Tuesday, 12 March 2013

New Year's Day

Rosh Chodesh Nisan is not usually referred to as the start of the new Jewish year - that honour goes to 1st Tishrei, which is designated as Rosh Hashanah. However the opening Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah explains that there are actually four Jewish new years, as this table shows:

1st Nisan
Counting years of Jewish kings
The cycle of festivals (e.g. Pesach is 1st festival of year)
1st Elul
Tithing (starting the count of animals to see that the tenth is given to Cohanim)
1st Tishrei
Counting years (e.g. 5772)
Counting Shemitta years (every 7)
Counting Yovel/Jubilee years (every 50)
Tithing (see above – but only according to Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon)
15th Shevat*
Trees (*According to Beit Shammai this is on 1st Shevat)

In today's world where we have no Jewish king or Beit Hamikdash, the two most relevant dates here are 1st Nisan and 1st Tishrei. One is the start of the Jewish festival calendar and one is the start of the Jewish year. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, where 1st January is the start of the new year and January is also the first month, in the Jewish calendar, 1st Tishrei may be the start of the new year but it is the seventh month - the first month is Nisan. Therefore in Judaism there are two different cycles - the cycle of months and the cycle of years.

There are lots of interesting comparisons and contrasts between these two new years. The two start dates of these two cycles are exactly six months apart, which means that the Jewish year can be divided neatly into two periods. They also both signal the start of seasons - 1st Nisan heralds the start of spring whereas 1st Tishrei is the beginning of autumn. The months of Nisan and Tishrei contain some of the key festivals in the Jewish calendar (Pesach, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot etc) and are both considered happy months, throughout much of which we do not say Tachanun.

It is well-publicised that the theme of the month of Tishrei is teshuva, returning to Hashem. At this time we work on rectifying mistakes, doing more mitzvot and focusing on improving our character in the year ahead. However there is also reason to suggest 1st Nisan is a time for teshuva too. However the focus is less on our own personal religious journey but that of the Jewish people as a nation. Jews are always part of a dichotomy between the individual and the communal and our need to function in both spheres is reflected by these two new years. During Nisan, we should be doing collective teshuva as a nation looking at rectifying past mistakes and seeing how we can improve together. This is something that Binyamin Netanyahu would do well to focus on when putting together a coalition government for Israel.

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