To understand most of the biblical events, be them from Tanakh or from Brit Chadashah, we have to understand how time was reckoned in the biblical era. This knowledge will not only infuse life into the understanding of the Bible in general, but also meaning into our observances of the holidays, thus allowing us to have a deeper expression in our worship of God.
Genesis 1:14: “And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.”
God tells us with the creation account to use the lights of heaven, the sun, the moon and the stars to divide seasons, days and years, in other words, to count time using the celestial bodies. Therefore, this is what the people in the biblical time did; they used the stars, the sun and the moon to devise their calendar. We cannot speculate how much scientific knowledge they had, nor how much was given to them by God, but we surely can agree that they were much closer to nature than us by being more dependent on it, thus, their observations of natural changes were much keener. There were no street lights to compete with the brightness of the night sky, no city noise to compete with the rustling of the wind, and there were no man made devices to interfere with the nature’s life cycle. Everything that happened around them had an impact in their lives; therefore, they had to learn fast. They were forced to observe the changes in the temperature - the seasons – because these changes dictated their agricultural necessities, thus, their very existence. Their food supply from either cattle or grain was depended on the understanding of the changing of the seasons.
We read references in the Bible as to the early rain (Hebrew: yoreh) and the latter rain (Hebrew: malkosh), referring to the rain right before the planting in fall and, respectively, to the rain that came before the harvesting in spring. Even though these were natural occurrences – forces put in motion by God when He created the universe – as Bible believers, we cannot dismiss the correlation between people’s obedience to God’s commandments and the blessings that will come through these natural forces. Deuteronomy 11: 13-14: “And it shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to My commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain (matar) for your land in its season, the early rain (yoreh) and the latter rain (malkosh), that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil.” And in the same time we have to make a distinction between the natural occurrences of these forces and God’s interventions as told in Deuteronomy 28: 1,24: “But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to take care to do all His commandments and His statutes which I command you this day; that all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you… the Lord shall make the rain (matar) of your land powder and dust.” Even though the rain will come down dictated by the natural physical forces, God could intervene and make those rains a destructive force instead, powder and dust. In our day-and-age it is harder to make this distinction because we moved so far from a close relationship with God and with nature. Never-the-less, God made it clear that there will be consequences, blessing and curses; our relationship with God will have a direct impact on nature.
As a student of the Bible I have to pause for a brief paragraph to notice a correlation that the Brit Chadashah makes to the seasons: James 5:7: “Have patience, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Take notice how the farmer awaits the precious fruit of the earth, having patience for it until it receives the early rain and the late rain. You must also have patience; strengthen your hearts, because the coming of the Lord has drawn near.” So too the apostle is using the seasons as an example in “harvesting” Lord’s people as in the early rain and in the latter rain. The early rain (yoreh) is a gentle but steady rain to moisten and penetrate the soil preparing it for sowing. The latter rain (malkosh) is the rain that strengthens the crops making them ready for harvest. By having a close relationship with the Lord we can better understand His words and meaning and, thus, we can better understand His plan of salvation for mankind and be better workers in His field. When we approach a pre-believer, we want to be gentle and steady. Building a relationship is more important than giving them knowledge. Later, when their heart and mind are ready, we can show (pour on) them the hard facts of the Bible. The correlation that the apostle makes in this passage is that understanding the times and the seasons given to us by God through observing nature brings us closer to Him.
Therefore let’s press on. By observing the changes in the seasons, what we count today as one earth revolution around the sun, they counted it as one growth cycle, thus, one year. The observance of the moon provided a finer division of seasons with its repetitions as it revolves around the earth which can be easily seen and discerned. Therefore, the appearance of the moon from a tiny sliver to a full body and back to a tiny sliver - one moon revolution around the earth – was counted as one month. The appearance of the first sliver was called New Moon and the full body, Full Moon.
But there was one division of time that people observed first, as their bodies needed rest and sleep, the day. Therefore, the appearance of day and night - one earth rotation around its axis - will count for one day. Also, the observation of this rotation of earth compared with the position of the sun provided a further division of the day. This rotation was, and is perceived and talked about even today, even though we have all this modern scientific knowledge, as the rising and setting of the sun. Thus, by observing the position of the sun in relation to the horizon, the day was further divided, first in quadrants and later in hours.
