Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Day

On the civil calendar, today's date, February 29, comes once in four years. Those years are always Summer Olympics and, in the United States, presidential election years. The day and the calendar have an interesting history, and one that is marginally relevant to Jewish ritual. The ancients noted that the solar year does not consist of a whole number of days; 365 is too few and 366 too many. They estimated the true year to consist of 365.25 days, and intercalated a leap day every four years to synchronize the calendar with the actual motion of the earth around the sun. They also believed that the sun revolved around the earth, and when that was proven false in the sixteenth century a few gedolim of the time announced that the new heliocentric model was heretical. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose (see also here). This intercalation became known as the Julian Calendar, promulgated by Julius Caesar, and was used throughout the Christian world until the sixteenth century. The problem was that the period of earth's rotation is not exactly 365-1/4 days. The year was too long by several minutes, leading to an error of a day roughly every century-and-a-third. Astronomers observed that the solstices and equinoxes were occurring earlier than they used to, and farmers noted that the agricultural seasons - planting, harvest, sheep-shearing and the like - were falling behind. Already in the eighth century, the Venerable Bede, an English monk, calculated the error and proposed a solution, but nothing was done until 1582, when Pope Gregory XII promulgated the calendar that bears his name. All Catholic countries immediately adopted the new calendar, but it spread more slowly in Protestant countries including England and its American colonies, where it was adopted in 1752. Thus, dates prior to that are designated "Old Style" and followed by the "New Style" equivalent. George Washington, for instance, was born on February 11, Old Style or February 22, New Style. Russia did not adopt the Gregorian Calendar until after the Bolshevik Revolution, and it is now in use throughout the world, at least for commercial and business purposes. Most Eastern Orthodox churches still use the Julian calendar, so Orthodox Christmas, for example, comes on Janurary 6 on the Gregorian calendar. Besides advancing the date by eleven days (in 1752), the calendar mandates that century years (those that end with two zeros) are not leap years even though they are divisible by four, unless they are divisible by 400. Thus, as most of us remember, 2000 was a leap year. As we do not remember, 1800 and 1900 were not. The upcoming century year, 2100, will not be a leap year. Most of us, and most of our children, will not be around then. However, children born in the coming decades, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will be. Given the attentiveness of most of our children to math, especially in yeshivot, I expect schools to have a tough time teaching children why 2100 is not a leap year.
The Jewish calendar was promulgated by Hillel II in the fourth century C.E., when the Byzantines (Christian Romans) ruled Eretz Yisrael, which they had been calling Palestine for three centuries. The Byzantines were still on the Julian Calendar. The date we begin to say tal umatar was fixed as 60 days after the autumnal equinox, so it fell out of sync as the autumnal equinox did. In the 20th and 21st centuries the date was December 4 or, in years before a civil leap year, December 5. After 2100 it will be December 5 or 6, unless a reestablished Sanhedrin rules otherwise.
The Jewish calendar has a similar problem. It is a bit too long and Pesah, which needs to be in "the month of spring," is slowly drifting toward summer. This is beginning to be noticeable in some Jewish leap years when the first day of Pesah is more than a month after the spring equinox, and/or the last day of Pesah is May 1. A number of solutions have been proposed. One is a return to observational determination of Rosh Hodesh and leap years; the Karaites still do this. To me this is not practical, since housewives (sorry, homemakers) need to know more than a month in advance, when Pesah comes and business people and calendar printers need to know the civil dates of Jewish holidays several years in advance. Any solution will require a Sanhedrin to promulgate; may we soon have the unity necessary to reestablish the Sanhedrin and fix what is broken.

