The Thirteenth Month and the Constellation Ophiuchus

How many months are there in a year?

How many Tribes are there in Israel?

How many constellations are there in the Zodiac?

The answer to all these is thirteen!

Welcome to Adar Rishon! The thirteenth month! (Well sort of… It is the additional one, even if not thirteenth in order.)

Despite the common idea that each of the above groupings has twelve items (cf. Echad Mi Yodeah…) there are actually thirteen in each of them! Well, at least sometimes, or from a certain point of view…

When I was a student in yeshivah, one of my rabbis, Rav Rivlin, shlita, was discussing the association of the months of the Jewish calendar with the Tribes of Israel, and asked which month is connected to Yosef – Joseph? I had a sudden flash of insight and answered: Adar – because sometimes it is one and sometimes it’s split into two, just like Joseph. Sometimes Joseph is counted as one tribe and sometimes (more often) counted as two, Ephraim and Menasheh. Similarly, the month of Adar is in most years one month, but in leap years – such as right now – there is Adar Rishon and Adar Sheini. With respect to most halachot – like celebrating Purim – Adar Sheini is considered the “real” Adar because it is the one that comes right before Nisan and Adar Rishon is the extra one.

In a vaguely similar way, the Constellations of the Zodiac are also generally counted as twelve – but there are really thirteen! Ophiuchus is the unknown one; you’ve probably never heard of Ophiuchus, right…?

The Constellation Ophiuchus (from IAU and Sky & Telescope magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg) )
The Constellation Ophiuchus

But first, what is the Zodiac? While ascribing no power or validity to astrology (which is not a science), astronomers do refer to the Zodiac as a band of constellations that cross (or contain part of) the ecliptic – the Sun’s apparent annual path around the sky.


Celestial Sphere model of sky, showing constellations and Celestial Poles (from Cosmic Perspective, from Pearson)
Celestial Sphere model of sky, showing constellations and the ecliptic – the Sun’s apparent path through Zodiac


Diagram of Constellations of the Zodiac and apparent relative position of the Sun and Earth throughout the year. (from Cosmic Perspective, from Pearson)
Diagram of Constellations of the Zodiac and apparent relative position of the Sun and Earth throughout the year.

Now, Ophiuchus: This constellation is generally referred to as a Snake charmer, after a medieval Islamic attribution. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought of various identities of the constellation (including Apollo and Asclepius) all of which are somebody holding or struggling with a snake (the adjacent constellation Serpens.) Although the constellation stretches far to the north and south, it intersects a relatively small portion of the ecliptic, between Scorpius and Sagittarius.

Ophiuchus in a manuscript copy of Azophi's Uranometry, 18th-century copy of a manuscript prepared for Ulugh Beg in 1417
Ophiuchus in a manuscript copy of Azophi’s Uranometry, 18th-century copy of a manuscript prepared for Ulugh Beg in 1417.
Ophiuchus holding the serpent, Serpens, as depicted in Urania's Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825.
Ophiuchus holding the serpent, Serpens, as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards published in London c. 1825.


Not including Ophiuchus, the constellations of the Zodiac are generally associated with the months of the Hebrew calendar, despite it being a lunar calendar.

For those who may not be familiar with the mechanics of the Jewish Calendar here is a brief description: It is a Lunar-solar calendar (or “corrected” Lunar calendar, similar to the Chinese/Asian calendar – BTW Happy New Year of the Monkey!) Months are either 29 or 30 days long so as to roughly correspond to the Lunar cycle of 29.5 days. There is a 19 year leap year cycle (as per the Metonic cycle, named after the Greek astronomer Meton of Athens but known to many ancient cultures) in which there are 12 months in most years, but in 7 out of 19 years, we add a “leap month” for a total of 13 months.

This calendar has been in use by Jews since roughly the 4th Cen. CE and is generally attributed to Hillel II. Before then, things were not so simple. The more ancient Jewish “calendar” used before the 4th Century was not really a “calendar” in the way we think of them at all. It was a system for determining months and years based on witnessing the new moon (by 2 witnesses) and testifying before the Sanhedrin, the “Supreme Court”, which, after cross-examining the witnesses, declared (or “sanctified”) the new month.

