The Day of Atonement

The fragment of Leviticus 23, described here in Biblical Reproductions blog, includes verses 26 and following, and deals with YomKippur, the Day of Atonement, holiest day of the Hebrew calendar. The text of verses 26 -28 reads-

26 The Lord said to Moses,  27 The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. Hold a sacred assembly and deny yourselves,  and present a food offering to the Lord.  28 Do not do any work on that day, because it is the Day of Atonement, when atonement is made for you before the Lord your God.

This is the only day on our list which is a fast day, (although the text says only “‘you shall deny yourselves”) emphasizing its supreme importance.

One notes, however, that the Day of Atonement is mandated in the book of Leviticus for “the tenth day of the seventh month.” The SEVENTH month?  Anyone familiar with the Hebrew calendar knows that the Day of Atonement comes just ten days after Rosh HaShanah, the  New Year, which is, by definition, the FIRST month of the year!

Which month is therefore the first month of the year? Leviticus is clear and uncompromising about when the year starts. The very first verses of Chapter 23 fix the Passover on the 14th and 15th day “of the first month” (Leviticus. 23:5-6).  It is clear that the writers of the Bible intended the year to start in the springtime, at Passover, and not in the fall, as it does now. What, we may well ask, has happened to our calendar?

The matter is solved in the Mishnah, in Chapter 1 of the tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah.   It is written there that there are four New Years.

a) The first of Nissan [the month of the springtime —Passover is here], is the New Year for Kings and Festivals,

b) The first of Elul [later in the summer] is the New Year for the tithing of animals, 

c) The first of Tishrei  [a month later, in the early fall, where Rosh ha-Shanah  falls] is the New Year for the years, for Sabbatical years, for Jubilee years…, and

d) The first of Shevat [mid-winter] is the New Year of the trees.

The fixing of the calendar in its present form is widely credited to the Patriarch Hillel II. He governed the Jewish community in the mid-fourth century CE in a period of turmoil after the revolt of the Jews against the Roman emperor Gallus (351-352 CE). The Romans attempted to limit the authority of the Jewish Patriarchs by denying them, among other things, the right to fix the calendar and determine holidays. Hillel II published a book determining once and for all when the holidays fell, when it was necessary to add days to make the Hebrew calendar fit the solar calendar—there is an 11-day difference between the lunar and the solar years—and other matters. The year usually given is 358 CE, and our present calendar seems to date from then.

Author: Walter Zanger