The first instrument that people devised to tell time, I believe, was the sundial. As far back as the archeology can investigate, the sundial dates to the Egyptian period, from around 1500 BCE It started with telling noon then it had six divisions and then around 300 BCE 12 divisions, or as we call them today, hours. The Bible mentions some kind of sundial in Isaiah 38:8: “Behold, I will turn the shadow of the degrees, which has gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun turned back ten degrees, by which degrees it had gone down in the dial.” Again, this is written from an observer point of view, not based on their scientific knowledge. We pretend to be much more sophisticated and knowledgeable today, but we use same phrases, the sun is setting, or the sun is rising, based on observation and not science. (Keep in mind that the mechanical clock was invented much later around the 13th century CE.)
During this Biblical period these observations of the celestial bodies were done by the priests. That was because the priests were entrusted with executing God’s commandments; therefore, they needed to discern the appointed times for sacrifices, feasts and celebrations. The commandment "Keep the month of Aviv" (Deuteronomy 16:1) involved a keen observation of the position of the sun in relation to the moon in determining the equinoxes of the year. This process was known as the “Fixing of the Month.” Later it took the more popular Hebrew name “Kadosh HaHodesh” – “Sanctification of the New Moon.”
At the beginning of the Talmudic time the Sanhedrin - the leading religious body comprising of 71 members - established rules and regulations for fixing the New Moon by the examination of witnesses. Two witnesses will come forward and declare to the Sanhedrin that they observed the appearance of the New Moon, thus was announced throughout the country that a new month began. In the course of time scientific calculations were worked out by the rabbis. Samuel of Nahardea (165-250 CE) compiled a calendar for a sixty-year period, and Hillel II (330-365 CE) established rules for the computation of the calendar that permanently fixed the observance of all holidays for the Jewish people everywhere, as we have it today.
Therefore, these are the Divisions of Time in the traditional Jewish calendar:
The Day — in Hebrew, Ha-Yom, comes with the salutation: Yom Tov – “Yontev” in Yiddish – which means, Good Day. Good Morning would be Boker Tov, and Good Evening, Erev Tov. The Jewish day is reckoned from sunset to sunset – it starts with evening - that is because Genesis 1:5 tells us that when God had finished His first day of creation He announced "And it was evening and morning, one day." Therefore, based on this biblical passage, the Jewish reckoning of the day begins with evening, which we now reckon from the setting of the sun. To consolidate this concept, in Leviticus 23:32 where we read instructions on how to celebrate the holidays - which in the context of their observance are called Shabbats – this reckoning of the day is again reiterated, "From evening unto evening shall you observe your Shabbats."
The days of the week do not posses names, they are known by their number, Yom Rishon - First Day (Sunday), Yom Sheni - Second Day (Monday), Yom Shlishi – Third Day (Tuesday), Yom Revi’i – Fourth Day (Wednesday), Yom Chamishi – Fifth Day (Thursday), Yom Shishi – Sixth Day (Friday), with the exception of the seventh day which is called, Shabbat. This name was given based on Genesis 2:2-3: “And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He Shabbat on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it He had Shabbat from all his work which God created and made.”
The division of day in the Brit Chadashah – which still consisted of a mostly agrarian society - followed the same natural division based on the observance of the sun. Thus, daylight time was counted from the rising of the sun. We read in Mark 15:25: “And it was the third hour when they crucified Him (Yeshua).” The rising of the sun in the spring time at the Passover holiday was at approximately 6 a.m., thus, the third hour was meant to say that was around 9 o’clock in the morning. In verse 33 of the same chapter we read further: “And when the sixth hour had come, darkness fell over all the earth until the ninth hour" [this is a fulfillment of a prophecy from AMOS 8:9]. These two designations of time correspond to noon and 3 p.m. respectively. At this time of the year in spring, the day ends at around 6 p.m. The nighttime was divided in three-hour periods called watches: Luke 12:38 mentions a second and a third watch.
People managed to somehow count the hours empirically for many, many decades because the mechanical clock was not developed until centuries later.
