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The Jewish Leap Year

The Nineteen-Year Marriage

The Nineteen-Year Marriage

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She's volatile and impulsive, her see-sawing emotions punctuated by bursts of inspired creativity. Occasionally, her luminous personality shines like the full moon; equally frequent, however, are periods of dysfunctional darkness. The rest of the time she vacillates between these extremes, so that one usually finds her in genteel decline or in the throes of painstaking recovery.

He's stolid, dependable, as regular as tomorrow's sunrise. He gets up every morning to catch the train and is always home on time for dinner. At work he's efficient, productive and a stalwart upholder of company policy. His steady gaze benignly looks upon the effervescent surface of his spouse's life.

As can be expected, theirs is not an easy marriage. Their lives do not turn in tandem. Often one sees him forging ahead, her wan figure trailing behind; other times it is he who lags behind as she's impelled forward by one of her bursts of momentum.

But they keep at it. Once every nineteen years their efforts are rewarded. Their disparate life-trajectories merge, and they enjoy a moment of harmony.


The first thing that the newly-born nation of Israel was told to do as they prepared to leave Egypt was not to circumcise themselves, proclaim a state or bake matzos. It was to formulate the Jewish calendar.

Time, after all, is our most precious resource; when it comes down to it, time is all we've got. More than anything else, the way that we quantify and experience time defines who and what we are.

And the Jew has what is probably the most complex calendar known to man.

What makes the Jewish calendar so complicated is its insistence upon reconciling the solar and lunar cycles into a single system. The 29.5 day lunar cycle is the source for the time unit we call "month"; the 365.25 day solar cycle produces the annual cycle of seasons we call "year." The problem is that these two cycles are not compatible with each other -- twelve lunar months add up to 354 days, more than 11 days short of a solar year.

So most calendars pick one of these systems and run with it. The lunar-based Moslem calendar, for example, completely ignores the solar cycle. And the solar-based Gregorian calendar (the "secular" calendar that has become a near-universal standard) is completely disassociated from lunar time.

But in the first mitzvah to be commanded to the people of Israel, G‑d instructed Moses to base the Jewish calendar on the phases of the moon, yet to also make it consistent with the solar seasons. The only way to marry these two diverse time-trajectories (without compromising the integrity of either system) is to create a nineteen-year cycle that includes six different types of years: the Jewish year consists of either 12 or 13 months, and is either 353, 354, 355, 383, 384 or 385 days long.

On the third year of the 19-year cycle (by which time the lunar "year" has fallen 33 days behind the solar) an extra month is added, which almost, but not quite, closes the gap. On the 6th year, the process is repeated. On the 8th year, a 13th month actually set the lunar year a few days ahead. But not for long. Soon it once more lags behind. Only at the close of the nineteenth year do the two time-cycles converge.


Why make things so complicated? Because Jewish life is driven by the determination to effect a marriage between these two unlikely spouses.

Jewish time is basically lunar, linked to the moon's monthly rise and fall. Like the moon, we experience times of decline, even moments of obliterating darkness, only to rise again to luminescent fullness. We live our lives with the moon because we wish to harness the distinct qualities of lunar energy: its courage and creativity, its capacity for renaissance and rebirth.

But we are equally determined to incorporate into our lives the surety and continuity of the sun. Life must be creative, but it must also be grounded in unequivocal truths; life is about perpetual self reinvention, but also about faithfulness and consistency.

Trying to ride both time-streams simultaneously is no simple task. The easiest thing to do would be to get a divorce and follow one path through life. But Jews are notorious for their refusal to accept the easier solution.

Based on the talks and writings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson; rendered by Yanki Tauber.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous New York March 11, 2016

19 Year Cycle Question Is this month of Adar II (secular year 2016) at the end of the 19 year cycle ie when the solar and lunar calenders 'match'? Thank you. Reply

Oluyemi A Issachar August 26, 2014

Perfect Marriage Strategy for Mankind Most failed marriages would have subsisted if couples understand the cycles of the Sun and the moon. The concept of the "Blue Moon" marks the reconciliation month of the 19th year when there are 2 full moons in one month. Most couples cannot fathom the 'lags' and the 'leads' in the roles of the 'Sun' and 'Moon' on the time scale. Groom is Sun and Bride is Moon; no wonder Joseph's dream of the Sun and the moon describes his Father and Mother and the Psalms describes the Sun as a Groom coming out of his bed chamber in rising! In essence spouses should understand that lead roles are interchangeable between spouses even as the Sun has light and heat and the moon has neither! Reply

Jeremy McKinnon Ridgeley WV February 1, 2014

This metaphor and your introduction spoked to me on so many levels I was astonished and edified by the beauty of the Metaphor and its Scriptural basis. I have seen marriages which so closely resemble the metaphor you so eloquently inspire us with. Recognizing the overarching genius of this cosmic arrangement, I am humbled by how profoundly it speaks of that transcendent Divine wisdom that so harmoniously reconciles the Divine understanding of the Universe with His creatures' needs and.guidance. Thank you. Reply

