It’s been fun to watch the moon this Easter season. The moon plays a big part in determining when Easter happens, because the timing of Easter is based on the timing of the Hebrew Passover, which begins at a full moon.
On the Hebrew calendar, each new moon begins a new month, with 29 or 30 days in each month. There are 12 or 13 months in each Hebrew year, with the Spring Equinox determining which month is to begin the new year. This ends up placing month 1 in March or April of our present-day calendar.
On our present-day calendar the timing of Passover seems complicated and confusing. This is because its timing is based on lunar months and years, while our calendar is based on a solar year. When we go back to the original lunar calendar, all the complexity vanishes. On this calendar Passover is simply a fixed date, beginning at sunset of the 14th day of the first month.
A really nice thing about the lunar calendar is that to find out what day it is, no fancy modern technology is needed. All you need to do is look up at the sky. God himself put the moon up there for that very purpose. “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years” (Gen 1:14) If you read a little further into Genesis, to chapters 7 & 8, you’ll see that this lunar calendar was used way back then, enabling Noah to record the precise dates of key events during the flood.
Some lunar months and years are borderline cases where the day could be taken as either the last day of last month or the first day of a new month, and the month could be taken as the last month of last year or the first month of a new year. This can result in differing interpretations from different traditions which use slightly different rules to determine when the new month or year begins. So another cool thing about this particular Easter season is that it’s not one of these borderline cases. All the traditions I’m aware of are identifying the same Passover and Easter dates this year.
And one more detail that makes this particular Easter season a meaningful time to watch the sky is that this year Passover and Easter are aligned with each other in the same way that they were at the first Easter. This isn’t a particularly rare thing, but on the average it happens only once in seven years. Not all scholars agree on what day of the week Jesus was crucified, but the following scenario seems to be the best fit for the the New Testament accounts – On Friday we commemorate Jesus’ crucifixion. It was the middle of the afternoon, about 3pm, that He gave up His spirit. He was then hastily taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb to avoid violation of the Sabbath that was almost upon them. About 6pm at sunset as the full moon rises, the Passover begins, which in this case is also the Sabbath. Then after the Sabbath on the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, on Sunday morning, the women come to anoint his body with spices and perfumes and find that He has risen.
To track these events, and also to come to a fuller understanding of how to read the Hebrew calendar in the sky, I’ve been watching the moon for the first two weeks of the current lunar month, beginning with the new moon that marks the beginning of the first day. Note that this new moon isn’t exactly what you might expect. It’s not the point at which the moon is most fully “new”, with no sunlight at all reflected from its surface. At this point it can’t be readily identified in the sky – because its surface is dark, and also because the Sun is very close to it in the sky, washing out anything we might have been able to see of it. The point at which the first day of the month begins is the point at which the new moon can first be visually sighted at sunset. This is typically two days or so after the fully new moon.
The following reconstructions of the moon as seen from Jerusalem were created with the Stellarium program:
The beginning of day 1 of month 1, a Sabbath day
Friday March 23 soon after sunset, with the new moon setting in the West about 6:40pm.
Notice the barely-perceptible sliver of sunlight reflected from the moon’s lower edge. This is the first evening that the new moon can be visually sighted, marking the beginning of the month. This sunset also begins a Sabbath day. Actually first a Sabbath evening and night, followed by the daylight hours of the Sabbath.
The beginning of day 2, the first day of the week
Saturday March 24 an hour after sunset, with the new moon a bit higher in the Western sky, due to set about 7:35pm. The Sabbath day ends at this sunset, followed by the first day of the week which again begins with the evening and night, followed by the daylight hours that belong to our Sunday.
The beginning of day 3, the second day of the week
Sunday March 25 an hour after sunset, with the new moon higher still and the silver sliver becoming a bit more substantial, due to set about 8:30pm.
The beginning of day 4, the third day of the week
Monday March 26, an hour after sunset. Looking at the nearby planets and constellations, and comparing with preceding and following days, you can see that each day the moon is starting out higher in the Western sky. Starting out in the Western sky means that the moon will be visible less than half the night, since it also sets in the Western sky. But starting higher in the sky means it will be up longer before it sets. This time it’s due to set about 9:25pm.
The beginning of day 5, the fourth day of the week
Tuesday March 27 an hour after sunset, with the moon due to set about 10:15pm.
The beginning of day 6, the fifth day of the week
Wednesday March 28 an hour after sunset, with the moon due to set about 11:05pm.
The beginning of day 7, the sixth day of the week
Thursday March 29, an hour after sunset. The moon is now quite high in the sky at sunset, still in the West, but a bit more to the South. It’s almost a half moon now, and due to set about 11:55pm.
The beginning of day 8, the Sabbath
Friday March 30, an hour after sunset. The moon starts out still higher, and further to the South. Now one week into the month we see a half moon, and it’s due to set about 12:40am (of Mar 31). Note that at the half moon, the moon is also in the sky for roughly half of the night, from sunset to the setting of the moon. Another Sabbath day begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Saturday.
The beginning of day 9, the first day of the week
Saturday March 31, an hour after sunset. The moon starts out still higher, a little over a half moon now, still further to the South, and due to set about 1:20am (of Apr 1). The first day of another week begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Sunday. This is the day that commemorates Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem, beginning the events of Easter week. The people rejoiced. Jesus wept for Jerusalem, knowing what was to come.
