Opinion | The religious symbolism of the cicadas

Dr. Janet S. Sunness
Dr. Janet S. Sunness (Courtesy of Janet S. Sunness)

By Dr. Janet S. Sunness

We have entered the season of cicadas. When we had the last outbreak, in 2004, I asked myself what the possible significance of a 17-year cycle could be. It’s actually fairly miraculous; how can cicadas count 17 years? Does this interval have any religious significance?

To my entomologically ignorant eye, cicadas remind me of the plague of locusts, one of the 10 plagues inflicted on the Egyptians as part of the process of Israel’s deliverance.

I asked myself whether there is another way of looking at the cycle of our cicadas. Seventeen years are equivalent to 12 calendar months, multiplied by 17 years, which comes out to 204 months. But if you consider lunar months, and the addition of “leap months,” we come to a different result.

A small digression to explain “leap months”: A purely lunar calendar, as is followed by the Muslim faith, has only 354 days in a year, since a lunar month is 29-30 days. A year in the Muslim calendar is about 11 days short of a solar calendar, so Muslim holidays, like Ramadan, may come during any season. In the Jewish calendar, based on the lunar calendar but with a requirement that Passover always fall in the spring, there must be a correspondence of the Jewish year to the solar as well as the lunar year. Seven leap months (a second month of Adar) are added within a 19-year cycle. The 19-year cycle adds a “leap month” in years three, six, eight, 11, 14, 17 and 19.

There is a spiritual significance to combining the solar and lunar year. A solar year represents constancy and the material world. The lunar year represents change (the moon waxes and wanes) and the spiritual world. The Jewish concept of life is a combination of constancy and change, and a combination of material assets with spiritual ones. Judaism does not advocate an ascetic lifestyle; rather it wants us to elevate the material through our spirituality and to appreciate both as gifts of God, to be used to benefit us and the world.

In a lunar year, 17 years is 204 months, as noted above. But when we consider Jewish years, 17 years includes 6 leap months, so the total number of Jewish months in 17 years is 210. Our rabbis tell us that the Jews were enslaved in Egypt for 210 years. So the cicadas are like a partial plague with a telescoped year represented by months, indicating that we are still in slavery. We had 210 months to redeem ourselves and improve our world. If we have done this, we will be redeemed. But if we have not accomplished this, then the cicadas come back 210 months later to indicate we are still “in slavery,” and we have another 210 months to perfect and redeem ourselves.

So when the cicadas become rampant, think about their spiritual meaning, and strive to not have them return again.

Janet Sunness is medical director of the Hoover Low Vision Rehabilitation Services at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center. She gives talks and classes on Jewish themes within the Baltimore community and nationally. Her articles have appeared in local as well as international publications.

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