The Jewish day is also divided by its religious services, each part having its appropriate prayers based on the sacrificial service as established in the Temple time:
- Evening - Erev - Maariv Service;
- Morning - Boker - Shacharith Service;
- Afternoon - Tzaharaim - Minchah Service.
During the Babylonian captivity, we see Daniel practicing these tree-times daily prayers by kneeling towards Jerusalem, Daniel 6:10: “Now when Daniel… went into his house; his windows were open in his chamber toward Jerusalem, and he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.”
The Week - The seven days of creation constitute a week and is called Shavua (which literally means “a period of seven”) – from the Hebrew word for seven (Sheva), thus, Shavua could mean seven days or seven years. So, we have to be careful to look for the meaning of the word in its context. For example, Genesis 29:27: "Fulfill her period of seven (Shavua), and we will give you this one also for the service which you will serve with me still another seven (Sheva) years." In this passage Laban asks Jacob to complete Leah’s seventh year, the period of seven years, and then work another seven years for Rachel. But in another passage, Exodus 34:22, this Shavua refers to a period of seven days: "And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks (Shavua), of the first-fruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year's end.” This passage refers to the holiday of Shavuot, the seven periods of seven days, or seven weeks. And again in Daniel 9:24-27 the passage refers to “a period of seven” (Shavua), which in context means of years: "Seventy periods of seven (Shavua) are decreed upon your people and upon your Holy City, to finish the transgression, and to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the Most Holy. Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the command to restore and to build Jerusalem until the coming of Prince Moshiach shall be seven periods of seven (Shavua); then for sixty two periods of seven (Shavua) it shall be built again, with squares and moat, but in a troubled time. And after sixty two periods of seven (Shavua) Moshiach shall be cut off and nothing will be to Him; and the people of a prince who shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and its end shall be with a flood, and to the end of the war desolations are decreed. And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one period of seven (Shavua), but in the middle of the period of seven (Shavua) he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering..." This is a difficult passage, but knowing the meaning of Shavua it can become a bit clearer.
From Shabbat to Shabbat constitutes a week. The week is totally an abstract Jewish concept taken from the biblical account of creation. There is no celestial observance that can determine the passing of the week. Therefore, the observance of the seven-day week is one of the most intriguing world wide calendar observances because its implication is that there was one authoritative source, the religion of the Jews, which spread and influenced other cultures. It implies that there is a God who created this universe and every passing week attests to that.
When we meet as Messianic believers and worship God on Shabbat, the seventh day, we attest - by following this cycle of the days of creation – not only of the existence of God, but also of His creation. We attest that we believe in the veracity of the Bible. I will not debate as whether these days were literally, figuratively or symbolically seven days; they could have been seven millennia, but to God were but seven days. Psalms 90:4: “For a thousand years in Your sight are but like yesterday when it is past, and like a watch in the night.” and 2 Peter 3:8: “Chaverim, let not this one thing escape your notice, that a thousand years in the eyes of Yehovah is like one day and one day like a thousand years.”
Therefore, our week follows a pattern of six working days and then comes the Shabbat, the most holies of days, in which God was refreshed in His creation. The new week begins immediately after the Havdallah prayer on Saturday night – and we wish each other Shavua Tov, a good week.
The Month - So far, for the reckoning of the day we have used the sun – actually the appearance of the rising and the setting of the sun - for the week we have used the creation, now, for the month - the next division of time based on the observance of the celestial bodies - the Jewish calendar uses the moon. Therefore, the Jewish calendar is said to be a lunar (from a Latin word for moon) calendar, which is approximately 29 and ½ days, the period of time in which the moon circles the earth once. Exodus 12: 2: “This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” This passage refers to the spring month of Aviv when Passover is to occur. Unfortunately the post biblical calendar that Hillel II produced did not follow this biblical counting of the months, but the rabbinical interpretation that the earth was created in the seventh month, the month of Tishrei in the fall, and thus the month of Tishrei is instead the beginning month of the Jewish calendar, as we have it today.
The Talmud (Mas. Rosh Hashanah) tells us that the months of the Jewish calendar received their names from the Babylonians at the time when the Jews were in exile (560 BCE). These names, based on the order of today’s calendar, are as follows:
Tishrei, Cheshvan, Kislev, Tevet, Shevat, Adar, Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av and Elul.
