The Pesach seder is a time for questions. This year we had a new one.
Jordan, his grandma Helen, and Matthew at the Pesach table. Photo credit: Merry. And that’s my mom’s seder plate.
The traditional plate would have a shankbone, symbolic of the lamb sacrificed for the ancient observance, and of the blood placed on the Hebrews’ doorposts so that the Malakh haMavet would know which houses to pass over, as we awaited our exodus.
But what is a non-meat-eater to do? Many have suggested a beet. However, this being Ladera Frutal, we had other ideas. So this year’s seder plate had a representative of the season’s new crop of blood oranges.
From our table to yours, happy feast(s) of spring and freedom!
Just as I aspire to grow every variety of fruit, I also aspire to vote in every variety of electoral system. And for the proportional variety, there is no purer example than that of Israel, even if no contemporary PR/multipartism advocate would ever hold up that country’s electoral and party system as any sort of model.
But, supposing I were suddenly granted the right to cast a vote tomorrow, for which party would it go? That should be an easy question, with some 30 parties to choose from in a system that will give all those that win at least 2% of the national vote a share of the 120 Knesset seats quite close to their share of the votes. Yet it isn’t easy. Even with extreme party-based (closed list) PR and a parliamentary form of government, strategic and personal-leadership criteria enter in. That is, one is tempted not to think merely of which party one wants to have the maximum feasible legislative weight in the Knesset, but how might one’s chosen party shape post-electoral government formation, and which party leader would one like to see as PM or in another senior cabinet post? It gets complex!
Of course, one starting point is to determine one’s position in the multi-dimensional ideological space. For this task, the Israel Electoral Compass was set up during the current campaign. Unlike the other voting “compasses” out there, this one plots your position in three dimensions–probably the very smallest number that can make sense of the tangled Israeli ideological and partisan scene. (And, yes, you can take the test in English as well as Hebrew–or Dutch.)1
Well, it was far from a surprise that I came out as a leftist secular dove. Not that I consider myself especially secular, but I have no use for the “religious” (i.e. Orthodox) establishment that controls so much of Israeli social policy. Nor, as a “dove” do I have much use for those who want Israel to “engage” Hamas directly, but I have even less use for those who talk of eliminating it, or who would countenance continued building of Israeli housing on Palestinian land in the West Bank. So it is with zero surprise that the quiz put Meretz closest to me. It is very much in the vein of a left-libertarian, pro-peace, and fairly ‘green’ party.
The Israel Election Compass produces three graphs, each with two of the three dimensions. Here is my hawk-dove and religious-secular plot as an example.
That’s Meretz practically being speared by the compass point representing my test result.
Yet I think “my” party would be the Green Movement-Meimad. It is even closer to me on the left-right dimensions (i.e. not as far left as Meretz), but it clearly is less ‘secular’ than Meretz–or me. And therein lies much of its appeal, for I believe in a “Jewish state” that is not just Jews being sovereign over the land, but also being good stewards of that land. Thus it is essential that Israel’s religious community be both defined more broadly than the Orthodox would do, and be enlisted in the (lower-case ‘g’) green movement. An excerpt from the party’s statement:
The Meimad Movement was founded in 1988 (5748) by Rabbi Yehuda Amital along with a group of Orthodox and traditional Israelis. The aim was to transform the face of religious Zionism and to serve as an alternative to the approach that has made the Torah of Israel synonymous with religious and political extremism. The Meimad Party, a Hebrew acronym for “Jewish State, Democratic State”, was founded in 1999 (5759) to bring Meimad’s ideology into the political arena and to represent the many people, both religious and non-religious, who believe that the State of Israel should be both Jewish and democratic. [...]
