What Is the Right Calendar? Addressing Calendar Disputes in Messianic Torah CommunitiesOctober 9, 2023
One of the amazing developments in the Messianic Torah movement has been the rediscovery of the biblical Sabbath and festivals. I recall when my family celebrated Sukkot (the Feast of Booths/Tabernacles) for the first time. We gathered with a few dozen friends and acquaintances in a neighbour’s barn, had some music and food, and blew on a couple shofars. It was an exciting experience that felt like uncovering an ancient treasure. Looking back, we really had no clue what we were doing, and we have learned a lot since then about how to observe the feasts. But the realization that God’s festivals are a precious gift, and that they teach us about his plan of salvation through Yeshua, is something I will never forget.
Leviticus 23 lists roughly seven different festivals (depending on how you count them), stating that these are God’s moadim (“appointed times”). God gave us these times as an opportunity to grow closer to him, remember the past (and the future), and enjoy fellowship with others. The Biblical calendar is an amazing teaching tool, and something that ought to unite us as followers of Yeshua.
A few years after our first Sukkot, however, we came to discover that the calendar could easily turn into a source of disunity rather than unity. I have personally seen issues surrounding the biblical calendar erupt into bitter disagreements. This is tragic. God gave us his moadim to unite us as his followers, but the enemy has twisted them into a source of disunity.
My goal in this article is not to resolve these disputes or make a definitive argument for one calendar over another. Nor is this article intended to address all the complexities involved with the biblical calendar or its historical observance. Rather, I want to offer four basic observations about calendar disputes as a way of framing the conversation. My goal here is to diffuse some of the tension that exists on the topic so that further dialogue can occur in a productive manner. This will be the first of a two-part discussion on this topic.
For the record, I choose to follow the majority Jewish (fixed) calendar, and I would encourage others to do the same. I am also deeply disturbed by a lot of misconceptions and false ideas that circulate freely online about the biblical calendar and related issues. Nonetheless, it is impossible to tackle those issues without first addressing some of the underlying issues that get in the way of even having a coherent conversation. I hope that this article can help clear the air so that we can begin asking the right questions, instead of speaking over one another.
1. Calendar is the single biggest source of conflict in the movement.
In 2017 I did a survey of Messianic Torah believers, which I included as an appendix to my thesis for TorahResource Institute. One of the survey questions asked respondents to identify the biggest source of conflict in the Messianic movement (p. 217). Unsurprisingly, calendar was at the top of the list. Calendar disputes may not be present in every Messianic Torah congregation, but for the larger body of Messianic Torah believers, conflict over calendar is one of the biggest obstacles to unity. This ought to grieve us.
Within the Messianic Torah movement, there are differing opinions on exactly how one should calculate the timing of God’s appointed times. The majority of Messianic congregations (including my own) follow what is often called the “rabbinic” (or “fixed”) calendar—the calendar used by the mainstream Jewish community today. This calendar follows mathematical pre-calculations to keep the months roughly in sync with the cycle of the moon, although sometimes there are discrepancies between these calculations and visual observation of the moon. There are many Torah believers, however, who feel that this calendar is in error, and that believers must observe the moon directly to determine their calendar. Some Torah believers propose yet other, more complex calendar systems, the details of which I will not delve into here. Each calendar variant has its proponents claiming that theirs is the true “Biblical” calendar. The result is that the subject of calendar often becomes contentious among Messianic Torah believers.
There are scores of variations on calendar observance among pro-Torah followers of Yeshua. Yet what fuels this disunity is not the variety of observances so much as the overall anxiety about “getting it right.” Believers become anxious about calendar issues because the stakes are high: it is a matter of obedience to God. Many assume that if we fail to get the right calendar, we are sinning just as much as if we abandoned the Torah’s moadim altogether, God forbid. Even those of us who follow the majority Jewish calendar are prone to becoming anxious about the subject. The higher the anxiety (on both sides), the greater the damage these debates cause.
