Tomorrow, February 2nd, is Groundhog Day, when thousands breathlessly wait to see if the groundhog is scared into six more weeks of hibernation by the sight of his shadow. This tradition reveals one constant truth, the universal desire for spring.
The Bible refers to the Passover festival as Chag Ha'Aviv, the Holiday of the Spring. Because the Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle, however, the months drift out of season* and an extra month is occasionally added to the calendar to balance it.
Before the creation of the fixed calendar we use today, it was up to the sages to determine which years would warrant an extra month in order to guarantee the celebration of Passover in the spring. The Talmudic tractate Sanhedrin discusses at length the rules guiding the sages decision, such as “The year may not be intercalated** before Rosh Hashana, and if it is intercalated, the intercalation is invalid” (Sanhedrin 12a).
Since the sages did not have Punxsutawney Phil to help them determine how long it would take until the arrival of spring, and the land of Israel is not one known for its dramatic winters, the sages had to evaluate the coming of the spring based on the ripeness of different crops and other signs of nature.
It is interesting to note that the sages were also permitted to take into consideration practical issues such as intercalating "where it is necessary either for [the improvement of] roads or for [the repair of] bridges..." (Sanhedrin 11a).
*Note this year’s “early Passover” will begin on the evening of March 25th. Next year will be a leap year on the Jewish calendar, so Passover will be celebrated in April.
**Intercalated: To insert in a calendar
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