What type of calendar did the Jewish people use, lunar or solar?

What type of calendar did the Jewish people use, lunar or solar?                 By Jack Kettler

The Hebrews followed a lunar calendar, but adjusted it for solar years. The lunar calendar is 12 days shorter than the solar calendar.

In Genesis 1, there is the chorus or refrain “it was evening and it was morning,” which describes God’s creative acts for each day of the creative week. The account of creation in Genesis 1:1-2:4 provides the basis for measuring time. This creative refrain in Genesis also provides the basis for a seven-day week. It also delineates the week into six-work days and one day for sabbath rest.

In this overview of the Hebrew measurement of time and their calendar, online reference sources will be utilized for the benefit of the reader. 

The concept and development of time in the Old Testament will be explained from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:


tim: The basis of the Hebrew measurement of time was the day and the lunar month, as with the Semites generally. The division of the day into hours was late, probably not common until after the exile, although the sun-dial of Ahaz (2Ki 20:9; Isa 38:8) would scent to indicate some division of the day into periods of some sort, as we know the night was divided, The word used for “hour” is Aramaic she`a’ (sha`ta’), and does not occur in the Old Testament until the Book of Daniel (Isa 4:6; 5:5), and even there it stands for an indefinite period for which “time” would answer as well.

1. The Day:

The term “day” (yom) was in use from the earliest times, as is indicated in the story of the Creation (Ge 1:1-31). It there doubtless denotes an indefinite period, but is marked off by “evening and morning” in accordance with what we know was the method of reckoning the day of 24 hours, i.e. from sunset to sunset.

2. Night:

The night was divided, during pre-exilic times, into three divisions called watches (‘ashmurah, ‘ashmoreth), making periods of varying length, as the night was longer or shorter (Jg 7:19). This division is referred to in various passages of the Old Testament, but nowhere with indication of definite limits (see Ps 90:4; 119:148; Jer 51:12; Hab 2:1).

In the New Testament we find the Roman division of, etc.). But the use of the word in the indefinite sense, as in the expressions: “day of the Lord,” “in that day,” “the day of judgment,” etc., is far more frequent (see DAY). Other more or less indefinite periods of the day and night are: dawn, dawning of the day, morning, evening, noonday, midnight, cock-crowing or crowing of the cock, break of day, etc.

3. Week:

The weekly division of time, or the seven-day period, was in use very early and must have been known to the Hebrews before the Mosaic Law, since it was in use in Babylonia before the days of Abraham and is indicated in the story of the Creation. The Hebrew shabhua`, used in the Old Testament for “week,” is derived from shebha`, the word for “seven.” As the seventh day was a day of rest, or Sabbath (Hebrew shabbath), this word came to be used for “week,” as appears in the New Testament sabbaton, sabbata), indicating the period from Sabbath to Sabbath (Mt 28:1). The same usage is implied in the Old Testament (Le 23:15; 25:8). The days of the week were indicated by the numerals, first, second, etc., save the seventh, which was the Sabbath. In New Testament times Friday was called the day of preparation (paraskeue) for the Sabbath (Lu 23:54).

4. Month:

The monthly division of time was determined, of course, by the phases of the moon, the appearance of the new moon being the beginning of the month, chodhesh. Another term for month was yerach yerach, meaning “moon,” which was older and derived from the Phoenician usage, but which persisted to late times, since it is found in the Aramaic inscriptions of the 3rd century AD in Syria. The names of the months were Babylonian and of late origin among the Hebrews, probably coming into use during and after the Captivity. But they had other names, of earlier use, derived from the Phoenicians, four of which have survived in “Abib,” “Ziv,” “Ethanim” and “Bul.”