2. Scripture is unclear on how the calendar is supposed to work.
There are two main reasons why calendar is such a contentious issue. First, the Torah does not give us enough details to construct a working calendar from scratch. While Scripture offers a few broad instructions about the calendar, it assumes an already-existing cycle of days, weeks, months, and years, and never explains in detail how it works. This means that any modern reconstruction of a working biblical calendar is forced to rely on tradition and history, or else make arbitrary innovations.
Second, the heavenly timepieces that God created as the basis of the calendar (Genesis 1:14) are out of sync with each other. The sun gives us days and years, while the moon gives us months, but these time periods do not fit together without some effort and creativity. There is not an even number of days in a lunar month, nor an even number of days or months in a year. Add to that the cycle of the seven-day week—which is not found in nature but is revealed by God—and it gets even more confusing: there is not an even number of weeks in either a lunar month or a solar year. The Bible never explains how to reconcile the discrepancies between these various cycles, although it assumes that some sort of reconciliation will take place: a month cannot start in the middle of the day, and a year has to keep in step with the seasons. This requires manipulation in the form of artificial intercalation or pre-calculation, although the Bible never instructs us on how to do that.
Jewish scholar Steven Fraade refers to this issue as “astronomical discordance.” He observes, “It is, therefore, impossible for a society to order its daily, weekly, and yearly patterns of communal life in concordance with the celestial astronomical cycles of creation, as Scripture would seem to require, without human manipulation of time, and the inevitability of devolving into societal dispute as to which concessions to make and according to whose authority to make them” (Fraade, “Theory, Practice, and Polemic in Ancient Jewish Calendars,” Dine Israel 26 : 149). The bottom line is that the Torah simply does not give us explicit instructions on how the calendar is supposed to work, and this is why there is disagreement on the subject.
3. Every calendar relies on tradition.
Since the Bible does not contain detailed instructions on the calendar, every iteration or reconstruction of the biblical calendar must rely on tradition. By “tradition,” I mean something that is not explicitly stated in or required by Scripture. The tradition one uses may be an ancient tradition, or it may be one’s own invention. Either way, in order to follow Scripture, we are forced to fill in the gaps with tradition. This is not bad, but it is important to recognize where Scripture ends and tradition begins. Too often people blur that distinction and confuse their own traditions with the biblical commandment. We must be firm about the clear command of Scripture, but when it comes to tradition we must be willing to show grace to those who differ.
On a related note, it is important to realize that almost all of our information about the workings of the biblical calendar come from rabbinic literature. It is common for people to describe the fixed calendar as “rabbinic” and a calendar that relies on the sighting of the new moon as “biblical.” In fact, both calendars are rabbinic. The procedures for sighting the new moon and determining intercalation come almost exclusively from rabbinic literature. It is ironic that some proponents of a sighted-moon calendar have a fierce anti-rabbinic attitude, even though they rely on rabbinic literature for their reconstruction of the calendar. Recognizing that both types of calendars come from rabbinic tradition ought to help defuse some of the tension surrounding the role of rabbinic literature. Rabbinic literature is tradition, not Scripture, but that doesn’t make it necessarily bad. (Although, using rabbinic literature can be tricky; see below.)
These observations suggest an important implication: Since the precise working of the calendar is tradition, and tradition is less important than the clear command of Scripture, this means that keeping the moadim is more important than getting the “right” calendar. Of course, there is a paradox here. How can we keep the moadim without the right calendar? What I am suggesting is that the intention of keeping the moadim is primary, and the timing is secondary. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not saying we can make up whatever time we want to observe the moadim. Rather, I am saying that there is a big difference between someone who intends to celebrate Sukkot at the right time in the seventh month—even if they are technically off by a day or two—and someone like Jeroboam who rejected the feast of Sukkot and made up his own feast in the eighth month (1 Kings 12:32). I believe God honours the former but hates the latter.
