Next Tuesday is New Year’s Day. Again.
Often referred to as the "new year for trees", Tu B'Shevat historically marked the date for assessing taxes and other obligations on produce. Today, it often functions as something of a Jewish Earth Day, highlighting the importance of environmentalism and demonstrating an innovative approach to a holiday originally observed in a more agrarian setting.
The number of Jewish new years can be overwhelming. The Torah tells of Passover being celebrated in the first month of the year during the spring, marking a vernal start to the Jewish annual cycle. The Mishnah references four separate new years: one for kings and festivals (the first of the month of Nisan); one for animals (Elul); one for the Jubilee year (Tishrei); and one for trees (the fifteenth of Sh’vat or Tu B'Shevat). Compiled centuries later, the Talmud expounds on how the first of Tishrei, which we are most familiar with as Rosh Hashanah, is the new year for judgment.
But juggling this many Jewish new years becomes even more confounding when we consider all of the secular new years we encounter as well. On January 1, we began the year 2008, the year that appears on our cell phones, computer monitors, billing statements, and homework assignments. 2008 is the answer we are most likely to give when asked, "What year is it?"
For those still in school, the new academic year begins in August or September, while an organization’s fiscal year may commence in April or July. Add to that birthdays, anniversaries and yahrzeits, and it can feel like we’re commemorating a new year on a weekly basis.
As much as we often feel like we’re drowning in a deluge of dates, we can feel equally lost when one of our new year's days is effectively taken away from us. Living in a largely non-Jewish society, those of us in North America often are forced to make difficult choices around Rosh Hashanah as we negotiate with a world for which the Jewish new year for judgment is invisible.
Conversely, as many of the participants on this winter’s Israel trips know, December 31 isn’t a particularly big deal in Israel and January 1 is generally a work day. In fact, Israelis refer to December 31 as "Yom Sylvester," named for an anti-Semitic Catholic Saint who prohibited Jews from living in Jerusalem. To commemorate the entry of 2008, the Israel program staff intentionally organized New Year’s Eve parties for non-Israeli participants. Meanwhile, the rest of the country generally greeted the new year by going to bed at the usual time.
As we prepare to observe another new year, here are some things to consider:
• How many New Year’s Days do you mark on your personal, professional calendar? Which are the most important to you?
• How do you celebrate or observe the New Year’s Days on your calendar?
• Have you ever tried to mark a new year that was significant to you, but less important to those around you?
• Have you ever helped someone mark a new year that was significant to him or her, but less important to others?
• When it comes to using the terms A.D. (latin for "Year of our Lord") versus C.E. (Common Era, preferred by Jews), how do we balance honoring our Jewish heritage with living in a modern secular world?
Rabbi Seth Goren is a project consultant with the Joseph Meyerhoff Center for Jewish Learning.
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