Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Try to Remember*

I write a monthly column for The Jewish Chronicle, but this month's column didn't run because the content was too similar to one written by a rabbi for the same issue. I present it here for your reading pleasure.

Waiting for Rosh Hashanah

The Steelers are gearing up for a promising year, voters are talking about throwing the scoundrels out of Harrisburg and kids are going back to school. It's September.

There's something about late summer and early fall that feels all fresh and new and full of possibility. Summer's heat gives way to cooler days, and the occasional breeze seems to taunt us with the promise of exciting new experiences.

One of my favorite movie lines relates to this time of year. In "You've Got Mail," a tale of Internet romance, Tom Hanks writes to Meg Ryan about the nostalgia of approaching a new school year, and the impulse to buy school supplies, long after we have finished school.

"I would buy you a bouquet of sharpened pencils, if I knew who you were" he tells her.

I know how he feels. Strolling through the aisles of school supplies in stores, I am enticed by the possibilities of new notebooks and folders, with their bright colors and crisp, new scent.

It is fitting, therefore, that Rosh Hashanah falls at this time of year. While some might argue that it would be more appropriate to start the Jewish New Year in spring -- and in fact this is the source of an ancient debate, as the Torah itself refers to the spring month of Nisan as the first month of the year -- I think we know intuitively that fall is as much a time of beginning and renewal as spring.

But the new beginnings of the Jewish year don't always match up neatly with the Gregorian calendar and its order of events. This year, Rosh Hashanah falls in early October, which is well into the "new year" for school. So, we won't be dipping apples in honey and hearing the shofar blown until well after the new notebooks and pencils have lost their luster. That's what happens during a Jewish leap year, in which an encore performance of the late winter month of Adar readjusts the Hebrew lunar cycle to match the length of a solar year.

Twelve cycles of the moon take up only 354 days, 11 short of a solar year. So, about every three years (7 times in 19 years to be precise), the Hebrew calendar adds in an extra month to make up the difference. Conveniently, the extra month comes just before Pesach, so there is extra time to rid our homes of chametz (leaven), but we feel the time difference just as keenly six months later at Rosh Hashanah time.

The result is that, rather than just breezing through Rosh Hashanah as mindlessly as Labor Day, we are forced to stop and think about when the holiday will come, and to plan accordingly. For many of us, a "late" Pesach or Rosh Hashanah presents the rare opportunity to think about how the Hebrew calendar measures time, and to reflect on how much of our lives are dictated by a calendar that is decidedly non-Jewish.

Even Jewish organizations, out of necessity, conduct at least as much of their business according to the Gregorian and fiscal calendars as the Hebrew calendar. Being involved in broader society requires this, so it is understandable and perhaps inevitable that we are so immersed in secular time. But leap years like this one give us an opportunity, at least for a few days a year, to consciously live our lives in Jewish time. Perhaps that was the intention of the great rabbis who devised our calendar.

May all our new beginnings in the coming year be auspicious ones.

* A reference to "The Fantasticks," my favorite musical.