falling on the 7th day of the week; rather, it fell on a fixed day of the month, the 15th of Nisan, and consequently on a different day of the week each year. It was the first of seven ceremonial sabbaths connected with the annual round of festivals, which were distinctly specified to be “beside the sabbaths of the Lord” (Levites 23:38). These rest days were part of the ceremonial law; hence, unlike the 7th-day memorial of creation, were “a shadow of things to come” (Colossians 2:17), types to be fulfilled in Christ.
On “the morrow after the sabbath”—the festival sabbath after the Passover—that is, the 16th of Nisan, came the ceremony of the wave sheaf, the first fruits of the barley crop. Until this ceremony was performed it was unlawful to eat of the new grain. The Feast of Unleavened Bread ended on the 21st with another festival sabbath (Levites 23:8).
Pentecost, or the Feast of Weeks.—Seven weeks from the day of the wave sheaf, early in the 3rd month (later called Sivan), came the Feast of Weeks, celebrating the wheat harvest by the presentation of loaves in the Temple (see Levites 23:15-21; Deuteronomy 16:9-12). This was later called Pentecost, because it came 50 days (inclusive) after the offering of the wave sheaf (Levites 23:16). This was another ceremonial sabbath, and a feast that required the attendance of every male Hebrew (Deuteronomy 16:16). It is generally reckoned as occurring on the 6th day of the 3rd month (Sivan), for that was the 50th day (inclusive) from Nisan 16 whenever the first 2 months had 30 and 29 days respectively, as was probably most often the case, and always the case after the number of days in each month became fixed. See also Exodus 23:16; Levites 23:16.
Blowing of Trumpets: the New Year (Modern Rosh Hashana).—Six months after the Passover the series of autumn festivals began with the Blowing of Trumpets on the 1st of the 7th month (Tishri). The day, later called Rosh Hashana, the “beginning of the year,” was a festival sabbath (Levites 23:24, 25; Numbers 29:1). It celebrated the beginning of the civil year. This New Year’s Day was marked not only by the blowing of the trumpets but also by special sacrifices, almost double in number compared with the regular new-moon sacrifices (Numbers 29:1-6; cf. chapter 28:11-15; see also on Exodus 23:16; Numbers 29:1).
Yet the months always continued to be numbered from Nisan, in accordance with the command of God at the Exodus, for the alignment of the year with the seasons depended on the Nisan new moon as located in relation to the barley harvest. But the civil and agricultural year, and the sabbatical and jubilee years as well, began by the older reckoning, with Tishri, the 7th month.
If it seems strange that the year should be in any way considered as beginning with the 7th month, it should be remembered that in modern times we have the custom of beginning a fiscal year in some other month than January—often with July, our 7th month, and we date such a year as opening, for example, on “7/1/1954.” So the Jews to this day celebrate their New Year’s Day on Tishri 1, at the beginning of the 7th month.
Day of Atonement.—The 10th day of the 7th month, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), was and still is the most solemn day of the year. It was not only a ceremonial sabbath but also a strict fast day (Levites 23:27-32). According to the Babylonian Talmud, (see note) Tishri 1 (New Year’s Day) symbolizes the judgment:
NOTE: The Talmud is a collection of Jewish traditions compiled between the 2nd and 5th centuries A.D. It consists of two parts: (1) the Mishnah, a codification of Jewish oral law, divided by subject into tractates, completed about the end of the 2nd century, and (2) the Gemara, a comment, exposition, and debate on the various sections of the Mishnah. Work on the Talmud was carried on at both Jerusalem and Babylon. The Jerusalem Talmud was completed in the 4th century, and the Babylonian Talmud, the more complete of the two, about a century later.
“Mishnah. At four seasons [Divine] judgment is passed on the world: at Passover in respect of produce; at Pentecost in respect of fruit; at New Year all creatures pass before him [God] like children of Maron. …
“Gemara. … It has been taught: ‛All are judged on New Year and their doom is sealed on the Day of Atonement. …’
“R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened [in heaven] on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life; the thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death; the doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement; if they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life; if they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death” (The Babylonian Talmud, Soncion English translation, tractate Rosh Hashanah, 16a, pp. 57, 58; brackets in the original.)
The Jews still regard the first ten days of the year, ending with the Day of Atonement, as somewhat a continuation of the New Year observance, an extra period of grace in which the sins of the preceding year can still be forgiven, a sort of extension of the deadline for closing one’s account with heaven. Even in our time the Day of Atonement is considered the day of judgment, since it offers the final opportunity for repentance. In the ancient ceremony of the 10th day, the sanctuary was cleansed of all the sins of the preceding year, which were thus symbolically removed forever from the congregation (Levites 16), and on this days the last opportunity was given for repentance. Anyone who was not right with God on that day was cut off forever (see also Exodus 30:10; Levites 16; 23:27, 29).
On the Day of Atonement the trumpets blew to usher in the 50th year, or the jubilee (Levites 25:9, 10), and presumably the sabbatical years also.
Feast of Ingathering, or Tabernacles.—Then came the joyous Feast of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, celebrating the completion of the agricultural cycle with the vintage and olive harvest. During this festival the people lived in “tabernacles,” or booths, of green branches in commemoration if their earlier wanderings as nomadic tent dwellers (Levites 23:34-43, Deuteronomy 16:13-15). This feast began with a ceremonial sabbath on the 15th of Tishri, and lasted 7 days; it was followed by another such sabbath, a “holy convocation,” on the 22nd (it might be called the octave of Tabernacles). The Feast of Ingathering was the third of the annual feasts at which all the males of Israel were required to gather at Jerusalem (see Exodus 23:16, 17; Exodus 34:22, 23).
The tabulation gives for each month the time of its beginning, the dates of the feasts, and the principal seasonal events. For example, the first month, Abib (postexilic Nisan), begins at the new moon of March or April; on the 1st, 10th, 14th, etc., of that lunar month, respectively, occur the new moon, the selection of the lamb, the Passover, etc. and that month marks, approximately, the season of the latter rains, the barley harvest, etc.
