Whenever I'm asked if the Jewish holidays are coming early or late this year, I promptly answer that they'll be coming on time. And that's partially true. Rosh Hashanah will always arrive on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei just as Hanukkah will always begin on the 25th of Kislev. But the Jewish holidays will be coming early this year and already people are realizing that the first night of Hanukkah 2013 takes place on Nov. 27, which will actually be the night before Thanksgiving. And that's unusual.
The Jewish calendar situation this year is unique. In fact, it has not occurred since 1899 and will only occur once more. Ever. And that won't be until the year 2089.
The Jewish holidays must occur in their appointed season according to the Torah. To ensure this, there is a leap year that adds an extra month (Adar II) to the Jewish calendar to adjust for the differential between the Jewish calendar's lunar cycle and the Gregorian (secular) calendar's 365 day solar cycle. This year, we will see the earliest that Jewish holidays can fall beginning with Purim on Feb. 24 (a Jewish holiday that usually occurs in March). Later on this year, just as students are returning to school following Labor Day we will observe Rosh Hashanah starting on the evening of Sept. 4. We'll also celebrate the majority of the festival of Sukkot before the Fall equinox even takes place even though Sukkot is an autumnal holiday (the law states this is acceptable so long as the final day of the holiday, Hoshanah Rabbah, occurs after the Fall equinox). Of course, what most people are talking about is the idea of lighting the first candle of Hanukkah the day before we put the Thanksgiving turkeys in the oven.
I find this whole thing fascinating. Especially as this might be the only time in my life that I see the holidays falling this extremely early. I've always been intrigued with the Jewish calendar. My first real introduction to the intricacies of the luach hashanah was in 1996 when Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer was serving as an interim rabbi in Metro Detroit. In his small office at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich., he had dozens of instant lessons posted to the wall. As a seasoned interim rabbi, these instant lessons came in handy.
When I went to Rabbi Tutnauer's office one day ready to learn whatever he would teach me, he suggested we study the Jewish calendar. His lesson included the four different new years in the Jewish tradition as spelled out in the mishna as well as the way the calendar was fixed so that festivals like Passover occurred only in their appointed season. He also taught me the helpful mnemonic of lo adu rosh, which reminds us that Rosh Hashanah can never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. The reason the calendar is fixed that way is so that Yom Kippur can never be on a Friday, Sunday or Tuesday. (A full-day fast that close to Shabbat would be too big of a challenge and if Yom Kippur fell on a Tuesday, then Hoshanah Rabbah would be on Shabbat, and we could not beat the willow branches.) Rabbi Tutnauer's lesson proved helpful a few years later when I found myself already versed in the logistical ins and outs of the Jewish calendar when studying Tractate Rosh Hashanah in a Talmud class in rabbinical school.
Several years ago David Letterman quipped in a Late Show monologue, "Happy Rosh Hashanah, it's the Jewish new year and the year is 5768. I, uh, it's funny I'm still writing 5767 on my checks." Well, unlike Dave, most of us use the Gregorian calendar in our everyday lives, but as Jews we must be attuned to the Jewish calendar as well. It is the rhythm of our Jewish lives. Perhaps this year's anomaly in the Jewish calendar will cause people to learn more about the lunar calendar that governs the Jewish year.