Biblically speaking, when do we start the year? The month? The week? The day?
The calendar is one of the two most controversial topics in the Hebrew Roots community. The other is… well, you will encounter it sometime. Why is it so controversial? I think it might be because only one of those four time periods – the year, the month, the week, the day – is explicitly defined in Scripture.
When Do We Start The Year?
Now the LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.”Exodus 12:1-2
This was an important time. The children of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, and God was about to deliver them through the hand of Moses. In commemoration of that event, he gave instructions concerning how that deliverance would take place and later be remembered. It was at the beginning of these instructions that God established “this month” as the first month of the year. But when is “this month?”
On this day in the month of Abib, you are about to go forth.Exodus 13:4
Exodus 12:2 is really the only passage where the timing for the beginning of the year is mentioned, and Exodus 13:4 clarifies it as “the month of Abib.” There are many references in Scripture to the first month, second month, and so forth. Here is where a specific month is identified and set as the “beginning of months” and “the first month of the year.”
The Hebrew word abib or aviv, Strong’s #H24, only appears in the Torah. Of the eight occurrences, six times in four passages it is preceded by the word chodesh which is usually translated as “month.” The other two times it describes grain (barley).
Now the flax and the barley were ruined, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud. But the wheat and the spelt were not ruined, for they ripen late.Exodus 9:31-32
Also if you bring a grain offering of early ripened things to the LORD, you shall bring fresh heads of grain roasted in the fire, grits of new growth, for the grain offering of your early ripened things.Leviticus 2:14
In Exodus 13:4; 23:25; 34:18 and Deuteronomy 16:1, we read (b)chodesh ha-abib translated as “(in) the month of Abib.” Nearly all Bible translations capitalize Abib as a proper noun, though it should be noted there are no capital letters in Hebrew. Interestingly, the Stone Edition Tanach just reads “in the month of spring.” It is not clear whether, at the time this instruction was given, “abib” was the name of the month or simply a description of it.
The Search for Abib Barley
Abib/aviv has taken on the meaning of a specific stage of barley growth. According to the Talmud, the condition of the barley harvest is one of three requirements for determining when it is the month of Abib, the beginning of the year.
The Sages taught in a baraita (Tosefta 2:2) [an ancient oral tradition not found in the Mishna]: The court may intercalate the year for three matters: For the ripening of the grain, if it is not yet time for the barley to ripen; for the fruit of the trees, if they have not yet ripened; and for the equinox, i.e., to ensure that the autumnal equinox will precede Sukkot. If two of these concerns apply, the court intercalates the year even if the third factor does not apply; but for only one of them the court does not intercalate the year.Sanhedrin 11b:5
So, according to ancient tradition, finding a certain stage of barley growth is not reason enough in itself to determine the beginning of the year. It is one of several factors considered.
Naming a month “Abib” could simply mean that during this month of the year one could expect to find fresh ears of barley. There is nothing in the text of sacred Scripture that states, or even hints, that a certain condition of barley is a (or the) determining factor for beginning the year. Canonized Scripture appears to be silent on this matter, though there are extra-biblical references. Possibly it is assumed that those reading would already know when it was time for this particular month. How? All we have is tradition.
The Jewish “Hillel” Calendar
That tradition is no longer used. Following the dispersion of the Jewish people in the first and second centuries CE, a calculated calendar was developed. It is sometimes referred to as the Hillel or Hillel II calendar and is intended to keep the Jewish people united worldwide regardless of the season of the year one might be experiencing locally. The Hillel calendar establishes the beginning of the first month of the spring, often called by the name Nisan.
A common complaint against the Hillel calendar in Hebrew Roots groups is that it actually begins the year in the fall, not the spring. That criticism needs further examination. First, we should note that the Hillel calendar recognizes its beginning month, Tishrei, as the seventh month.
Among record-keeping terms is something known at the fiscal year. Although in the United States we follow the Gregorian calendar that begins in January, the fiscal year for the national budget begins in October and goes until the following September. An organization I once worked for began the fiscal year in July and went until the end of the following June. The school year may run from September until the following May. Time periods are sometimes established for different purposes.
The Hillel calendar begins on what has traditionally been known as the beginning of the world, which is thought to be four days before the beginning of the seventh Biblical month. The years are numbered and advanced based on this time frame. But there are many ways to observe a “year,” and this is just one of them. According to the book of Leviticus, the Jubilee year started at Yom Kippur, the tenth day of the seventh month. And the traditional Torah reading cycle begins with the Sabbath following Sukkot. Is that Biblical? Well…
You shall celebrate the Feast of Weeks, that is, the first fruits of the wheat harvest [Shavuot], and the Feast of Ingathering [Sukkot] at the turn of the year.Exodus 34:22
These are only a few examples. Jewish tradition has at least four “new years.” Of course, Biblically, we begin the counting of the months in the spring and prepare for the Passover in the first month.
So when does the year begin? When, in the spring, do we start this month that is the beginning of the year? We must follow tradition, because Scripture does not explicitly say.
When Does The Month Begin?
