It took me a very long time to understand the year in the Jewish or Hebrew calendar and what it represents.
As a child when my parents told me, usually at Rosh Hashanah, what year it was in the Hebrew calendar, I always came away with a sense of befuddlement.
I never understood the reasoning behind the two calendars and the need for two.
As I grew and my learning of Judaism evolved, I then realized how special this calendar was. Although the sun brings us warmth and with this warm sustenance in the form of plant growth and food, it is the moon and its phases we most celebrate. (As a note, Jews do not use the words “A.D.” nor “B.C.” on a secular calendar because we do not believe Jesus is our Lord. We use C.E. and B.C.E., which means Common or Christian Era and Before the Common Era.)
It also gives us hope and renewal because of the moon's phases. These phases help us in case we “fall” during the month because when the moon renews itself we too can be renewed spiritually. So this Hebrew calendar is lunisolar and here in the USA, it is predominantly used for religious observances and many ceremonial uses, determines the dates for holidays, readings of the Torah, yahrzeits (dates to commemorate the death of a relative), and daily Psalm readings.
In Israel, this calendar is used for anything civil but also in agriculture.
It's tough to explain so I reached out to two Jewish friends for a little extra clarity and depth on the Hebrew calendar.
Howard Barry Schatz, who is my friend since my teenage years growing up in New York and the author of The Science of Religion: A Framework for Peace explained in an email: "The Hebrew calendar had its beginnings in the astronomy of ancient Sumer and Babylon, hundreds of years before the birth of Abraham (circa 1800 BCE). Time was measured according to careful observations of the sun and the moon. Modern astronomers say that the combined action of the sun and the moon is called luni-solar precession. Theoretically, or rather, theologically, if the world were free of sin and imperfection, the sun and the moon would be exactly synchronized: a 360-day solar year would take exactly 12 lunar months – but that is not the case. There are 6-hour tides, 12-hour days, 12-hour nights, 30-day months, and 360-day years, but these are all approximations," he wrote.
The important thing to remember, Schatz said, is, "the Hebrew calendar is an effort to synchronize the sun and the moon. But why would that matter to the Jewish people?
It matters because of the notion: as above – so below.
The microcosm of body and soul mirrors the macrocosm of the heavenly bodies," he added. "The sun’s motion is related to the fire element, which can be characterized by the natural spiritual tendency of the soul to ascend like a flame toward the fires of heaven; while the moon’s motion is associated with the soul’s descending water element, and its natural tendency to flow into material containers like the body.
A righteous Jew needs to purge sin and imperfection from the material body with 365 prohibitive commandments; while the 248 positive Commandments empowers the righteous to ascend like a flame and stand before God. In summation, the Hebrew calendar’s “marriage” between the sun and the moon reflects man’s marriage of body and soul through kavanah and mitzvots."
I also emailed Rabbi Uri Cohen who is now teaching in Ramat Beit Shemesh in Israel. I met him years ago at the Jewish Community Center in Syracuse.
Rabbi Uri Cohen further states: "As for the difference in what number you call this year, that is just based on when you start counting from. While the Christian calendar starts counting from when Jesus was born, the Islamic calendar starts counting from when Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina, and the Jewish calendar starts from when God created the world. That is why this coming year can be called 2013, 1434, or 5773," he said.
"Actually, the original Jewish approach was to count from an important event such as when the current king started his reign. However, in the Early Middle Ages, a midrash (book of rabbinic interpretation) called Seder Olam connected the dots of Biblical chronology and made a good guess as to when Adam and Eve lived. Moreover, ever since Seder Olam, the Jewish calendar has counted from creation."
Therefore, I've decided that on all my correspondence in 2012 and after Dec. 31, I will be writing 5773/2012 or 5773/2013. And after Rosh Hashanah 2013, it will be 5774/2013, merging these two calendars.
For me, that small act represents everyday life with the Divine.