Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The answer is...

Only one taker for the Hebrew calendar quiz?

Well, if you want to work on it yourself don't read past this point. Spoilers follow.

Start with the axioms, as the mathematicians call them. Each month in the Hebrew calendar is either 29 or 30 days long, usually alternating between them, since the lunar month averages about 29.5 days. The first day of each month is Rosh Chodesh, and the 30th day of each 30-day month is also Rosh Chodesh for the following month. So a 29-day month has one day of Rosh Chodesh, while a 30-day month has two.

Consequently, between the end of one Rosh Chodesh and the start of the next, there are always exactly 28 days: days 2 through 29 of each month. That's four whole weeks. As a result, the next Rosh Chodesh always starts on the succeeding day of the week from the end of the previous Rosh Chodesh.

If Rosh Chodesh for month m ends on Tuesday, Rosh Chodesh for month m+1 must start on Wednesday. It may or may not extend to Thursday, depending on the length of month m.

How many days of Rosh Chodesh are there in a year? Twelve months, half of which have 30 days, should yield an average of 18 days of Rosh Chodesh. A couple of days either way don't affect the answer, though, since whether there are 15 days or 21 days, the number is more than two weeks' worth and no more than three weeks.

No matter what day you start, 18 successive days of the week (or 15 or 21) must include at least two Shabbatot, and no more than three. That's the answer to the first question: Either two or three.

The precise answer for a given year will depend primarily on which day Rosh Hashana starts. If it starts on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh Heshvan starts on Sunday and the remaining days of Rosh Chodesh for the year will include only two Shabbatot (note that Rosh Hashana itself is not generally considered to be Rosh Chodesh, even though it technically is). If R"H starts on Friday, Heshvan will start on Shabbat, and three Shabbatot will fall on Rosh Chodesh that year. And so on.

The bonus question is indeed more difficult, and I'll leave it open for now. Partly to give you something to think about over Shavuot, partly because I haven't worked it out completely myself yet.

Chag Sameach!

Monday, May 29, 2006

Hebrew calendar quiz questions

Without looking at a calendar, how many times a year can Rosh Chodesh fall on Shabbat? Give the minimum and maximum possible in a single Hebrew year (Tishrei through Elul). I'm looking for the reasoning here, not primarily whether or not you have the right answer.

Bonus question: How many times a year is the "Machar Chodesh" haftarah recited?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Lag Ba'Omer is based on a typo!

Every Israeli schoolchild knows that Lag Ba'Omer celebrates Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi), the Mishnaic sage who died on that day. The schoolchildren, it turns out, have been misled by an ancient typo.

Reporting in last Friday's Makor Rishon, Hagai Segal describes the research of Rabbi Avraham Kosman of Jerusalem. Having finally gained access to fascimiles of original manuscripts, Rabbi Kosman discovered that the day which was originally described in the writings of the Ari, R' Yitzhak Luria, as "Rashbi's celebration" was transformed via scribal error to "Rashbi's death".

This goes some way towards explaining the odd phenomenon of a Jewish festival celebrating the death of a sage.

Furthermore, he has uncovered evidence that Lag Ba'Omer may have originally been a fast day associated with an aborted attempt to build the third Beit Hamikdash - and that it may have even earlier roots back to King Solomon's day.

The article, available only in Hebrew, is here.

I don't suppose it will have any effect on the volume of smoke released into Israel's atmosphere tomorrow night. Close the windows! Cough, cough

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The problem of celebrating a national-religious Yom Ha'atzmaut

As a "national-religious" Jew, I celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut in a twofold manner: As a national holiday of the State of Israel, and as a religious holiday of the Jewish people. Like all Zionist Jews, I celebrate the founding of the state and its accomplishments over the years, while as a religious Jew I also thank God for bestowing on us such a precious gift and for the salvation the Jews have enjoyed through it.

The problem is that the modes of these two celebrations do not always coincide.

As a national holiday, Yom Ha'atzmaut is celebrated with public concerts and fireworks, with music and dance in the evening and barbecues in the afternoon. As a religious holiday, Yom Ha'atzmaut is celebrated with festive prayers, featuring additional psalms and songs of praise to God, and, at most Zionist synagogues, the recitation of Hallel in the morning, and at some in the evening as well.

I've lived in Israel for about ten years, but I have yet to find a pragmatic balance between these modes of celebration, particularly in the evening when the festival begins.

Consider the schedule. The sun sets. The synagogue fills up for the festive Maariv prayer, which lasts about half an hour. As we disperse, crowds are gathering in the city's central park for the main event, with performances and fireworks. But with a religious holiday beginning, I feel the need for a festive family meal. Granted, there is no obligatory religious feast for Yom Ha'atzmaut, but this is how Jews celebrate, with festive meals.

If we go to the public party, what will we eat? We'll crowd in with other families trying to get the attention of an overworked fast food vendor, and end up chowing down on pizza or burgers in the park, while hyperactive kids dash back and forth spraying silly string and shaving cream on each other to the amplified boom of the music from the stage. This is hardly civilized, and is certainly far from traditional Jewish modes of religious celebration.

Alternatively, we can go home first and sit down for a proper holiday meal. (Some even hold what they call a "Yom Ha'atzmaut seder", at which they recount the history of the State of Israel and the miracles with which God has blessed us through it.) But by the time we get home, eat, and go out again, we've missed most of the concerts and most of the fireworks. The kids (at least once they're older) are disappointed, and even the adults feel they've missed the big event, as if by having a family meal we haven't shared in the communal celebration of this national holiday.

With a child in the house, I'm more acutely aware of this dilemma than before, and more eager to find a pragmatic solution for coming years. What do other national-religious families do? What is the "tradition" for celebrating Erev Yom Ha'atzmaut, as both a national and a religious festival?

Help me out, folks. Thanks!

Monday, May 08, 2006

The same blatt gemara?

I just received the following e-mail (with typos corrected):
Am I mistaken, or have you always been learning the same blatt gemara? Anyway, I enjoy your comments.

In the absence of a return address, I'll respond here.

First, kol hakavod on noticing! As far as I can remember, you're the first reader ever to comment on my "What I'm learning" sidebar.

Second: No, I haven't always been learning the same page. If you go back to last June, for example, you'll see I've made some progress since then.

Since July, though, my learning time has been severely curtailed by the demands of a small but frenetic individual, who brings joy to every day of my life.

Furthermore, between my intermittent learning and intermittent blogging, I've forgotten to update the learning sidebar lately. So you'll be pleased to hear that I've actually finally finished Mesechet Megilla (at least at the level of depth on which I was learning it) and held a siyum on it (hadran alach v'hadrach alan!).

I've also started moving on in Berachot, currently holding at Daf 43a. And I've started a new masekhet, Shevuot, in which I've already finished the mishnayot and I'm just starting the gemara (Daf 3a). I'm currently prioritizing Berachot, so I might not make much progress in Shevuot for a while. (For the uninitiated, Shevuot is about oaths, not the festival of Shavuot.)

I'll update the sidebar soon to reflect my progress. Meanwhile, you can click on some old posts to see how stagnant I've been lately!

Finally: Thanks for the kind words. Anonymous blogs deserve anonymous fans.