HEBREW MONTHS, FESTIVALS, AND SEASONS
Begin At New Moon of
Approximate Agricultural Seasons
|1. Abib (Nisan)* Exodus 23:15, Nehemiah 2:1||March or April||1||New Moon||Latter rains (Joel 2:23)|
|10||Passover lamb selected. Exodus 12:3|
|14||PASSOVER killed “in the evening”; eaten “that night,” beginning of 15th. Exodus 12:6-8|
|15†||UNLEAVENED BREAD begins. Levites 23:6, 7|
|16||Wave sheaf offered. Levites 23:10-14||Barley harvest; new crop may be eaten|
|21||Last day of Unleavened Bread. Levites 23:8||Dry seasons begins|
|2. Zif [Iyyar] 1 Kings 6:1||April or May||1||New Moon|
|14||Passover for those unclean in 1st month. Numbers 9:10, 11||Wheat ripe in lowlands|
|3. (Sivan) (Esther 8:9)||May or June||1||New Moon||Early figs|
|6||PENTECOST, or Feast of Weeks.||Hot weather|
|Waves loaves offered, 50th day from Nisan 16. Levites 23:15-21||Wheat harvest, general|
|4. [Tammuz]||June or July||1||New Moon||Wheat harvest in mountains|
|5. [Ab]||July or Aug||1||New Moon||Olives in lowlands|
|6. (Elul) (Nehemiah 6:15)||Aug or Sept||1||New Moon||Dates, figs|
|7. Ethanim [Tishri] 1 Kings 8:2||Sept or Oct||1||BLOWING OF TRUMPETS, Rosh Hashana, or New Year. Levites 23:24, 25|
|10||DAY OF ATONEMENT, or Yom Kippur. Levites 23:27-32; Levites 16|
|15-21||FEAST OF INGATHERING or Tabernacles. Levites 23:34-43||End of harvest|
|22||Holy convocation. Levites 23:36, 39, Numbers 29:12, 35||Former or early rains
|8. Bul [Marhesh-van or Hesvan] 1 Kings 6:38||Oct or Nov||1||New Moon||Barley and wheat sown|
|9. (Chisleu or Kislev) (Nehemiah 1:1)||Nov or Dec||1||New Moon||Winter rains|
|10. (Tebeth) (Esther 2:16)||Dec or Jan||1||New Moon||Lowlands green|
|11. (Shebat) (Zechariah 1:7)||Jan or Feb||1||New Moon|
|12. (Adar) (Esther 3:7)||Feb or March||1||New Moon||Orange ripe in lowlands|
|(14, 15||Purim) Esther 9:21-28||Barley ripe at Jericho|
|[13. Second Adar 7 times in 19 years]||March||[14, 15||Purim in 7 out of 19 years]|
† Annual ceremonial sabbaths (cf. Colossians 2:16, 17) in italics.
* The first day of Abib always came in our March or April, and coincided with the new moon. Similarly, the month of Zif began in April or May. The other months of the Hebrew calendar follow the same pattern.
IV. Year Reckonings
Spring and Autumn Beginnings of the Year.—The Canaanite calendar begin in the autumn, as did the Jewish civil year; therefore we may assume either that the patriarchs used it while in Canaan, before Jacob and his family went to Egypt, or that the Israelites adopted it from their neighbors after the Exodus. The first alternative seems more likely, since Moses himself refers to an autumn reckoning in the book of Exodus, as will be seen. The Hebrews combined the numbering of the months from the spring, as instituted at the Exodus, with the year beginning in the fall, and thus had a double reckoning, the “sacred” year beginning with the first month and the civil year beginning with the 7th month.
Josephus says that the ancient reckoning was from the fall, but “Moses, however, appointed Nisan, that is to say Xanthicus [the corresponding Macedonian month name], as the first month for the festivals, because it was in this month that he brought the Hebrews out of Egypt; he also reckoned this month as the selling and buying and other ordinary affairs he preserved the ancient order” (Antiquities i 3. 3. Loeb ed.).
“The End of the Year” in the Autumn.—Even in the book of Exodus, which designates the spring month of Abib as the first month of the (“sacred”) year, there are evidences for the beginning of the older and more familiar year in the autumn. These are references to its “end” in that season. The difference, however, is not great, since any year begins at the same point at which the preceding one ends. The Feast of Ingathering, or Tabernacles, in the 7th month (Tishri) is said to come “at the year’s end” (Exodus 34:22). Again it is referred to as “the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year, when thou hast gathered in thy labours out of the field” (Exodus 23:16). (See NOTE) Since it celebrated the bounties of the agricultural year that had just closed, it was identified as coming near the end of the year, although it actually began 15 days after the end, in the early days of the civil year that began on Tishri 1.
NOTE: The two words for “end” in these verses are tequpha, meaning a “circle,” “rotation,” “completion,” and se’th, meaning a “going forth.” The second is more exact, for the 7th month of the religious year is the “going forth” of the new civil year. In contrast to the “going forth” of the year in the autumn, the spring is called the “return” (teshubah, from shub, “to turn back”) of the year (1 Kings 20:22, 26). If the beginning of the year is thought of as its going forth on the circuit of the months, then the turning point, at which it begins to return to its starting point, is of course halfway round the circuit, six months later, in the spring. That this turning point is meant to indicate the spring is shown by another example of the word teshubah (2 Samuel 11:1). Here the phrase “after the year was expired” is a less literal translation of the Hebrew “at the return of the year,” and is defined as “the time when kings go forth to battle.” It is well known that military campaigns in the ancient Near East were started almost exclusively in the spring and carried on in summer, in the dry season, when transportation difficulties were at a minimum. We find ancient records of the annual campaigns of the rulers of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. Thus both the “going forth” (autumn) and the “return” (spring) of the year are consistent in referring to the fall as the starting point.
Agricultural Year.—In Palestine and neighboring lands the agricultural year has always begun in the autumn. After the spring grass has been parched and the soil baked by the long, rainless summer, the autumn rains moisten the soil for planting. This is the early rain, beginning perhaps in October and increasing in November. The wet season lasts through the winter ending with the “latter rain” of spring, which matures the grain (see Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; Hosea 6:3; Joel 2:23). The barley harvest in Palestine begins in the middle or end of April, and that of wheat comes in the next month, followed by summer fruits, then grapes and olives in the late summer and fall. Note that from April/May to October there is dry weather for the successive harvests, as is shown by the following tabulation from Ellsworth Huntington, Palestine and its Transformation (London: Constable and Company, Ltd., 1911), page 34.
The minute fractions of an inch listed between May and October show that the scant showers thus represented by these averages come so infrequently that these months may be considered actually dry.