The Green Movement, a more recent political initiative has been gathering momentum for only a year. [...] The Green Movement was established as an authentic “green” political organization, based on the recognition that Israel, like most countries in the West was destined to have a Green Party as party of the permanent political mosaic in the Knesset. Yet, an authentic green movement cannot be merely a “niche” party but must promote a broad political agenda…
The references to authenticity and not being a ‘niche’ party are digs at the other Green Party, which has been around longer, but has never amounted to much.2
Yet here comes the strategic part. The Green Movement-Meimad is unlikely to clear the electoral threshold, if all the polls I have seen are to believed. So a voter in this position might be tempted to vote for Meretz (which might win 5-7 seats) and hope for the slim chance that it could help form a center-left coalition with Kadima and Labor and excluding Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu. Slim chance indeed, and because it is slim, many potential Meretz voters (and perhaps GM-M voters as well) are tempted to vote for Kadima to enhance Tzipi Livni’s chances of being PM (despite other unsavory candidates on the party list, from the point of view of left-secular-dovish voters).
All polls show Likud in the lead, albeit narrowly, and thus Benjamin Netanyahu seems most likely to get the first chance to form the next government. The distribution of seats is also likely to make any government formed by Livni dependent on Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu, while it is conceivable that a Likud-led government could be formed without Lieberman, or at least with the latter in a weaker bargaining position. Each of the left-leaning (and non-Arab) parties (Labor and Meretz and/or Green Movement-Meimad, as well as the centrist Kadima) has to perform better than expected for a government with neither Likud nor Yisrael Beiteinu even to be realistic. And there is at least a small chance that GM-M (but not Meretz) could join a Likud-led government under some circumstances–if it clears the threshold. Finally, either of the two large parties leading the government could be a bit more promising for voters like me if Labor beats Yisrael Beiteinu for third place. Finally, there is the fact that polls show a staggeringly high rate of indecision as of the final week of the campaign, so for all we know, some of the scenarios that seem unlikely might materialize.3
So, party voting under ‘pure’ PR is not so easy after all!
I hope readers will take the test themselves and also discuss how they would vote (or will/did vote, if Israeli) themselves.
1. The ‘test’ was designed with the assistance of the Israel Democracy Institute, and I first heard about it in an interview on Israel Radio (via WRN) with Professor Asher Arian.
2. In the graph, The Green Movement-Meimad is “due north” of my compass pointer, while Labor, the (other) Green Party, and then Kadima are just “northeast.”
3. Though I fear the biggest surprise might involve Lieberman doing even better than his polling suggests.
This being day 4, Chanukah is reaching its waning point, though let’s not rush the lights out the door too fast: four more nights! But BZ correctly calls attention to the basic problem of modern holiday technology, still very much waxing along with the number of candles. (A commenter notes it’s a good reason for a preference for the original technology.)
Early this morning (just after 0400, Ladera Frutal time) was the winter solstice. Tonight’s darkness will be about one second shorter than last night’s, as the days begin to lengthen.1
When the sun sets tonight, it will be the 25th of Kislev, marking the first night of the 8-day festival of lights, Chanukah. The convergence of solar and lunar calendars this year is fortuitous, as we will be adding a candle each night for the week ahead, almost as if we are willing the sun to increase our day length–a little jump-start to what I like to think of as the solar new year.
Given the cycles of a 30-day lunar month2, the 25th of Kislev is, by definition, a week before the new moon. Hence the period straddling the full moon closest to the winter solstice is the darkest time of year, a perfect time for both literally and figuratively bringing new light into the world through the Chanukah celebration. The solstice and new moon will not always coincide this nicely, however.
A CBC item today notes how few people today even give the winter solstice a thought, yet the setting of various culture’s holidays, including Christmas, at this time of year is obviously a means of giving religious meaning to winter’s key solar event. Chanukah, however, clearly has one additional reason for its timing: this is the season of new oil,3 thereby providing a practical connection to the “great miracle” that occasioned the re-dedication of the Temple at the heart of the Chanukah story.
Chanukah and (solar) year’s end: the perfect opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to increasing the light in one another’s lives. Chag Urim Sameach!
1. I trust that our friends on the other side of the equator will forgive this northern virtual orchard’s hemispherism as I wish them a happy first day of summer!
2. Technically “lunar month” is a redundancy, given that month derives from moon, but the Gregorian months are not tied to moon cycles as are the Jewish ones.
