Rosh Hashanah
Israelis walking past a shop selling pomegranates in Mahaneh Yehuda Market in central Jerusalem. Photo by Reuters
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Why is this Jewish New Year different from all other Jewish New Years?

On all other Jewish New Years, we dip apples in honey, prepare outlandishly large holiday meals, go to synagogue, hoping and praying that we are inscribed in the book of life.

But this year, we’re doing it all really, really early. Crazy early. Historically, once-in-a-lifetime early.

As we know by now, the Rosh Hashanah holiday eve of 5774 arrives on Wednesday, September 4. For American Jews, it meant having the very strange feeling of simply extending Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of the summer, the last days at the beach into an entire week of holiday. Israelis are far more used to beach weather on the Jewish New Year, with a climate that regularly extends bathing suit season well through September and into October and even November. So the weather wasn’t an issue for Israelis, but early Rosh Hashanah was definitely a major headache for parents - the kids only just headed back to school after a two-month summer break and after a single week, they are back at home for the duration of the High Holy Days.

How unusual is this development of super-early holidays? Since I am no expert, I turned to my Internet rabbis - all of whom concur: this year’s Jewish calendar situation is highly unusual.

According to Rabbi Jason Miller, the last time Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot came this early was 1899 and the next time will be 2089.  It has has never occurred in our lifetime and won’t ever again.

But the bikini-weather High Holy Days are only the opening act to the real excitement generated by this year’s crazy Jewish calendar, at least among American Jews. The star of the show is the super-early appearance of Hannukah, putting it, for the first time for all of us, on the all-American holiday of Thanksgiving.

The first day of Hannukah - Thursday, November 28, 2013 - is also Thanksgiving - a situation that is even more of a historical anomaly than early Rosh Hashanah. One blogger named Jonathan Mizrahi took the time and trouble to explain in detail- complete with illustrative mathematical charts - why it has never happened before and will never happen again. Never. Not just in our lifetimes. Ever. He writes:

“Thanksgiving is set as the fourth Thursday in November, meaning the latest it can be is 11/28. 11/28 is also the earliest Hanukkah can be. The Jewish calendar repeats on a 19 year cycle, and Thanksgiving repeats on a 7 year cycle. You would therefore expect them to coincide roughly every 19x7 = 133 years. Looking back, this is approximately correct – the last time it would have happened is 1861. However, Thanksgiving was only formally established by President Lincoln in 1863. So, it has never happened before.

Why won't it ever happen again?

The reason is because the Jewish calendar is very slowly getting out of sync with the solar calendar, at a rate of 4 days per 1000 years (not bad for a many centuries old calendar!) This means that while presently Hanukkah can be as early as 11/28, over the years the calendar will drift forward, such that the earliest Hanukkah can be is 11/29. The last time Hanukkah falls on 11/28 is 2146 (which happens to be a Monday). Therefore, 2013 is the only time Hanukkah will ever overlap with Thanksgiving.”

And in case you were wondering, he adds,

“if the Jewish calendar is never modified in any way, then it will slowly move forward through the Gregorian calendar, until it loops all the way back to where it is now. So, Hanukkah will again fall on Thursday, 11/28...in the year 79,811.”

Since none of us can reasonably expect to make it until five-digit years, we’d better exploit the one-time-only Thanksgivukkah - as it’s been dubbed - while we can. There is already plenty of pre-holiday buzz happening online - the event is already enough of a phenomenon that it has its own Twitter account and Facebook page.

Folks have begun talking about it in the non-virtual world as well. Around my house (yes, we live in Israel, but like many expats, we are Thanksgiving-observant.) the menu possibilities are flying fast and furious. What will we serve? Sweet potato latkes? Cranberry sufganiyot, perhaps?  

Let’s not forget appropriate Thanksgivukkah accessories. An enterprising guy named Anthony Weintraub has seen his idea for a turkey-shaped menorah called a “Menurkey” go viral - his video is what alerted many people to the existence of Thanksgivukkah 2013. In the Kickstarter campaign Weintraub launched in order to raise enough money to manufacture the bird with candles in its tail feathers, he hit his $25,000 goal in just a week and has now exceeded it by raising $35,000. His success is sure to inspire others to jump on the bandwagon - turkey-shaped dreidels, anyone?

So what happens to the Jewish calendar after the last candle on the Menurkey burns out? Well, I pity the folks in cold climates who will have to try to get a spade into the frozen soil and plant a tree on Tu Bishvat, which falls on January 16.

That will be the last insanely early holiday. Why? Because the rabbis have decreed that it will all grind to a halt in the month of Adar when the calendar will then be ‘corrected’ in a leap year.

Unlike the Gregorian leap year, the Jewish version doesn’t involve just adding a day or two. You put in a real leap - adding a whole month, or more accurately, repeating a month.

So the “first” calendar month of Adar begins on January 31. If we were simply taking it from there in a regular year, we’d be in for a seriously frosty Purim and Passover. In fact, we would have a second super-cool holiday combination, with Purim falling on February 14, Valentine’s Day. But sadly, there’s no hope for this potential awesome Cupid-meets-Queen-Esther costume opportunity. Instead, order is restored to the Jewish holiday universe with a do-over second month of Adar - Adar II- which starts on March 2.

This will bump the future holidays into their proper seasons. Purim will be celebrated during Adar II in March, and then Passover in April, where it belongs (last year we had a chilly, and in some places, snowy, March seder night).

With the calendar correction, the following year shifts back into boring predictability. In 5775, Rosh Hashanah will be on September 24, and Hannukah will begin on December 16 and end on December 24 - Christmas Eve.

I suppose when that time comes, we’ll gaze nostalgically at the Menurkey on the shelf, a souvenir reminder of the crazy Jewish year that was. But not yet. Right now, we can slap on the Rosh Hashanah sunscreen and look forward to the Thanksgivukkah fun.