The Bible usually mentions the Hebrew months by number starting with the spring equinox, as mentioned in Exodus above. For example Leviticus 23:24 says: “In the seventh month on the first of the month, you shall have a Shabbat, a reminder by blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation” - this is known today as Rosh Hashanah, the secular New Year. Still the Bible mentions four months by name:
- Aviv, the 1st month of the biblical calendar (Deuteronomy 16:1) which is Nisan, the 7th of the secular,
- Ziv, the 2nd month (1 Kings 6:1) is Iyar, the secular 8th,
- Ethanim, the 7th month (1 Kings 8:2) is Tishrei, the secular 1st,
- Bul, the 8th month (1 Kings 6:38) is Cheshvan, the secular 2nd.
Because the revolution of the moon around the earth takes approximately 29 and 1/2 days, the months alternate between 29 and 30 days. A month of thirty days is called MALAIM - FULL. A month of twenty-nine days is called CHASARIM - DEFICIENT. The first month, the month of Tishrei, has 30 days, the second 29 and so on.
The Hebrew name for month is Chodesh, which means Renewal, and begins with the reappearance – the first tiny sliver appearance - or renewal, of the moon. This first day of the month is called Rosh Chodesh, New Moon, which literally means Head of the Month. Because one revolution of the moon around the earth takes 29 and ½ days, the last day of the months which have 30 days is also counted as Rosh Chodesh; therefore, Rosh Chodesh alternates from one to two days, as months alternate from 29 to 30 days. For example, Rosh Chodesh Iyar is two days – last day of Nissan and first day of Iyar – because Nissan, the preceding month, has 30 days, but Rosh Chodesh Sivan, the following month, is one day because Iyar has 29 days only.
The months of Kislev and Cheshvan may have either one day or two days for the New Moon and are called irregular months. They vary from 29 to 30 days in order to regulate the occurrence of holidays, so as to prevent the Day of Atonement - Yom Kippur, the day of fasting - from occurring either on Friday or Sunday, because that would be in conflict with the observance of the Shabbat. It cannot occur on Friday because while fasting one cannot prepare for Shabbat, and it cannot occur on Sunday because the closing of the Shabbat will interfere with the beginning of fasting and of the Yom Kippur’s Kol Nidrei service. But it can occur on Shabbat as Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of Shabbats, thus is permissible to fast on Shabbat.
During the Temple days, Rosh Chodesh was kept as other major feast days. It was a time of sacrificing, rejoicing and rest from work. During the 16th century, Rosh Chodesh was sometimes called “Yom Kippur Katan” (the Little Day of Atonement) and became a day of fasting, self-reflection and prayerful examination of the previous month along with a renewing of the individual’s commitment to God for the month ahead. Today in Rabbinical Judaism, Rosh Chodesh has been reduced to less than a minor holiday with only a small prayer or mention during the services. Some synagogues read the Maftir from Numbers 28:9-15 and Haftarah from Isaiah 66:1-24, during the Shabbat's morning Torah service preceding Rosh Chodesh.
The reason given for the diminishing celebration of Rosh Chodesh is that after the destruction of the Temple the sacrificial system ended. But this is not a satisfactory answer, because we still observe Yom Kippur and Pesach, both of which center on sacrifices. Apart from sacrifices and rest, we are told little in Scripture of how to observe Rosh Chodesh — except for sounding the Shofarim in Psalms 81:3: “Sing aloud to God our strength; make a joyful noise to the God of Jacob. Raise a song, and beat the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow a Shofar at the new moon,” and the trumpets in Numbers 10:10: “Also in the day of your gladness, and in your solemn days, and in the beginnings of your months, you shall blow with the trumpets (chatzotzrot).”
