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Vagaries of a Jewish leap year.

The year 5752 Anno Mundi (1991-1992) was a leap-year in the Jewish calendar, adding a whole month to the usual twelve. This occurs with a certain regularity in a cycle of 19 years. The 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th years are leap-years; the others are 12-month years. This arrangement brings the 354 days of the lunar year (12 x 29 1/2) in line with the 365 days of the solar year, assuring that the Festival of Passover occurs in the beginning of the Spring season. The occurrence of a leap-year has led to a number of problems concerning the observance of the various holidays and other rituals, as discussed in Talmudic and post-Talmudic literature. Actually, the more serious problems arose during the period in Jewish history prior to the middle of the fourth century, C.E., when Hillel the 2nd fixed the calendar that is in use today. In that period, the beginning of each month (Rosh Hodesh) had to be determined and declared by the High Court in Israel, which was also charged with the responsibility of deciding every year whether or not it should be proclaimed as a leap-year.

Let us examine one of the major problems faced by the Jewish people in those days as a consequence of this ad hoc fixing of the calendar, bearing in mind that the Jewish reckoning of the annual cycle of months begins with the month of Nisan, which must, necessarily, occur after the Spring equinox (Exodus 12:2, 13:4). The Mishnah (Eduyot 7:7) records that Rabbis Yehoshua and Papias testified (before the Sages in Yavneh) that a leap-year could be decided upon as late as the 29th day of Adar (the month before Nisan), whereas previously it had been ruled that it has to be decided upon before Purim (which is celebrated on the 14th of Adar). The Talmud (B. Rosh Hashanah 7a) explains the previous ruling as follows: Already at Purim time, 30 days before Passover, public discussions were conducted concerning the laws of Passover and, thus, the people anticipated that festival to occur within a month. If an additional month were to be proclaimed after Purim, there would be much confusion concerning Passover, as people would refuse to believe the messengers reporting the postponement of Passover. The earlier ruling seems reasonable enough, but the Talmud offers no reason why the authorities in Yavneh decided to change the rule. It seems to me that the change came about because of a change in historical circumstances. From several statements in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah, chap. 2) we know that, in the earlier period, going back to the days of the Second Temple, attempts were made by the Boethusians - a Jewish sect opposed to the rulings of the Sages, then known as the Perushim (Pharisees) - to confuse the people by giving false signals proclaiming the declaration of a new month. This led to circumspection by the people as to the credibility of the messengers of the Court. After the destruction of the Temple, the Boethusians ceased to exist as an active group and, thus, there no longer existed any fear that the messengers might be false.

Be this explanation as it may, it is clear that the ruling that an additional month may be added even after Purim created a serious problem. For example: The 14th day of Adar arrived and the people observed the holiday of Purim; they read the Megillah; they sent manot (edible portions) to friends and gifts to the poor. And, behold, a week later the High Court decided to add another month, a second Adar, to the year. Immediately the question arose: Will we have to celebrate Purim again when the 14th day of the second Adar arrives? The Mishnah gives a clear answer: it has to be read again in Adar Two (B. Megillah 6b). The Talmud explains: "To bring one redemption (ge'ulah) close to another," i.e., to bring close together the celebration of Israel's redemption from the evil decree of Haman and the celebration of Israel's redemption from bondage in Egypt.

An examination of other Talmudic sources related to this problem reveals that it had not been completely resolved by the Sages of Yavneh. The first chapter of tractate Sanhedrin deals at length with leap-years; why and when they were decided upon, and the procedure involved. Incidentally, the Talmud records there an interesting episode. It was during the time when Rome had become Christian (c. 330) and Jews were prohibited from observing their religious practices, including the declaration of a leap-year, without which the Jewish festivals could not be properly designated and observed. It became necessary, therefore, for the High Court in Erez Yisrael to adopt clandestine measures by which to advise the Jews in the Diaspora that a leap-year had been declared. The Court dispatched a missive to Raba, head of the Academy in Mehoza-Babylonia (338-352), in language that could be understood only by Jews as referring to the declaration of a leap-year. Thus, the word neziv (prefect) alluded to a month, since King Solomon had appointed twelve prefects governing all Israel (I Kings 4:7), and the word edomi (Edomite) alluded to Rome, "who would not allow us to add a neziv to the year" (B. Sanhedrin 12a).

