Jewish Time: Counting the Omer and the 19 Year Cycle

By Clare Kinberg

8d87b6c94cb0063ffae44d8ad207432fBecause my brother, Rabbi Myron Kinberg (his name is a blessing) died on April 19, 1996, which was the 30th of Nissan, I learned this year about the 19-year cycle of the Jewish calendar. This year, for the first time since he died 19 years ago, the secular date and the Hebrew date of his yahrtzeit coincided. This got me thinking about Jewish time. I knew that the Jewish calendar is a lunar-solar calendar; now I’m trying to come closer to (even a little) understanding of what that means. In astronomy, there is a natural 19-year cycle between the sun and the moon, called the Metonic Cycle. Every 19 years, or approximately 6940 days, the moon will have gone through 235 complete phase rotations, making the day of the month and day of the year the same. The Gregorian calendar uses 12-months in a year; 19 years of 12 months gives us 228 total months. The 228 months are seven less than the required 235 months of the Metonic Cycle. In the modern Hebrew calendar, the extra seven months are added in the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years. During those “leap” years, the Hebrew calendar has 13 months. Perhaps the mathematicians among us will take some time to further explain this to me next time we meet!

There is another reason I am thinking about Jewish time. As I write this on April 21, the 2nd of Iyyar, it is the 17th day of counting the Omer, the Jewish ritual of counting the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. There are many ways to think about these seven weeks. In an agricultural sense, it is the time between the early spring planting of the barley and its harvest, reminding us of our roots as an agricultural society. In a literary, metaphorical sense, the 49 days of the Omer is the time in which we entered the desert, crossed the sea, rejoiced, got thirsty and hungry, followed the cloud and stood at the foot of a mountain learning how to continue on as a people. Jewish mystics attended to these days as an inner journey. Rabbi Yael Levy explains the connections among all this in a beautiful Huffpost blog. On the last day of counting the Omer this year, May 22nd, we will be together for a special fourth Friday Shabbat potluck and dance party to honor and send off Rabbi Michal. The next day, Shavuot, will offer another opportunity to get together and study. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) is remembered as saying that the “catechism” of the Jews, our educational maxim, is our calendar. Our practice, our beliefs, our history, our spirituality all have expression in the days, weeks and months of the yearly cycle. Jewish time will be among the things I will be thinking about this Shavuot.