As Americans, we get one New Year. As Jews, we get four — and none involves champagne. One is the first of Nissan, the first month in the Hebrew calendar. It comes in early spring, two weeks before Passover.
Next is the first of Elul, in August, which in biblical times marked the tithing of animals. Then we have the first of Tishrei, which we call Rosh Hashanah (literally, the head of the year). This is the day when the Hebrew year changes — from 5772 to 5773, as of sundown Sept. 16.
Finally, in February, we have the 15th of Shevat, or Tu B’Shevat, known as the New Year of the Trees.
But it’s on Rosh Hashanah that we say “shanah tovah,” wishing each other a happy new year. That’s the real Jewish New Year, and we know just when it comes.
But that wasn’t always so, says Berkeley resident Ron Feldman, a visiting scholar at the Graduate Theological Union (and CFO of the JCC of the East Bay).
Feldman’s field of research is ancient Hebrew calendars, a phrase notable for its being plural. I first met Feldman a couple years ago when he was just back from an international conference of ancient calendar-watchers in Jerusalem. Mesopotamian time. Babylonian time. Assyrian, Phoenician, Chinese time. (Imagine the joke possibilities! “What time is it, buddy?” “How the heck should I know?”)
Jewish tradition is pretty clear about the Hebrew dates of holy days, but lining up those numbers with actual sunrise-to-sunset physical days wasn’t so cut-and-dried in the world before Greenwich Mean Time.
Yet the early Hebrews “were anxious about sacred time,” Feldman explains. They wanted to mark the holy days according to God’s commandments, because, they reasoned, that’s the only way to enjoy the merits of one’s righteous actions. “You’re supposed to supplicate, ask God for something; you’re supposed to get close to God on that day, so you don’t want to celebrate at the wrong time,” he says. “If you’re going to fast on Yom Kippur, you have to do it on the right day, or it’s worthless.”
But with a lunar calendar aligned to the waxing and waning of the moon, these holy days depended on reliable witnesses, empowered by the Jewish leadership, to determine when the moon reached fullness — that’s when most Jewish holidays fall — or, conversely, when it has waned and given rise to the “new moon,” which is when Rosh Hashanah kicks off. So in ancient times you’d have guys on hills watching the moon, and then blowing horns (or using other means) to tell the Jews of their city that the holiday had begun.
That’s fine when everyone lives within blowing distance. But as Jews moved into the diaspora — Babylon, for
example — they didn’t want to be out of heavenly sync. They needed to know the exact day to begin their sacred celebrations, and it took time for runners to reach them from Jerusalem with the good news. Thus, some 2,000 years ago began the practice of Jews outside Israel celebrating the major holidays for two days instead of one, to be sure they got at least one 24-hour period right.
Eventually, Feldman continues, diaspora Jews wanted more predictability and the human witnesses “became a formality,” as Jews evolved a calculated calendar. “That involved a major change in ideas about sacred time, from rigid faithfulness to the new moon’s appearance (determined by God) to calculations by humans that were not as accurate but good enough that even God would respect them.”
For more fun, the 12 Hebrew months correspond to the 12 Jewish tribes, and also to the 12 signs of the Zodiac. The sign for Tishrei is Libra, represented by the scales of justice. “That corresponds to the idea that our fate is in the balance this month, that we’re being judged,” Feldman says, referring to the Jewish belief that the divine book of judgment is opened on Rosh Hashanah while our actions of the past year are weighed, and then closed and our fate sealed on Yom Kippur.
Doing this in the fall made sense in an agricultural society like that of the ancient Israelites, Feldman notes. “You’re heading into the end of the harvest, which determines how you’ll survive the winter — if it’s a good harvest, you’ll eat.” If you’re judged worthy, the rain will fall “in its time,” as the prayer goes, and next year’s harvest will also be a good one.
So, shanah tovah to all our readers. And may your rain fall in its proper time.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.