As we enter February, we are coming also into the Jewish month of Adar, or rather, the first of two months of Adar, Adar Aleph. We have two Adars (Aleph and Bet) this year because of an usual peculiarity of the calendar. Jewish time runs according to the lunar cycle, not the solar one. Since the cycle of the moon is 29 or 30 days (really about 29.5), the Jewish months are shorter than they would need to be to keep the holidays in the same season every year. If one looses a few days each month, Rosh Hashanah would migrate around the calendar and we would end up with Hannukah in the summer.
One of the oddities about Judaism is how we determine the calendar. According to the old practice the first day of the month fell when the new moon was first visible in the night sky. Sometimes however, the night sky was cloudy, and according to Jewish law, one had to actually see the new moon. Whenever the new moon seen, whoever saw it first then reported to a rabbinical court in ancient Jerusalem, who would in turn make an announcement that the new month was beginning. The problem was, one actually had to see the moon and then tell the court, so a month could end up being 29 or 30 days depending on the weather, how trustworthy the moon-spotter was felt to be (they could be making it up after all), and how quickly the bureaucracy went.
What is striking about this process is that it is the humans who determine the months. It is not the moon in the sky, but actually the declaration of the rabbinic court in Jerusalem that starts the month.
There is an old joke to this effect:
There once was a man who had no clocks in his house. One day, a friend came over and asked how he knew what time it was. The man picked up a shofar, leaned out the window, and blew it. A few seconds later, he heard a neighbour yell, “what are you, crazy, it’s 11pm and I’m trying to sleep!”
It is not until the neighbour yells out that the man actually knows the time. It is similar in the case of the lunar months, it was not until the rabbinic court declared them that anyone knew they actually started. The lunar months are interesting and they leave us with a bit of a mathematical problem, the one I referred to back in the first paragraph. The months are too short and the holidays migrate around.
To compensate for the lunar year being about 11 days shorter than the solar year, we periodically add an extra month, an extra Adar. The extra month accounts for the missing days from using a moon based rather than a season based calendar, and keeps Rosh Hashanah in the early fall and Hanukah in the winter (unless one is in the southern hemisphere!). In this process, not only do we humans determine time, but we can adjust the whole calendar of the year in order to add more time when we need it. In a world of increasingly busy and more subdivided schedules, it is incumbent upon us to make the time we need for ourselves. If there is a lesson from Adar Aleph and Adar Bet and the leap-month system, it is that we create our schedules and thus, we can adjust them as necessary.