3. In Mediterranean climates such as the land of Israel, or California, olives begin to be harvested in late autumn. So, whereas Sukkot is particularly associated with the grape (and wine!), whose harvest wraps up in late summer, Chanukah is associated with the olive (and its oil). That these two great fruits of Mediterranean agriculture have their 8-day festivals (with Sh’mini Atzeret actually a separate holiday, but immediately following Sukkot) is highly significant historically as well as agriculturally: The original Chanukah was a delayed Sukkot, because the war of religious freedom, led by the Maccabees, had to be won before the Temple could be re-dedicated. The war had prevented Sukkot from being observed that year.
I laid out gardens and groves, in which I planted every kind of fruit tree. I constructed pools of water, enough to irrigate a forest shooting up with trees.
At Ladera Frutal, we do have quite a variety of fruit trees, most of them (though not the avocados) planted by my own hands, in the days when my back could tolerate that sort of work. In fact, the number of fruit varieties remains not much below the 150 indicated [formerly] on the banner above, reduced only by the freeze of 2007 (which claimed the most tender subtropicals) and some ‘natural’ attrition (fruit trees are living beings, all of which must die at a time unknown to them–or to the grower).
However, we no longer have the means to irrigate a forest shooting up with trees. The photo above shows what the Ladera Frutal avocado grove now looks like. Yes, it is dying–by design. I had been leaning towards abandoning avocados for some time, for ethical reasons. Over time, as I became more steeped in organic agriculture and food ethics–and, especially as I have developed my own modern Jewish perspectives on those themes–I came to question why we grow what is essentially a rain forest crop in what is very nearly a desert climate. This is not a good use of our scarce resources. Yet what ethics did not lead me to stop doing, economics finally did. With water costs rising and increased imports, and more recently the general economic squeeze affecting most of us, it was time to let the avocado grove go.
The trees are now left to fend for themselves, despite what could have been a good crop in 2009.
Isn’t that a sad sight? A Hass avocado tree laden with fruit–but hardly a leaf to be found. Even if it suddenly began to rain, this fruit would be nothing but ornamental orbs. When a fruit tree has fruits, but loses its foliage for lack of water, it draws on the fruit to sustain itself as best it can. From the tree’s perspective, all that fruit is just an emergency pool of water.
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under the heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted.
Ideally, I would uproot the avocados and replace them with a more climate-suitable crop, like olives or grapes. Such crops are ideal for this dry Mediterranean climate, and at one time they were common in San Diego County. Then came the avocado revolution, thanks to cheap water ‘imported’ from our state’s northern reaches and some very crafty and state-subsidized marketing campaigns promoting California Hass avocados. Olive oil consumption is rising dramatically in the USA, so there could be a market. And wine production is returning to this county. Maybe we are in a transition. If so, it is a transition to be welcomed, back towards more sustainable and suitable crops. Avocados are a wonderful fruit, but the Hass (more water hungry than most varieties) really should not be taking up scarce water in a time of what appears to be an increasingly dry climate.
The quotes in this planting, as many a reader may have recognized, come from Ecclesiastes. This biblical book is traditionally read during Sukkot, the holiday just about to wrap up. As a read, it is a tad melancholy, even as it tells us to enjoy our days under the sun–or, in the case of Sukkot, the Season of our Joy, perhaps that should be under the stars and the rain (if only!) or the wind, or whatever else the elements send over our fragile existence.
Obviously there won’t be any more avocado harvests to be ingathered at Ladera Frutal, but aside from the former commercial production, “every kind of fruit tree” under the sun remains a core activity around the finca.
While we are on the subject of the fall season and Ecclesiastes, one last thing seems appropriate to the season:
there is a frustration that occurs in the world: sometimes an upright man is requited according to the conduct of the scoundrel; and sometimes the scoundrel is requited according to the conduct of the upright. I say all that in frustration.
Indeed. And this is the season not only for rejoicing in the harvest, but soon for using our individual voices as best we can to send a message that we have had enough with that frustration, enough with the scoundrels. Cast wisely and enjoy democracy’s days under the sun, for we never know when their end might come.
Fall is here. I know it because we finally have a series turning into a Series. Thanks to the Rays’ ability to be one run better than the relentless White Sox, we were spared the indignity of a possible 4-0 or 4-1 romp. We could still get the latter, of course, as Boston’s home record during the regular season was almost as good as Tampa Bay’s. They could sweep the next three. But the first two games, in Tampa, show the closely matched teams I expected, and leave open the realistic possibility of a six- or seven-game thriller.