The beginning of day 10, the second day of the week
Sunday April 1, an hour after sunset. The moon, still high overhead, isn’t quite as high now as last night. Its starting point has crossed over from the Western sky to the Eastern sky. It’s visibly fatter now than just a half moon, and thus is also staying up a little more than half the night, due to set about 2:00am (of Apr 2). The second day of Easter week begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Monday. On this day Jesus cleared the corrupt money changers out of the Temple.
The beginning of day 11, the third day of the week
Monday April 2, an hour after sunset. The moon starts out still high in the Eastern sky, but lower than last night. As the night progresses it first climbs higher in the Eastern sky and then descends the Western sky to set about 2:40am (of Apr 3). The third day of Easter week begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Tuesday. On this day Jesus teaches in the Temple and confronts the religious leaders who are challenging His authority.
The beginning of day 12, the fourth day of the week
Tuesday April 3, an hour after sunset. The moon is now near Leo, a constellation often involved in signs that seem to relate to the nation of Israel. The moon appears to be about 3/4 size now, and accordingly is staying up about 3/4 of the night, setting about 3:15am (of Apr 4). The fourth day of Easter week begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Wednesday.
The beginning of day 13, the fifth day of the week
Wednesday April 4, an hour after sunset. The moon is looking pretty close to full now, but really isn’t there yet. It also stays up most of the night, setting about 3:55am (of Apr 5). The fifth day of Easter week begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Thursday. On this day Jesus and His disciples prepare for their Passover meal together. There’s a question here that I haven’t yet fully resolved in my own mind. On the next day, Friday, Jesus was to be crucified as our Passover lamb. Since this was the ultimate fulfillment of the purpose for which this feast was instituted, it doesn’t make sense for that day not to be day 14 of the month, the day that the Passover lambs were killed, beginning the Passover. But if that was the case, then this meal with His disciples the day before – was this also a Passover meal? How is it that they did this a day earlier than some others in Jerusalem?
The beginning of day 14, the sixth day of the week
Thursday April 5, an hour after sunset. The moon is now approaching Virgo, another constellation that’s involved in at least one sign relating to the nation of Israel, described in Revelation 12:1. The moon is very nearly full now, staying up most of the night, until about 4:30am (of Apr 6) when it sets. The sixth day of Easter week begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Friday. I don’t know whether Jesus’ last meal with his disciples began on the fifth day of the week, before sunset, but when it ended, day six had begun. We see Jesus washing His disciples’ feet, eating the meal with with His disciples, Judas going out into the darkness of the night to betray Him, Jesus teaching the rest of them many things, their going out to Gethsemane to pray, followed by Jesus’ arrest sometime in the middle of the night, an early morning trial by the religious authorities, his crucifixion beginning about nine in the morning, and the sun going dark from noon to 3pm, at which time Jesus gave up His spirit. Then Jesus was hastily taken down from the cross and put in a tomb before sunset to avoid violating the approaching Sabbath. A long day. A very long day indeed.
The beginning of day 15, the Sabbath
And this brings us right up to sunset of Friday April 6. Once again it’s an hour after sunset that’s shown in the picture, to make the sky dark enough for a good view. The moon is now full, due to set about 5:15am (of Apr 7). Note that when the moon is full, it stays up the full night. Another Sabbath day begins at this sunset – the evening followed by the night and morning and the daylight hours that belong to our Saturday. The full moon is at Virgo, which apparently is at least roughly the case at every Passover. At one particular Passover, the one commemorated by Easter week, the placement of the full moon was at Virgo’s feet, as described in Revelation 12:1. Research (see www.bethlehemstar.net) shows this to very likely correspond to the year 33AD. In this year not only was the Passover moon found at Virgo’s feet, but when day 15 began at sunset (also a Sabbath that year), the Passover moon which rose was a blood moon, in partial eclipse. See Acts 2 for some intriguing hints that a blood moon was indeed seen by the people of Jerusalem.
1) For more details on the 33AD dating of Jesus crucifixion, and an intriguing correspondence between signs in the sky at his annunciation and at his crucifixion, see www.bethlehemstar.net
2) If you’d like to explore these things yourself, I’d recommend the free open source planetarium program called Stellarium. Go to stellarium.org for more info and to download it. It runs on Linux, Mac, and Windows.
4) For lots of good details on the observation-based Hebrew calendar, see torahcalendar.com. To see an actual calendar for a particular month, choose the year and Hebrew month you’re interested in and click “View Calendar”.
Note that there is also a calculated Hebrew calendar in wide use (the Hillel calendar) which just approximates the moon’s cycles according to a fixed pattern. This was developed a few centuries after Christ to make it more possible for displaced Jews (who could no longer view the moon from Jerusalem) to still be able to keep track of their calendar. It does a pretty good job, but is sometimes off by a day or a month one way or the other from the dates that would have been set by observation from Jerusalem. Most Hebrew calendars you’ll find on the internet are some form of this Hillel calendar. But the real-life operation of the Solar System is not quite as regular as what the fixed patterns of the Hillel Calendar predict. The time it takes for the moon or a planet to travel from one point to another can be influenced by irregular details like where the massive planets Jupiter and Saturn happen to be at the moment, and the algorithms of the Hillel calendar have no way of taking all this into account. But TorahCalendar uses the same kind of finely-tuned astronomical details as a planetarium program, allowing the starting points of months and years to be to reconstructed according to what would actually have been observable from Jerusalem. One way that this difference shows up in the calendar itself is that in real life you’ll sometimes find two 29-day months in a row, or three 30-day months in a row – patterns that are never predicted by the Hillel calendar.