Mark Your Calendars

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a twentieth century American civil rights leader. As a Christian minister, Dr. King used non-violent civil disobedience as a means to advance the cause about which he was so passionate. Unfortunately some of his opponents did not share his pacifist values, and Dr. King was shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.

Where I live in the United States, we will remember the life and accomplishments of Dr. King this Monday, January 18, 2016. If Dr. King’s mother were alive today, she would probably remember a different date – January 15, Dr. King’s birthday. However, this US federal holiday was set under the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an act designed to increase the number of three-day weekends for federal employees. It is more convenient for us to always remember Dr. King on a Monday rather than on his actual birthday.

If you are new to the Messianic movement you may be observing the Biblical festivals and holy days for the first time. Get ready for a little controversy. While we all agree that we should keep these appointed times, there is a lot of disagreement about exactly when we should keep them. Determine in your heart and mind that you will keep them, and let your concern about the exact dates be a secondary issue.

What Is a Month?

The English word month comes from the same German origin as the word moon (they are cognates). The concept of a month is derived from the cycle of moon phases.

In the Bible, the most common Hebrew word for month is chodesh (Strong’s Hebrew #2320). According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, “although this word properly means ‘new moon,’ it is commonly used as an equivalent to our word ‘month’ …” (TWOT #613b). The other Hebrew word sometimes translated month is yerach (Strong’s Hebrew #3391), which is the same as the word for moon, yareach (Strong’s Hebrew #3394). Without a doubt, the Hebrew and Biblical concept of a month is one cycle of the moon, approximately 29.54 days.

There is a completely different concept of a month on the Gregorian calendar, which is based on a solar cycle of 365.25 days. This is evidenced by the fact that the solstices and equinoxes are exactly three “months” apart and always occur on March 20/21, June 20/21, September 22/23 and December 21/22. You won’t be able to determine the Biblical appointed times by the Gregorian calendar.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?
Does Anybody Really Care?                                   — Robert Lamm

The confusion and controversy you may encounter arises from two questions (not the two just mentioned). The basic instructions given by God regarding the calendar are: “This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you” (Exodus 12:2). The two questions are 1) what exactly is the chodesh (month, or more specifically, new moon) and 2) when is hachodesh hazeh (Hebrew for “this month”) that is to be the first month of the year?

Going back to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament definition for chodesh, it further says, “although this word properly means ‘new moon,’ it is commonly used as an equivalent to our word ‘month’ because the month began when the thin crescent of the new moon was first visible at sunset” (TWOT #613b). Until recently, this statement about the new moon was generally accepted as true regarding its use in the Bible.

However, in astronomy what is called the new moon is actually the conjunction, or the dark moon that is not visible from earth. Some Messianic believers advocate for this understanding in the Biblical text as well. If the “new moon” and the first day of the month is considered to be the conjunction, then the days of the month will be about two days earlier than if you begin the month with the sighting of the first crescent.

Beginning the year can be even more vague than beginning the month. How to know “this month” that is the beginning of the year is not clearly specified in the Bible. Historically the exodus from Egypt took place in the spring of the year. The context of the Biblical story supports this. More importantly, we know that Yeshua (Jesus) kept Passover at the time it was traditionally celebrated by the Jewish people in the spring. This alone should be sufficient to establish the first Biblical month as being in the spring.

Certainly the Biblical year is based on the agricultural cycle. The name of the first month, Abib or Aviv (Exodus 13:4, Strong’s Hebrew #24) literally means “fresh, young barley ears” (Brown-Driver-Briggs) and specifically refers to “the month of ear-forming, greening of crop, of growing green abib [young barley].” There are some who insist that this month cannot begin until “abib” appears, and that it must begin at the first new moon after “abib” is seen.  Other methods of determining the beginning of the year are described in the pseudepigraphal books of Jubilees and Enoch.

Calculating the Times and Seasons

The modern Jewish calendar is attributed to Hillel II in the fourth century CE, though it has gone through some evolution since that time. Nearly all Jewish communities use this calculated calendar. Because twelve months of 29½ days is about 354 days and the solar cycle determining the seasons is about 365 days, it is sometimes necessary to add an additional month in order to keep the month of Abib always in the spring. The Hillel II calendar resolves this issue by adding a thirteenth month on a fixed schedule 7 times in every 19 years.

Although Jewish tradition calls the sighting of the crescent moon the beginning of the month, the calculated Hillel II calendar at times more closely aligns with the lunar conjunction. Any physical observance of the moon is replaced by the pre-set calculations. The purpose of the Hillel II calendar was to unify the Jewish people dispersed throughout the world so they could plan for and keep the feasts at the same time.

However, there is a troubling problem with this calculated calendar we need to consider.

“On exactly the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement” (Leviticus 23:27). God is pretty clear about when Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, occurs. And according to verse 32, this is a 24-hour fast (traditionally 25-hours, just to make sure you get it). If the Yom Kippur fast were to fall on the day right before or the day right after the weekly Sabbath, that would be pretty inconvenient. But again, God was specific that it is the tenth day of the month, so the date simply cannot be changed.

But there is still a way to make it so that fasting, humbling yourself and afflicting your soul isn’t too inconvenient (does that even make sense?). Even though you can’t change the fact that Yom Kippur is on the tenth day of the month, you could change the start of the month so that the tenth never falls on a Friday or a Sunday. And in fact, that is exactly what the Hillel II calendar does. Check it out for yourself, and you will find that on the traditional calendar Yom Kippur never falls on a Friday or on a Sunday. Neither does it ever fall on a Wednesday, for a similar reason related to another holiday. That would just be too inconvenient.

So Now What?

Though all Messianic believers agree that we should keep these appointed times, when we keep them varies somewhat and can be a point of contention. What should you do? “Celebrate the Feast!” (1 Corinthians 5:8). If you have been doing this for a while, you have probably already formed an opinion about the calendar issue, and I would not attempt to persuade you differently. If you are new to this or haven’t kept these feasts before, let me offer some suggestions.

First and foremost, determine that you are going to keep these feasts. If there is a group that you can celebrate with, join them on the dates and at the times they observe without questioning them about calendar issues. Just be obedient and enjoy the festival.

If you have no one to celebrate with, then focus your efforts on learning how to observe these feasts. Take your Bible, videos and studies from teachers you respect, and any other resources you can gather and learn what to do. Don’t concern yourself with exactly when right now – just get a calendar with the appointed feasts marked on it and use it. One is available online at Messianic Torah Portion with all the feasts marked, along with weekly Torah readings. If you have a different calendar, use it.

We may not resolve these calendar issues this side of the Messiah’s return. Don’t let that stop you from celebrating the commanded feasts, and don’t let it be a cause of separation among believers.

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