Why is Jewish Leap Year Different from Secular Leap Year?
What are your plans for the extra day you will be given this month? That question takes on a different meaning when asked from a Jewish perspective. In the secular calendar you have a day to add every 4 years. In the Jewish calendar, leap year is more complicated in 2 respects: first, rather than an added day, we add an entire month; and, rather than doing so every 4 years, we do it 7 times over a 19 year cycle.
The big difference of course determining such a disparity is that the secular calendar is solar and the Jewish calendar is lunar. A Jewish month goes 29 or 30 days which is what necessitates adding periodically an entire month at the end of the calendar cycle, i.e. a second month of Adar causing Passover to arrive this year the end of April instead of the end of March. So, the first month of Adar arrives February 10 and the second month of Adar, March 10.
The rabbis explain the value in Judaism being grounded in the lunar calendar. As it says in Ecclesiastes:
“There is nothing new under the sun”, and when you think about it, the solar calendar is the same: New Year’s Day is…you know the answer…January 1.
In contrast, as the Jews were being prepared by God to leave slavery in Egypt, 15 days before the Exodus, God showed Moses the night sky, and sliver of light of the new moon, saying “this month is for you the head of months, the first of all the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2). That presentation of a new calendar to Moses begins the story of the Exodus and indicates that the Jews in being redeemed from Pharaoh were also being given a new governance of time, now in partnership with God in place of Pharaoh.
What makes the lunar calendar so special and so appropriate for this new life and new governance awaiting Israel was its distinction from the solar calendar. While with the latter there is nothing new under the sun and the only tweaking to be done to keep this calendar in alignment is the adding of a day every 4 years, the lunar calendar is full of surprises, with no predictability as to when holidays will occur at least as compared to their timing in the solar calendar. So, this year, Rosh Hashanah will not arrive until October, whereas in some years it is at the start of September. And we all remember a couple of years ago when Chanukah unbelievably came out on Thanksgiving, giving what many of us called Thanksgivikah. In contrast, thanks to this leap year, Chanukah will come out on December 25, again a day everyone immediately recognizes in the solar calendar.
The impact of these variations in timing of Jewish holidays is significant in that, unlike the passive use of the solar calendar that is its nature, with the lunar calendar, God establishes that Israel must become actively involved in the determination of times and seasons in the calendar. And, in Temple times, before Hillel the Second (not the Hillel we know) generated a mathematical formula for determining the lunar calendar in perpetuity, the Jewish law body, the Sanhedrin, would have the responsibility of spotting the new moon, declaring a new month and then sending out messengers and utilizing torches from hillside to hillside to communicate beyond the boundaries of Israel that a new month had been declared. The tradition of a second day Yom Tov/holiday in the Diaspora was set in acknowledgment that communities far away from Israel might not be sure which day was declared the new month, so they erred on the side of caution to be sure with an extra day added, they would be certain that one would be the right day.
The tradition of human involvement in acknowledging the calendar remains in place symbolically with the declaration/celebration of the arrival of a new month that is done on Shabbat, during the Torah service, informing the community of when the new month will begin in the coming week. The only time that is not done is the week before Rosh Hashanah when on the first of Tishre we welcome the 7th month of the Jewish calendar ushering in the Jewish observance of a new year for the world.
So, the significance of Judaism being grounded in the lunar calendar is in its establishment that in exchanging God for Pharaoh, instead of being helpless slaves subject to the whims of a cruel ruler, the Judaic system in all its detail would be about partnership with God in the way we realize that there is everything new above the sun. Rather than life being grounded in the mechanical nature of the solar calendar, with the lunar calendar, we are actively involved in its application. It is an indication that under God’s authority we are mandated to appreciate and value that every moment is not something as old as Ecclesiastes but rather a first, each and every time, with opportunities and responsibilities to make each moment, through an active and conscious decision, a blessing and an example of how every aspect and instant of life is precious and filled with God’s Presence.
So, while you may wonder how you might make February 29 a special added gift of a day this year, the question Jewishly is how will you make the month of Adar 2 that comes on March 10 an extra gift of time in a world, Jewishly speaking, filled with opportunities to bring wonderful blessings to life as we weave life journeys filled with stories to treasure for a lifetime and beyond?!