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Faith & Values

You may have heard reports of a strange and unusual quirk on the calendar this year. Usually, Thanksgiving precedes the 8-day-long Jewish festival of Chanukah by almost a month. This year, however, Chanukah started the night before Thanksgiving. This year, proclaimed the reports, Chanukah came early.

Well, I’m sorry to inform you that the reports of Chanukah’s premature arrival were utterly incorrect. To understand why, we need to learn a little bit about the Jewish calendar. This may get complicated, folks, so get out your telescopes and hang onto your calculators … here we go.

The Gregorian calendar we use in America is primarily a solar calendar. Long ago, someone calculated how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun, divided it into 12 more-or-less equal parts, and — voilà! — the 12-month, 365-day Gregorian year.

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Muslims, on the other hand, use a lunar calendar. Each month on the Islamic calendar begins on the new moon, and 12 lunar months make a year. What makes it complicated is that 12 lunar months amount to a total of only 354 or 355 days — 10 to 12 days fewer than a solar year. As a result, each year, Islamic festivals begin 10 to 12 days earlier on the Gregorian calendar than they did the year before. Ramadan, for example, will begin on or around June 28, but by the end of the next decade, it will begin in the winter (to figure out the specific date, now might be a good time to use your calculator).

The Jewish calendar is different still — it is both solar and lunar. Like the Islamic calendar, Jewish months always begin with the first sliver of the new moon. Many Jewish festivals, however, are (or were) agricultural celebrations, so they need to occur during the same season each year.

Passover always needs to be in the springtime; the autumn-harvest festival called Sukkot — “the Feast of Tabernacles” — needs to stay put in the fall. Ours is a lunar calendar, all right, but for us, the annual 11-day shift of the Islamic calendar just wouldn’t work.

How does the Jewish calendar keep its months from wandering through the seasons? It’s simple — leap year. Our leap year, however, isn’t just a plain ol’ quadrennial Feb. 29 like on the Gregorian calendar. No, we Jews keep summer summer and winter winter by periodically adding a full month to our year, and we do it on a regular, repeating basis — seven times every 19 years.

Every year, there’s a fun little month in the springtime called Adar, but seven times every 19 years, we get an added bonus: a second month of Adar right after the first — Adar II.

As a result, the Gregorian and Jewish calendars slide back and forth relative to one another like two parts of an ancient slide rule. Jan. 1 was the 19th of the Hebrew month of Tevet this year, but it will be the 29th of Tevet next year, and the 10th of Tevet in 2015.

Some civilizations look to the sun in order to count time; others look to the moon. We Jews look to both, and try to make the two dizzying astronomical cycles fit together into one coherent and recurring whole. For the most part, it works pretty well.

This year, Thanksgiving comes late on the Gregorian calendar — on Nov. 28.

And since last year wasn’t a leap year on the Jewish calendar, this Jewish year got a head-start relative to the solar cycle. Hence, the quirk — Chanukah and then Thanksgiving in 2013, not the other way around.

Still, those who say that Chanukah comes early this year are wrong. This year, Chanukah begins on the same day it always does — on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. Thanksgiving usually occurs about a month earlier, but this year it too comes at the end of Kislev.

You see, it’s not that Chanukah comes early in 2013; it’s that Thanksgiving comes late. Maybe next year that crazy Gregorian calendar will get itself back on track.

Rabbi Mark S. Glickman leads Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island and Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville.

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