Average Rainfall at Jerusalem, in Inches
|Annual total 25.8|
The only actual calendar document that comes from the pre-exilic period of Israel is a stone plaque from the century in which Solomon lived. It was found in Gezer, a city that the king of Egypt took from the Canaanites and presented to his daughter, Solomon’s wife. Written on this bit of limestone is a summary of an agricultural calendar, beginning in the fall. This “Gezer calendar” does not give month names, but lists the main activities of the farmer’s year month by month.
Civil Year Reckoned From Tishri.—Since the whole seasonal cycle of nature was regarded as beginning anew in the autumn with the return of the life giving rains, the basic idea of the new year seems to have centered in the fall. This made it inevitable that the civil year was thought of as beginning with Tishri, even though the months were always numbered from Nisan. The significance of Nisan stems from the fact that the whole alignment of the calendar year with the seasons was determined by the placing of the first month at the time of the barley harvest. It was logical to number as first, the month that followed the inserted 13th month, for in that way the sequence of numbers would never be interrupted. But the emphasis given the 1st of Tishri as the principal beginning of the year is evidenced by the blowing of trumpets, by the special sacrifices, surpassing those of Nisan 1, and by the connection of that day with the day of judgment.
Regnal Years of Kings Reckoned From the Fall.—In the time of the Hebrew kings the customary method of designating the years for dating purposes was to number them in series through each king’s reign. The formula for a date line was: “on the —— of the —— month of the —— year of King ——.” There is evidence that these regnal years were reckoned from the autumn, presumably Tishri 1, in the united Hebrew kingdom (in the reign of Solomon), and afterward in the southern kingdom of Judah, in the time of Josiah; on the other hand, the spring year appears to have been employed in the northern kingdom of Israel. The usage of Israel is not indicated directly in the Bible narrative, but it seems to be a reasonable deduction from the synchronism between the successive reigns of the two kingdoms as recorded in the books of Kings.
Immediately after the captivity, there is rather inconclusive evidence for a spring reckoning of regnal years after the Babylonian fashion, but in the time of the re-establishment of the Jewish commonwealth and the revival of a national spirit under Ezra and Nehemiah, we find direct evidence of the autumn beginning of the regnal year. The regnal years used in dating were reckoned as they had been under the kingdom of Judah, but in the name of the Persian kings, whose subjects the Jews now were.
Sabbatical and Jubilee Years.—One of the distinctive features of the Hebrew laws was the provision for letting the land rest, that is, lie fallow, every 7th year. Just as the 7th day was the weekly Sabbath for man, the 7th year, at the end of a “week” of years, was a sabbath of rest to the land, when there was to be no sowing or reaping (Levites 25:2-7, 20-22). The 7th year was also the “year of release,” for the remission of debts (Deuteronomy 15:1-15). Then, after 7 “weeks” of years, the 50th year was the jubilee, when not only were all Israelite slaves to be released, but all lands sold during the period (with certain exceptions) were to revert to the original owners of their heirs (Levites 25:8-17, 23-34, 47-55). The purpose of this was to keep the family inheritances intact, so that the rich could never buy up the land and leave a landless class. Authorities differ as to whether the 50th year was added to the and leave a landless class. Authorities differ as to whether the 50th year was added to the 50th year was added to the 49, or whether it was, by inclusive count, also the 1st year of the next cycle.
The 50th year was specifically mentioned as beginning in the autumn. The 7th year, though not so specified, was obviously similar, not only because it was in the same series as the 50th, but because a year in which there was no sowing or reaping must necessarily coincide with the agricultural year. The trumpets were blown to announce the jubilee on the Day of Atonement, the 10th of the 7th month (Levites 25:9). Since there is no logical connection between the jubilee year and the Day of Atonement ritual, it is probable that the later rabbis were right in saying that these years coincided with the civil calendar year, beginning on the 1st of Tishri. The provisions of the jubilee, involving the restoration of property and slaves, went into operation at the end of the 10th of Tishri instead of the 1st, because the first 10 days of the year were given over to New Year observances. That is, the jubilee began when the regular business of the civil year opened, on the day that began with the evening at the close of the Day of Atonement, the 10th of Tishri.
Varying Lengths of the Lunar Years.-It is to be noted that in all these various methods of reckoning years the basic unit of measure was evidently the lunar-calendar year of 12 months, corrected periodically to the solar or seasonal year by the 13th month. The common year of 12 months consisted of 354 days, but the adjustment to the moon sometimes required a 355-day year; and the periodic correction to the solar year required the addition of another month, and the lengthening of certain years to 383 or 384 days. This correction, if consistently applied as indicated by the barley harvest, never allowed the year to shift more than a month from its seasonal alignment. For this reason the number of Jewish calendar years over a long period, as has been pointed out always equaled the number of seasonal or solar years.
The 360-Day Year Not Literal but Symbolic.—It should be explained, for it is subject to misunderstanding, that the Bible gives no evidence whatever that the 360-day prophetic year of twelve 30-day months has anything to do with the Hebrew calendar year. There are a few ancient traditions that the year earlier contained 360 days. It is not clear whether these are a mere reflection of the Egyptian solar year, disregarding the 5 extra days at the end, or whether they refer to a genuine 360-day year, which would have remained perennially out of step with both the moon and the seasons. But there are no solid facts on which to base such a method of reckoning, and certainly nothing to connect it with the Hebrews, who began the month with the crescent moon.
The mention of a 150—day period during the Flood, which seems to be equated with 5 months, does not necessarily mean that the antediluvian calendar known to Noah had uniform months of 30 days each. The period has been interpreted also as indicating an unusual lunar year or a 365-day solar year. Whatever it was, it has no bearing on the lunar calendar used long afterward by the Hebrews. It is impossible to harmonize a 360-day year of 30-day months with months measured by the moon. In the very nature of the case a prophetic month or year, where the year-day principle is involved, must contain a fixed number of symbolic days if the length of the period is to be certainly known. Such a prophetic period cannot be based on a lunar calendar, whose months and years are variable. A reckoning by theoretical months of 30 days each would be understandable, and quite logical, for the idea that a month ought to have 30 days was implied in the later Jewish expressions used of the two types of months; a 30-day month was a “full” month, and a 29-day month was “hollow,” or deficient. It is possible, though there is no evidence, that the Hebrews used a theoretical 30-day month for business purposes, as did the Babylonians. Even today we compute interest by a month of 30 days, although everyone knows that the months are not uniformly 30 days in length.
