When is the Day of Atonement? (Jewish Calendars)

Q: I was reading in Leviticus 23:26: “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement.” Does that mean July 10th is the Jewish Day of Atonement?

A: Okay, this can be sort of confusing. So let me attempt to make this a little less confusing by mentioning four points about Jewish calendars.

Point #1:
The important thing to keep in mind is that the Jewish people actually have two calendars (three if you count the Gregorian calendar that the rest of us follow). They have a religious calendar which follows the Old Testament commands for holidays AND they have a civil calendar used for legal contracts and counting of Sabbatical and Jubilee years. It’s sort of like one of our government workers here in Washington D.C. who follows our regular calendar that starts on January 1, but also lives by the government’s fiscal calendar, because he works for the United States government.

The civil calendar was apparently used since the time of creation, since this is the calendar used in the book of Genesis. The religious calendar was started by God at the time of Israel’s exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 12:1-2). Both calendars (civil and religious) existed side by side from that point forward.

Point #2:
Another confusing wrinkle in understanding Jewish calendars is that there are sometimes different names for the same months. For example, the first month in the religious calendar is Abib. The word means “young head of grain.” That’s the Canaanite name for this month and was adopted by God, since He was taking the Israelites into the land of Canaan (Exodus 13:4; 23:15; 34:18; Deut 16:1). But later in the Bible after the Israelites had returned from exile the Babylonian name Nisan was used for this month (Nehemiah 2:1; Esther 3:7). Same month, but different name.

Point #3:
The third thing to remember about Jewish calendars is that they are lunar calendars. In other words, each new moon marked the beginning of a new month. Since a lunar year is only 354 days, agricultural festivals (which some of the Feasts are tied to) could become misaligned rapidly. So the Jewish people added a 13th month (called Second Adar) in 7 of every 19 years to keep things in sync.

Point #4:
The fourth and final thing to remember about the Jews and the way they keep time is that the Jews count their days from sundown to sundown – not midnight to midnight as we do. We usually think of a day as daylight to night time. The Jews thought of a day as the beginning of night time (sundown) to the end of the daylight (sunset).

A given Jewish holiday spans two days on our Gregorian calendar. Observance of a holiday begins at sundown on the day before it is listed in the calendar!

Application:
Okay, now let’s take all this and apply it. Let’s start first of all with a day and look at it from the perspective of three calendars. Perhaps you have heard people talk about Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is actually the Jewish new year for their civil calendar. This year Rosh Hashanah falls on September 30 on our Gregorian calendar (or more accurately at sundown on September 29, since they count from sundown to sundown).

But in addition to it being the Jewish new year for the civil calendar, it is also an important date on the religious calendar. On the religious calendar it is Yom Terua, which is “the day of the blowing of the shofar.” Most Bibles translate it as “The Feast of Trumpets.” This holiday is commanded In Leviticus 23:24. It is a day of sacred assembly, rest, and special offerings. It occurs 10 days prior to the Day of Atonement.

Calendar Jewish Civil Jewish Religious Gregorian (year 2008)
Date 1st month, 1st day 7th month, 1st day sundown Sept 29th
Name Rosh Hashanah Yom Terua

Yom Terua (i.e., the Feast of Trumpets) occurs 10 days prior to the Day of Atonement.

The Day of Atonement is a religious festival, so this time we will start with the Jewish religious calendar. As you quoted in your email, Leviticus 23:26 says: “The tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement.” If we were following the Jewish civil calendar, it would be the first month and the 10th day. This year the Day of Atonement falls on October 9 on our Gregorian calendar (or more accurately at sundown on October 8th). The Jewish name for the Day of Atonement is Yom Kippur. There is no special name for this day on the Jewish civil calendar.

Calendar Jewish Religious Jewish Civil Gregorian (year 2008)
Date 7th month, 10th day 1st month, 10th day sundown October 8th
Name Yom Kippur

Conclusion:
So I guess the thing to take away from all this is that our 1st, 2nd, and other months have absolutely nothing to do with the 1st, 2nd, and other months of either the Jewish civil or religious calendars. In addition, our months are not lunar months, so (for example) there is no way to compare our 9th month (September) with their month Tishri. Their months will float around our months by a few days each year and seldom be in sync with ours.

