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Thursday, December 25, 2014

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Chanukah in November

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Rabbi Philip Scheim

As the end of August approached and Rosh Hashanah beckoned, we could not stop commenting on how early the holidays were this year. In fact, Rosh Hashanah will never begin earlier in the Gregorian calendar than its starting date of Sept. 5 in 2013.

What was said about this year’s Yamim Nora’im can also be said about Chanukah, which this year falls mostly in November. (Our American friends are overwhelmed by this year’s extremely rare coinciding of Chanukah with American Thanksgiving, leading to numerous Thanksgiving-kah programs, celebrations, and, nebech, sales!)

Judaic purists, of course, will note that the holidays this year are not early, that Rosh Hashanah, as always, was observed on the first and second days of Tishrei, and Chanukah, as always, will begin on the eve of the 25th of Kislev. Such purist thinking, however, overlooks the complexities of living Jewish lives in the context of the larger world, in which two calendars regulate our lives.

Even in Israel, where newspapers will note the Hebrew date, the “English” date will appear as well, and cheques are written according to 2013, not 5774. As Jews, we live in two worlds, and it’s the navigation between those worlds that offers us both challenge and opportunity.

The challenge of functioning both in 2013 and 5774 is clear. We must decide, for example, whether the seventh day of the week is Saturday, a good opportunity to shop, travel and attend to household chores, or whether that day is Shabbat, a chance to withdraw from life’s hectic pace to experience prayer and community in shul, to spend time together as families, to desist from the everyday, and to rest. Shabbat and Yom Tov enable us to favour 5774 over 2013, to allow our Jewish sense of time to override the secular schedule that otherwise dominates our lives.

This balancing act calls to mind the story of the Berdichever Rebbe, Levi Yitzkak, who, we are told, had two clocks on his living-room wall, one reflecting the time in Berdichev and the other the time in Jerusalem. Just as Jews through the ages and today have straddled the Jewish and secular calendars, similarly, for so many of our people through so much of our history, their bodies were situated in lands throughout the world, while their hearts found their way eastward, to Jerusalem.

So the challenge is clear: how are we to live successful lives in a largely non-Jewish environment while at the same time remaining true to our Jewish selves?

This year, when Christmas falls weeks after the last Chanukah candle will have burned out, there will be no Jewish holiday to compensate for the massively joyous celebrations that will surround us.

Our being able to cling to 5774 as 2013 winds down, while wishing our Christian friends, neighbours and family members well on their sacred festival, and our willingness to focus on our Jewish selves through synagogue, community, study and Israel will attest to our success in weathering the challenge of our dual-calendar destiny.

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