4. We cannot resolve calendar disputes by appeals to authority.
All this leads to the thorny issue of authority. Who has the authority to determine which calendar is right? Who has the authority to determine halakha (how to walk out the Torah) in general? When Scripture is unclear, on what basis do we choose between the various options in front of us? This is a complicated issue that is not easily dismissed. As tempting as it is, I am convinced that we will never resolve calendar debates through appeals to authority. It is easy for us to say that the Bible or Yeshua is our authority, which is true, but this does not really get us anywhere since the Bible (including Yeshua’s teachings) does not address calendar issues in enough detail.
Some Torah believers appeal to rabbinic Judaism as a halakhic authority. This is problematic on several fronts. While I have great respect for Jewish tradition and I think rabbinic literature can be valuable, it is important to see the rabbinic claim for authority for what it is: a rival bid for power. This is a large subject that I cannot address in detail here but hope to cover in future articles. Suffice it to say that although rabbinic literature can be valuable, it does not hold halakhic authority over believers. Moreover, rabbinic sources must be used with caution when trying to extract historical information out of them. The earliest rabbinic writings were written centuries after Yeshua, and it is naïve to assume that everything they say accurately reflects life in the Second Temple era.
As just one example which is pertinent to our topic, take the rabbinic portrayal of the Sanhedrin. The word “sanhedrin” is a Greek loanword (συνήδριον, synedrion) which simply means “council.” This word appears frequently in Second Temple sources. Previous scholars used to assume that when these sources talk about a “sanhedrin/synedrion,” they were referring to what is described in rabbinic literature: a high court of seventy elders that handled legal and political affairs on behalf of the nation. Scholars now realize, however, that this is false. Second Temple sources, including both the Gospels and Josephus, are in complete agreement that there was no single “Sanhedrin” over the people. Instead, there were many little synedria (councils) that were convened on an ad hoc basis from time to time. We read about leaders (such as Herod or the chief priests) calling together a council to try a specific case, and then calling together a different council when the next case arises. A close reading of the historical data demonstrates that rabbinic literature offers a fictional idealized portrait based on a conflation of Numbers 11 with Deuteronomy 17. In short, “THE Sanhedrin” is a rabbinic invention with no basis in actual history. The rabbis are describing the way they would have liked things to be, not the way things actually were. (For more on this subject, check out E. P. Sanders’s book, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 63 BCE–66 CE.)
Thus, we must be very careful in the way we use rabbinic literature. Sometimes this literature describes common practice (which is not necessarily “rabbinic”), sometimes it describes a minority opinion, and sometimes it describes what (certain) rabbis wished to be the case. This affects the way we understand descriptions of calendar observances in rabbinic literature. For instance, it is unclear to what extent “sanctifying the new moon” affected the average Jew’s observance, or whether this ritual was even practiced in Temple times. Similarly, scholars debate the extent to which the “signal fire” stories reflect reality (m.Rosh Hashanah 2:2–4). Even these stories claim that the signal fires only went to Galilee and Babylonia, and they only functioned temporarily. It is unrealistic to assume that the entire Jewish diaspora waited for the ruling from Jerusalem to determine the date for the festivals. Although most Jews had respect for the Temple, there was no central Sanhedrin to which the Torah compelled all Jews to submit. The rabbinic claim to an unbroken chain of transmission from Moses to the rabbis (m.Pirkei Avot 1) is pure propaganda, similar to the Pope’s claim to an unbroken chain from Peter. Don’t get me wrong: I think rabbinic literature is immensely valuable. But it cannot be our authority as believers. It belongs in the category of tradition.
This brings us back to the previous point: the workings of the calendar are tradition. As followers of Yeshua, we must distinguish between Scripture and tradition. When it comes to the clear command of Scripture, we cannot compromise. When it comes to tradition, however, we have to have a certain tolerance for differences. This is not always easy, because differences often make people feel uncomfortable. But it is vital that we prioritize Scripture above all tradition, and that includes the precise workings of the calendar.
These are just a few of the points that must precede any productive discussion about calendar disputes. In the sequel to this article, I will raise a few more salient points, and also provide a non-confrontational explanation of why I choose to follow the majority Jewish (fixed) calendar. Our goal must always be to follow Yeshua by walking in love, grace and humility toward our brothers and sisters in Messiah.