The lengths of the prophetic month and year are not directly given in the Bible, but can be derived from several prophetic periods that are obviously equivalent. Since in these prophecies 3 1/2 “times” are 1260 days (Revelation 12:6, 14), and 42 months are 1260 days (Revelation 11:2, 3), they must be equal. Since 42 months are 3 1/2 years, then 3 1/2 times must be 3 1/2 years. Further, since 3 1/2 years and 42 months are each equivalent to 1260 days, one year of this type is obviously 360 days, and one month 30 days (for the prophetic interpretation of the 360-day year, see on Daniel 7:25). A century and a half ago many writers on the prophecies thought that the 360-day prophetic year was the Jewish calendar year, but they did not understand the nature of the lunar calendar used by the Hebrews. Such outmoded authorities should not be quoted; the prophetic month and year can be based on the Bible itself.
V. New Calendar Problems After the Exile.
The Jews and the Babylonian Calendar.-When the Jews returned to Palestine after the Babylonian exile, they brought with them the Babylonian month names in modified form. For example, Abib became Nisan, from Nisanu, the first month of the Babylonian year. Some authorities think that until after the Exile the Hebrews did not insert a second Adar—a 13th month—to correct the calendar. But the Passover had to be synchronized with the barley harvest; therefore the Jews, from earliest times, must have had a 13th month or its equivalent. It is clear that the Israelites were not faithful in observing the Levitical law, but there is no reason to suppose that they never observed the Passover throughout the centuries.
Some think that the returning Hebrew exiles adopted the Babylonian calendar outright, including their 19-year cycle, and their exact system of inserting extra months. There is documentary evidence that the Jews after the captivity used the equivalent of the 19-year cycle, that is, the insertion of 7 extra months in 19 years, but there is no proof that they adopted the Babylonian custom of inserting a second Elul (the 6th month) at times instead of a second Adar. Jewish authorities have always held that only the second Adar was used, and other authorities agree that in this they differed from the Babylonians. The reason for this was probably the fact that doubling the 6th month, Elul, instead of the 12th, Adar, would introduce an irregular interval between the spring and fall festivals, and thus cause confusion in attending the autumn feasts.
The Bible gives no direct evidence on the question, but the command to keep the Passover in the 1st month, the “month of ears,” and to observe three feasts in the 7th month, strongly implies that the autumn feasts were intended to come 6 months after the month of ears, and therefore that there was no irregularity in the interval from Nisan through Tishri.
In fact, a second Elul would have no significance in the Hebrew calendar, for the necessity for inserting the 13th month arose only from the requirement of keeping Nisan in line with the barley harvest. This could best be accomplished by adding a second Adar, just preceding Nisan. Placing the extra month 6 months earlier—if indeed the need for it could be predicted that far ahead—would have been of no advantage, and would have involved the disadvantage of interrupting the normal sequence of the festival months.
The Nineteen-Year Cycle.—The adoption of a 19-year cycle would have been very helpful in fixing in advance the time of the Passover. As long as the insertion of the 13th month could not be announced until the barley crop was examined in Adar, the month of the Passover could not always be known far enough ahead to avoid inconvenience to those who had to make their plans to attend. But a 19-year cycle would have enabled them to space 7 extra months in every 19 years in a regular sequence of 2-year and 3-year intervals, and to keep the Passover date within the known season of ripening barley. The calendar would be regulated systematically and the 13-month years, recurring at predetermined intervals in each cycle, would always be known in advance.
This 19-year cycle can be explained as an expression of the relationship between solar and lunar years; namely, that 235 lunar months almost exactly (within an hour or two) equal 19 solar years. But 19 lunar years of 12 months each would total not 235 but 228 months; therefore if an extra lunar month is inserted 7 times in every 19 years, the 19th lunar and solar years will end together. If, for example, the spring equinox fell on Nisan 1 in any given year, it would come on Nisan 1 again 19 years later.
The Babylonians developed such a cycle experimentally. By the early 4th century B.C. they inserted the extra month always in the same years of each 19-year cycle: a second Addaru (Adar) in what we call the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, and 19th years, and a second Ululu (Elul) in the 17th. (It is known which years had 13 months but not which years the Babylonians called the “year 1” of each cycle; hence these numerals are arbitrary.) The Jews, however, seem never to have employed a second Elul, but only the second Adar. The question of when the Jews adopted the 19-year cycle is not settled. Since that cycle was known in Babylonia along before the Christian Era, and many Jews lived there from the 6th century B.C., it would seem hardly probable that the Jewish rabbis who were in charge of the calendar would remain ignorant of the principles of calendrical calculation until the fixed calendar was introduced, long after Christ’s day. It is probable that such principles were known long before the traditional methods were abandoned. Up to the time of the destruction of the Temple, the barley harvest was the major factor, but after that, and especially after the Jews were driven away from Jerusalem, it was less relevant to the problem that the convenience of uniform calculation in widely scattered areas.
Although the Bible nowhere hints of any 19-year cycle, the barley harvest rule would automatically result in an average of 7 extra months in every 19 years. Thus the laws of the festivals, without specifying any calendrical rules as such, served to regulate the Palestinian calendar naturally and simply.
Calculation of the Months Versus Observation.—The question of the 13th month arose only once in two or three years, but the question of the beginning of the month was ever present. Especially after the captivity, when the majority of Jews remained in Babylonia, it was a very real problem to keep all the faithful observing the new moons and festivals together. The mere difference in the dating of documents was a minor matter, but the prospect of some Jews profaning sacred days while others were observing them was abhorrent to the pious.
The sanctity of the Temple and the prestige of the priesthood kept the Babylonian Jews looking toward Palestine for authority in this matter. Thus the postexilic calendar, even as followed by those Jews who remained for centuries in Babylonia, was regulated in Jerusalem. The first day of the month—at least after each 29-day month—was announced by fire signals repeated from mountaintop to mountaintop to the outlying districts of Palestine, and even on to Babylonia. Eventually, however, false beacons, lighted a day early by the Samaritans, misled the distant Jews into beginning a new month after 29 days when the outgoing month should have had 30 days. Consequently the fire signals were replaced by messages sent by runners.
In Egypt, where fire signals could not be used, and afterward in all countries outside Palestine, the Jews came to observe new moons and festivals on two successive days, in order to be sure of having the right day. Even a month that followed a 29-day month could not be assumed to have 30 days; this doubt as to the first of the new month led to the observance of both the 30th and the day following. This custom was well known in Rome. Horace referred in his Satires (i. 9. 67-70) to the Jewish “tricesima sabbata,” or “30th-day sabbath”:
“Horace: ‛Certainly I do not know why you wish to speak secretly with me, you were saying.’
