Did you know that in Ethiopia, Christmas is celebrated on January 7?
Yes, that’s correct. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church – along with the Egyptian Coptic Church many centuries ago – calculated it’s own date for Jesus’ birth, and it’s not December 25.
How could this be? Every Western child – even Jewish ones – knows the date of Jesus’ birth as December 25.
The short answer is that in Ethiopia they operate with a different calendar. The do not follow the Gregorian calendar with 12 months but instead follow a calendar with 13 months. One month only has five or six days. Ethiopia celebrates the new year on September 11 not January 1, and today Ethiopia is in the year 2015.
It’s a little mind bending to think about. And it might seem strange to pay attention to Christmas in my monthly rabbi letter.
But thinking about this alternate calendar led me to a Jewish connection.
Judaism famously values debate and contrasting opinions. Our Talmud, the 63 tractate compendium of Jewish law, is 63 tractates because so many of the alternating opinions and rationale for those opinions are included in the final text. In the Talmud, we don’t have a 10 Commandment style list of laws. We have an encyclopedia style work of meandering debate in which it is often hard to find the actual bottom line law stated clearly.
The Jewish calendar is a complicated tool. It too has a leap month and different number of days each month. But thankfully it has been standardized for many centuries. The hebrew date is uniform around the world. Hanukkah begins on 25 Kislev, corresponding to after sundown on December 18 this year.
Like the Ethiopian church, we have our own calendar and our own counting system that differ from the secular calendar. What I find interesting is that for all the Jewish acceptance of many opinions and diversity, the calendar was not up for debate. Perhaps way back when, the calendar was debated in the study halls and legal courts of the ancient Jewish world. (Knowing Jews it probably was!) But the value of Jewish unity won out on this issue. Sharing a calendar as a worldwide Jewish community was a core value that has been transmitted to us today.
So how do we know the difference? When we need to unify and when we can allow for debate and diversity? Why as Jews do we agree to one calendar but not to one definition of what’s kosher on Passover or how we name Jewish children (after living or dead relatives) or even who is a Jew (Jewish mother or father)?
I can’t fully answer that. But my sense is that Judaism leans toward diversity more than uniformity. At least as I see it … Judaism is a safe place for many types of practices. If my Judaism means I eat rice on Passover and yours means you don’t, we can still co-exist in a shared Jewish community. However, if I calculate that Hanukah begins on the 26 of Kislev or that Shabbat is on Wednesday, then we can’t share Jewish life together.
The Jewish calendar is a central tool in unifying us as a people. How we observe our holy days can vary greatly, but the shared power of being in a holy time together, that transcends our individual need to make our own schedules.
In this month of holidays and celebration when we are acutely aware of dates and time – days off from school and work and holiday dates – it is meaningful to me to consider the calendar as a spiritual force that unites us as a Jewish people. And at the same time, it’s important to remember that even an obvious “fact” like today’s date, is not as universal as we might think.
I wish you Hanukah of much brightness and warmth,
Rabbi Amy Rader