If you count your months via January, February, and March opposed to Tishrei, Cheshvan, and Kislev, you’ve probably noticed that Jewish holidays bounce around a bit. Some years Chanukah is around Thanksgiving while other years it doesn’t end until January. Though the Jewish calendar may appear sporadic, that’s only because one is looking at it from a solar perspective.
However, according to the lunar cycle, the Jewish calendar is remarkably precise. All you need to do is get a good look at the moon and you’ve got a sense of what week in the month you’re in. And given that most Jewish holidays fall on the 15th of the month, if it’s a full moon, there’s a good chance you’re in the midst of a holiday.
Now, Judaism isn’t only a lunar calendar. Because the solar and lunar cycles are 11 days different, if you strictly followed the moon, the months would have no correlation to the seasons. The commandment that Passover must be celebrated in the Spring necessitating that the Jewish calendar respect both the sun and the moon. So what do we do? The same thing the Gregorian calendar does, we have a leap year. But where every 4 years you get a February 29th, the Jewish calendar repeats a whole month. However, in addition to the extra 30 days, there is also something unique about the Jewish leap year.
When we observe Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month), during the morning prayer service we recite an additional Amidah/Shemoneh Esrei, known as Mussaf. Within that section of the service are a litany of requests (twelve to be exact), such as for peace, livelihood, etc. But during a leap year, there is a thirteenth request – atonement for willful sin.
How is this request different from the ones before it and why does a leap year allow for the additional request at all?
When the Moon Envied the Sun
During the fourth day of the creation story, the Torah says God made two great lights. Immediately afterwards, the Torah refers to them as “the great light to rule the day” and “the small light to rule the night.” From this Rashi mentions a parable that originally the sun and the moon were the same size. The moon said to God, “It is impossible for two kings to rule with the same crown.” To that God essentially responds, “You’re right!” and shrinks the moon. How does the moon talk and how could a mound of rock possibly be the size of the 865,370 mile long sun? It’s a Midrash, so we have to take it with a grain of salt.
The better question to ask is, what are we meant to learn from this?
The Jewish people are often compared to the moon. In the way the moon reflects light from the sun, the Jewish people radiate most brightly when we reflect God’s ways. We also go through cyclical periods of growth and diminishing. And it is believed that a habit takes about 30 days to really develop. So there’s clearly a connection.
But also, it is when we want to aggrandize ourselves (as the moon tried to do) that we diminish in holiness. As Perkei Avos 4:28 says, “Jealousy, lust, and the desire for honor remove a person from the world.” However when we strive to be humble, the goals of our community become more important to us than the goals of our ego. Ironically, it’s that very mentality that brings honor.
11 Days Difference
The length of a solar year and the length of a lunar year are 11 days. In addition to the moon being smaller in size, its cycle is smaller. However, a Jewish leap year brings the moon in sync with the sun. So the additional month literally acts to correct the difference. From that idea of correction, we now can understand how this could create an opportunity for us to grow to our full radiance, spiritually speaking.
As I mentioned above, the added prayer atonement for willful sin (or more exactly kaparah pashah). How is that different from the forgiveness requests we make every Rosh Chodesh? Those requests being pardon of sin and forgiveness of iniquity (or mechilas chet and selichas avon). Mechilas is translated as pardon because it really means freeing you from the punishment. Chet is more of a mistake than a “wicked sin”. Selichas connotes forgiveness of punishment as well as any feelings of resentment. Avon denotes a type of sin that’s a perversion. Such as taking a medicine that is meant to heal you and using it to get high. The idea is that you’ve taken something and used it for an opposite purpose.
But Rosh Chodesh during a leap year has kaparah pashah. Kaparah is a complete wiping away for the sin, as if it never happened, just like like Yom Kippur. And a pashah is a type of sin where know what you not only know what you are doing is wrong, you deliberately and perhaps rebelliously commit it. It’s a bit of an “in your face” sort of sin. So to not only be forgiven for that, but have the slate wiped clean is quite the opportunity.
The month of Adar is a joyous month where we celebrate Purim (though in a leap year, you only celebrate during the second Adar.) But why of all the months would Adar be the month we repeat? Why not Nissan, the month of miracle? Or Shevat, the month of renewal? For that, I think we need to look at the Purim story.
Magillas Esther starts with a party in Shushan. The Rabbis tell us that it was a celebration that the destroyed Temple of Jerusalem (the Beit HaMikdash) had not been rebuilt in the prophesied time frame. It makes sense for the citizens of Shushan and the wicked king Ahashverus to be celebrating. But also in attendance at the party were the Jews. Yes the Jews were celebrating that their holiest site was not going to be rebuilt and they were now free from God’s covenant. It’s from that action that the decree of their destruction, to be carried out by Haman, was written. But when the Jews did teshuvah and fasted with Esther, they merited redemption, victory, and the building of the second Temple. Quite the kaparah pashah.
I believe it is that spirit of teshuvah we are connecting to when we pray a Rosh Chodesh Mussaf during a leap year. If the leap year really is about restoring the moon to the magnitude of the sun (so to speak), that means there is a brilliance we all once had that we should be able to once again tap into. In a world where everyone complains they don’t have enough time, Judaism gives us an extra month every few years. Most of us keep on doing what we’re doing, not even noticing that anything is special. But if we look at it as a gifted extra month, Adar can be a chance to reflect, reassess, and realign. How can we get back to the brilliance of the days when our potential was unlimited and we believed we could shine as bright as the sun?