With the glow of the Chanukkah candles fading and the fireworks of the New Year dimming, we look towards 2019 with hope and the possibility for renewal. And yet, what is a new year beyond a date which lines up with a solar or religious calendar? One could argue that a new year is not so special; Jews have four throughout the Gregorian calendar! Like many holidays and rituals, I would argue, it is less about the holiday itself and more about the significance we imbue upon that date rather than any inherent value or symbolism there within.
I would like to propose we treat every New Year, religious or secular, as an opportunity. Too often, I take aspects of my life for granted. My health, my family, my perennially playoff-bound Los Angeles sports teams; I have grown so accustomed to these things, I sometimes forget to be grateful for them. Maybe this is why the Rabbis of old saw fit to instate four new year commemorations in our Hebrew calendar. They are as follows:
First of Nisan – The first new year’s day is the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan, usually in the early spring (April). Nisan is considered the first month of the Hebrew calendar, though years are counted from the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month. The First of Nisan was considered the new year for counting the years of the reigns of kings in ancient Israel. It is also the new year for ordering the Jewish holidays. The month of Nisan is closely tied with the festival of Passover; and while Rosh Hashanah is seen as the anniversary of the creation of the world, the first day of Nisan is seen as the anniversary of the founding of the Jewish people when they escaped from Egypt during the Passover story.
First of Elul – The second new year’s day is on the first day of Elul, the sixth month of the Hebrew calendar, which usually falls in the late summer (August). According to the Mishnah, this was the new year for animal tithes. It was used to determine the start date for the animal tithe to the priestly class in ancient Israel, similar to how we use April 15th in the U.S. as tax day. Generally, this new year’s day is no longer observed, although the month of Elul does mark the beginning of preparations for Rosh Hashanah.
First of Tishrei (aka Rosh Hashanah) – Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year with which we are most familiar. It falls on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which usually corresponds to the month of September. It marks the day when the Jewish calendar year advances and is seen traditionally as the date when the world was created. In ancient times, it was also used for calculating certain tithes, such as those for vegetables, and for calculating the start of Sabbatical and Jubilee years when land was left fallow.
Fifteenth of Sh’vat (aka Tu Bishvat) – Tu Bishvat is considered the new year’s day for trees, usually falling between January and February. According to the Torah, fruits cannot be consumed from trees less than three years old, and Tu B’Shvat was used as the starting date for determining the age of the trees. Unlike the first of Nisan and the first of Elul, Tu Bishvat is still widely observed as a minor Jewish holiday.
No matter how or where you celebrated the new year, I hope you will use it as an opportunity to reflect on the past. Give your goals and dreams a renewed fervor so that the same mistakes you might have made once or twice (or more), aren’t repeated again. January 1st is more than just an excuse to drink champagne and watch fireworks, it’s an opportunity to be mindful and grow. Happy New Year North Shore Synagogue!