I have a variety of hobbies and interests, ranging from music to sports to Jewish history, but one of the stranger ones I possess is that I happen to be a Hebrew calendar geek.
My guess is that there are a few others of you out there, too.
One of my earliest recollections as a youngster attending High Holiday services was looking at the very last pages of the red Birnbaum machzor, and being fascinated by the list of days that the first day of Rosh Hashana fell out on each year. I learned, of course, that the first day of Rosh Hashana could only fall on a Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, and that the secular date associated with Rosh Hashana could vary by as much as a month, given the difference in the lunar and solar calendars and the requirement for leap months in the Hebrew calendar every few years to correct the imbalance.
Back then, being in school, we always wanted Rosh Hashana to fall on a weekday … because that meant more days off from school! Of course, once I entered the workforce, my desires were reversed, as it was much easier asking to take off only one day of work in September for Yom Kippur (when Rosh Hashana fell on a Saturday and Sunday), as opposed to seven days (which is what observant Jews need to take off for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot when Rosh Hashana falls on a weekday). It also avoids the problem of having to explain to your boss what Shemini Atzeret is, and why you are required to be home for two days!
I remember wondering as a kid whether there was ever a year where the first day of Rosh Hashana and Labor Day coincide. In fact, it has happened – way back in 1964, when Rosh Hashana and Labor Day both occurred on Monday, September 7th. It will happen again in 2032 … and then again in 2089. For this to happen, Rosh Hashana must occur early on the secular calendar and on a Monday, and Labor Day must occur on a later date – so it is a pretty rare occurrence.
In terms of which day of the week the first day of Rosh Hashana falls on, it’s extremely random. For a five-year period, from 1999-2003, Rosh Hashana fell on Saturday and Sunday four out of five years – a nice bonus for working folks like myself, who were able to save more vacation days for a real vacation those years. However, since 2010, only once in 13 years has Rosh Hashana fell on a Saturday and Sunday. The majority of time Rosh Hashana falls on either a Monday or Thursday.
A few years ago, in 2013, there was a big hoopla when the first day of Chanukah occurred exactly on Thanksgiving Day, a highly unlikely occurrence, as Chanukah must occur extremely early on the secular calendar and Thanksgiving must occur extremely late. It made me wonder whether this will ever happen again.
In fact, “Thanksgivingkah” will not happen any time again in the foreseeable future, making the 2013 event a very special day for Hebrew calendar geeks like myself. The best we will be able to do is celebrate the first night of Chanukah on Thanksgiving Day, which will happen in 2070 and 2165 (it last happened in 1918).
And this Chanukah discussion reminds me of my favorite Jewish calendar riddle: In 1948, we did not recite Hallel on Shabbos Chanukah (a true statement). Explain how this can be? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you know the answer to this fun riddle. (You have to think out of the box to solve it.)
The king of Hebrew calendar trivia is Rabbi Dovid Heber, who works at the Star-K and has been featured several times on Nachum Segal’s JM in the AM radio show. He is the author of “The Intriguing World of Jewish Time,” in which he explains why someone’s 19th birthday doesn’t always fall on his or her Hebrew birthday (as popularly believed), why 17 sentences in the Torah are sometimes not recited at all during a calendar year, and other fascinating quirks inherent in the Hebrew calendar.
The most interesting tidbit in the book, at least to me, is his discussion of the most infrequent shemoneh esrei. This occurs on Motzei Shabbat Chanukah that is also Rosh Chodesh Tevet, while we still say V’tein Bracha. In this Shemonah Esrei, we say Atah Chonantanu, V’tein Bracha, Ya’aleh Veyavo, and Al Hanisim. It occurs once every 95 years. It was last recited in 1899 and 1994, and it is scheduled to be recited next in 2089.
Why is it so infrequent? First, Chanukah must begin on a Monday so that Motzei Shabbat Chanukah is on Rosh Chodesh. Furthermore, this must happen in a year when the seventh night of Chanukah occurs before December 4th (or 5th when the following February has 29 days), so that we still say V’tein Bracha. Chanukah is typically this “early” in the secular calendar only once every 19 years. This shemoneh esrei is said when Rosh Chodesh Tevet occurs on a Motzei Shabbos in an extremely “early” year. Rosh Chodesh Tevet on Motzei Shabbat occurs in an extremely early year only once every 95 years.
That’s probably enough to make your head spin! But I’ll leave you with some good news … Rosh Hashana in 2023 is on a Saturday and Sunday!