So when you read in the Bible that it was the 1st month, don’t think of January in our Gregorian calendar. You will have to figure out if the Bible is referring to the Jewish religious calendar or the Jewish civil calendar and then work from there to get a sense of the season of the year. Study Bibles are usually very helpful on this point, but you can also do your own calculations.

As an example, take Genesis 7:11. This verse occurs in the story of Noah and God’s judgment upon the earth by water. Genesis 7:11 says the flooding of the earth started in “the second month” of the year. So we will have to figure out if it is the religious calendar or the Jewish civil calendar that is being referred to. It turns out to be the civil calendar (since the religious calendar hasn’t been started yet), so it would be autumn. Furthermore, Genesis 7:11 tells us it was the 17th day of the 2nd month.

You can actually use an online Jewish calendar to do some of the transition to Gregorian. If you go to the link on this web site for “Current Calendar” it will give you the major Jewish holidays. If you can figure out a little Hebrew, you can even see the day a Jewish month begins. [The table found at the bottom of this page might be helpful in translating Biblical months to their modern Jewish and Gregorian equivalent.]

From this web link I figured that if we had an anniversary day for the flood, we would commemorate it at sundown November 15 for the year 2008! And the rain would have stopped sundown on December 25 (“forty days and forty nights” later). This at least can give you a perspective regarding the time of the year that something happened.

Neat Insights From All This Calendar Stuff:
As you can see, this is tedious work, but sometimes looking at details like this can yield some interesting connections. For example, in Genesis 8:4 we are told that the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat “on the 17th day of the seventh month.” Noah and his family are saved! A very important day!

Now remember the seventh month of the Jewish civil calendar is the first month of the Jewish religious calendar (see the table below, if you are confused). It is the month named Abib (also called Nissan). What happened on Abib 17 (Nissan 17) in the rest of the Bible?

  • The resurrection of Jesus! The Passover lamb was always sacrificed on Nissan 14. Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover that evening after sundown – Nissan 15. Jesus was crucified and buried on Nissan 15. His body remained in the tomb on Nissan 16. He was resurrected around 6 AM on Nissan 17! (Perhaps this is why Peter in 1 Peter 3:18-20 mentions Noah being saved in connection with Jesus being raised by the Spirit.)

Similar delightful connections can be found for the giving of the law to Moses and the day of Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit was given to the church (Sivan 6).

Jewish tradition assigns dates to many events where dates are not actually given in the Bible. According to Jewish tradition all these events happened on Nissan 15:

  • Abraham battled four kings and delivered Lot (Genesis 14)
  • God made His covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15)
  • Angels visited Abraham before the destruction of Sodom (Genesis 18)
  • Isaac was born (Genesis 21:1-6)
  • Jacob wrestled with the Angel (Genesis 32:25-29)
  • Moses sees the Burning Bush (Exodus 3)
  • The Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus 12:24-32) – Of course, the Bible also gives Nissan 15 as the date for this event.
  • Daniel is thrown in the lions’ den (Daniel 6)

Nissan 15 is also the day that Jesus died on the cross for our sins! The LORD is wonderful in his ways!!


The table that follows contains a list of the months with the various Jewish names both Biblical and modern:

# of Month of the
Religious Calendar
# of Month of the
Civil Calendar
Names Gregorian Equivalent
1 7 Abib; Nissan March-April
2 8 Ziv; Iyyar April-May
3 9 Sivan May-June
4 10 Tammuz June-July
5 11 Ab July-August
6 12 Elul August-September
7 1 Ethanim; Tishri September-October
8 2 Bul; Cheshvan October-November
9 3 Kislev November-December
10 4 Tebeth December-January
11 5 Shebat January-February
12 6 Adar February-March
Intercalary month added about
every three years so the lunar calendar
would correspond to the solar year.
Second Adar; Adar Sheni
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