“Fuscus: ‛I remember well, but in a better time let me speak: today is tricesima
sabbata: do you wish to offend the circumcised Jews?’”
After the lengths of the months became a matter of calculation, they could be known in advance without depending on direct observation. Unfortunately we do not know when the change was made from observation to a regular sequence of 30-day and 29-day months. We have considerable direct evidence of postexilic calendar practice from dated Jewish documents found in Egypt, but the evidence from these sources has given rise to differences of opinion on the question of calculation versus observation.
It is likely that the calendar officials employed methods of calculation while still retaining the practice of summoning witnesses to report the appearance of the crescent every month, or at least for the month of Nisan. Such traditional procedures would naturally be retained long after they had become unnecessary.
During the period when the month depended on the observation of the crescent, or on confirmation by witnesses, there was uncertainty in distant places as to the correct day of the month, for, on account of certain variable factors, the actual appearance of the crescent could not be predicted. The failure to see a crescent on the evening after the 29th of the month might mean that the month should have 30 days, but it might also mean that atmospheric conditions unfavorable to visibility might delay its being seen in some places later than in Jerusalem. And the difference in longitude between Palestine and Babylonia could sometimes mean that the crescent became visible in Jerusalem after it had already set for Babylonia (see next section). These elements of uncertainty operated even after the astronomical new moon, called “the moon in conjunction,” could be computed.
The Moon and the Observed Lunar Month.—The interval between the astronomical new moon and the visible new moon (or crescent), with which the ancient Semites began each month of their observed lunar calendar, is variable. As the earth moves in one year round the sun, the moon circles the earth 12 times and a fraction. During each revolution of the moon (which marks a lunar month), that body passes between the earth and the sun, and also passes the point on the opposite side of the earth from the sun. When we see it opposite the sun, with its face completely illuminated by sunlight, we say that the moon is “full.” When it passes between us and the sun, we do not see it at all because the side toward us is unlighted. When it emerges from between the earth and the sun and becomes visible to us in crescent form—that is, we see the edge of its lighted portion—we say that it is “new.”
In order to understand this better, let us visualize an imaginary line connecting the center of the earth and the center of the sun. As the moon circles our globe its path lies in a variable plane tilted at an angle in relation to that of the earth; therefore it is sometimes above and sometimes below the plane of the earth’s orbit as each month it passes between us and the sun and crosses the earth-sun line. If, as happens occasionally, the moon intersects this line, so that its shadow falls directly on our globe, observers within that shadow see its black disk darkening part or all of the sun in a solar eclipse. Most of the time, when it crosses above or below the imaginary line, it does not obscure the sun, but remains invisible, and therefore the exact time of the crossing (which astronomers call conjunction) cannot be observed. The time of conjunction (the astronomical new moon) is given in almanacs and on some calendars, where it is symbolized by a solid black disk.
But it is not often that the crescent becomes visible in the evening sky on the day marked “New Moon” in the almanac. When the moon passes conjunction during the day, it is too nearly in line with the sun to be seen that evening after sunset. Only after an interval—averaging about a day and a half—does it move far enough past the sun to bring its lighted side toward the earth sufficiently to appear as a crescent. When the crescent becomes visible, it may be seen on one part of the earth just after sunset, but observers on other parts of the globe farther east, for whom the moon will have already set, cannot see the crescent until the next evening. That is why the lunar month, starting with the observation of the crescent, could sometimes begin a day earlier in Egypt or Jerusalem, for example, than it would in Babylon.
The interval between conjunction and the visible crescent varies not only with the hour of conjunction and the locality, but also with the speed and angle of the moon’s course, which are variable. When it is slower, the moon takes longer—perhaps two or three days—to move far enough from the sun to be seen. Further, atmospheric conditions affect visibility, and in certain seasons the crescent may be entirely obscured by clouds on the first evening, and so a 29-day lunar month might be given 30 days and the new month delayed one day.
The Postexilic Month Names.—After the return from Exile, the Babylonian month names were adopted, in slightly changed spelling, as has been mentioned. As for the beginning of the year, both fall and spring reckoning seem to be used in the postexilic books of the Bible. It is to be kept in mind that regardless of whether the year is reckoned from the autumn or from the spring, Nisan is always numbered as the 1st month, Tishri the 7th, and Adar the 12th. Thus the civil year begins with the 7th month and ends with the 6th. This alignment of the months, and the approximate equivalents in our calendar, is made clear by the following tabulation:
THE JEWISH CALENDAR
(With postexilic month names derived from Babylonia)
Beginning of Jewish months
|Order of the months||Order of the months|
|7. Tishri*||Sept/Oct||7. Tishri*|
|8. Marheshvan*||Oct/Nov||8. Marheshvan*|
|9. Kislev (Chisleu)||Nov/Dec||9. Kislev (Chisleu)|
|10. Tebeth||Dec/Jan||10. Tebeth|
|11. Shebat||Jan/Feb||11. Shebat|
|12. Adar†||Feb/March||12. Adar†|
* Month names not mentioned in the Bible.
† In leap years a second Adar follows Adar, preceding Nisan.
The Postexilic Year in the Bible.—Ezekiel does not make it clear whether the years of his era, beginning with the exile of Jehoiachin, were reckoned from Nisan or from Tishri, or were counted by anniversaries from the date of the king’s captivity. But if Ezekiel, as is generally held, reckoned the year from the spring, he may have done so because he lived in Babylonia and used the official Babylonian calendar, which began the year with Nisanu (Nisan). Thus his usage would have no bearing on Jewish calendar practice. Haggai, and presumably his contemporary and colleague, Zechariah (although the latter is inconclusive), are generally believed to have used the spring year, for if the events of Haggai 1:1 and 2:1, 10 are related in chronological order, the 7th and 9th months followed the 6th month in the 2nd year of Darius, as could not have occurred if the 7th month had begun a new year. The book of Esther, which identifies Nisan as the 1st month, Sivan as the 3rd, and Adar as the 12th, sheds no light on how the Jews reckoned the beginning of the year, since the dates in this book are given in connection with official acts of leaders in the Persian government. These events would presumably be dated in the Babylonian calendar, which the Persian rulers adopted from the time that Cyrus conquered Babylonia.
