I live in Southern California, where the seasons match those in the land of Israel. Therefore, my own moods and sense of time are often congruent with the Jewish calendar and its days of observance. This allows me to insert myself into the mindset of our ancestors in an effort to decode their world view in my search for their secrets of faith and healing.
Calendars mirror their civilizations, and the Hebrew calendar, rising out of the societies from which the Jewish people emerged, reveals wisdom about the Jewish cultural psyche. The Hebrew calendar has roots in three places:
1. Mesopotamia, “The Land of the Two Rivers,” which was ruled by the capricious floods of the Tigris and Euphrates,
2. Egypt, which was regulated by the predictable flow of the Nile,
3. the places visited by the nomadic Semitic people (which included the ancient Hebrews) who roamed and farmed the lands of the Fertile Crescent and sometimes beyond, earth-focused people, who looked mostly to the sky for the moisture to sustain their crops.
The calendar of the more consistent Egyptian lifescape was divided by the three stable seasons of the sun and of the Nile, called Inundation, Emergence (season of farming), and Dryness. These seasons were as constant as the sun, which was their primary deity.
The chaotic nature of the Mesopotamian landscape called for a different theology, reflecting the unpredictable quality of life in “the Land Between the Rivers.”The ancient residents of the Mesopotamian city-states looked above to the more predictable transits of the moon and stars to find meaning. In an effort to weave heaven and earth together, they searched the heavens for recurrent signs to predict the timing of agricultural events. Astrology became an esteemed occupation. Scribes read the heavens, recording the events and leaving us thousands of years of records of the movements of the moon, stars, and planets. They created a mythic cycle of legends, which charted the correspondence between what was taking place on earth and what was happening above. From these efforts to correlate above and below, these Assyrian and Babylonian star watchers began to explain the cycles of the seasons and the stars by mythological and astrological stories created to make meaning out of these cyclical movements and their aberrations. From this evolved the system reflected in many of the names of the months in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Often there are surprising correlations between ancient Mesopotamian myths and the stories describing Jewish days of observation.
The other source of names for the Hebrew months were the Canaanite farmers who studied the cycles of the seasons as they searched for the practical information they revealed about caring for their crops. Their sense of time was embedded in the earth. Their calendar had no myths and legends, but was descriptive of the surrounding world. All three of these calendars have left marks in the Bible and on today’s Jewish calendar, which combine solar and lunar influences, while commemorating earthly events, both agricultural (such as harvests and floods) and historical.
The month of Tevet begins with the brightest lights of Chanukah, piercing the winter darkness just as the short days begin their slow ascent toward the sun-filled days of summer. This rainy month was considered extremely unlucky by the Babylonians, who believed that the ghosts of the elders emerged from the lower world during this time. Similar to our current practice on the last nights of Chanukah where our homes are ablaze with candle-lights, Babylonians, in the time of Ezekiel and Nehemiah, held ceremonies with burning braziers, as they commemorated the ascent of the elders and the kings from the lower world. One of their gods is said to open the gates, allowing the ghosts to return to sit in the council of the elders of the cities where they are lamented during the month, particularly on the tenth of Tevet.
The tenth of Tevet is a day of lamenting in Jewish historical mythology, as well. It is the day associated with the tragedy of breaching the wall of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, leading to the destruction of the first Temple, three years later. This day is observed on the Jewish liturgical calendar as a fast day.
Starring out of my own window as we approach the Tenth of Tevet, I see a tree, emptied of it leaves and a gloomy winter sky, heavy with moisture. In accordance with my own understanding of time, I braid a psychological element into the confluence of sun, moon and earth that is embedded in the Jewish calendar. I imagine myself called to sit at a council of elders to lament the season and stare at the foreboding breach in the wall. But with my accumulation of years, I cannot help but look beyond the breach and take comfort in the weight of winter and the coziness of my bed where I have been resting with a cold for the last several days.
I have lived the cycle of seasons for more than sixty years. I know that there is a time for lamenting and a time for dancing. I no longer fear winter and its restrictions. I embrace it as a time to rest and restore, as I look beyond the hole in the wall to see the seasons to come. Empowered by the lights I have lit in the company of my havurah on the last night of Chanukah, I look forward to the light returning to the sky and to the season of hope, which will begin at the end of January when we inaugurate a new president and prepare for the birthday of the trees.
Achtemier, Paul J., editor. HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. Harper-Collins. San Francisco, 1996.
Baigent, Michael. From the Omens of Babylon: Astrology and Ancient Mesopotamia. Arkana-Penguin Group. London, 1994.
Langdon, S. Babylonian Menologies and the Semitic Calendar: The Schweich Lectures, 1933,. Oxford University Press, London, 1935.