by Mary Eshet
The new moon on September 15 ushers in Tishrei, a month full of Jewish holidays, the beginning of Fall, and the time when school and learning get fully into swing.
The placement of Rosh Hashanah in the calendar is a bit of a puzzle. The Torah refers to Nisan, the month of Passover, as the first month, making Tishrei the seventh month of the Jewish year. Why celebrate the new year in the seventh month? There are many answers, including the assignment of the date of Creation to Tishrei. The Mishnah, the rabbinic work that develops the laws of the Torah, includes the first reference to Rosh Hashanah – and notes FOUR new year dates annually, one for kings, one for years, one for animals and one for trees. In sum, no one knows precisely how, but Tishrei became known as the first month and Nisan the seventh.
Rosh Hashanah cannot be understood in isolation. The day marks the beginning of the 10 “days of awe,” a time of reflection, repentance, and cleansing, culminating in Yom Kippur when Jews fast and pray, ending the evening after sunset with a break-the-fast.
The cycle does not end with Yom Kippur – indeed according to tradition, immediately after services and the fast end, Jews begin building the sukkah, the outdoor booth reminiscent of the temporary dwellings in the wilderness the Jews traversed on their journey out of Egypt. It is back to life, back to building, back to reaping and enjoying the harvest.
Tishrei continues with even MORE holidays, as on the 23rd day of the month Simchat Torah is celebrated, marking the completion of the annual reading of the Torah and giving joyous gratitude for the Torah. All in one month we reflect, cleanse, ask for forgiveness, celebrate the harvest, and give thanks for the Torah. Clearly, the cadence leaves no room for dwelling on the past, but calls us to embrace life!
The celebration of Rosh Hashanah prompts thoughts about new year celebrations among various cultures and religions – and the variety is fascinating. To begin with, there is an abundance of different calendars. The Gregorian calendar, which represents the most consensual world calendar, begins the year on January 1, a date originally linked with Christmas and the birth of Jesus.
Orthodox Christians celebrate the New Year on January 14, referred to as the “old new year” because it was marked January 1 under the Julian calendar, initiated by Julius Caesar and in place prior to the Gregorian calendar. Muslims mark the New Year on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the lunar year. It is a time of reflection, prayer and getting together with family and friends.
The Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between January 21 and February 20, and the festivities last 15 days, until the following full moon. For Baha’is, the calendar is comprised of 19 months of 19 days each, and the New Year, Naw-Ruz, is celebrated on the vernal equinox.
Theravada Buddhism celebrates the New Year three days after the first full moon in April. For Balinese Hindus the first of the year is usually the day after the first new moon in March, based on their lunar calendar.
The date of the new year, the number of years counted, the make-up of the calendar, and the nature of observances differ across nations, cultures and religions, but the theme of cycles and new beginnings permeates them all. All the different calendars bring to mind the lyrics of a Chicago song, “Does anybody really know what time it is?” and a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein: “Time is relative; its only worth depends upon what we do as it is passing.”
The Hebrew word “kippur” means to scour or cleanse thoroughly. This theme, too, is prevalent among different cultures, though not always linked to the New Year. The Christian tradition that resonates most closely with Yom Kippur may be Lent, when many Christians give up something during the 40 days leading up to Easter. Lent is an exercise in self-discipline and sacrifice, then on Easter, rebirth and resurrection are celebrated.
The Islamic month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, is a time of reflection, prayer, and community. The Baha’i similarly observe a daytime fast for the 19-day month preceding Naw-Ruh, the New Year. Baha’is believe that the fast symbolizes detachment from the physical world, develops empathy for the poor and hungry, and engenders the development and growth of the soul.
On the evening prior to the Chinese New Year, it is traditional to thoroughly clean one’s house to sweep away any ill fortune and make way for incoming good luck. In Buddhism, water is symbolically used to wash away sins and clean so the new year can start fresh.
Leading up to the New Year, Hindus in Bali observe Nyepi, a day of silence, fasting, self-reflection, and meditation. On this day one should not light fires, work, travel, talk, or eat. Bali’s usually bustling streets are empty, calling to mind the streets of Israel on Yom Kippur. The next day, families and friends gather to “relight the fire” of social life.
As we turn the page to Tishrei, and to the Jewish year 5784, it is fascinating to consider how different religions and cultures mark time and devote time for reflection and cleansing. The traditions are rich in diversity, and learning about them feeds the soul. At the same time, it is profound to recognize that across so many differences, there lie common elements of cleansing, repentance, and beginning again. That is called humanity.
At the Greenspon Center, we work to advocate for humanity and social justice for all. Our new Program Guide is full of opportunities for you to join us on this journey! We hope you’ll take time to peruse the guide, learn about our work, and register for classes and events.
We wish everyone, regardless of what month, year, or day it is according to your tradition, Shanah tovah um’tukah – Have a good and sweet year!