Seasons in the Sun

Shabbat is a day of rest. The Torah teaches us that just as people need to rest one day in seven, so, too, the land of Israel, which is sensitive in more ways than we might have imagined, must rest for one year in seven. This sabbatical year, known as shmittah, is referred to as Shabbat Shabbaton, a “super-Shabbat” or “double Shabbat.” Moreover, at the end of seven cycles of sabbatical years, we are commanded to observe the Jubilee (Yovel), in a sense pressing a “reset button,” reverting all land in Eretz Yisrael back to its ancestral ownership.

You shall count seven sabbatical years, that is, seven times seven years. The period of the seven sabbatical cycles shall thus be 49 years. Then, on the 10th day of the seventh month, you shall make a proclamation with the ram's horn. This proclamation with the ram's horn is to be made on Yom Kippur. (Vayikra 25:8-9)

This seems somewhat awkward: Why is Yom Kippur designated as the day to begin the Jubilee Year? Logic would dictate that Rosh Hashanah, the day that begins the new year, should also mark the beginning of the Jubilee Year. Why does the Torah command us to delay the ceremony until Yom Kippur? As we shall see, two factors are at play, and understanding them will solve our dilemma.

Yom Kippur is generally considered the holiest day of the year. Aside from the prohibition of work, which is a standard feature of every Shabbat and festival, there is an additional prohibition of food and drink. Perhaps this is why the Torah calls Yom Kippur Shabbat Shabbaton (Vayikra 23:32), making it sound very much like a “double Shabbat;” on this day, we rest from work and rest from food.  Another “double Shabbat” is the holiday of Shavuot. Seven weeks, beginning on Passover, are counted, and the fiftieth day is declared a festival. As opposed to the usual cycle of six days followed by Shabbat, or even six years followed by shmittah, Shavuot is based upon seven times seven; once again, Shavuot could be considered a “Shabbat Shabbaton.

The Jubilee Year (Yovel, in Hebrew) is a macro-version of these smaller cycles – Shabbat, Shavuot, and shmittah. In the weekly cycle, we count seven days; in the shmittah cycle, seven years. In the yearly cycle of holidays, we count seven weeks from Passover, and on the fiftieth day we celebrate the festival of Shavuot. On this day, the Torah was given to the nation that had been waiting expectantly from the moment of the Exodus until the Revelation at Sinai. Unfortunately, this is not the day we actually received the Torah. Moshe ascended the mountain to receive the Tablets from God and bring them down to earth, but the people below became fidgety, and made a Golden Calf. They were not ready to receive what God had given; the precious Tablets of Stone were destroyed.

Moshe ascended once again, interceded on behalf of the people and begged God to forgive them, and eventually received the second Tablets - on Yom Kippur, the day that would forever be associated with forgiveness. The root of this forgiveness lies in our being willing and able to receive the Torah on that day. In a sense, then, Yom Kippur is a spiritual “reset button,” cancelling debts we have incurred through sin throughout the year, just as the Yovel “resets” ownership and cancels monetary debts, cleaning the slate and allowing us to begin again as a society. This parallel is the first factor that explains the connection between Yovel and Yom Kippur.

To understand the second factor, we must appreciate the inner workings of the Jewish calendar. Our calendar is complicated: While the months are dictated by the new moon, the days begin and end with the rising and setting of the sun. While the date of the holidays are dependent on the appearance and disappearance of the moon, Shabbat is dependent on the setting of the sun at the end of the sixth day.

Shabbat was established directly by God; every seventh day since Creation has been, and always will be, Shabbat. No human input is involved. The holidays, on the other hand, have been “subcontracted” to man: The Jewish court decides when the new moon has appeared and, as a result, when the holidays begin. In a sense, we may say that the lunar cycle is a metaphor or an expression of our relationship with God: The moon’s light is a reflection of the sun; it has no luminescence of its own. Thus, the power of the Jewish court to determine when the holidays will be celebrated is a reflection, as it were, of God’s mastery of time, space and matter. Our mandate is given to us by God. The sun, the source of light and sustenance, represents God; the Jewish People is represented by the moon, as we reflect and imitate God’s creative and sustaining powers. (Of course, this is only a metaphor; the sun has no power of its own, and should never be an object of worship.)

So much for days and months; years are more complicated. Jewish holidays are comprised of both an historical and an agricultural component, and are therefore connected to particular seasons. For this reason, the calendar must be adjusted: The lunar months must maintain fidelity to the seasons of the solar year. And so, the Jewish calendar is comprised of solar days, lunar months, and solar years (with periodic corrections to compensate for the differences between them).

Then end of 12 lunar months will inevitably be ten days shorter than the solar year. Therefore, while Rosh Hashanah marks the start of the new calendric year, it is, in fact, ten days short in terms of the completion of the solar year. Thus, the calendar is adjusted every few years by the addition of an extra month, so the holidays remain in their proper seasons.

This unique system was the basis for a fascinating teaching of The Vilna Gaon (found in his commentary to Sifra Detzniuta chapter 2) that has far-reaching religious ramifications: The differential between the solar and lunar systems explains the efficacy of the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known as the “Ten Days of Repentance.” These ten days are the gap between the solar and lunar years, but in more than pure mathematical terms. Have we ever stopped to consider why it is that increased acts of kindness and more stringent observance during these ten days are effective in tipping the balance for the year that has just ended? If, in fact, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a new year, would it not make far more sense to attempt to influence the balance sheet before the year’s books are closed? How can acts performed on or after Rosh Hashanah impact the previous year? The Vilna Gaon explains that these ten days are, in fact, the last ten days of the previous solar year. The lunar year ends ten days earlier, and is marked by Rosh Hashanah, but the next ten days are a sort of calendric ex territoria; they are the point at which two systems overlap, and are therefore most efficacious for stock-taking, reevaluation, repentance –“reset.”

Similarly, the Chatam Sofer (in his commentary on Vayikra 25:9) records an insight he learned from his teacher, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, that involves this ten-day overlap: Due to the discrepancy between the lunar and solar years, the Jubilee year begins on Yom Kippur – ten days after Rosh Hashanah. The New Year is, indeed, celebrated on Rosh Hashanah, but the fiftieth year of the cycle, dictated by the agricultural calendar and thus by the sun, does not begin until ten days later, bringing us to Yom Kippur.

While we may wonder at the mathematical symmetry with which our calendar reconciles two systems and creates a unified Jewish calendar, we must not overlook the deeper philosophical message: The reconciliation of the lunar and solar cycles, which represent the Children of Israel and God, respectively, is imbedded in the Jewish life cycle. On Yom Kippur, full reconciliation is achieved – both in the mathematical sense and in the spiritual sense. On this day, we accept the Torah – the second Tablets, given to us despite our sins. On this day, in the Jubilee Year, we return the land to its proper owner. On this day, as our lunar months once again align with our solar years, we reconcile the sun with the moon, symbolic of the People of Israel redoubling their efforts towards reconciliation with God.

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