On Measuring Time: Introduction

Time is an intangible substance. We cannot label it as we would a book, or count it as we would count apples. Yet if human life is to be seen in perspective, in relation to events; if it is to be chronicled for the benefit of present or future generations, time must be counted and that count preserved by a uniform and intelligible method.

Through the centuries different methods of measuring time have been attempted. Some people today wonder why the dates of sacred calendar festivals (e.g., New Year, Passover, Pentecost) vary so much from year to year when national events such as the Fourth of July always occur on the same calendar date (unless physically moved, as in recent years). The reason is the method of time measurement used by the people who established the date of the festival.

How are points in time determined and marked? The most common method is by observing a recurring natural event and establishing it as a basic time measurement unit, then subdividing that unit in an orderly manner into smaller periods of time; in other words, a calendar. The basis of most calendars in use today is the solar year, the time required for the earth to complete one circuit of the sun.

The solar year has been the most commonly used primary basis for time counting among all civilizations and governments. Many of the ancient people—including the Hebrews—counted time in smaller units also. The Hebrews were instructed to use as their basis the length of time that the moon required to complete its cycle from new through full and back to new. They also recognized the New Year (solar) as a proper division of time. As an agricultural people, the seasons by which they planted their crops were determined by the solar year.

Today we are so accustomed to our calendar that we tend to think it has always existed and that all people everywhere follow it. But not so. Our calendar, too, developed; and in developing, it underwent many changes. Some of these changes were to correct inaccuracies in methods of measuring time. Many were the direct result of advances in the science of astronomy. Other changes were the ideas of certain individuals or governments who wished to adopt their own means and measures.

Over the years, many calendar systems have been devised by various civilizations and governments to record specific points in time. In this study we will concern ourselves primarily with the Hebrew calendar, which was directed by God and practiced in some form through more than fifteen centuries of Israelite history. We shall also see our modern calendar in relation to the Hebrew.

We are especially interested in the beginning of the sacred New Year in ancient Israel; how the dates of religious festivals were determined; and what God wants us to do in remembering these sacred occasions.