New Year, New Jew
Here we are again at New Year’s Eve. Tonight, all around the secular world, we celebrate our last gasp of bacchanal revelry and exuberance for the year. We don gay apparel and stay up late to prove that we still have the stamina of youth. Alternately, we lament that we no longer have the tenacity to stay awake until midnight. At some point, we rejoice in pajamas and the comfort that we are too old and wise to care if we stay up to watch the ball drop.
Somewhere in all this frolicking, though, the secular world has dropped the ball on the potential of the new year. Where in these celebrations is the fervent hope for sweetness and peace in the year to come? How are we opening our lives up to welcome more G-d, goodness, righteousness and sanctity? Why celebrate a last night of the year doing things you’ll regret when you can steep yourself in ten days of regretting the things you’ve done?
I don’t mean to be a kill-joy. I like a nice flute of champagne as well as the next girl, and I am not suggesting we all should spend December 31st doing laundry. But perhaps there is value in inserting more of our JEW YEAR into our NEW YEAR.
Although I live very much in the secular world, following its rhythms and patterns much more than I do those of the Jewish world, the marking of the secular new year means little to me. I neither make nor break resolutions. I feel deeply connected, however, to Rosh Hashanah and the type of contemplation the shofar blow summons.
If you look for explicit mention of a “new year” in the Torah, you won’t find it. You have to go into the Mishnah (Order Moed, Tractate Rosh Hashanah). We all know that two Jews have (minimum) three opinions, but did you know the Mishnah describes four sorts of New Years? What’s more — and also not a bit shocking — the rabbis couldn’t agree on the exact dates or meanings for some of these New Years. For simplicity’s sake, though, and to avoid going down the rabbit hole of Rabbi said/Rabbi said (spoiler: Hillel wins over Shammai again), here is a list of Jewish New Years:
1st of Tishrei (September or October): Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the seventh month of the calendar year. Although mentioned in the Torah as the day when a horn is sounded (Leviticus 29:1), the day was sanctified in the rabbinic period. It was the rabbis who declared this day the head of the year, the birthday of the world and the effective fiscal year for Sabbatical and Jubilee years and agricultural tithes.
15th of Shevat (end of January or beginning of February): Demarcating the new year for trees, also known as Tu B’Shevat, this new year marks the age of trees to determine whether or not consuming the fruit of said trees is acceptable or orlah (Leviticus 19: 23-25).
1st of Nissan (end of March or beginning of April): This is the beginning of the first month of the Jewish calendar year. Because the first of Nissan also relates to the Exodus from Egypt, some commemorate the beginning of Jewish peoplehood on this date.
1st of Elul (late summer): Tax day. Although this New Year for animals is not meaningfully observed anymore, the first of Elul was considered the date by which one measures the age of the cows being prepared as animal tithes.
What strikes me about our four Jewish New Years is the intentionality of them. Although celebrating them is not commanded, their purpose is to make following G-d’s commandments simpler. We make them signposts along our year to pause, reflect, measure and check that we are living in accordance with our beliefs. Maybe our secular new year would be more impactful if on February 1st we had a second holiday to count how many times we’d actually made it to the gym that month.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “If you won’t be better tomorrow than you were today, then what do you need tomorrow for?” What is a secular new year if not 365 more chances to be better than the day before? May your New Year’s celebrations be marked with joy, your years brim with goodness and every day filled with meaning.
Cintra Pollack, a Wexner Heritage Program member (Denver 14), has studied or worked all over the United States and even as far away as Beijing, China. Though she was an English major/Asian Studies minor at Davidson College and thought she’d end up a comparative literature professor, Cintra landed her first job as an editor for Amazon.com in Seattle and her next job as an information architect/web developer at Amazon. Discovering she liked the corporate world more than she had expected, she pursued an MBA at the University of Washington and became a hedge fund equity analyst in Boston. She currently manages portfolios of investments for a family office in Denver. In her free time, Cintra loves to write, read, cook, ski, bike, hike and practice yoga. Her enthusiasm for her hobbies is surpassed only by her glee for travel, her love of family, and her affection for her fuzzball cat. Cintra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.