The commonly accepted answer is that the month begins with the “new moon.” The biggest problem with that is the “new moon” isn’t defined in Scripture. It must have been assumed that back then everyone knew what it meant. We sure can’t assume that today.
Is the new moon the astronomical dark moon or the first sighted sliver? If the latter, sighted by who? From where? What if it is too cloudy to see the moon? Of course, all of those things have been addressed by Jewish authorities, should one choose to accept them.
But if the Hillel calendar is used, then it doesn’t matter. The months of the Hillel calendar are, of course, based on the cycle of the moon orbiting the earth (if you don’t believe that happens, well…). But this calculation is adjusted so that certain calendar dates fall or don’t fall on certain days of the week. Is that in accord with Scripture?
Maybe that doesn’t matter. The Hebrew word for moon is yereach (Strong’s #H3394), which first appears in Scripture in the young Joseph’s dreams in Genesis 37. A related word, yerach (#H3391) is usually translated as month, presumably a lunar month. Neither word is used in the Genesis creation account or in Exodus 12:2, where instead we find the word chodesh (#H2320). Chodesh derives from a root meaning renewal (think Brit Chadashah, the Renewed Covenant) – and in context, the renewal of the moon. Or at least, the renewal of something.
So traditionally, we begin the month when the calendar says it begins. Or when we see a moon sliver. Or someone else sees it and tells us. Or when the moon has completely disappeared. Whatever it is, we must follow tradition, because Scripture does not explicitly say.
When Does The Day Begin?
“The evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5 KJV and several other translations). Or, after a full day of creating, “there was evening, and there was morning, the first day” (ESV and several other translations).
Like it or not, the exact meaning of this phrase used in the first chapter of Genesis is not clear, which is why people debate it. Maybe it isn’t even talking about a 24-hour day. And this phrase is never used outside of the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis.
Certainly there is no Scriptural support for beginning the day at some arbitrary point in the darkness that we designate as 12:00 midnight. Jewish tradition begins the day in the evening. Is there Biblical support for this? Some say it is easily inferred. There is one passage where it is specifically stated.
It [Yom Kippur] is to be a sabbath of complete rest to you, and you shall humble your souls; on the ninth of the month at evening, from evening until evening you shall keep your sabbath.Leviticus 23:32
This passage appears to say that a day begins in the evening and goes until the following evening. However, we can observe that this is specifically talking about one appointed time, Yom Kippur, and that it could be a one-off. Perhaps the reason it is detailed here is because this day is different from the rest. It should also be noted that the instruction says “from the ninth of the month at evening” and not “from the evening that begins the tenth of the month.”
There is a second place where this is alluded to.
You shall also observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt; therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a permanent ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening.Exodus 12:17-18
The Passover meal is at the end of the 14th day of the first month, and the Passover meal includes unleavened bread. It is the beginning of a seven-day festival known as the Feast of Unleavened Bread; in fact, the two names are used interchangeably sometimes in Scripture. The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins with the Passover on the evening ending the 14th day and lasts for seven days until the evening ending the 21st day. But this, like Yom Kippur, could be an exception to the norm.
Does every “day” begin in the evening and continue until the following evening? Jewish tradition says it does. We must follow tradition, because Scripture does not explicitly say.
And so it is – for the year, for the month, and for the day, we follow tradition. At least, we follow somebody’s tradition, because not everyone is doing it the same way. But whatever it is, we must follow tradition because Scripture does not explicitly say.
When Do We Start The Week?
Logically, it starts on the first day of the week. Google, Microsoft, and a host of other apps and programs allow you the option to start the week on any day you choose – Sunday, Monday, or perhaps some other day. Yet the week is always a seven-day cycle. Even if looking at a 4-day or 5-day “work” week, we still keep a seven-day cycle.
The Hebrew word for week is shabua (H#7620) which designates a period of “seven.” Biblically, a week is always seven days. It is a continuous cycle, and nothing in Scripture even hints at a deviation from that pattern.
Biblically, this pattern of seven days consists of six regular days and one special day, the Sabbath.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.Genesis 2:1-3
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.Exodus 20:8-11
So while Google and Microsoft may allow you to pick the day on which you begin the week, Scripture does not offer that option. God is much more specific. The week begins with a series of six days, and it ends on the seventh day, the Sabbath, or what is commonly called Saturday in English (check other languages for an interesting phenomenon!).
Some may question how we know that our current “Saturday” is the correct seventh day going all the way back to creation, or all the way back to the giving of the ten commandments. Such questioning is irrelevant. We only need go back to the time of Yeshua, for the Jewish people have kept that seventh day consistently since before the destruction of the Temple. Yeshua kept that Sabbath day.
I have always found it interesting that the New Testament ever mentions a specific calendar date – never a year designation, never the name of a month or the day of the month. But it does frame events with the first day of the week and the Sabbath.
The Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, is not dependent on when the year starts. The Sabbath is not dependent on when the month starts. It does not need the sun or the moon as a timekeeper. And the seventh day of the week is not even dependent on when one thinks the day starts. It is still the seventh day – never the fifth or sixth, never the eighth or ninth or any other.
We may need to follow tradition to start the year, the month, or the day. But we follow the Bible to begin – and end – the week, as God instructed.