And, yes, I am rooting for the Rays, albeit somewhat reluctantly. I do not believe I have ever rooted against the Red Sox in any postseason series that was not against the Angels. But after a season of 100 wins, and the league’s best record, was turned to waste by a 3-games-to-1 loss at the hands of the Relentless Ones, I am just tired of that shade of red. That ALDS was one of the most gut-wrenching postseason series I have watched. Make that the most gut-wrenching since 1986. It was closer than the games result appears (18-13 Boston in runs), and each game had a turning point that could have changed the outcome. But a too-familiar outcome nonetheless.
When World Series time comes, I might turn into a Philles phan for just 4 or 7 games. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. The Dodgers, down 0-2, are returning home, so they are not out of it the same way Tampa Bay would be had they not won Game 2.
I also know it’s turning towards fall because Saturday saw a high of under 70 for the first time since 26 May and Sunday morning it was under 45 for the first time since 22 April. (And down at the cool spot at the bottom of the finca, it was 38.)
But ultimately, the best evidence that fall is in full swing is that the calendar is turning towards Sukkot. I trust that my Jewish readers had a successful season of t’shuvah, and are now ready for the Festival of our Joy. The harvest is just about all ingathered here at Ladera Frutal. Rejoice!
Sukkot is probably my favorite holiday, and the weather now feels like the season. Even if only for a day. It is supposed to get quite hot again by the first day of Sukkot. But then that’s the nature of a Mediterranean climate: fall is the most unpredictable time of year. But the one thing that is predictable is that the full moon will appear in a few hours time. Chag Sameach!
Well, we have been counting the days. Literally. And the day is finally upon us: Shavuot, or the Feast of Weeks.
Not surprisingly, I rather like its alternate name: Day of the First Fruits. And it just so happens that here at Ladera Frutal we have a “first fruit” just now in the form of Arctic Star nectarines! (Yes, the original “first fruits” in the biblical context were grain, but this is not Grains & Votes, after all.)
In any event, the holiday’s universal message is that with our freedom comes responsibility. A good lesson for which to pause from daily life and reflect.
After months of the largest religious partyâ€™s membership waffling on participation in Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmertâ€™s coaltion – on issues as divisive as partitioning Jerusalem and a ceasefire with Hamas – Olmert might find his coalition collapsing over an unexpected blindside: matzah.
And just yesterday morning it was the vernal equinox.
In honor of its now being “officially” spring, according to the solar calendar, here’s looking at one of the first fruit trees to bloom every spring (the Kuban Burgundy plum, foreground), and one of the last of the peach/nectarine varieties to reach full bloom (the Panamint).
If I did not know any better, I might think it was Pesach; …the full moon after the vernal equinox…
But, wait, it’s a leap year. Still a month to go. That’s good, because it seems like the perfect evening to raise a toast to spring. It is, after all, a religious obligation on this night.
It is Rosh Chodesh Adar II. That is, the new moon of the “second” Adar, the leap month added to the Jewish calendar to keep it in synch with the solar calendar. The solar cycle says it will be the first day of spring1 at the full moon of Adar II (give or take some hours2). And, of course, the full moon of Adar (II) is Purim–a time of revelry and celebration that marks the end of winter. Now, how cool is that convergence!3
Local observation suggests it is already spring.
Yes, it really is that green around here. And we have patches of orange and yellow poppies and purple lupines and other (unknown, to me) purple flowers and masses of dainty white flowers all over the finca. I have not seen a spring like this in our six here!
Most of the fruit trees of the corralito are now in bloom.
And even the almond tree–whose unreadiness for spring back on the full moon of Shevat was one of the clues that we must be in need of a leap month,4–is now at (or just past) its peak bloom.
Yes, the poppies that are practically engulfing the little almond tree really are that orange and yellow!
I have even smelled a few citrus blossoms this week.
Spring is here!
At sunset, planting time, the new moon was not actually visible yet.