In the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (Ezra-Nehemiah was originally one book), there is proof that the returned Jews counted the years of the king from the fall, presumably by the civil year beginning with Tishri. Nehemiah mentions Chisleu (Kislev, the 9th month) as preceding Nisan (the 1st month) in the 20th year of Artaxerxes (Nehemiah 1:1; 2:1). Evidently he was thinking in terms of the old regnal year of Judah and reckoning from the 7th month, Tishri, rather than the Persian new year in Nisan. Although the events mentioned in these two months occurred in the Persian king’s palace, the book was not written until after Nehemiah had gone to Jerusalem and engaged in the rebuilding of the Jewish community there. In such a situation—under the restoration of a Jewish administration at the ancient capital of Judah—it was natural that there should be a resurgence of patriotism, and a return to the old calendar and regnal year of Judah. Further, a document from a Jewish colony in Egypt, written in the same century with Ezra and Nehemiah, shows that these Jews in Egypt also used a Jewish calendar year beginning in the fall.
VI. Archeology and the Postexilic Calendar
Jewish Documents From Egypt.—This last-mentioned document is one of over 100, written in Aramaic on papyrus, that have been found been found on the island of Elephantine in the Nile River, in the ruins of a border garrison town settled by Jewish mercenaries and their families. These Aramaic papyri from Elephantine (sometimes inaccurately referred to as the Assuan Papyri) form one of the most interesting collections of ancient documents. They are wills, deeds, contracts, letters, and other documents, coming from the 5th century B.C., the century of Ezra and Nehemiah. In these papers we find not only references to the public and private affairs of the local Jews but also mention of such intriguing items as the Jews in Palestine, the Passover, an official mentioned in the Bible, and a Jewish temple on Elephantine built by the colonists. These papyri, some of which were found still rolled up and sealed, show us the exact form of the language used by the Jews after the Exile—Aramaic, a language closely akin to Hebrew, used internationally in Babylonia and throughout the Persian Empire. They also show us the very spelling and handwriting, the ink and “paper,” of the sort used in the time of the returning exiles, and the legal phraseology of a royal decree of a kind similar to those quoted from the Persian archives in the book of Ezra—the Aramaic passages that were regarded by critics as proving the unhistorical character of the book.
Indeed, these ancient papyri from Elephantine stirred up much difference of opinion, and were even regarded as forgeries in some quarters because of the unusual form of the date lines many of them bore—double dates in two calendars with sometimes apparently conflicting regnal-year numbers. But these double dates proved to be excellent evidence of their genuineness, for they synchronize the Egyptian and Jewish calendar dates in a way that enables us to calculate the very days on which they were written. These dates corroborate the chronology of the reigns of that period as reckoned in Ptolemy’s Canon.
The Jewish colonists of Elephantine had been in Egypt before Cyrus’ successor, Cambyses, conquered the country and made it part of the Persian Empire. Whether they first arrived as exiles after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, as did the group who took the prophet Jeremiah with them, we do not know; but the references to religion in these papers reveal the same conditions that Jeremiah deplored—the mingling of paganism with the worship of Jehovah. In the Jewish temple at Elephantine Jehovah was worshiped along with pagan deities.
Not only are the dates and contents of these Jewish documents interesting; their date lines furnish information about the Jewish calendar of the period.
Local Calendars Retained Under Persian Rule.—When Cyrus the Persian conquered Babylon, he did not incorporate Babylonia into Persia under a provincial government; rather he annexed the kingdom to his earlier domain and took the title of king of Babylon in addition to his title of king of Media and Persia. In Babylonia the Persians adopted the language and culture of the country and took over the Babylonian calendar. In fact the Babylonian priests, the custodians of the accumulated astronomical knowledge of centuries, and of the calendar system, flourished under Persian protection and made further advance in the regulation of the calendar.
Similarly, when Cyrus’ son Cambyses added Egypt to the Persian Empire, he continued the machinery of Egyptian government, but had himself crowned king of Egypt. Then he ruled the country through a governor who was nominally the viceroy of the Persian “Pharaoh,” retaining the local legal system and the Egyptian calendar. In later times the Romans were to follow the similar policy of allowing the use of various older local calendars in the eastern provinces, although eventually throughout the empire these calendars were adjusted to the Julian year of 365 1/4 days, that is, the local month names were retained but the lengths were adjusted to 30 and 31 days, etc., like the Roman months.
Under Persian rule in Egypt it seems that legal papers were drawn up in accordance with the local laws and dated by the native calendar; these papyrus documents from Elephantine, with a few exceptions, bore date lines carrying the Egyptian month and day, and the regnal year of the Persian king reckoned by the Egyptian solar calendar (beginning with the month Thoth). This was a sensible procedure, for two ordinary citizens signing a contract in Egypt could not be expected to know when their payments should fall due or the contract expire if the date were given in terms of a foreign calendar.
But these particular documents were drawn up by Jews living in a Jewish community, using their own calendar, differing from that of Egypt. Therefore many of these papyri bore double dates, not only in the official Egyptian calendar, but also in the Jewish calendar. For example, one was dated “on the 18th of Elul, that is, the 28th day of Pachons, year 15 of King Xerxes.” This means that the document was signed on a day that was the 18th of the Jewish lunar month of Elul and was also the 28th of the Egyptian month Pachons in the 15th year of the reign of the Persian king Xerxes. Another reads, “on the 24th of Shebat, year 13, that is the 9th day of Athyr, year 14 of Darius [II] the king.” This gives two year numbers. The date was in year 13 in the Jewish calendar, but in the Egyptian calendar another year had already begun; hence this same date was in the Jewish year 13 and the Egyptian year 14 of Darius II.
These double dates show that the various peoples of the Persian Empire used their own calendars. Although under Persian rule, the Egyptians retained their solar calendar (indeed, they always retained it, and bequeathed the 365-day year to Rome and, through Rome, to us). Further, the Jews, as a minority in Egypt, were free to use their own calendar, although it was different from that of Egypt. The legal dating for these documents seems to have been the Egyptian form, for if only one date was given, it was generally in the Egyptian formula, with the king’s year reckoned by the Egyptian calendar. Many of them, however, bore double dates, both Egyptian and Jewish.
The Problem of Reconstructing an Ancient Calendar.—Since the Egyptian calendar for this period is known, the Julian equivalent of the Egyptian date can be located. Even if the year is unknown it can be derived from the synchronism of the lunar with the solar date, for the lunar date, moving at least 10 days in one year, can agree with the Egyptian solar date only once in about 25 years. Thus these double-dated papyri can be dated in the Julian B.C. scale. By the use of these established dates as check points, a tabulation of the Jewish calendar as used in Egypt can be reconstructed for a large part of the 5th century with a greater degree of accuracy than can be done for that of Babylon, although the Babylonian calendar can be outlined, approximately, for a much longer period. For the Egyptian and Julian calendars.