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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Israel at a Crossroads

Shalom from Deerfield Beach, Florida. I'm visiting my mom; she's holding her own, thank God. The weather's gorgeous. I can run in my summer clothing. If I lived here all year I wouldn't have to be on antidepressants. But I'd still be angry as hell over what's going on in Israel. When we speak of Israel at a crossroads and facing an existential threat, we usually refer to outside military threats. We have enough of those, but now we have an existential threat from within. This is nothing new either; 2000 years ago instead of coming together to fight the Romans we fought one another and played right into the Romans' hands.
Today's threat from within is centered in Beit Shemesh and certain neighborhoods (Jewish, not Arab) in Jerusalem. Certain Jewish fanatics who call themselves Sikrikim, after the ultra-Zealots in Roman times who carried short knives (Sicarii) concealed in their cloaks (talk about cloak-and-dagger) took it on themselves to curse, spit and throw objects at little girls leaving a religious Zionist school in Beit Shemesh. They say the girls are not dressed modestly; they are, but not to the standards of the Sikrikim. And if they weren't, would that give anybody the right to physically and verbally assault them? Not in any free country. The fanatics moved to Beit Shemesh from Jerusalem when the latter became too crowded and /or too expensive. Beit Shemesh was already populated mostly by English-speaking immigrants of a more Zionist bent, Americans who bring American values when they make aliya, but that doesn't stop the "religious" hooligans from doing in Beit Shemesh what they did in Me'ah She'arim. They also try to enforce gender segregation on public buses and make men and women walk on opposite sides of public streets. The situation is such that the United States State Department issued a formal advisory that American citizens shouldn't visit "ultra-Orthodox" neighborhoods in "immodest dress." The advisory does not define what constitutes immodest dress; I suppose one can ask the eight-year-old girl who was spat upon and called a whore. How's that for a hillul Hashem? Now the police promised to arrest anyone harassing schoolchildren and the situation is quiet, but how long will that last?
True to form, the larger haredi community tries to pass this latest outrage off as the act of an irresponsible lunatic fringe. That may be true, but the silence from the "responsible" haredi Rabbinic leadership is deafening. Not a peep out of them. Imagine if the Aurbachs, Elyashivs, Kanievskies, et. al. were to go to Beit Shemesh and escort those girls to and from school. That would show the Sikrikim and everybody else that the assaults and invective against Jewish children are anti-Torah and will not be tolerated. Imagine if wall posters went up in all the affected areas that anybody engaged in such despicable behavior should be ostracized, boycotted, refused kibbudim in synagogues and such. Those greybeards were quick enough to put up posters condemning Rabbi Slifkin.
And whatever happened to men's obligation to protect women? The mothers of the assaulted children went to the media and let the outrages be known. Where were their fathers and brothers? If any strong healthy men would have given the fanatics what-for, that would have been the end of it. Those leeches and bloodsuckers are brave enough to beat up women and children, but when it comes to defending the country from its enemies, nobody's home. When it comes to honest work to support their families, ditto.
Israelis must decide, before too many suns set, what kind of a country they wish to have. Do they want a liberal democracy like the United States or do they want a theocratic stink hole like Iran? Do they want to be part of the open world or the closed world? Ben Gurion in his day chose loud and clear. Israel would be part of the open world, and all Israelis except for a handful of religious nuts agreed. Now the nuts are numerous enough to reopen the question. If we choose a theocratic stink hole, we cannot expect the unstinting and bipartisan support of Congress to the tune of millions of dollars when the United States is running a monumental deficit. Will the U.S. support a country where its female Secretary of State might theoretically be told to sit in the back of the bus? I think not.
I also think that a majority of Israelis will still throw in their lot with democracy and the West. What is needed is for the Religious Zionist community to loudly and clearly reject the haredi authority figures and make common cause with the secularists to keep Israel democratic and free. Then we will have a secular-and -Religious-Zionist majority in the Knesset. Draft exemptions for haredim will be sharply curtailed, as will subsidies for yeshivot that teach sedition and for able-bodied men who choose not to work. The police will enforce the law without fear, favor or corruption, and lunatic fringes will be relegated to the fringe, as they should be.

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