5. Year:

The Hebrew year (shanah) was composed of 12 or 13 months, the latter being the year when an intercalary month was added to make the lunar correspond with the solar year. As the difference between the two was from ten to eleven days, this required the addition of a month once in about three years, or seven in nineteen years. This month was added at the vernal equinox and was called after the month next preceding, we-‘adhar, or the “second Adar.” We do not know when this arrangement was first adopted, but it was current after the Captivity. There were two years in use, the civil and the ritual, or sacred year. The former began in the autumn, as would appear from Ex 23:16; 34:22, where it is stated that the “feast of ingathering” should be at the end of the year, and the Sabbatic year began in the Ex 7:1-25th month of the calendar or sacred year, which would correspond to September-October (Le 25:9). Josephus says (Ant., I, iii, 3) that Moses designated Nican (March-April) as the 1st month of the festivals, i.e. of the sacred year, but preserved the original order of the months for ordinary affairs, evidently referring to the civil year. This usage corresponds to that of the Turkish empire, where the sacred year is lunar and begins at different seasons, but the financial and political year begins in March O.S. The beginning of the year was called ro’sh ha-shanah, and was determined by the priests, as was the beginning of the month. Originally this was done by observation of the moon, but, later, calculation was employed in connection with it, until finally a system based on accurate calculation was adopted, which was not until the 4th century AD. New-Year was regarded as a festival.

See ASTRONOMY, sec. I, 5; YEAR.

6. Seasons:

The return of the seasons was designated by summer and winter, or seed-time and harvest; for they were practically the same. There is, in Palestine, a wet season, extending from October to March or April, and a dry season comprising the remainder of the year. The first is the winter (choreph), and this is the seed-time (zera`), especially the first part of it called yoreh, or the time of the early rain; the second is the summer (qayits, “fruit-harvest,” or qatsir, “harvest”).

Seed-time begins as soon as the early rains have fallen in sufficient quantity to moisten the earth for plowing, and the harvest begins in some parts, as in the lower Jordan region, near the Dead Sea, about April, but on the high lands a month or two later. The fruit harvest comes in summer proper and continues until the rainy season. “The time when kings go out to war” (2Sa 11:1; 1Ki 20:22) probably refers to the end of the rainy season in Nican.

7. No Era:

We have no mention in the Old Testament of any era for time reckoning, and we do not find any such usage until the time of the Maccabees. There are occasional references to certain events which might have served for eras had they been generally adopted. Such was the Exodus in the account of the building of the temple (1Ki 6:1) and the Captivity (Eze 33:21; 40:1) and the Earthquake (Am 1:1). Dates were usually fixed by the regnal years of the kings, and of the Persian kings after the Captivity. When Simon the Maccabee became independent of the Seleucid kings in 143-142 or 139-138 BC, he seems to have established an era of his own, if we may attribute to him a series of coins dated by the years “of the independence of Israel” (see COINS: MONEY; also 1 Macc 13:41 and 15:6,10). The Jews doubtless were familiar with the Seleucid era, which began in 312 BC, and with some of the local eras of the Phoenician cities, but we have no evidence that they made use of them. The era of the Creation was not adopted by them until after the time of Christ. This was fixed at 3,830 years before the destruction of the later temple, or 3760 BC. See ERA.” H. Porter

In addition, we learn about the Hebrew calendar from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:


kal’-en-dar (Latin calendarium, “an account book,” from calendae, “day on which accounts were due”): The Hebrew or Jewish calendar had three stages of development: the preexilic, or Biblical; the postexilic, or Talmudic; and the post-Talmudic. The first rested on observation merely, the second on observation coupled with calculation, and the third on calculation only. In the first period the priests determined the beginning of each month by the appearance of the new moon and the recurrence of the prescribed feasts from the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. Thus, the month Abib (‘abhibh), the first month of the year according to the Levitical law, in which the Passover was to be celebrated, was determined by observation (Ex 12:2; De 16:1-22). After the exile more accurate methods of determining the months and seasons came into vogue, and calculation was employed to supplement and correct observations and the calendar was regulated according to the Babylonian system, as is evidenced by the names of the months which are derived from it. In later times the calendar was fixed by mathematical methods (see the article “Calendar” in the Jewish Encyclopedia). The difficulty of ascertaining the first day of the new moon by observation, in the early period, led to the celebration of two days, as seems to be indicated in 1Sa 20:27. We have only four names of months belonging to the pre-exilic period, and they are Phoenician. Of these Abib (‘abhibh) was the first month, as already indicated, and it corresponded to Nis (nican) in the later calendar. It was the month in which the Exodus occurred and the month of the Passover (Ex 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; De 16:1).

