The leap year of 5784 brings with it an extra holiday.
Tu B’Shevat, the New Year of the Trees and the kickoff of the spring holiday season, came early this year—January 25. It is rarely easy to credit Tu B’Shevat, which generally occurs in February, as the time when trees are accelerating their above-ground growth, but in leap years, it is well-nigh impossible. The reason for this is that seasons are determined by the revolution of the Earth around the sun, which takes 365.25 days—the solar year. Because days are determined by the earth’s rotation around its axis, the .25 day is unaccounted for until the calendar falls behind by a day after four years and the extra day is added at the end of February.
Thus, specific dates in the solar calendar find themselves in the same part of the same season year after year. Not so, however, in the Jewish calendar, which is based on the moon. Because only 29.5 days elapse from one new moon to the next, there are only 354 days in the Jewish year, which therefore falls behind the solar year a lot faster and farther than one day every four years.
Yet, if the calendar did fall behind and stayed there, would building a snowman on the Fourth of July be so disastrous? Perhaps not, but with a Jewish calendar, that is not an option. The Torah requires that Passover be celebrated in spring (Deuteronomy 16:1) and that Sukkoth be celebrated when the harvest is gathered in (Deuteronomy 16:13). Thus, days must be added and not just one or two.
In the old days—the very old days, when the Sanhedrin was in session—each month began on the day of the new moon, as it does now. The difference is that, unlike today, the determination of the date of the beginning of the month was based on actual observations of the new moon by competent witnesses. The nation was then informed by beacons, i.e., fires lit on hilltops, that the month was beginning. At the end of the year, the Sanhedrin would make whatever adjustment was necessary.
Because Nissan is the first month of the year (Exodus 11:2), Adar is the last, and that is when any extra month was added as required either by the divergence from the solar year or by the state of the weather or even the maturity of the crops—barley had to be ready for the counting of the omer, for instance. Such a system has its drawbacks, not the least of which is the amount of time it takes for the news to reach an expanding diaspora. During the first half of the first millennium C.E., a 19-year cycle, including seven leap years, was established, and by 10th century, the calendar was fixed in its current form, according to which 5784 is a leap year and thus has two months of Adar: Adar I and Adar II.
If Tu B’Shevat represents the beginning of the holiday season, Purim on Adar 14 is the next milestone before the progression from slavery to freedom on Passover and to receiving the Torah on Shavuoth seven weeks later. For this reason, in a leap year Purim is celebrated in Adar II to be closer to Passover. By the same token, 14 Adar I was not to be forgotten. It is celebrated as Purim Katan, “Little Purim.” (Talmud, Megillah 6b).
The Code of Jewish Law (Shulhan Aruch, Orach Hayim 697:1) states that Purim Katan is celebrated exactly the same way as Purim is, except that there is no Megillah reading, no special prayers of thanksgiving for miracles, no sending gifts to friends and no special gifts to the poor. What is left? In the synagogue, certain mournful prayers are not recited, eulogies are not delivered and fasting is not permitted. And then there is also the Purim feast.
The Code of Jewish Law adjures us to mark Purim Katan with a festive meal by adding a special dish or two. According to Rabbi Yaakov Tesser of Young Israel of Aberdeen, like the typical Purim Seudah, the meal may commence in the afternoon and continue into the evening, although most people do not do so.
This year Purim Katan falls on Friday, February 23, so a prolonged Seudah would not be practical. A festive luncheon, on the other hand, would be a good way to honor the holiday in its own right, minor though it may be, and to anticipate the full celebration of Purim next month. (Before you decide to dress in costume, however, it would be best to consult a Rabbi.)
A freilichen Purim Katan!
Sue Kleinberg is a contributing writer for JLifeNJ from Monmouth County.