For the Messianic believers Rosh Chodesh brings a new opportunity to worship God, to walk in the joy of His teachings, because His words written in the Torah are inseparable from the life of a Jew. The word Chodesh, meaning month, is the same at its root as the word that means “new,” Chadash. Therefore, why not gather together at the beginning of each month to worship God by sounding of the Shofar and rejoicing in God's provision of a new beginning, of a new life that has been given to us in Messiah Yeshua? We understand that the blessings and promises attached to God's teachings are for all times and for eternity. These promises are given to those who serve and obey God with a pure heart and a desire to dwell within the covering of His will. Rosh Chodesh provides us with a rare opportunity to set an example to the Jewish community. Each month we can establish Rosh Chodesh also as a major part of our lives and an important event within the Messianic community. We can invite friends and family as we serve a God of memorials, times and seasons. Some things are good not because they are better, but because they stayed the same - rituals are like this, dynamic and equilibrant. They counteract the slow erosions of time and become the illustrative points of God’s enduring values.
Each feast established by God brings us into a time of fellowship with Him and with each other, as a nation, as a community, as a congregation. Each month’s observance of Rosh Chodesh will build on our vision of believers in Messiah to be a light and salt to the world and will provide a time of unity and strengthening for our congregations. It will also be a time of preparedness for eternity because “it shall be from Rosh Chodesh to Rosh Chodesh and from Shabbat to Shabbat, that all mankind will come to worship before Me, says the Lord,” writes Isaiah in chapter 66:23.
The Year - The Hebrew name for year is SHANAH.
Because the number of days in a month is given by the rotation of the moon, the number of days in a year is also reckoned by the moon. The lunar year consists of approximately 354 and ½ days. The solar year has 365 and ¼ days. So there is a difference of about 11 days between the lunar year and the solar year. But because the seasons are dictated by the sun, it was calculated that it is necessary to add an intercalary month, or leap month, 7 times in 19 years, in order for the Jewish Holy days to be observed at their proper season.
Twelve lunar months comprise an ordinary or common year. A year with 13 months, a leap year, occurs seven times in this 19 years cycle, in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th year. The leap month is inserted in the calendar immediately after the month of Adar and is called ADAR SHENI - THE SECOND ADAR. The year in which ADAR SHENI occurs is called SHANATH ABOR - LEAP YEAR. To determine the status of any Jewish year, whether it be a leap year or not, the year is divided by 19. The answer will indicate its status in the cycle of years. For example: if the year is 5768 (2007/2008), when divided by 19, the result is 303 with remainder 11 (303 X 19 = 5757+11=5768). This means that we have completed 303 cycles of 19 years; that we are now into our 304th cycle; that we are in the 11th year of that cycle and that this is a leap year. Therefore the year 5768 has 13 months.
Normally there are 52 weeks in a 12 months year. But in a leap year, in which there are 13 months, there are 56 weeks and that it is why the annual reading of the Torah is divided into 54 portions plus two special readings. During the year there are two Shabbats in which the cyclical regular reading of the Torah is interrupted by a special reading: the Passover and Sukkoth. Both are eight days holy days therefore always contain a Shabbat in which the reading for that specific holy day is read. There may be other special readings during the year such as for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur depending if they fall on Shabbat or not, therefore to complete the reading of the Torah in one calendar year some weeks have two Torah portions combined into one reading.
The Beginning of Months and the New Year are reckoned as two different events in the modern calendar. Exodus 12:2 tells us that “This month shall be to you the beginning of months (the month of Aviv or Nisan); it shall be the first month of the year to you." It is determined by the conjunction of the moon with the sun that forms the Vernal Equinox in the spring time. In Hebrew this particular period is called TEKUFOTH NISAN - THE CYCLE or PERIOD OF NISAN.
But the Talmud - Mas. Rosh Hashanah 2a says:
THERE ARE FOUR NEW YEARS. ON THE FIRST OF NISAN IS NEW YEAR FOR KINGS AND FOR FESTIVALS. ON THE FIRST OF ELUL IS NEW YEAR FOR THE TITHE OF CATTLE. R. ELEAZAR AND R. SIMEON, HOWEVER, PLACE THIS ON THE FIRST OF TISHRI. ON THE FIRST OF TISHRI IS NEW YEAR FOR YEARS, FOR RELEASE AND JUBILEE YEARS, FOR PLANTATION AND FOR TITHE OF VEGETABLES. ON THE FIRST OF SHEVAT IS NEW YEAR FOR TREES, ACCORDING TO THE RULING OF BETH SHAMMAI; BETH HILLEL, HOWEVER, PLACE IT ON THE FIFTEENTH OF THAT MONTH.