In a similar manner, the Court would determine whether or not to add an extra “leap” month to a given year, based on several relevant factors, as discussed in Tractate b. Sanhedrin (11b-12a):

תנו רבנן על שלשה דברים מעברין את השנה על האביב ועל פירות האילן ועל התקופה על שנים מהן מעברין ועל אחד מהן אין מעברין


Our Rabbis taught: A year may be intercalated on three grounds: on account of the premature state of the grain-crops;  or that of the fruit-trees;  or on account of the lateness of the Tekufah  Any two of these reasons can justify intercalation, but not one alone.

Other factors were also considered:

תנו רבנן אין מעברין את השנה אלא אם כן היתה צריכה מפני הדרכים ומפני הגשרים ומפני תנורי פסחים ומפני גליות ישראל שנעקרו ממקומן ועדיין לא הגיעו אבל לא מפני השלג ולא מפני הצינה ולא מפני גליות ישראל שלא עקרו ממקומן ת”ר אין מעברין את השנה לא מפני הגדיים ולא מפני הטלאים ולא מפני הגוזלות שלא פירחו אבל עושין אותן סעד לשנה


Our Rabbis taught: A year may not be intercalated except where it is necessary either for [the improvement of] roads  or for [the repair of] bridges, or for the [drying of the] ovens  [required for the roasting] of the paschal lambs, or for the sake of pilgrims  from distant lands who have left their homes and could not otherwise reach [Jerusalem] in time.  But no intercalation may take place because of [heavy] snows or cold weather  or for the sake of Jewish exiles [from a distance] who have not yet set out.

Our Rabbis taught: The year may not be intercalated on the ground that the kids  or the lambs or the doves are too young.  But we consider each of these circumstances as an auxiliary reason for intercalation.

However, the rabbinic court could not make these determinations too early in the year (or in the previous year):

ת”ר אין מעברין את השנה לפני ראש השנה ואם עיברוה אינה מעוברת אבל מפני הדחק מעברין אותה אחר ראש השנה מיד ואעפ”כ אין מעברין אלא אדר


Our Rabbis taught: The year may not be intercalated before the New Year,  and if it be intercalated, the intercalation is invalid. In case of necessity, however, a year may be intercalated immediately after the New Year; yet even so, only a [second] Adar is added.

We see here that “leap” months are always added as an additional Adar. However, their addition could not be decided/ruled on before Tishrei. There seems to be a “half-year” that is the bounds of “leap month adding” – the court cannot make a ruling before Tishrei and the doubled month itself is always Adar.

Ophiuchus, is an almost unknown zodiacal constellation that occurs within this “half-year”. It could perhaps be viewed as the extra month’s constellation – at least homiletically – although it is not actually aligned with the Sun during Adar. (Note that there is no extra “distance” due to there being seven constellations in one “half-year”; the Sun still passes through 180 degrees in each half of a yearly cycle – e.g. from equinox to equinox or solstice to solstice.)

Although it does not directly correspond to Adar in order, if you’re going to add an additional Adar and you want the constellation associated with the “regular” (i.e. second) Adar to line up with it as usual, and you only determine this in Tishrei or later, then the “extra” constellation has to be between Libra (Tishrei) and Pisces (Adar).

Furthermore, Tishrei is the earliest that the court could decide to declare a leap month, but not the latest. The rabbinic considerations involved the spring produce and fruit trees. These would perhaps be more easily or accurately predicted in the autumn if they were to wait until seeing whether the rainy season began “on time” in Marcheshvan. Thus the Sun might often be “in Ophiuchus” right around that time (after Scorpius which corresponds to Marcheshvan) that the court was making its decision. This would have been even more astronomically prominent 2-3 millenia ago, since the Earth’s precession (see my earlier post on that) has caused the dates of the Sun’s passing through each constellation to have shifted over time. Back then, the Sun would have crossed Ophiuchus around a month earlier than today – in Marcheshvan (roughly, since the months are lunar the exact Hebrew dates of the Sun’s crossing a constellation  will always vary from year to year.)

