Why does it seem like the Jewish holidays are always either "early" or "late," but never right on time? This year Rosh Hashana came out "early," almost at the beginning of September, meaning that anyone teaching in the school system can write off the first month of the year, and plan on starting the curriculum at the beginning of October. Not only is there the disruption caused by having school closed on the eves and days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur themselves and by the need to recognize and teach about the holidays immediately at the beginning of the year, but in Israel, Sukkot is a vacation of 10 days. On the other hand, since this new Jewish year is a leap year, with an extra month of Adar added in the spring, all the holidays from Pesach onward will come "late" this year, with Rosh Hashana pushed back to the end of September in 2003.
When one investigates the workings of the Jewish calendar in depth, the elegance of its solution to the disparity between the lunar and solar calendars becomes evident. For example, since the lunar year is almost 11 days shorter than the solar year, a yearly correction would create chaos; but in 19 years, the gap accumulates to almost 210 days, or seven months; so there are 7 leap years in every cycle of 19, spaced at intervals of two or three years (thus, by the way, one's birthday comes out on the same date in both calendars as the date of his/her birth, every 19 years).
So what's the big deal? The significance of this mathematical puzzle became clearer to me as I began to observe and think about the Muslim calendar followed by my neighbors. In a planning meeting the other day for one of our dialogue groups, we noted that Ramadan this year begins in early November and ends during Chanukah with the Break-the-fast festival of Id el-Fitr. Ramadan, a lunar month, coincides this year with our month of Kislev, as it did last year; but since the Moslem calendar contains no correction to keep it in sync with the solar year, next year, our leap year will bump Ramadan to Cheshvan; and the next leap year will push it back to Tishrei; and so on through the whole cycle. This means that there can be no Moslem holiday that is connected with the seasons; the calendar is completely oblivious of the solar year and the seasons that determine our moods, our awareness of the cycles of vegetative growth and reproduction -- and therefore, our agricultural tasks.
The question is, what does this difference mean, if anything. Some thoughts: the Moslem calendar is completely portable, linked to no landscape, to no phenomenon of nature other than the cycle of the moon. In a sense, it is thus universal, eternal, and abstract. The Jewish calendar, on the other hand, is deeply connected to the seasons, to the vegetative cycle in the land of Israel; we cannot imagine a calendar in which Pesach or Chanukah float through the solar year with no connection to the spring or winter in Israel, respectively. Thus the Jewish calendar is portable, too, but it carries with it not only a universal astronomical certainty, but a sensual memory of life in a particular place. Even the Jew who lives in the Southern Hemisphere observes, in the fall, Pesach as a spring festival, reciting verses from Song of Songs and eating greens; the calendar makes the seasons of Israel portable, and we carry them with us in our consciousness, in our memory, in our practice, throughout the world and throughout our history.
The Moslem calendar makes the Moslem "at home" everywhere; the Jewish calendar connects space and time and makes it possible for us to carry our memory of home around with us. We are thus also "at home" everywhere, but with a continuing consciousness that wherever we are, it is only "the next best thing to being there."
I don't know if this is important, just interesting. In general, the calendar and its symbolism carry tremendous power; check out, for example, Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9; or consider the threat of the Israeli rabbinate to rescind the kashrut certificate of any restaurant that hosts a party on December 31 (Jesus' circumcision feast, or St. Sylvester's day)...