In the northern hemisphere in which the Land of Israel, as well as Ladera Frutal, are located. [↩]
Thirty-one to be precise; the equinox comes first, so this Pesach (Passover) is technically the second full moon after the start of spring. And I assume this being a Jewish leap year explains why Easter–Sunday following the equinox–will come (rather illogically) before Pesach. [↩]
The answer is: pretty cool! But I suppose not as cool as the total eclipse on Purim a year ago. (There was also a total eclipse in Adar (I) this year.) Alas, I missed both eclipses, either due to timing or weather. [↩]
After all, Pesach, at the full moon of Aviv (Nisan), must fall after the vernal equinox. [↩]
On the fifteenth of Shevat,
When the spring comes,
An angel descends, ledger in hand.
And enters each bud, each twig, each tree
And all our garden flowers.
Well, as that full moon tonight reminds us, the 15th of Shevat (Tu Bishvat) is here, but not much is in bloom yet. Tu Bishvat, as the New Year for Trees, was set during the early rabbinic period of Judaism, mainly to determine the taxation on the produce of the trees of the Land of Israel. (For a rundown of other modern and more spiritual and environmental interpretations that are a bit more meaningful to us than taxation of fruit, as well as its significance in the State of Israel, see the links at My Jewish Learning.)
Why set this date on the lunar calendar as the point at which to divide years for purposes of assessments on fruit trees? Probably because it is around this time that the sap is surging in the trees and they are beginning to “wake up” from their winter slumber. More specifically, it is traditionally said to be the time of year when the almond trees begin to blossom in the Land of Israel.2 Almonds always are among the earliest blooming deciduous fruits,3 and thus are indeed a good harbinger of the days soon to come when all our garden flowers.
Granted, Ladera Frutal is a long way from Israel, but it is at almost precisely the same latitude as Jerusalem, and with a similar “Mediterranean” climate. But this little ‘Garden Prince’ almond tree, planted just under a year ago, seems unaware that winter is here, let alone that it is about time to wake up from winter.
And it was indeed pretty wintry today, by local standards, with light rain showers and a high of only about 56.
Tu Bishavt is early this year, relative to the solar cycles that presumably have more to do with when the trees begin to bloom than do the ancient rabbis’ choice of a tithing date. And, with the first day on the Jewish calendar that marks the arrival of spring being too early this year, so would the festival of the height of spring–Pesach–were it not for the fact that the rabbis anticipated this problem and decreed the occasional leap year. We will have two months of Adar this year, lengthening the gap between Tu Bishvat and Pesach.4 That is, this is a leap year on the Jewish calendar just as it is on the Gregorian solar calendar.
The leap year will mean that next year Tu Bishvat will come a more sensible seven weeks after the winter solstice, rather than barely over four, as this year. Seven week after–that is, approaching mid February–we can expect lots of trees in bloom here. Maybe even the ‘Garden Prince.’
An Israeli poet. He goes on to explore the imagery of when the garden is in full flower and the angel’s “ledger will be full” it is a harbinger of the Messianic Era. [↩]
And Tu Bishvat is exactly six full moons after another of those seasonal turning dates on the agricultural calendar of ancient Israel: The nearly forgotten Tu B’Av. That minor festive day is at the time of the blooming of the white squill in the Land of Israel, and also is when the olives begin to fill with their oil. [↩]
Yes, I know that almonds are nuts, but the almond that we eat is the kernel of a fruit that is not itself useful, but is very similar otherwise to an apricot or peach. In fact, some apricots have edible kernels, too (and they are delicious!). [↩]
The other date on the calendar that marks the end of winter, Purim (15 Adar), would normally be exactly halfway between the “surging of the sap” at the waning of winter and the liberation feast of the full flowering of spring at Pesach. However, in a leap year, Purim falls in II Adar and thus is two months (that is, full moons) after Tu Bishvat, thereby remaining one month before Pesach. [↩]
More and more fast-food chains are going kosher, at least in selected outlets. Laura Frankel, at The Jew and the Carrot remarks:
Why should I be happy and even celebratory over another fast food chain that opened kosher outposts? The food just isnâ€™t good, period. These fast food restaurants are all about everything that is bad in American pop culture.
