Chanukah Never Starts on a Tuesday and Yahrzeit Memories

Today is the last day of Chanukah, my mother’s yahrzeit.  And this year, because of the 19 year cycle between the Gregorian and Hebrew calendars – the English and Hebrew dates are so close to the same day.  It is 2 Tevet and December 20 versus December 21 – close enough to almost touch.  And a sharp contrast to the years when Chanukah is in late November or very early December.

Having your mother die on a holiday always brings the memories of everything flooding back, but that is life.  I think of Thanksgiving that year when she went into the hospital for emergency intestinal surgery and spent weeks in ICU, never recovering.  There were days of progress offset by crises that stacked up, each time becoming less likely that she would return to her vibrant self.

It was a crazy busy time in the business we ran with her (Jewelry) as we continued to sell at the remaining shows for the year and the jewelers in the store worked to meet the many orders that inevitably came in during that time of year.  The woman we hired to run the office turned out to be a disaster, but we did not know it at the time.  Her jewelry shop would fold within the next two years because of a number of complications and a number of bad employees.  So it became time to move on, which we did.

One of the things that happened in the process was that I decided to go back to rabbinical school and pursue ordination.  That was a decision that I believe would have thrilled both of my parents for different reasons, but which neither lived to see.  My mother wanted me to return both for her love of Judaism and for her love of me, knowing that while I was a good engineer, my real passion was in being a rabbi.  She had watched me transition through different things after my dad died, and knew that I was happiest when I taught Judaism and did the many little things a rabbi does.  She had almost convinced me to start teaching Hebrew again just before she died.

And so I think of her a lot during different times, but especially on her Yahrzeit (anniversary of her passing).   And this is one of those special “alignment” years, so she is particularly present for me.  I keep thinking about how we rushed to get the orders out, especially since I am sending a couple loaves of challah to a few people who have requested them.  The irony of it was that I kept noticing how close the two dates were without realizing that it had been 19 years.

Wow.  Impossible and real at the same time.  A generation.  So much has happened since 1998.  She had a cell phone, because we made her get one and because we traveled so much.  She lost both of her sisters that same year, they were both so much older than she and they each went in order.  A generation there, as well.  A full 19 years.  I’ll return to more thoughts about my mother, probably in the next blog as her birthday would be next month.  For now, the curiosity of the calendar is striking.

The ancients set the calendar – or calendars, really.  Talmud talks about several competing ones, such as the ones the Cohanim used.  Of course, for modern Judaism, the rabbis won the argument.  So the calendar was set on a 19 year repeating cycle, called the Metonic cycle, where 19 years is exactly 235 lunar months of 29.something days.  The universe is so not precise when it comes to time keeping.  Thanks, God!  What a wonderful sense of humor, that!

The rabbis understood that the lunar calendar, which could be marked by watching the sky (mostly), needed to be kept to the solar calendar (365.25-ish days) for the sake of seasonal holy days.  And so they set up leap years because 12 lunar months do NOT a solar year make (nor do 13 lunar months).  Yay planetary cycles – hint: Earth is NOT the be-all/end-all………..

So here comes the 19-year repeat with leap years set oh-so-conveniently at 0, 3,6,8,11,14,17 after the repeat.  Leap years have 13 lunar months (Adar II is added after Adar in the spring in a leap year) and regular years have 12 lunar months.  Some lunar months are 29 days and some are 30, and some vary from year to year.  In a very intricate formula, it has been worked out fairly accurately (but not perfectly).

There are a number of requirements that went into the calculations, such as that a major holiday could not start the day before Shabbat (for cooking food considerations), so Pesach cannot ever start on a Thursday night, but it can annoyingly start on either a Friday or Saturday night.  Yom Kippur can never be on a Thursday night-Friday for the same reasons.  This results in an interesting side effect – Chanukah can never start on a Monday night-Tuesday.  It can, however, start as it did this year on a Tuesday night-Wednesday.  And all of that is why my mother’s Yahrzeit is off one day from the Gregorian this 19 year cycle.  It makes sense in a special Jewish way.

The amazing part is that they figured this out without computers or algebra – or “zero” which came with the Arabic numbering system.  The two numbering systems in use at the time were Roman Numbering and Gamatria (or Gamma-Tria).  It is not surprising that the Sanhedrin did not trust that the rabbis had it all figured out until there was no longer any choice.  We had to rely on the calculations because the Sanhedrin and the Temple were no more, and only the rabbis with their calculations remained.

They wanted to end many practices for many reasons, but they were not successful.  Chanukah was one such battle.  The people continued to celebrate because light is powerful in winter, even when covered with an oily fiction that does allow the deeper story to be told at some levels, and the restricted the days on which it could start.  Chanukah never starts on a Monday night (ie, Tuesday), and the rabbis set the calendar and all the other holidays AND their observances.

Time changes some things.  Last cycle I lost a mother.  This cycle I am a rabbi.


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