What is all the to-do about New Year’s Eve?
by Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber
The world is gearing up for another celebration on Saturday night. No it is not Havdalah that most are contemplating though I think Havdalah is definitely an option. On Saturday night at midnight, the entire world will acknowledge and celebrate the beginning of 2012, a new year. As Jews, we live in two worlds and it is at times like these that we are challenged to find meaning in both.
Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1 gives some insight into the role of “New Year” demarcation on the Jewish calendar.
There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and for festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for tithing animals. –Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishri– on the first of Tishri is the New Year for the years, for Sabbatical years and for Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables; and on the first of Sh’vat for trees, according to the School of Shamai, but the School of Hillel says on the fifteenth of Sh’vat.
The four days specified in this mishnah reflect the political, ritual and spiritual nature of the Jewish world view. These days served as indicators of transition, status and the timing of the rituals which accompanied each designation.
The first of Nisan had a dual purpose for kings and festivals, yet the two are linked. A year in a king’s rule dated from the first of Nisan, even if he assumed the throne on the last day of Adar (the day before the first of Nisan). The king who ruled over Israel had to ensure that the activities of the Temple, including sacrifices and tithing, continued to function as the foundation of the people. The Shalosh R’galim,the three pilgrimage festivals, brought the people to Jerusalem to celebrate their harvest, to bring offerings which connected them to the Divine, to reconnect with the larger community, and to demonstrate support for the political leaders of the time. The balance between political and ritual in our lives is demonstrated by this new year on the first of Nisan.
The new year for the years occurred on the first of Tishri, even though Leviticus 23:5 states that the first month is Nisan as determined by the observance of Pesach and later Tishri is counted as the seventh month as verse 24 states:
Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.
Obviously there was a recalculation of the calendar between the writing of Leviticus and the mishnah from Rosh Hashanah. Today, we observe the new year for the years on the first of Tishri as stated in the mishnah rather than calculating the year from Nisan as outlined in Leviticus.
On the first of Tishri, we welcome the new year through prayer and reflection and proclaim the sanctity of the day with the sounding of the shofar. We could infer that the revelry of New Year’s Eve is modeled on our observance of Rosh Hashanah. It has become a day of complete rest (it is a Federal holiday in the United States) and communities celebrate with fireworks and blowing of horns (generally plastic and not a ram’s horn). It has become a time when friends and family get together enjoying companionship and a good meal.
Personally, as New Year’s Eve approaches, I wonder why the big deal. I’ve already welcomed a new year back on the first of Tishri. Yet, I enjoy watching the celebration in Times Square and seeing the ball descend. Most of all, I look forward to marking the transition from one year to the next, with family and friends enjoying the time together. I recall one tradition from my parents, eating herring and sour cream at midnight. It is curious that my parents chose to eat foods they also ate during the days surrounding Rosh Hashanah. Unfortunately, I never asked them why.
May 2012 be a year of health, well-being and peace.
Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber is Adult Learning Specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism and coordinator of 10 Minutes of Torah.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.