Since the dates of many of these papyri can be determined within the range of a day, in each case the dates of that whole month are known with the same precision. There is a possibility of a discrepancy of one day, sometimes two, in the exact dating of the other months of that year if the beginning of the month still depended on the observation of the moon. The time of the astronomical new moon (conjunction) for each of these months can be computed almost exactly from modern lunar tables but the interval between the invisible conjunction and the visible crescent is variable. If we wish to find the dates of ancient Jewish months, we can compute from astronomical tables the approximate times of conjunction for any year in antiquity, and can estimate the first of the new month by taking into account the hour of conjunction by Jerusalem local time, and the speed and angle of the moon. But we can never be certain of complete accuracy in reconstructing that ancient calendar year as it actually operated, for we cannot be sure that we know all the variable factors in the observation of the crescent, nor do we know whether the year was reckoned by calculation or observation during the period covered by the Aramaic papyri from Elephantine.
R. A. Parker and W. H. Dubberstein have reconstructed an outline of Babylonian chronology, beginning in 626 B.C. In this monograph they have published Babylonian calendar tables covering a number of centuries, based on certain fixed dates and on certain 13th months attested from ancient records, and elsewhere on computed dates. These tables are very useful as an approximation. The user must allow for an uncertainty in some cases as to where the 13th months were inserted, and allow for an error of plus or minus one day in some of the months. And this is reasonable accuracy for reconstructing an ancient lunar calendar.
Since so many variable elements are involved in locating the first day of the month, the location of the remaining days in each month is similarly uncertain; consequently, the full moon (which can be fixed approximately by astronomical computation) does not always come on the same day of the lunar month. In the period of these papyri it varied from the 13th to the 15th.
Even at points where an ancient record fixes beyond question a lunar date or series of dates, the calendar cannot be reconstructed beyond that particular year without the occasional possibility of being a month off if the location of the 13th month is unknown. Not until the early 4th century B.C. did the Babylonians insert their 7 extra months always in the same years of each 19-year cycle, and we do not know that the Jews had a similarly regular cycle.
However, when there are ancient source documents, we can be fairly certain. If we have Babylonian tablets indicating that a particular year had 13 months, the calendar months of that Babylonian year can be identified with reasonable certainty; and if we have a synchronism identifying a day of a given lunar month with a day of a known calendar, as in the Jewish double-dated papyri from Egypt, even the days of that month can be known. That is why, for a considerable period in the 5th century B.C., the Jewish calendar as used by the writers of these papyri can be reconstructed with approximate accuracy. Such a calendar has been reconstructed by Lynn H. Wood and Siegfried H. Horn, giving the first day of each Jewish month from 472 to 400 B.C.
Jewish Calendar in Egypt.—A study of this tabulation and of the 14 double-dated papyri on which it is based makes clear the following 12 characteristics of the postexilic Jewish calendar:
1. These Jews dated by their own Jewish calendar, differing slightly from the Babylonian system.
2. Unlike the Persians, but like the Jewish repatriates at Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:1; 2:1), they reckoned the years of the king’s reign from the autumn rather than from the spring.
3. Unlike the Egyptians, but after the old custom of Judah, they regarded the interval from the accession of the king until the next New Year’s Day as the “accession year”, after which the “first year” of the reign began.
4. They had adopted, in Aramaic spelling, the Babylonian month names, all 12 of which appear in these papyri.
5. Although there is no mention of a second Adar, the intervals between the dates of certain papyri indicate the use of a 13th month at various times.
6. If they did not know a fixed 19-year cycle as such, they evidently used its equivalent in that the intervals between these double-dated papyri imply an average of seven 13-month years in every 19 years.
7. These Jewish 13th months probably fell most often in the same years as in the Babylonian calendar. In the aforementioned Horn-Wood tabulation they are the same months as those in Parker and Dubberstein’s tables (Babylonian Chronology, 1956 ed.) with a very few exceptions, such as when the Babylonians inserted a second Elul instead of a second Adar in the 17th year of their cycle (as they came to do regularly—and, in later times, invariably—after the Babylonian cycle became fixed).
8. These Jews seem not to have used the second Elul. Of three papyri dated in 17th years, where we should expect it, two do not prove the practice, and one proves definitely that they did not reckon a second Elul in that year.
9. The evidence is not at present fully conclusive that the calendar was based on computation rather than observation of the moon, for the relation of the calendar dates to the moon have been interpreted in either way because of variable factors. But there are indications that it was computed to some degree.
10. Although there is no conclusive proof of computation of the lengths of the months at this period (No. 9), it is interesting to note that a possible fixed sequence of 30-day and 29-day months from Nisan to Tishri, which would have allowed the same number of days between Passover and Tabernacles, is compatible with the dates of these papyri. A reconstructed calendar based on this sequence is reasonably consistent with the actual motions of the moon.
11. The 1st of Nisan seems to have been kept, so far as the years represented by these papyri are concerned, from moving earlier than the vernal equinox. (See NOTE) That is, if the month following Adar began before the equinox, it was made the 2nd Adar, and Nisan was postponed until the next month. (This contradicts the later opinion of the rabbis that in the postexilic period the Passover came at the first full moon after the vernal equinox.)
NOTE: Unless the divergence mentioned in note 5 is to be accepted.
12. There is no indication of the practice of adjusting the length of the year to prevent certain feasts from falling on certain days of the week, as was done in the later, fixed calendar published long after the time of Christ.
The Jewish colonists in Egypt who wrote these papyri were in correspondence with their returned brethren in Palestine, but we do not know whether they were in close enough contact to enable them to keep the insertion of the 13th month in exact synchronism with the reckoning followed at Jerusalem.
NOTE: Certain evidence, not conclusive, had led some scholars to believe that these colonists failed at one period to make the adjustment properly; that by inserting too few 13th months they allowed their calendar to diverge from the normal 19-year cycle, with the year beginning too early, and then, through closer contact with revived Judaism in Palestine, corrected the error by inserting the extra month more often. This could easily have happened, but the evidence is based on double dates that are inconclusive or disputed. If it did occur, it would be interesting to know the cause—possibly the fact that the barley harvest in southern Egypt, coming earlier than in Palestine, could not be depended on as a guide.