To return to our original problem. The Talmud (Ibid.) relates that Raba asked Rabbi Nahman why may we decide upon a leap-year during all of Adar (except the last day, i.e., the 30th, "since that day may be declared as the 1st day of Nisan"); "do we not already start discussing Pesah at Purim, and if you decide after Purim to postpone Pesah, isn't there the liability that people will eat hamez on Pesah?" - i.e., on the postponed, real Pesah, having already observed the originally scheduled Pesah on what was actually Purim! This is the very reason why the earlier authorities had ruled that we do not declare a leap-year after Purim. So we may ask: Was not this ruling already rejected two centuries earlier by the Sages in Yavneh, as we have seen above? Why did Raba bring up this argument again? We have a still more puzzling question. Already a generation before Raba, in the days of Rabbi Zera, the calendar had been fixed (B. Bezah 4b), including the fixing of leap-years; how does it happen that Raba suggests that a change in the calendar might be proclaimed by the authorities in Israel?

To explain this apparent inconsistency, we again have to refer to the historical circumstances of the period. The fixed calendar would have allowed the Jews in Babylonia to observe one festival day instead of two days which they hitherto had observed because of the vagaries of the calendar (Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot). However, the authorities in Erez Yisrael wrote to their colleagues in Babylonia: "Continue to observe the custom of your fathers [and observe two days of Yom Tov], for the kingdom may some day issue a decree (Rashi: "banning the study of Torah, resulting in a loss of knowing how to fix the calendar"), which will lead to an upset in Jewish life" (Rashi: "and the eating of hamez on Pesah") (Ibid). In other words: "There is a possibility that your calendar will have to be revised."

Now we can understand Raba's question to Rabbi Nahman. If there is a possibility that the calendar will be revised because of religious persecution, let us at least adopt the ruling of the earlier authorities that no leap-year be declared after Purim. In such uncertain times, the people may again discount the proclamation of postponing Pesah. Rabbi Nahman, however, assured Raba that we need not entertain such fear, for by then people knew that the Court has to make calculations even after Purim (Rashi: because of unexpected changes in climate) and, therefore, would be aware of the possibility of change in the calendar and would wait for final confirmation before the end of Adar.

Another problem raised by the phenomenon of a leap-year, with ramifications for our own times, stems from a statement in the Jerusalem Talmud. In the first chapter of tractate Megillah we read: "Rabbi Helbo, and Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Hiyya the Great [said], |All fulfill their obligation [to read the Megillah] on the 14th [of Adar], for that is the time to read it; the ruling comes only to teach you that the mizvot are observed on Second Adar.'" The commentators are at a loss to explain this statement; there is no apparent connection between its first half and its second. It seems to me that Rabbi Helbo is telling us that if, in a walled city, Jews read the Megillah on the 15th, as they are supposed to, and a leap-year is subsequently declared and the Megillah has to be read again in Second Adar, then even in walled cities the Megillah is read on the 14th, like the majority of Israel. This is because the primary obligation had already been fulfilled on the 15th of Adar One, and the second reading was mandated only in order to remind people that the mizvot of Purim, sending manot and gifts to the poor, have to be observed on Second Adar.

By the same reasoning, the rule is that if the 15th falls on the Sabbath, all Jews, including those in a walled city, read the Megillah on Friday the 14th. The inhabitants of Jerusalem, an ancient walled city, follow this ruling to this day and, thus, we have in Jerusalem what is called "the Triple Purim," i.e., the Megillah is read on Friday the 14th; the special liturgy for Purim is recited on Saturday the 15th; and the giving of gifts, followed by the festive Purim Se'udah (meal), is observed on Sunday the 16th.

