13 September 2007

Rosh Hashanah, and somehow the circle of fifths.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar, which means that the months remain roughly in step with the phase of the moon (months start approximately at the new moon) but the beginning of the year is always at about the same time with respect to the seasons. This is arranged by having "leap months"; some Hebrew years have 12 months (of, on average, 29.5 or so days each) and some have 13.

It turns out that the leap years in the Hebrew calendar follow the Metonic cycle, which is a name for the fact that 235 lunar months is very nearly 19 solar years. In fact, 235 months are .076 days longer than 19 years, which seems to indicate that the calendar drifts by .076 days per 19 years, or one day per 219 years, with respect to the seasons. The Rosh Hashanah article backs this up; currently Rosh Hashanah can occur no earlier than September 5, but after 2089 it will occur no later than September 6. (It's legitimate to use the Gregorian calendar here, as the corresponding error in that calendar is something like one day in three thousand years.) The Hebrew calendar was codified in its present form several centuries before the Gregorian calendar, which probably explains why the Gregorian is more accurate; I have no doubt that the creators of the Hebrew calendar would have found a way to make it more accurate if they'd had the data to do so.

I learned from the Wikipedia article on the Hebrew calendar that
Another mnemonic [for remembering the pattern of common and leap years] is that the intervals of the major scale follow the same pattern as do Hebrew leap years: a whole step in the scale corresponds to two common years between consecutive leap years, and a half step to one common between two leap years.
For a moment this seemed surprising, but then I stopped to think about it. One has to have seven leap years (i. e. 13-month years) out of every nineteen. This is slightly more than one out of every three, so one could imagine taking a 21-year cycle of the form


where L represents a leap year and C a common year, and then deleting two of the C's. It is reasonable to delete two common years that are as far apart as possible, so that the calendar doesn't get too far ahead or behind. Similarly, in the case of the major scale we have two half steps and five whole steps to be arranged; one "wants" the half steps to be as far apart as possible. (This is a little more dubious, but seems reasonable.)

In music we have the "circle of fifths", so one note is a fifth, or four diatonic tones higher than the one before but seven half-steps higher; this only breaks down when seven fifths has to be twenty-eight diatonic tones (four octaves) but forty-nine half-steps (four octaves plus a half-step). A similar construction could exist in the Hebrew calendar, where seven is replaced by eleven; "usually" a period of eleven years has four leap years and seven common years, but if one had nineteen such periods that would give 76 leap years and 133 common years, while eleven nineteen-year cycles ought to have 77 leap years and 132 common years.

In fact, both 4/11 and 7/19 are convergents of a certain continued fraction, the one which is the expansion of the actual number of lunar months per solar year, minus twelve. There is apparently a "tabulated Muslim calendar" that uses a similar-looking 11/30 ratio, although for a different reason; Islam forbids leap months, but it turns out that to keep the calendar in sync with the moon one has to add a day every so often. The average lunar month is slightly longer than 29.5 days, and this "tabular Islamic calendar begins by giving alternate months 30 and 29 days and then adding a day to the last month of eleven years out of thirty. I was actually about to state that 11/30 was the next convergent of the continued fraction in question, but it's not; it's actually 123/334, so one could have a cycle of 123 leap years out of every 334. This would be build up from seventeen of the 19-year cycles and one 11-year cycle. Of course, the problem with such a complicated leap-year rule would be that nobody can remember which years are leap years!

(Incidentally, there are also rules about which day of the week Rosh Hashanah can fall on; it has to be Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday. The reason for this is as follows:

  • Yom Kippur, which is the tenth day of the year, should not fall on a Friday or Sunday, i. e. a day adjacent to a Saturday, for this would make two consecutive days when no work can be done. This means that the year should not begin on a Wednesday or Friday.

  • The twenty-first day of the year, which is the last day of Sukkot, called Hoshanah Rabbah, for some reason should not fall on a Saturday. (I once read why, but I forgot.) So the year should not begin on a Sunday.

Therefore Rosh Hashanah doesn't always actually start on the day of the new moon; sometimes it's moved around by a day or two to avoid it falling on such a day of the week.)


John Armstrong said...

Actually, the circle of fifths is related to another "almost" equality. To describe a fifth in terms of diatonic tones gets the picture precisely backwards.

When we move a tone (say on a stretched string) up an octave -- a harmony we can instantly recognize -- we multiply its frequency by two. Similarly, when we move it up a fifth we multiply its frequency by 3/2. So let's start with a frequency T (for "tonic") and start moving up by fifths, dropping down by an octave (marked with a *) when convenient:

1.5 T
1.125 T*
1.6875 T
1.265625 T*
1.8987375 T
1.423828125 T*
1.06787109375 T*
1.601806640625 T
1.20135498046875 T*
1.802032470703125 T
1.35152435302734375 T*
1.0136432647705078125 T*

So we've gone up by 12 fifths and dropped down by seven octaves and are almost within one "cent" of the tonic, which is barely as much as people can distinguish.

So we throw these tones into order to get the chromatic scale and pretend that the twelve fifths and the seven octaves match up. And then we pick out whichever cluster of them our culture thinks sound good together and use them most of the time.

Aaron said...

Whoa! I never knew about that drift in the Hebrew calendar. And on the time scale of Jewish history, it really adds up---if Rosh Hashanah existed 5768 years ago, they would've celebrated it nearly a month earlier compared to the seasons! Of course, little human-error glitches in the calendar have probably shifted it by more than a month over the last few millenia...

Islam forbids leap months

Seriously?! I mean, I can understand forbidding adultery, or theft, or intoxication... but did anyone really want leap months bad enough to warrent a scriptural injunction against them?

p.s. By the way, I think you've got a typo. Shouldn't "no later than September 6" read "no earlier"?

Nikol said...

That's all fine. What, however, do you think about Obadiah Shoher's criticism pf Rosh Hashanah as aholiday that has nothing to do with New Year? Here, for example http://samsonblinded.org/blog/petty-paganism.htm