Judaism’s Two New Years
In the Middle Ages, when rabbis were largely specialists in and adjudicators of Jewish law, they preached in the synagogue but twice a year, on Shabbat Hagadol prior to Passover and on Shabbat Shuvah prior to Yom Kippur. The ritual intricacies of each festival called for some public instruction. The custom highlighted the affinity between these two seasons which each in its own way initiated the start of a new year.
It is well known that Judaism has two new year festivals, Passover in the spring and Rosh Hashanah in the fall. The duality tells us much about the penchant of Judaism to do justice to the complexity of the human condition. Whatever the history of Rosh Hashanah, mostly post-biblical, by the time of the Rabbinic period, we find two well differentiated holidays inaugurating a new year.
Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs, comes to mark the first in the annual cycle of twelve months, while Tishrei would herald the onset of a new solar year (currently 5762). I have no intention of befuddling you with the convolutions of the Jewish calendar, though they have long fascinated me. Rather my wish is to reflect on the meaning gained from preserving and integrating two divergent systems of counting time.
In the generation after the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE), R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua often clashed in their efforts to comfort and fortify a grieving nation. In one dispute they differed over which month in the calendar bore the greatest significance. R. Eliezer proclaimed that it had to be Tishrei, for in that month the world was created and Israel’s redemption from exile was destined to fall. The month also commemorated, among other notable events the birth and death of the patriarchs, the conception of the matriarchs, the release of Joseph from prison and the ending of the forced labor endured by our ancestors in Egypt (though not their state of slavery). R. Yehoshua disagreed. For him history turned on the symmetry he detected in the month of Nisan in which the world was created, the patriarchs were born and died and Israel redeemed from Egypt. And in that same month the Jewish people would experience their final redemption (BT Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a).
At issue here is the ambiguity of having a calendar with two new years. R. Yehoshua enjoyed the advantage of biblical support. Ancient Israel emerged as a nation on the stage of history with the Exodus. The Egyptian cauldron had forged its identity and morality; history recast an old spring festival of agricultural renewal into a celebration of national birth. And the month in which it took place was to be henceforth, “the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2). Lacking such support, R. Eliezer dared to invoke the ultimate historical precedent, creation itself. Rosh Hashanah was preferable because it was more universal in scope, commemorating the birth of all humanity. National considerations, for the moment, became secondary. In contrast, R. Yehoshua, for whom national redemption was the fulcrum of the calendar, aligned creation with the month of the Exodus. The Mishnah, which followed nearly a century later, seems to accord with this universal/particular divide. Thus as understood by the Gemara, the Mishnah declared that when counting our years by the reign of a Jewish monarch, the new year begins with Nisan, but when counting by the reign of a gentile king, the new year would begin with Tishrei. I take the correlation of Nisan with Jewish sovereignty as implicitly predicated on the view of R. Yehoshua that the Jewish calendar turns on the Exodus. Conversely, the correlation of Tishrei with gentile sovereignty jibes nicely with the view of R. Eliezer that the universe was created in Tishrei.
In the same vein, the Mishnah goes on to ascribe to Rosh Hashanah an entirely novel universal thrust. Whereas on Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, given their underlying agricultural character, God determines the productivity of the land of Israel in reference to the moral merit of its inhabitants, on Rosh Hashanah the fate of each human being for the coming year is rendered by God in a personal audience. For a moment, as our future hangs in the balance, we have God’s undivided attention. Rosh Hashanah adds a supremely individualistic note to a religious calendar saturated with national sentiment. To affirm that the world was created in Tishrei is to impute ultimate value to the divine image imprinted within each human life (Rosh Hashanah 1:1-2).
The existence of two new years, then, echoes the long-forgotten debate of R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua. What united them is that neither rabbi called for the adoption of a calendar with but a single new year. They argued over which was primary and which secondary. To its credit, Judaism incorporated both. The newer holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur did not overwhelm the older pilgrimage festival of Passover. Together, both sacred seasons express the fullness of human need. In the spring, we join with family and friends to celebrate the rebirth of our people. Nature and history converge in a burst of new vigor, hope and creativity. We have a need to belong, to attach our lives to something greater and more lasting than ourselves, to find meaning beyond the self.
But the self is not to be denied. It must find some sacred solitude within the totality of community and peoplehood. And so we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives. The ten day unit joining Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur affords a period of contraction, mirroring nature, from which we will emerge revitalized. To live our daily lives meaningfully we need ever so often to be imbued with a sense of eternity.
As in so many other areas, Judaism strives for balance, keeping polarities in creative tension. The phenomenon of two new years, focused on the nation and the individual and promoting the values of particularism and universalism, is not an isolated instance. Judaism offers an unending dialectic between polarities such as priest and prophet, law and psalmody, a written Torah and an oral one– or better yet, a canon without closure, halakkah and aggadah, rationalism and mysticism and the centrality of the land of Israel and the accommodation to life in exile. In sum, Judaism is a glorious prism that refracts God’s light in a rainbow of human expressions.
Shabbat Shalom ve-Hag Sameah.