During a leap year in which there is an extra month, from Marcheshvan through Adar, for the first “half-year” – the part that contains Ophiuchus – we add “u’l’kapparat pasha’” – “for the atonement of transgression” to the mussaf (additional) prayer said on Rosh Chodesh – the New Moon:

חַדֵּשׁ עָלֵֽינוּ אֶת־הַחֹֽדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לְטוֹבָה וְלִבְרָכָה   לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחָה  לִישׁוּעָה וּלְנֶחָמָה  לְפַרְנָסָה וּלְכַלְכָּלָה  לְחַיִּים וּלְשָׁלוֹם  לִמְחִֽילַת חֵטְא וְלִסְלִיחַת עָוֹן  [ וּלְכַפָּרַת פֶּֽשַׁע ]  ( אָמֵן


Renew for us this month for good and blessing, for joy and happiness, for salvation and consolation, for sustenance and commerce, for life and peace, for annulment of sin and forgiveness of iniquity [ and for the atonement of transgression.]

One could easily wonder “why?” What does being a leap year have to do with praying for a bit of extra atonement? And why only during the months between Marcheshvan and  Adar (inclusive)?

If you studied at Kerem B’Yavneh, you surely remember Rav Rivlin’s shiur (class) on Purim and the Sense of Smell (Purim v’Chush Hareach). In this class – whose title may sound like “Purim Torah” but whose context is serious – he focused on the aggadah connection between Adam and Eve’s first sin, the primordial Snake and Purim. Without explaining the overarching titular connection to the sense of smell, one essential point made is that Purim – which, of course, falls in Adar – is, or can be, a “corrective” to the sin of Adam and Eve that was caused by the Snake. Haman is (by some) thought to be the “gilgul” (roughly, “reincarnation”; perhaps to be viewed more metaphorically) of the Snake, loosely supported by this Talmudic wordplay (b. Hullin 139b):

המן מן התורה מנין (בראשית ג) המן העץ אסתר מן התורה מנין (דברים לא) ואנכי הסתר אסתיר מרדכי מן התורה מנין דכתיב (שמות ל) מר דרור ומתרגמינן מירא דכיא


Where is Haman indicated in the Torah? — In the verse: Is it [hamin] from the tree? Where is Esther indicated in the Torah? — [In the verse,] And I will surely hide [asthir] my face. Where is Mordecai indicated in the Torah? — In the verse: Flowing myrrh, which the Targum renders as mira dakia.

The verse on which the pun “Hamin ha’etz” -”from the tree?” is quoted in relation to Haman is from God’s question to Adam & Eve when confronting them after they have sinned: “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Genesis 3:11)

Whether to think of this as a proof text or a pun notwithstanding, there is certainly an allusion here connecting Haman with the Snake-incited first sin.

Both Haman and the Snake seem to have shared a bad character trait of envy and/or egomania. Neither of them could tolerate the idea that there was a single person who might be greater than themselves. Haman was incensed by Mordechai’s refusal to bow to him. Likewise, one possible explanation of the Snake’s motive seems to be that he was “out to get” Adam & Eve because he could not tolerate that there was one creation – humanity – more lofty than himself. (Recall that he also had the power of speech, as humans do, and before God’s punishment perhaps walked on legs – see Rashi on Genesis 3:14)

All this can possibly help to elucidate the addition of the phrase “u’lkapparat pasha’” (or maybe not; you can be the judge…) The constellation Ophiuchus is perhaps somehow associated with the addition of Adar Sheini in leap years, and is relevant between Marcheshvan and Adar, as discussed. Furthermore, Ophiuchus is a snake charmer, or other snake-related or snake defeating character. Adar is the month of Purim, in which there is a reappearance of the Snake as the enemy Haman. (Note that a similar connection between the Snake from Genesis 3 and Ophiuchus – not including Adar or Haman – is made in Edward Maunder’s Astronomy of the Bible, 1908, pp. 163-164, albeit with some non-Jewish ideas as well.)

Notice also that Haman’s plan to destroy the Jews was intended to take place on the 13th of Adar. If that were a leap year, it would have been the 13th of the 13th month…? Is there any significance to this? (Your guess is as good as mine…)

Esther instructed the Jews to pray for her before attempting her plan to approach the King, by which the envious egomaniac Haman’s plan was defeated.

May this connection – tenuous though it may seem to some – serve as a further reminder when we pray for “kapparat pasha’” that Adar is a propitious month(s) to pray that we atone for the sin of Adam and Eve and thus defeat the Snake’s and Haman’s evil designs – by subduing our own ego and any envious tendencies we may have.

Chodesh Tov U’mevorach!  And Happy Adar!


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