Amein to that.
There is a better approach:
Frankel and groups like Hazon, which sponsors The Jew & The Carrot blog, are suggesting that we widen our definition of Jewish and kosher food. Instead of celebrating our co-option by corporate culture, they are promoting efforts such as community-supported agricultural (CSA) programs. Such programs, often run through synagogues, Hazon, and other groups, put congregants in touch with area farms, which provide regular deliveries of organic, local produce to subscribers. In addition to supporting sustainable agriculture and local farmers, a Jewish CSA, writes Hazon, offers a chance to re-examine and potentially redefine what it means for food to be â€œfitâ€1 not only for us, but for the community and the earth as well.
Double amein. Local and organic: Fit food for all.
Perhaps this New Year’s greeting seems a bit early, but it is not. Not for the sun, anyway. It is the start of Tekufah Tevet! Tonight is the night of darkness, after which the days start getting longer again. Otherwise known as the start of winter. That seems like a pretty good definition of a “new year” to me, because now the fruit trees have been dormant for a while and have received their first bit of chill, with (we hope) much more to come as we look towards the surging of the sap and eventually the blooms that will begin in less than two months.1 In fruit-growing terms, it certainly means now it it time to get those winter chores (e.g. dormant spraying, cover-cropping) done. Yes, a new year begins!
The sun just set moments ago through the notch in the ridge to our west that serves as Ladera Frutal’s solar observatory on what will be the longest night of the year. The solstice is 22 December, which this year coincides with 13 Tevet (the day on the Jewish calendar that just began, which by the way is Shabbat).2
The 13th would be pretty close to the full moon. Indeed, as soon as I turned around from the front entrance of LF HQ and looked the other way, there was the moon:
Not quite full–that will be Sunday night (here in California). So, it is not a perfect convergence–solstice, full moon, and Shabbat. But two of three is not bad.
Happy (Solar) New Year and Shabbat Shalom!
In fact, we are barely more than a month from the date that marks the earliest signs of spring in the Mediterranean climate, such as Ladera Frutal–or the Land of Israel: Tu Bi-Sh’vat. It comes much closer to the winter solstice this year, which is one of the indications that we need a leap month in this year, or else the spring festival (Pesach) would be too early. For a good overview of the role of the tekufot in caclulating the date of Tu Bi-Shevat, leap years, and other solar-dependent features of the Jewish calendar, see “Calculating the Seasons and Tu B-Shvat” from Bar-Ilan University’s Parashat Hashavua Study Center. [↩]
So for the moment I clearly am not classifying blogging as work! [↩]
Tonight marks the first of eight nights of the festival of Chanukah for the Jewish calendar year, 5768. I have heard several Jewish friends remark that Chanukah is “so early” this year. No, it is at exactly the same time as it always is: the 25th of Kislev. Of course, what these people mean is that it is early relative to the 25th of December on Pope Gregory’s calendar.
So, why are the two calendars so much out of alignment this year? It is because the Jewish calendar is lunar first, and solar only secondarily.1 The Gregorian calendar always ensures that Christmas Day, the 25th of December, will fall a few days after the winter solstice. That makes sense at some level, because when the Church, in the fourth century, set the holy day commemorating the birth of Jesus to this time of year, it was to graft Christianity’s celebration of the birth of its Messiah onto the existing winter season celebrations already practiced in the Roman Empire (Saturanalia) and elsewhere in Europe (various winterfest or Yule celebrations).
Chanukah, on the other hand, is the festival of lights. Commemorating the rededication of the ancient Temple after the successful Macabean revolt against assimilationist tendencies that nearly wiped out Judaism (more than a century before Jesus), it symbolically brings light to the darkest time of year, in memory of a dark period in ancient Jewish history.