The 2nd month of this calendar was Ziv (ziw) (1Ki 6:1,37); Ethanim (‘ethanim) was the 7th (1Ki 8:2), corresponding to Tishri of the later calendar, and Bul (bul) the 8th, corresponded to Marchesvan (marcheshwan) (1Ki 6:38). There were course other month names in this old calendar, but they have not come down to us. These names refer to the aspects of the seasons: thus Abib (‘abhibh) means grain in the ear, just ripening (Le 2:14; Ex 9:31); Ziv (ziw) refers to the beauty and splendor of the flowers in the spring; Ethanim (‘ethanim) means perennial, probably referring to living fountains; and Bul (bul) means rain or showers, being the month when the rainy season commenced. The full calendar of months used in the postexilic period is given in a table accompanying this article. The names given in the table are not all found in the Bible, as the months are usually referred to by number, but we find Nican in Ne 2:1 and Es 3:7; Siwan in Es 8:9; Tammuz in Eze 8:4, although the term as here used refers to a Phoenician god after whom the month was named; ‘Elul occurs in Ne 6:15; Kiclew (the American Standard Revised Version “chislev”) in Ne 1:1 and Zec 7:1; Tebheth in Es 2:16; ShebhaT in Zec 1:7 and ‘Adhar in Ezr 6:15 and several times in Est. These months were lunar and began with the new moon, but their position in regard to the seasons varied somewhat because of the intercalary month about every three years.

The year (shanah) originally began in the autumn, as appears from Ex 23:16 and Ex 34:22, where it is stated that the feast of Ingathering should be at the end of the year; the Sabbatic year began, also, in the Ex 7:1-25th month of the calendar year (Le 25:8-10), indicating that this had been the beginning of the year. This seems to have been a reckoning for civil purposes, while the year beginning with Nican was for ritual and sacred purposes. This resulted from the fact that the great feast of the Passover occurred in this month and the other feasts were regulated by this, as we see from such passages as Ex 23:14-16 and De 16:1-17. Josephus (Ant., I, iii, 3) says: “Moses appointed that Nican, which is the same with Xanthicus, should be the first month of their festivals, because he brought them out of Egypt in that month; so that this month began the year as to all solemnities they observed to the honor of God, although he preserved the original order of the months as to selling and buying and other ordinary affairs.” A similar custom is still followed in Turkey, where the Mohammedan year is observed for feasts, the pilgrimage to Mecca and other sacred purposes, while the civil year begins in March O.S.

The year was composed of 12 or 13 months according as to whether it was ordinary or leap year. Intercalation is not mentioned in Scripture, but it was employed to make the lunar correspond approximately to the solar year, a month being added whenever the discrepancy of the seasons rendered it necessary. This was regulated by the priests, who had to see that the feasts were duly observed at the proper season. The intercalary month was added after the month of ‘Adhar and was called the second ‘Adhar (sheni, wa-‘adhar, “and Adar”), and, as already indicated, was added about once in 3 years. More exactly, 4 years out of every 11 were leap years of 13 months (Jewish Encyclopedia, article “Calendar”), this being derived from the Babylonian calendar. If, on the 16th of the month Nican, the sun had not reached the vernal equinox, that month was declared to be the second ‘Adhar and the following one Nican. This method, of course, was not exact and about the 4th century of our era the mathematical method was adopted. The number of days in each month was fixed, seven having 30 days, and the rest 29. When the intercalary month was added, the first ‘Adhar had 30 and the second 29 days.” H. Porter

In closing:

“The Hebrew calendar (Hebrew: הַלּוּחַ הָעִבְרִי, Ha-Luah ha-Ivri), also called Jewish calendar, is a lunisolar calendar used today predominantly for Jewish religious observances. It determines the dates for Jewish holidays and the appropriate public reading of Torah portions, yahrzeits (dates to commemorate the death of a relative), and daily Psalm readings, among many ceremonial uses. In Israel, it is used for religious purposes, provides a time frame for agriculture and is an official calendar for civil purposes, although the latter usage has been steadily declining in favor of the Gregorian calendar…

The Hebrew lunar year is 12 days shorter than the solar year and uses the 19-year Metonic cycle to bring it into line with the solar year, with the addition of an intercalary month every two or three years, for a total of seven times per 19 years. Even with this intercalation, the average Hebrew calendar year is longer by about 6 minutes and 40 seconds than the current mean tropical year, so that every 216 years the Hebrew calendar will fall a day behind the current mean tropical year.” Hebrew calendar From Wikipedia

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)


1.      Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, Entry for “TimeInternational Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), pp. 2981-2982.

2.      Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, Entry for “CalendarInternational Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), pp. 541-542.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at www. JackKettler .com

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