The Jewish year incorporates both the lunar and solar calendars. The Bible does not give names to the months, but rather assigns them ordinal numbers: "the first month" (the Exodus from Egypt), "the second month," and the like. As time passed, they were given Hebrew names that all but four were subsequently lost. During the Babylonian exile, the Jews began to call the months by the Babylonian-Akkadian names that are mentioned in the later Biblical books and that are still used to the present day. During each month the sun is situated in a special constellation of stars known as the mazal (sign of the Zodiac) of the month.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, falls on the first and second days of this month. The Torah mandates hearing the shofar (ram's horn) on this holiday. It is customary to eat apple and honey symbolizing a sweet year and pomegranate seeds symbolizing abundance of merits. On Yom Kippur, Tishrei 10, a fast is observed in order to atone for sins. The Festival of Sukkot begins on Tishrei 15 and continues for seven days in commemoration of the booths (sukkot) in which the Israelites dwelled when wandering in the wilderness until their entry to the Land of Israel. Sukkot is immediately followed by Shemin! Atzeret, that in the Middle Ages was given the additional name of Simhat Torah, for the joy (simhah) that accompanies the conclusion of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah in the synagogue and the beginning of a new cycle. In nature: the soil is prepared for the planting of winter crops.
(Marcheshvan) The name Marcheshvan in Akadian means "the eighth month." The Jewish sources explain the addition mar as meaning a drop of water, or because the month is "bitter" (mar) because it contains no holidays and because bitter calamities occurred during it, such as the beginning of the Flood. In nature: the first leaves fall from the trees, and the winter grains are sowed.
The holiday of Hanukkah begins on Kislev 25. On this date in 164 BCE Judah Maccabee conquered Jerusalem and purified the Temple. The Hasmoneans found a small cruse of oil that would not burn for even a single day, but miraculously lasted for eight days. These eight days are commemorated by the kindling of lights It is customary to eat foods prepared in oil - donuts and potato pancakes ("latkes"), and to play with spinning tops ("dreldels"). In nature: many annual plants sprout.
Tevet 10 is a fast day, commemorating the beginning of the siege of Jerusalem in 588 BCE by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, a siege that lasted two years, until Tammuz 9, 586 BCE. In nature: the citrus season.
Shevat 15 (Tu bi-Shevat) determines the taking of terumot (offerings) and tithes from fruit for the Temple. In the 16th century the Kabbalists of Safed instituted the Tu biShevat Seder, an "ordered" meal resembling the Passover Seder. In the 19th century, the first Zionists initiated the practice of planting trees, a custom that was established in the Jewish agricultural settlements in the Land of Israel, and contributed to the building and growth of the Land. In nature: the almond trees blossom and the fields of grain are yeilow with mustard flowers.
Purim, marking the liberation of the Jews of Persia, 5th century BCE, is celebrated on Adar 15 in walled cities and Adar 14 in other cities. The obligatory practices of the day include: reading the Book of Esther, sending "portions" of food to other people, gifts to the poor, and the Purim festive meal. It is customary to eat three-cornered filled pastries ("hamantaschen") and to masquerade. In nature: wildflowers are at their peak.
The Bible marks Nisan as the first month of the year, because in this month the Israelites went forth from Egypt. Pesach (Passover) begins on Nisan 15, and continues for seven days, in memory of the Exodus from Egypt; thus another of Its names, the Festival of Freedom. It is also called the Festival of Matzot (unleavened bread) because the Exodus was conducted in haste and the Israelites had no time for their bread to rise, and therefore ate it unleavened. The Omer (literally, sheaf) is counted from Pesach to the Festival of Shavuot, and mourning practices are observed until Lag Be-Omer, the `33rd day of the Omer": men do not shave, haircuts are forbidden, and weddings are not conducted, to commemorate the deaths of 24,000 pupils of Rabbi Akiva between Pesach and Shavuot in the 2nd century CE. In nature: the beginning of the barley harvest.
Lag be-Omer, the 18th day of lyyar, marks the death of Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai. Children light bonfires and play with bow and arrow. One of the explanations for the lighting of bonfires is connected to the manner in which Simeon bar Yohai departed from the world, accompanied by a great fire that surrounded his bier. Jewish tradition asserts that on Lag be-Omer the deaths of Rabbi Akiva's pupils ceased, and so the mourning practices come to an end, and many couples are wed on this day. Ashkenazi Jews also do not wed between Lag be-Omer and Shavuot, to commemorate the destruction of the European Jewish communities during this time of the year in the Crusades. In nature: the first blossoming of plants alongside rivers and streams, such as oleander.
Shavuot, that completes the count of seven weeks (shavuot) from Pesach, falls on the Sivan 6. The Festival is also called the Day of the First Fruits (since the first fruits of the Seven Species were brought to the Temple on Shavuot); the Harvest Festival (since this marks the beginning of the wheat harvest); the Festival of the Giving of the Torah (since, according to Jewish tradition, the Torah was given on Sivan 6); Atzeret ("gathering" for the Festival); In nature: the beginning of the wheat harvest and the first summer fruits ripen.
A fast is observed on Tammuz 17, to commemorate several sad events, including the smashing of the Tablets of the Law by Moses, following the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans during the time of the Second Temple. In nature: the open fields turn yellow and weeds are in full bloom.
A fast is observed on 9th of Av, in memory of the calamitous events that occurred on this date, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Av 15 is a holiday celebrated by dancing; on this day unmarried maidens dressed in white garments danced in the vineyards, and whoever did not have a wife sought one there. This is the origin of the custom to conduct weddings on this day. In nature: the beginning of the summer crops harvest and grapes are picked for wine.
Jews of Sephardic and Oriental origin rise early each day during this month for the recitation of the penitential Sellhot prayers, in preparation for the High Holy Days. Ashkenazi Jews begin to recite Selihot only towards the end of the north, before Rosh Hashanah. It is a popular custom to send New Year's greeting cards to friends. In nature: cotton, olives, and dates are harvested.
Dr. Dov Herman
Faculty of Jewish Studies, Bar-Ilan University