Litvaks and Their Calendars
Allow your thoughts to return to the Baltic area during the 19th century. You and your spouse have just had a child, and, naturally, you wish to record the date on which this momentous event occurred. But how do you do it? What date do you use for this birth, and in what calendar?
Since the Baltic area was dominated by Imperial Russia, an official birth record in one of the gubernias of "Litvakia" in the 1800s would have been registered according to the Julian Calendar for Czarist Russia held to the Julian calendar until about 1918 when it finally switched and went over to the Gregorian.
However, as you are Jewish, you would also want to record this birth according to the traditional Hebrew Calendar. For religious reasons you might also want to list and remember the birth date according to the Torah Portion read the Sabbath following the birth.
Lets say, however, that around 1890 you and your growing family migrated to America , where a different calendar, the Gregorian Calendar, ruled.
Now assume that you left certain records according to only one of the above mentioned Calendars. Just how would your descendants determine the others?
I found myself in just such a position when dealing with some of the "dates" for events in my family. My Grandfather, Yehudah ben Arieh Leib Blieden, was born in Zager (’agar’ / Zagare) on Nov. 29, 1844. He died in Chicago on July 14, 1917. At least these are the dates as noted in his Will.
For the years 1866 and 1885, my family possesses a journal of my grandfather’s two way correspondence written primarily in Hebrew, with some Yiddish. Yet in the translations we looked at we noted what appeared to be a distinctive, older, possibly more traditional method of dating life cycle events and even correspondence. In many instances I found the dating was recorded by the day of the Hebrew week, counting toward the coming Sabbath: the "First Day" being Sunday. In addition, the Sedrah or Torah Portion for that particular week was given. Finally, if we were lucky, we were also given the Hebrew Calendar Date on which the event took place.
Once I had a definite Hebrew or religious calendar date, the problem or task remaining was then to determine the corresponding civil calendar dates, whether according to the Julian calendar still used in Russia until 1918 or the Gregorian calendar already then in use in the US and much of Europe. The Julian calendar dates back to the days of Julius Caesar, while the Gregorian calendar, proposed by Pope Gregory, was essentially a correction of the Julian calendar. Depending upon what century one is looking at, the 1600’s or the 1800’s, the difference between the two calendars is a difference of ten to twelve days.
Here are examples of some of the events as originally recorded in my grandfather’s journal that I sought to figure out and correlate with other calendars:
- "My son, Haim Lieb, was born on the eve of the fifth day of the weekly Torah portion of Vayishlach, 15 Kislev of the year 5627, Shavel, November, 1867."
- "My son, Benjamin, was born on the night of Shabbat, of the weekly Torah portion of Hukat, 1:30 a.m., 5634, Shavel, Tammuz, 15 June, 1874."
- "Day six of the weekly Torah portion of Shemini, 5638, 17 March, 1878."
- "The second day of the weekly Torah portion of Balak, 5639, Riga, 19 June 1879"
- "Zager, the sixth day of the weekly portion of Matot, 5626 (1866)"
My problem then became not only to translate a Hebrew date into a civil date, but which civil date. Should I use the Julian or Gregorian Calendar?
As I said earlier, while most countries in the 1800s were standardized on the Gregorian calendar, Czarist Russia, the dominant power in the Baltic area ran on the Julian Calendar. In the year 1918 Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar.
Thus I found that organizing and converting the dating of these examples from my grandfather’s life meant checking the Torah Portion, plus examining and comparing all three of the different calendars involved, namely the Hebrew, Gregorian, and Julian Calendars.
For me, the solution to finding the "date" needed for each life cycle event sought came by setting an assumed accuracy level, then working from there.
|Hebrew Calendar Date||If and where given.|
|Torah Portion and Day of the Week||1st Day is Sunday.|
|Translator’s Date from Lithuanian archive records||Probably Julian.|
Fortunately, one way, nowadays, to speedily compare and correlate these different calendar bases is to use Computer Software specifically designed to intercalculate such dates. A number of these programs are available as Shareware on the Internet which can either be downloaded to use on your own PC or else utilized directly on the web.
Some software programs that are available to convert dates include:
- Hebrew Calendar Version 8.0j-H
This program can calculate between the weekly Torah Portion, the Hebrew Calendar, and the Gregorian Calendar
- Winmoret Version 1.2
This program can convert dates between all three of the calendars usually needed, whether Hebrew, Gregorian , or Julian.
In working out the solutions for my birth/marriage/death dating problems, I used the following format:
6th day,Vayishlach 5627 15 Kislev 5627 23 Nov. 1866 11 Nov. 1866 Fri. Sabbath Hukat 5634 12 Tammuz 5634 27 Jun. 1874 15 Jun. 1874 Sat. 6th day, Shemini 5638 24 Adar II 5638 29 Mar 1878 17 Mar 1878 Fri. 2nd day, Balak 5639 9 Tammuz 5639 30 Jun. 1879 18 Jun. 1879 Mon. 6th day, Matot 5626 1 Av 5626 13 Jul. 1866 1 Jul. 1866 Fri.
Three additional dates will be solved and intercalculated:
a) Yehudah’s Birth, b) Yehudah’s Death, and c) Today’s Date (on which I am writing this)
4th day, Miketz 5605 1 Tevet 5605 11 Dec. 1844 29 Nov. 1844 Wed. Sabbath Pinhas 5677 24 Tammuz 5677 14 Jul. 1917 1 Jul. 1917 Sat. 6th day of Tazria 5760 2 Nissan 5760 7 April 2000 25 Mar. 2000 Fri.
Note: For all these life cycle events, I assumed that all standard civil calendar dates while the individuals were still living in Lithuania/Czarist Russia were based on the Julian Calendar whereas the dating of events that occurred in the USA were based on the Gregorian Calendar.
To summarize: All Litvak Jews were subject to four different possible Calendars or ways of recording events: the Hebrew Calendar, the Sedrah of the week cycle, the Julian calendar, and the Gregorian calendar. With the current wealth of software available, both as Shareware and as web database engines, there is no reason not to know all possible dates for an event.
I have enjoyed this little exercise. I hope the process I described of intercalculating dates peaks your interest, and proves helpful with your genealogical family research.
Another helpful way to work out the date or dates needed is to go to a web site such as to Fourmilab’s Calendar Converter which features the Julian, Gregorian, Hebrew, Islamic, Persian calendars, and more.
If one enters a date at this URL such as February 3, 1945 in the Gregorian section the website will return the information that date was a Saturday. If one then scrolls down to the Julian section, one would learn that the corresponding civil date according to the Julian calendar would have been Jan 21, 1945. Next, if one wanted to check the Hebrew date this website would help you learn that the intercalculated Hebrew date was the 20th of Shevat in the year 5705. At this site, one could also even discover the corresponding Islamic dates of 19 Safer 1364, as well as a modern Persian date of 14 Bahman 1323.
Another site with a great deal of additional background information on these various calendars -- plus several others such as the French Republican calendar or the Chinese calendar -- as well as links to some software or codes is the Assorted Calendrical Systems web page.
In addition, JewishGen has the JOS - JewishGen Calculator which will convert a Jewish date into the Gregorian calendar or a Gregorian date back into a Hebrew date.