There is another consequence to this ruling that reading the Megillah on the 14th is "the time to read it for all." Rav ruled: If the Megillah is read "in its time" it may be read even individually; if read "not in its time" (villagers were allowed to read it before the 14th, as early as the 11th [Mishnah Megillah 1:1], it has to be read in the presence of ten (a minyan; B. Meg. 5a). This means that, in a walled city (e.g., Jerusalem), even when the Megillah is read on the 14th, it is "in its time" and may be read at home without a minyan. Thus, the housewife who has to prepare for Shabbat need not go to the synagogue to hear the reading; it may be read for her at home.

The Jerusalem Talmud raises another question about a leap-year: Is the first Adar the added month, or is the second Adar the added month? (Meg. 1:5,70d) In other words, which Adar is the principal Adar, the first or the second? One may ask: "What difference does it make?" In fact, it affects many observances, and we shall discuss several. The first is that of Bar Mizvah, when a boy reaches the age of thirteen and becomes obligated to observe the mizvot of the Torah. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (RAMO, authoritative 16th century Ashkenazic halakhic authority), in his note to the Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 55, writes that a boy born in the month of Adar in an ordinary year, and who reaches his thirteenth year in a leap-year, does not become Bar Mizvah until Adar Two. This is in accord with the ruling of the Jerusalem Talmud that the second Adar is the principal one. This leads to a rather strange occurrence. One boy was born on the 29th of Adar One: another was born two weeks later on the 14th of Adar Two. Thirteen years later it is an ordinary year, with only one Adar. The second boy celebrates his Bar Mizvah on the 14th of Adar, and the first boy, born two weeks earlier, celebrates his Bar Mizvah on the 29th, two weeks later!

Another observance affected by the phenomenon of two Adars is the recital of kaddish by a mourner on the anniversary of his parent's death (Yahrzeit). When does he recite the kaddish in a leap-year, if his parent passed away in an ordinary year, in Adar One or Adar Two? The halakhic authorities are divided. Rabbi Joseph Karo, Sephardi author of the Shulhan Arukh, rules (Orah Hayyim 568) that if a Yahrzeit occurs in the month of Adar, then, in a leap-year, one should fast on Adar Two (it was a custom from Talmudic times to fast on the anniversary of a parent's demise [B. Nedarim 12a]). This again follows the ruling that Adar Two is the principal Adar. However, RAMO cites the opinion that one should fast on Adar One, "and that is the custom." Because of this difference of opinion, the conclusion is that one should observe the Yahrzeit on both Adars. However, as to the custom to recite kaddish only for eleven months after a parent's demise, one does not add a month in a leap year.

The Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 580) mentions other days when it is proper to fast in order to commemorate days of sorrow; among them is the 7th of Adar, the anniversary of the death of Moses. It is now customary for the members of a burial society (Hevra Kaddisha) to fast on this day, followed by a se'udah (ritual meal) in the evening. Again, opinions are divided on when they should fast, i.e., in which Adar, in a leap-year. The general custom is to fast on the second Adar.

Modern-day Hasidim, following a concept of death developed by the mystics of the Kabbalah, designate the day of Yahrzeit as Yom Hillula, an occasion for celebration, and, instead of marking the day by fasting, they eat and drink. We see here the wheel of history turning full circle. In ancient times, in a scroll called Megillat Ta'anit, the Sages marked the days that one should not fast. With the distressful events of the destruction of the Temple and Exile, Megillat Ta'anit was declared null and void (B. Shabbat 13b; Rosh Hashanah 18b), and many fast days were added to the Jewish calendar. The Hasidim of our times have turned the wheel back in at least one instance and said: "It is a great mizvah to rejoice constantly." Hopefully, this portends the realization in our days of the prophecy of Zechariah (8:19): ". . the fast of the fourth month (Shiv'ah Asar B'Tammuz), the fast of the fifth month (Tish'ah B'av), the fast of the seventh month (Zom Gedaliah), and the fast of the tenth month (Asarah B'Tevet), shall become occasions for joy and gladness ... provided you love truth and peace."

MENDELL LEWITTES is Editor of the Annual, Shanah B'Shanah, published by the Office of the Chief Rabbinate, Heikhal Shlomo, in Jerusalem, and Chairman of the Israel Region of the Rabbinical Council of America.
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Author:Lewittes, Mendell
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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