The “problem,” if the non-coincidence of Christmas and Chanukah can be described as such, is that the sun and moon cycles do not align the same way year after year (though they come back in alignment every 19 years). If Chanukah is to be about bringing light at the darkest time of year, then it really needs to be at the darkest time of year. In terms of the sun, the winter solstice is indeed the darkest time of the year–the day with the shortest daylight. The farther north you go (within the northern hemisphere), the more the sun would be your dominant influence on the perception of overall darkness. However, a bit farther south–say around Jerusalem2–the differences between seasonal day lengths are less dramatic. Not insignificant, of course. Tonight Jerusalem will have about 13 hours, 48 minutes between sunset and sunrise, and about 13:56 on the winter solstice, compared with 9:47 on the summer solstice. But that is far less stark than locations farther north–for instance, in London, near the site of ancient sun-cycle festivals at Stonehenge the gap between sunset and sunrise at the winter solstice is about 16 hours, 11 minutes, compared to 7:42 at the summer solstice. Of course, the farther towards the poles one goes, the more significant this seasonal difference becomes.
In the Land of Israel, then, it is not surprising, perhaps, that our ancient spiritual ancestors would have been just as concerned with moon cycles as sun. It was a newly settled agricultural society, struggling to wean its citizens off pagan worship of separate gods of sun, moon, rain, wind, and so on. It needed a way to tie the natural cycles of such concern to agriculture to a single Source governing all these elements. Thus nearly all of our holidays are timed to the new or full moon at some important point in the agricultural calendar. So Rosh haShanah is the new moon following the autumnal equinox, and marks the beginning of the High Holy Days, which culminate with the fall harvest festival of Sukkot, the first night of which is the full moon. Pesach is the full moon following the vernal equinox, after which we count the omer leading up to the early-summer (or late spring) first harvest festival, Shavuot.
What has all this to do with Chanukah being now, instead of closer to the solstice (and hence also to Christmas)? The full moon (of the month of Tevet) will coincide this year with the night of the 23rd of December, meaning the moon will be almost full around the winter solstice. Thus while the sunset indeed would be early, if the night is clear, it will be very bright. Christmas Eve will be a bright, moonlit night this year–which seemingly would make it hard for the Wise Men to see the star that guided them to Bethlehem (though that means the night sky will be darkening as the moon will have passed its third-quarter phase before the 12th night).
Our lighting of candles for Chanukah begins–every year–five nights before the new moon (of the Jewish month of Tevet) and ends on the second night following that new moon. This will always be the darkest moon phase closest to the shortest day of the year. We begin lighting candles, adding one more each night, just as the sun and moon together are making the nights longer and darker. As we finish the 8th evening, and gaze upon our beautiful fully lit chanukiah (the special menorah for this holiday), we are completing the festival just as the nights are getting brighter. Alas, the days, this year, will continue to get a bit shorter for just over a week after the end of Chanukah, and this fact is one of the signals that this year, 5768, must be a leap year: There will be two months of Adar–the month right before Nisan, when we have Pesach–in order to bring the sun and moon cycles of the Jewish calendar back in synch.
Thus next year, Chanukah will be back to coincide with the winter solstice and hence Christmas. In fact, the first night of Chanukah in 5769 will be at sundown on 21 December, thus right at the winter solstice. And thus Christmas Eve will be the night of the fourth of the eight candles in the chanukiah, and a very dark evening indeed (but for our candles and the star in the retelling of the original Christmas story).
I know some American Jews lament years in which Chanukah comes “early.” Maybe I do, too, as it means I don’t have the days off and it is hard for the family to be together at sundown for the lighting of the candles, given the academic calendar’s being fixed to the Gregorian. However, on religious-cultural grounds, I rather like it when it stands alone. Because as a holiday, Chanukah really does stand alone, as an opportunity to bring light literally and figuratively into a too-dark world, as a celebration of the always relevant struggle for religious and cultural autonomy, and as a commemoration of events without which there would never have been a Christmas at which to celebrate the promise of peace and brotherhood that still remains far too elusive.
So, I call upon my Jewish friends: Next time someone laments that Chanukah is “so early” this year, remind them that, no, it is Christmas that comes late!
Please also see last year’s Chanukah planting, which went into some more detail on the agricultural/seasonal connections of the holiday, and marked the first of a four-season series on these themes.
If by my laws you walk, and my commands you keep, and observe them,
then I will give-forth your rains in their set-time,
so that the earth gives-forth its yield
and the trees of the field give-forth their fruit.
--Vayikra 26: 3-4