The Jewish leap year is even more complicated than you thought

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It’s a leap year. In the Jewish calendar that is.

Unlike the Gregorian calendar where one day is added every four years, the Jewish calendar adds an entire month about every three years. There are seven leap years in every 19-year cycle, which means things can get a little complicated come spring.

Most of it is due to when the Torah commands certain holidays be celebrated; Passover, which always begins on the 15th of Nisan, must be in the spring and Sukkot, which always begins on the 15th of Tishrei, must be celebrated in the fall.

“The easiest way to explain is that the Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar and the Muslim calendar is the lunar calendar,”

Interim Senior Rabbi Darryl Crystal, of Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax, said. “[Because of this] Ramadan can shift to various parts of the year. [However] the Jewish calendar is a solar-lunar calendar. So we have solar years and lunar months. In order to keep the seasons in balance with the holidays, we periodically have to add a month into our calendar.”

Purim, a rabbinically enacted holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in Persia during the month of Adar, ends up being the celebration that gets the confusion. In a year like this one, it actually gets repeated, albeit in a minor way. Purim Katan (the “little” Purim) occurs first, a full month before the actual holiday.

“Adar is the last month of the Jewish year,” Rabbi Amy Sapowith, of Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation in Ashburn, Va., explained. “The first month is Nisan.”

Hence the easiest thing to do, reasoned the sages, is to tack on an extra month at the end of the calendar. But since the month of Adar is repeated, you may ask, when should one celebrate Purim?

The month we add is called Adar I. We are now entering Adar II — it actually began between March 7 and 8, whichalthough it comes second is considered to be “Adar proper” since it’s when Purim, on the 14th of the month, is celebrated.

“Second Adar is the real Adar,” Rabbi Adam Raskin, of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, said. “There’s a connection between Purim and Pesach, two historically redemptive times that need to be close together. So separating them [by a month] wouldn’t make sense in that kind of thinking.”

Like Purim, Purim Katan is celebrated on the 14th of the month, where Purim would fall if it weren’t a leap year. People born during the month of Adar in a non-leap year would celebrate their birthdays in Adar II, while somebody born during either Adar in a leap year would celebrate in the regular Adar of a non-leap year. The same generally goes for other anniversaries like yahrzeits.

(Someone born on 30 Adar I would celebrate his birthday on 1 Nisan in a non-leap year because Adar in a non-leap year has only 29 days.)

Why Adar is the month that gets repeated as opposed to Nissan or Kislev or any of the months, isn’t as clear. Some say it’s because Adar is considered the luckiest month in the Jewish year and others say it was due to the timing of the spring equinox.

Raskin has another reason.

“There’s a statement in the Talmud that says when Adar begins, we increase our joy. When it’s a leap year that applies to both months of Adar,” Raskin said.

But even with 60 days of Adar madness, Raskin loves the Jewish New Year. Because Rosh Hashanah actually, per the Torah, occurs in the seventh month, “it makes Jews think about the
uniqueness and idiosyncrasies of the Jewish calendar.”

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