In Defense of the Jewish Calendar

This article is a response to a blog by a new friend I have made in the blogosphere, Judah Himango at judahgabriel.blogspot.com

We had an interesting exchange here on this blog. Judah helpfully pointed out that it was possible to get the Complete Jewish Bible on biblegateway.com (and progress has been made in getting this done, by the way, so I hope it won’t be long). Then, he posted an article that was not exactly positive toward the Jewish calendar. I felt I needed to stand up for the Jewish calendar and answer Judah’s criticisms. So here goes . . .

I am thankful that Judah Himango brought up some issues with the Jewish calendar. This is a discussion well worth having. Specifically, Himango feels the following items are problematic with regard to the Jewish calendar:

1. The names of some of the months are of pagan origin, especially Tammuz (a.k.a. Dumuzzi) the Babylonian god who corresponds to Adonis in the Greek pantheon. This is true, but see below.

2. All of the names of the months in the Jewish calendar are adopted from the Babylonian calendar. This also is true, but see below.

3. The Jewish calendar erroneously makes the first day of the Seventh month the new year, Rosh HaShanah. The exact quote from Himango is, “The Jewish year starts in the middle of the calendar on a Jewish holiday not found in Scripture, a holiday called Rosh HaShanah (“head of the year“), which may be Babylonian in origin.” This is not exactly true, see below.

I responded with a few points myself:

His critique makes the kind of naive error often found in Two-House and Hebraic Roots circles. First, he misunderstands certain details of the calendar (such as why Rosh haShanah would be considered a new year). Second, he rejects the idea that Judaism is a community and that we all need to follow community standards and not make our own standards. Third, he assumes that any mixing with pagan terminology makes something tainted with impurity (never mind that the Bible uses pagan mythological references — Ps. 48:3 (vs. 2 in Chr. Bibles) calls Zion Zaphon’s peak (in the Hebrew, but not in most translations) with Zaphon being Baal’s mountain in Syria, and check out Leviathan and Rahab in a concordance for more examples, just to name a few).

Now, let me defend the Jewish calendar more thoroughly, though I am no expert. And I do hope this will clear some things up for people.

The First Charge: Some Names on the Jewish Calendar are Pagan in Origin and It Is Implied that God’s Followers Should Not Name Pagan Deities. I am not accusing Judah Himango of this, but a lot of rhetoric is out there by people in the Hebrew Roots and Two-House movements decrying anything that might possibly have some paganism behind it. I hear a lot of people condemning Christians for celebrating Easter and Christmas (I admit some practices are unwise adaptations of pagan customs, such as bunnies and Easter Egg hunts). The fact is, God uses pagan terminology and mythology quite frequently in the Bible. I mentioned before Psalm 48:3 (or 48:2 in a Christian Bible) which calls Jerusalem in Hebrew the heights of Zaphon, with Zaphon being a popular reference to the mountain dwelling of Baal. There are numerous references to Leviathan (a parallel to Tiamat in Babylonian mythology) and Rahab. In some Psalms, God is depicted riding on clouds just like Baal. Furthermore, notice below that God’s word uses the Babylonian names and does not criticize the practice!

The Mythical “Biblical” Calendar. Himango urges people to use the Biblical calendar rather than the Jewish one. What Biblical calendar? There isn’t one. Note the following:

1. The Bible names six of the twelve months: Nisan (Esth. 3:7), Sivan (Esth. 8:9), Kislev (Neh. 1:1; Zech. 7:1), Tevet (Esth. 2:16), Shevat (Zech. 1:7), and Adar (Esth. 3:7).

2. The Bible does not name all twelve months or provide details for a full calendar.

3. The names the Bible does use are . . . guess what . . . the Babylonian names!

4. I guess you could say the Babylonian names for Jewish months are Biblical!

The Second Charge: The Jewish Calendar Distorts the New Year by Making It in the Seventh Month. The Jewish calendar recognizes several new years, including the Biblical new year (the religious new year) which is fourteen days before Passover and the Civil New Year, which is on the first day of the seventh month (Tishri) and known as Rosh HaShanah, the Head of the Year.

What were the rabbis thinking? Didn’t they know they were changing God’s word (sic)?

In Judaism, Nissan 1 is the new year for the purpose of counting the reign of kings and months on the calendar, Elul 1 (in August) is the new year for the tithing of animals, Shevat 15 (in February) is the new year for trees (determining when first fruits can be eaten, etc.), and Tishri 1 (Rosh Hashanah) is the new year for years (when we increase the year number. Sabbatical and Jubilee years begin at this time).

Now we see why Rosh HaShanah is the New Year. It is the beginning of the year for Sabbatical and Jubilee years. This is based on Leviticus 25:9:

Then you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land.

But, someone will object, this places the beginning of Sabbatical and Jubilee years on the tenth day of the seventh month (Yom Kippur) and not on the first day.

Yes, but, for determining the start of the year on the calendar, one must start at the beginning of the month (you can’t start a new year on the tenth day of a month). Furthermore, as Jacob Milgrom observes in his commentary on Leviticus, it is quite likely that the whole ten day period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur was regarded as the New Year. The Israelites started their year with repentance and prayer rather than feasting and excess. Other Mesopotamian cultures at the time had extended New Year periods longer than a day.

Summary: So, we find it untrue that there is a Biblical calendar which was changed by the Jewish leaders. Instead, we find that the calendar of the Bible adapted over the years into the modern system. We find that Judaism has accurately preserved the calendar and God did not voice any objection through the post-exilic prophets like Zechariah to the use of Babylonian names for the months. And that leads me to my final point . . .

Messianic Jews cannot separate themselves from Jewish community standards and have any integrity in their practice of the Torah. God appointed leaders in Israel to set standards for the community. See Deuteronomy 17:11. God left many details of Torah observance blank and let the community fill them in. One area especially where it is vital to have uniformity is the calendar, so that Israel can gather at the temple together and not in denominations with different interpretations. And the New Testament? It affirms the same thing. Check it out in Matthew 23:1-3.

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About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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