Heather Richmond Hill October 6, 2013

I learn so much on this site :) the 19 year marriage is so interesting and beautiful Reply

Anonymous USA February 10, 2013

The Nineteen Year Marriage This is such a beautiful, romantic, and yet puzzling idealistic marriage. If only all earthly, realistic marriages were like this story, then they would definitely last until death apart. It is a good thing to idealize it though. Happy dreams are good for the soul. May we all in this worl come to the realization that marriage is a fulfillment of Hashem's, blessed be He, will and fulfillment of a better world. Together with him as a Partner in creation, Mashiach will come. And then completeness. Reply

Naomi Garbo SLC, UT/USA via jewishutah.com January 28, 2012

Jewish Calendar Thank you for the reminder that life is perpetual reconciling with our creator. I did not know that "Moslem ignores" such a solar cycle. That information is helpful to me because I have the pleasure of a mixed household. Guess I should read up more about "calendars". Reply

Mrs. lisa huntsman August 1, 2011

The Nineteen Year Marriage Wow! This is exactly what I needed at the tine that i need it most. Reply

Menachem Posner for Chabad.org February 24, 2010

RE: 19 year marriage We are now in the 13th year of the 304th cycle since creation. The next 19-year cycle will begin in the year 5777, which corresponds to the secular year 2017. Reply

Anonymous Alpharetta, ga February 23, 2010

19 year marriage Does anyone know when the next 19 year marriage is? this was fascinating. Reply

Anonymous Guadalajara, jalisco November 6, 2009

THE NINETEEN YEAR MARRIAGE Thanks for sharing the short tale... and the explanations about the Jewish Calendar... Is the best one I have got so far... Congratulations. Reply

Ana Rose Eugene July 23, 2009

Beautiful Writing!! Reply

Anonymous Perth, Australia October 30, 2008

THE NINETEEN YEAR MARRIAGE This article is genius in its creativity
grounded in its research
knowledgeable and
a pleasure to read Reply

The Energizer Benny February 7, 2008

SO the short answer is the the Sabbath is not a Gregorian creation but is the true Jewish Calendar. Reply

The Energizer Benny February 7, 2008

The answer to that is that the Jews were the ones who never let go of the 7 day calendar, which they got from The Big Guy on Mt. Sinai. Early groups liked the idea of a day off and "coppied" the Jews. People tried to change it at least twice. In Rome, and again following the French Revolution, hoping to really "shake things up" around the world. But the 7 day week prevailed Reply

Mark Cameron Walsenburg, Colorado November 19, 2007

Keeping Time The Aztec Sunstone is another complex timepiece. In that system, 52 year cycles predominate many of their measurements and calculations. Reply

Rem Memphis, USA via jewishmemphis.com February 23, 2007

The current calendar has been "set in stone"... Unfortunately, Alexandra, the current Hebrew luni-solar calendar has been "set in stone" by Hillel II in the fourth century of the common era.

When the existence of the Sanhedrin was threatened, he formally sanctified all the months and intercalated all the years until such a time that another (genuine) Sanhedrin will have reconvened.

The cornerstone of the Hebrew calendar as related to the solar year is that Passover MUST fall (or maybe just start) in the spring (between Vernal Equinox and Summer Solstice).


So as long as Passover will satisfy the "spring-time" requirement, chances are that the calender will remain unaltered.

Since the Passover progresses (overall) toward the Summer Solstice at the rate of approximately 9 days every 2000 years, chances are the End of Days will be here before it will start falling not in the springtime. Reply

Anonymous Leesburg, FL November 21, 2006

serching for the true Shabbath Why you keep the Feast days acording to the moon, but the shabbath acording to the Gregorian calendar? Reply

Don Murray Folsom, CA via jewishroseville.com November 20, 2006

Something to think about. This was very thought provoking and giving good insite. I also thought it was very beautifully written. Reply

Alexandra malamud New York, NY December 2, 2005

Alarm! The Nineteen-Year Marriage is on the rocks! I read that our calendar steadily shifts from the solar cycle. The astronomic solar year is 365 days 5 hours 48 minutes 46 seconds. The calculation of the Jewish calendar established one and a half thousand years ago is based on the figure 365 days 5 hours 55 minutes 25 seconds. In the time passed this added up into an extra week! According to Halachah and Rashi, if the end of winter (Spring Equinox, March 21 in secular calendar) falls on or after 16th of Nissan, the 13th month should be added. Last year, Pesach was on April 24; if there were 12 months, Pesach would be still on March 25, later than the end of winter. So, the 13h month should have been added this year, not last year! The result was that the rain season in Israel began as early as Elul, which is considered a bad sign, even a curse, G-d forbid. Can the correction of the calendar become the first issue on which Jews of all wakes would work together? The calendar is our first mitzvah! Reply

Anonymous of Hope, zion/israel August 10, 2004

the nineteen -year Beautifully written ... Reply

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