The Hebrew calendar structure was made on a complicated lunisolar way which was focused on the seasonal cycle of the year (the complete revolution of the earth around the sun) and the lunar cycle for the month (the complete revolution of the moon around the earth). It was based on the same calendar used in Babylon and adapted by the Jews after the Babylonian exile which explains why the month names of the Hebrew calendar resemble those of the Babylonians.
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This system was used from the time of the Second Temple Period, and it combined religion and astronomical facts. The calendar was under the authority of the priests, and two witnesses were required to report that they had seen the New Moon in order to start a new month. A system of intercalation was used to prevent it from falling behind the seasons, but it was fixed by Patriarch Hillel II in 70 AD, and the calendar system was made known to the public so that the Jews who lived in different parts of Europe and Asia could celebrate holidays and New Moons on the same days.
Hebrew and Mesopotamian Month Names
The Hebrew Calendar has 354 days called yom. The daylight hours are equally divided into 12 hours starting at sunrise and ending when the sun sets. This division of the day is important especially on the Sabbath (as one of the ten commandments) and on holidays. What makes the Hebrew day unique is that it starts at sunset and not at midnight.
The Hebrew term for a week is “shavu’a”, and each week begins on Sunday and ends on Sabbath. Knowing when a week starts and ends is important because weekly Torah readings called Parashioth and Haphtaroth (selection of passages from the Prophets) are still read every Sabbath and on festivals.
The Hebrew month is based on the lunar cycle of 29.5 days, and it is called Chodesh. Each month started with the appearance of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) and was sanctified and announced by the Sanhedrin in the ancient times. Each month alternates between 30 and 29 days (equals to 354 days/year) and Adar II is added by the Calendar Council every two to three years to correct the lag and synchronize the calendar with the solar cycle. This extra month is added every two to three years, so every nineteen years the Hebrew calendar will have seven leap years.
The Hebrew term for a year is called “shanah” and the calendar council is in charge of balancing the years by calculating the beginning of the seasons. A Sabbatical Year (Shmitah) is celebrated every seven years to let the land rest and a Jubilee Year (Yovel) is celebrated 50 years after seven Sabbatical years.
The change of seasons is marked with special festivals or moedim (Appointed Times) and the festival day begins the night before the actual day, so it takes two days in the Gregorian calendar. The Sabbath is considered so important that if a holiday falls on the same day, it will be moved to Thursday. A list of holidays is listed in the Months section.
Friedländer, David. Sod Háibur: Grundlage Und Festsetzung Der Zeitberechnung … Budapest: M. Burian, 1880
Spier, Arthur. The Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar: Twentieth to Twenty-Second Century, 5660-5860, 1900-2100. Jerusalem: Feldheim Publishers, 1986
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