Saturday, February 1, 2020

When Is Your New Year?

In Judaism we have four new years. The big New Year celebration is in September when we finish the annual cycle of reading the Torah and prepare to start again from the beginning. It's all about atonement, forgiveness, and hoping to be written into the book of life for another year.

Some rabbis claimed it was the time of creation. How did they know? They didn't.

It is also the date on which the ancient Hebrews calculated their taxes and charitable donations for fruit and grain grown the previous year. And the date from which years of servitude and agricultural activity were calculated towards the Jubilee years when slaves were set free and fallow years for crops. It was the equivalent of the fiscal new year.

However in Leviticus 23; 23-25 God says to Moses, that they should mark the first day of the seventh month as a solemn and holy day of rest and proclaim it with a blasting of horns and a sacrifice to the Lord. The Bible does not call this day Rosh Hashanna (the Head of the Year) as we do. It is never mentioned again in the Bible and why is it referred to as the seventh month?

It's called the seventh month because the 1st of the month in which Pesach (Passover) falls, is mentioned in Exodus 12; 1-2 when God tells Moses in Egypt, two weeks before they leave, that this month shall be the beginning of months for you, it shall be for you the first month of the year.

Some Rabbis argued that this was the time of creation. See my comment above.

We have two other minor New Years. In February the New Year for Trees marks the beginning of spring, the re-awakening of nature after the cold, barren winter. We plant trees and eat fruit. The final New Year marks the cut-off date for tithing animals at the end of the summer, a month before Rosh Hashanna.

So we have two contenders for the official New Year for people. In the end we celebrate both, although the pre-Pesach one less so as it's not a holiday and it gets rolled into the Pesach celebrations.

I love this. At the end of the summer, after all the hard work of the various growing seasons and just before the final harvest of the year, we celebrate surviving another year, we reflect on our behaviour and vow to do even better next year. Then, just before Peasch, we get another chance.

If Rosh Hashanna was the month in which the creation happened (or even if it wasn't), then the Exodus was also a beginning, a re-birth, and the start of the journey into nationhood. A second chance. And what a great time for it, just after we've done all the spring cleaning, washed out the storage jars from the winter food, and aired out our homes.

Interestingly, this is also a significant time for Christians who celebrate the resurrection at this time of year. Another re-birth of sorts, and a new beginning.

Of course we all have a number of New Years besides the ubiquitous celebrations on 1st January, when the number of the year changes and Americans (and Israelis, surprisingly) have to get their tax forms in. In the UK we have the fiscal New Year on 15th April. The academic New Year is in September, everyone has a birthday (the Queen has two), and various countries celebrate their number of years of Independence. There is the Chinese New Year, every religion has its own New Year, and people have all sorts of random dates and anniversaries that they celebrate because they have personal meaning. Adoption days, surviving a dangerous situation or illness, finding religion, re-locating, changing career, becoming vegetarian or vegan, meeting your soulmate, to name but a few.

My personal favourite New Years are September (academic, Jewish and my birthday) and 1st January. But I  sort of missed 1st January this year because we had house guests and I'd not managed to plan it with enough reverence and aforethought. Also, resolutions aren't always appropriate when cooking for guests. This was doubly disappointing as it's also the start of a new decade.

In many ways 1st February is more meaningful. I think people need more time after the hectic Christmas holidays to reflect and really work out what they want for the coming year. It's also valuable to have the time to put everything in place for the big start. There's no point in resolving to give up sugar with the Christmas pudding, fancy liqueurs, and gifted chocolates leftover and tempting you. No one is going to throw these things out so you need a few weeks to clear the decks, as it were.

In Israel it really is the end of the harsh winter and although we still have another month of heating, coats, and [hopefully] umbrellas, it's the beginning of the end and spirits start to lift. And I'm all about second chances.

So for anyone who would like to join me... HAPPY NEW YEAR AND HAPPY NEW DECADE! It starts today!


  1. Happy New Year and decade to you! I love the idea of making February the start of another year because I really dislike the dull, short days of January. This weekend I saw the first crocuses which made me so happy. Soon the roadsides will be full of spring flowers which is a glorious time. It feels good to have tucked January away for another year 😄

    1. A friend used to say that February is the Monday morning of the year. If that's th case then January is a wet Sunday and at least now we can get started with everything. Where do you live that you notice roadside flowers? I'm imagining you in Wales for some reason.

    2. Well, I’m English but live in Northern Ireland. We have had a mild (but wet!) winter and I think the Spring flowers are a little early this year.

    3. Thanks for replying. It's nice to picture where someone is.