Everyday life in Israel in Bible times was largely affected by that which was beyond the control of man, the seasons and the weather.
The Two Seasons
In the yearly cycle, the four seasons are not as clearly marked as the lands to the north of it. But to the Jew every season was a special time and a reminder of the promises of God, as He said to Noah “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter” (Genesis 8: 22).
Though the Bible specifically mentions summer, winter, spring and autumn, it may come as a surprise to know that the Bible never mentions four seasons, but only two.
The Hebrew word “stav”, translated today as autumn, is mentioned only once in the Bible in the Song of Solomon: “for lo, the winter is passed, the rain is over and gone…” (Song 2:11), “stav” really speaks of the time of the winter rains.
The Hebrew word “aviv”, translated today as spring is mentioned twice in the Bible, both referring to a stage in the ripening of barley rather than a season. The month of Aviv (hodesh ha’aviv) is the time when this ripening of barley takes place, this is of course the Hebrew month of Nissan.
There is no mention of a season called spring anywhere in the Bible.
Therefore we must conclude that the Bible only recognizes two seasons, summer and winter, or as the writers of the Talmud put it, “the days of sun” and “the days of rain.”
The Four Seasons
Under the influence of the Greco-Roman civilization, the Jews divided the year into four seasons by using the original Hebrew names of the months in which each season began:
- Tishri (October)
- Tevet (January)
- Nissan (April)
- Tammuz (July)
The climate of Palestine is for the most part a land of sunshine and good weather. Though the land constituted a very small geographical area, there are considerable differences in temperature. For example Mount Hermon, with its white snow caps all year-round, towers 9000 feet above sea level, while the Dead Sea is 1292 feet below sea level. The land of Israel enjoys sunny blue skies from the beginning of May to the end of September, with little or no interruption, and this made it possible for the large number of pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for the various Feasts, to spend several days with Christ in the wilderness.
All along the Mediterranean coastline the lands have a climate which is almost tropical. The winters are wet and the summers are hot and dry. Because of the blessing of this seasonal contrast in Israel snow will fall on the mountains and tropical fruits will ripen in the plains.
The Romans reckoned the hours from midnight, a fact which explains the apparent discrepancy between John 19:14, where, at the sixth hour (of Roman calculation), Pilate brings Jesus out to the Jews, while at the third hour of the Jewish, and hence the ninth of the Roman and of our calculation (Mark 15:25), He was led forth to be crucified. The night was divided by the Romans into four, by the Jews into three watches. The Jews subdivided the hour into 1,080 parts (chlakim), and again each part into seventy-six moments.
In Israel the amount of rainfall really depends on how high above sea level you are. It rains much more in the mountains then it does in the plains. The mountains many times capture the stormy clouds and prevent them from reaching inland. The highest mountains, those north of Galilee, receive the most rain. For example in the hills of Judea they may only receive 20-30 inches of annual rainfall whereas Mount Hermon and the other mountains in the area may receive 60 inches. As you reach the southern tip near Beersheba it may only rain less than 8 inches.
It is interesting to note that because of the Rift, the long straight land trench of the Jordan valley, the city of Jericho receives very little rainfall, maybe 4 inches annually, while in Jerusalem, only 15 miles to the West there is approximately 20 inches of annual rainfall. This may explain why Lot chose the area of Sodom and Gomorrah to dwell, and why 2 1/2 of the 12 tribes of Israel decided that the land east of the Jordan was a good land and remained there (Num. 32). During Roman times this land became famous for its fertility, in fact Mark Antony had given his balsam plantations in this territory to Cleopatra.
Another interesting fact is that the rainfall in the land of Israel was never really consistent. Sometimes there were very wet winters and other times they were famines and drought. This fluctuation play an important role in history of God’s people teaching them that they needed to depend on Him rather than any certainties in the climate.
In many areas in the land of Israel, especially along the coastline, there were extremely heavy dews. They came in from the Mediterranean on the summer days, and then fall to the ground as it cooled into night. Some areas along the coast have dew three-quarters of the year, which would provide for them nearly one-quarter of their moisture. This also played a major part in the life of the people of Israel. Elijah the prophet, for example, when he predicted the coming drought said, “there will be neither dew nor rain” (I Ki 17:1).
Note: the first number before the month indicates the numerical order of months in the religious calendar and the second number in parenthesis refers to the civil calendar.
11 (5) January . (Shebat, new year for trees). This is the coldest month, which brings with it dark and gloomy days and heavy rainfalls.
12 (6) February. (Adar, almonds blooming). During this month rainy days and sunny days alternated frequently. This is why the Arabs would call this month “the one eyed” because it had a dark face on one side and a bright one on the other. They would also say “February has no bounds” and “the storms have the smell of summer in it.” During this month the almond trees begin to blossom and the late barley seeds are sown.
1 (7) March. (Nisan, beginning of barley harvest). This month had much sunshine but very heavy winds. The rains of March and April are known in Scripture as the “latter rains”, which supplied nourishment to the barley and wheat crops before they are “white for harvest.” Sometimes this month would receive the heaviest rainfall, the apricot and almond trees would show off their beauty.
2 (8) April. (Iyyar, barley harvest). This was called the month of flowers, and it was the greenest and considered the most beautiful of all the months. Many times during this month the dry desert winds would blow in for three days at a time, melting the snow, and quickening the vegetation. During this month the harvesting begins in the Jordan valley and on the coastal plain. The fruit trees are in blossom and show their young foliage. The peach, pomegranate, olive, and many more.
3 (9) May. (Sivan, wheat harvest). During the month of May the heat magnifies and the rain ceases for about five months. Because of the change in landscape of this hot month Jesus may have drawn His analogy “the grass withers and the flowers fade away.” Also in May the harvesting begins in the plains and the lands, the spring fruits are ready, the green almonds, apricots, plums, and the vines are in blossom.
4 (10) June. (Tammuz, harvesting). During June the land for the most part becomes barren and parched, and harvesting continues in the highlands.
5 (11) July. (Av, grapes, figs and olives are ripe). During this month the intense summer heat is cooled by the westerly breezes and the commoners are busy on their threshing floors.
6 (12) August. (Elul, vintage begins). This is the hottest month of the year, and even on the coast it is 90 degrees in the shade, and much hotter inland. During this month the grapes, figs, peaches, apples, and pears ripen.
7 (1) September. (Tishri, early rains, plowing). During September the summer heat is intensified by the “siroccos” or desert winds, which can last much longer than the winds of spring. The farmers would dry their figs for winter, and a would make their grapes into raisins, syrup, and wine. The pomegranates and bananas would ripen. Usually around the end of September would be the first shower after a long summer drought.
8 (2) October. (Heshvan, wheat, barley sowing). Farmers would be finishing with their grape and fig harvests, olives would be gathered, the fattened sheep would be slaughtered, and the sugarcane and dates would ripen, plowing would begin and the rains would loosen up the hard dry ground. During October were the heavier rains known in Scripture as “the former rains.”
9 (3) November. (Chislev, plowing and sowing). During this month there would be much plowing and sowing of wheat and barley.
10 (4) December. (Tebeth, rainy winter months). December would bring heavier rains and cooler weather. Fruit trees would ripen with their oranges, citrons, and lemons. The vines would be pruned.
It is hoped that the above information should be of help when preparing discussion group papers and Sunday School lessons which involve dates and seasons.