It is remarkable that these double-dated papyri, which could not have survived at Jerusalem, but which have been preserved in the drier climate of a distant Jewish outpost in Egypt, have now come forth to give us a glimpse of the postexilic calendar in operation. These documents show the Jews (1) holding to their own way of reckoning, which was independent of that of their Egyptian neighbors; (2) differing from the Babylonian system of their Persian overlords, which many scholars have assumed that they slavishly adopted. Nor do these Jews seem to know anything of certain rules attributed to them by the much later traditions of the Mishnah and Gemara in the early centuries of the Christian Era.
VII. Different From Later Rabbinical Calendar
The Jewish calendar and sectarian variants in the intertestamental and New Testament periods lie beyond the range of this article. But in the Mishnah, and then the Gemara, written in the early Christian centuries, we find a few bits of information concerning the Jewish calendar at the end of the 2nd century A.D. and later, most of it in the form of traditions of earlier practices. It is in the Mishnah that we find accounts of the examination of witnesses before the Sanhedrin as to the appearance of the crescent, and the announcement of the new month to outlying regions by means of fire signals. The questions asked regarding the exact form of the crescent would seem to indicate that the first barely visible crescent was probably not counted; some say the “horned” phase, indicating that a longer interval might have been reckoned from conjunction to crescent. Other questions seem to indicate that the examiners were less interested in seeking information than in eliciting confirmation of knowledge that they already had by calculation, and that the formal procedure of visibly noting the new moon was carried on from precedent long after the principles to calculate its appearance were known.
In the Talmudic arguments, some doubtless dating from as late as the 5th century A.D., later concepts are sometimes applied erroneously to earlier times; therefore these conflicting traditional authorities must be used with caution. For example, the belief that the 16th of Nisan could move back almost to the spring equinox is opposed to the facts of the barley harvest and to the evidence of the source documents from the postexilic period. Traditional references to the full moon of the Passover may indicate efforts to stabilize the month in relation to the full moon, at least in Nisan, but the 5th-century B.C. papyri give no hint of this. It is quite likely that in the period of the second Temple the months were at least partly regulated by something more than simple observation from month to month, but we cannot be sure from the available sources how early and to what extent computation was employed.
Eventually, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the dispersion and persecution of the Jews by later emperors, the practice of regulating the calendar from Jerusalem was necessarily abandoned, and an arbitrary scheme was substituted, so that Jews in all lands could reckon the dates of the sacred feasts uniformly. Thenceforth the Jews in Babylonia or anywhere else could regulate the calendar by artificial means, regardless of the barley harvest in Judea or the appearance of the moon at Jerusalem.
It was once thought that the calendar as revised, supposedly in the 4th century, had come down unchanged to the present day, but most authorities now think that the reform was a gradual growth, taking several centuries, incorporating earlier traditions and later developments. Some of the medieval disputes between the rabbinical advocates of the fixed calendar and the Karaites, who attempted to retain observation and the barley harvest rule, indicate that the question of the calendar was still a live issue. The present sequence of the seven 13-month years in each 19-year cycle, and the numbering of years consecutively from a supposed era of creation, (See NOTE) were not adopted by the Jews until the Middle Ages.
NOTE: The 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years of each cycle counted from a theoretical beginning in 3761 B.C. This means that 1975/76 is counted as the 17th year of a cycle, with a second Adar in the spring of 1976.
Most of the treatises on the Jewish calendar in reference books are, on the whole, unsatisfactory, being either out of date, or concerned mostly with the post-Biblical form of the calendar rather than that of Bible times, or based on theories of a supposed late date for the Mosaic law or the purely Babylonian character of the postexilic calendar. The non-technical reader, however, does not wish to be directed to scattered bits of source material. Therefore this list is short.
The Babylonian Talmud. [Soncino English translation.] Edited by I. Epstein. 34 vols. London: The Soncino Press, 1935–48. The Talmud includes the Oral Law, or Mishnah, alternating section by section with the Gemara, or extended exposition of the Mishnah by comments, additions, and various interpretations of the rabbis in Babylonia from the 3rd to the 5th century. The tractate Rosh Hashanah (in the volume Seder Mo‛ed VII) deals with the New Year festival and with certain aspects of the calendar. Representing later traditions, it does not directly concern the Old Testament calendar.
Burnaby, Sherrard Beaumont. Elements of the Jewish and Muhammadan Calendars. London: George Bell & Sons, 1901. 554 pp. An extended discussion (pp. 1–364), out of date but containing helpful information here and there, although much of it pertains to the rabbinical and modern Jewish calendar.
Horn, Siegfried H., and Wood, Lynn H. The Chronology of Ezra 7. 2nd ed., rev. Washington: Review and Herald, 1970. 192 pp. This work, by two contributors to this commentary, is primarily concerned with another subject but contains chapter on “Ancient Civil Calendars,” “The Pre-exilic Hebrew Calendar,” and “The Postexilic Jewish Calendar,” also a detailed explanation of the dates of the Elephantine papyri. Though dealing indirectly with the Jewish calendar, it gives source documentation and refers to authorities on many specific points that have a bearing on this subject. The revised edition contains the reconstructed calendar tables, based on the Elephantine papyri.
Parker, Richard A., and Dubberstein, Waldo H., Babylonian Chronology, 626 B.C.-A.D. 75. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1956. 47 pp. This contains a tabulation of the first of each month of the Babylonian calendar for this period as estimated from new-moon tables, indicating the known 13th months as attested by ancient source evidence. It is a useful approximation of the lunar-calendar dates for Babylon, though allowance must be made for an error of one day in some months resulting from elements of uncertainty. (See NOTE) Besides, in using these Babylonian tables for dates in Palestine, two kinds of discrepancy are possible at certain times: (1) a day’s difference, if the crescent could be seen at Jerusalem a day earlier than at Babylon because of the difference in longitude; and (2) a month’s difference, if the 13th month was not always inserted at the same time in the Babylonian and Jewish calendars.
NOTE: In calculating the exact time of a conjunction so many centuries ago, there is some unavoidable uncertainty caused by variations in the motions of the moon in relation to the earth. This uncertainty has been variously estimated by astronomers from a few minutes to two or three hours or more. In 1974 three of them were asked whether their 1956 statements were still valid; all three replies were affirmative.) This is a high degree of accuracy for the time of conjunction, but a difference of even a few minutes, if it shifts the first visibility of the crescent just a little before or after moonset, can throw the first of the lunar calendar month a day earlier or later than calculated.