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December 4 and V’tein Tal U-Matar: Calendar Insights

In a previous column, I wrote about the history of the Balfour Declaration. As a side point, it is interesting to discuss a calendar issue related to the Declaration. The Balfour Declaration was issued in England on Nov. 2, 1917. But it preceded the “1917 October Revolution” in Russia by a few days. How could this be? If it was November in England, was it not November in Russia?

Actually, it was still October in Russia. At that time, Russia was still following the Julian calendar, even though much of the world had already moved on to the Gregorian calendar. The Gregorian calendar was instituted in 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII decided to drop 10 days from the calendar, as part of a long-needed calendar correction. Aside from the dropping of the 10 days, it was also decided that leap years would be eliminated in years not divisible by 400.

In the new Gregorian calendar, the day after Thursday, Oct. 4, 1582, was declared to be Friday, October 15. England and its colonies (including America) adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1752. But Russia did not change over until after the 1917 October revolution. Today, we take it for granted that all countries use the same calendar date. But as we have just seen, this is only a relatively recent phenomenon.

Those omitted 10 days in 1582 have an important ramification for us in the context of the “v’tein tal u-matar” request in the ninth blessing of the Amidah. According to the Talmud (Taanit 10a), the time for this request in Babylonia (which the entire now-Diaspora follows) is 60 days after the autumnal equinox. The autumnal equinox usually falls on Sept. 22 or 23. If it fell on Sept. 22, the 60th day after would be Nov. 20. So why do we Diasporans today not commence the recitation until Dec. 4 (Maariv)? The loss of those 10 days in 1582 is one of the factors that causes our present request date to be long after Nov. 20.

The other factor that changes the v’tein tal u-matar date is that the Gregorian calendar eliminated the leap years in years not divisible by 400. The result of this is that the v’tein tal u-matar date (which corresponds with the Julian calendar) moves forward three days every 400 years. It moved forward one day in the years 1700, 1800 and 1900, but not in the year 2000. It will move forward one day again in 2100, 2200 and 2300, but not in 2400.

The main v’tein tal u-matar date since 1900 has been the maariv of Dec. 4. (It is Dec. 4 for the first three years, then the fourth year goes to Dec. 5. It then reverts back to Dec. 4 for the next three years. This cycle repeats throughout.) Therefore, in 2100, the main date will be Dec. 5 and in 2200 it will be Dec. 6, continuing to progress forward three days every 400 years.

It turns out that Artscroll was very fortunate. Since there was no adjustment in the year 2000 (because it was a leap year in the Gregorian calendar), all those siddurim that they commenced publishing at the end of the 20th century will have the correct v’tein tal u-matar date for 120 years! Eventually, approximately 35,000 years from now, the date for the recital of v’tein tal u-matar in the Diaspora will be Passover time! This wayward Diaspora problem is, of course, another incentive to move to Israel! (But presumably the Messiah will have arrived long before then!)

A very interesting issue that arose in connection with the date for v’tein tal u-matar is what date the Jews in the non-Babylonian Diaspora should begin saying it. The accepted date for its recital in Palestine became the 7th of Marcheshvan (based on the view of R. Gamliel, Taanit 1:3), and the Talmud records (Taanit 10a) that in the “Golah” (Babylonia) the recital would not begin until 60 days from the autumnal equinox. But there is no guidance in the Talmud as to what Jews in other countries should do. This was of little concern in the Talmudic and Geonic periods, when most of world Jewry lived in either Palestine or Babylonia. But as Jews spread throughout the world, the issue arose.

The Rosh, writing in the 13th century, admitted that the widespread custom in his time in Europe was to follow the Babylonian v’tein tal u-matar date. But he admits that he does not understand why, as most lands need rain long before the 60th day from the autumnal equinox, even if Babylonia did not. The Rosh mentions that he saw a custom in Provence of following the 7th of Marcheshvan date and that this custom was yashar me’od (very logical) in his eyes. Also, the Rambam, in his commentary on Mishnah Taanit (first chapter) wrote that each country should begin to recite v’tein tal u-matar at the time appropriate for their specific country. But most authorities felt that the Babylonian date was appropriate for the entire Diaspora, and this was R. Yosef Caro’s ruling in Orach Chayim 117. (The Rambam changed his mind and took a very similar approach in his Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillah 2:16.)

Regarding the name of the second month, I called it Marcheshvan, because that was its original name, not Cheshvan. Marcheshvan is always how it is written in the Mishnah. It is the Akkadian form of what would be in Hebrew: yerach shemonah (eighth month). The reason people do not realize that the original name of the month is Marcheshvan is that the name of this month did not make it into Tanach. A few of our other present month names also never made it into Tanach: Tishrei, Iyar, Tamuz and Av. (Although Tamuz is in Tanach as the name of an ancient God! See Ezekiel 8:14.)

Yemenite Jewry has a different pronunciation of Marcheshvan. They pronounce it Marach-sha’wan. (My friend Yehiel Levy will confirm this and pronounce it for you!) This sounds closer to yerach shemonah and is probably a more accurate pronunciation than our Mar-cheshvan.

Regarding the name of the first month, Yemenite Jewry pronounces it Tishri. The reason the variant tradition for Tishrei/Tishri exists is that the name of the month is not in Tanach. If it were, we could all point to the word in Tanach and its vocalization and resolve the issue. Here, too, probably Yemenite Jewry preserves the more accurate tradition.

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. His recently published book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy” (Kodesh Press, 2015). He can be reached at [email protected].

 

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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