In Ex 12:2, referring to the month in which Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread are celebrated, it says quite unequivocally, “This month shall be the beginning of the months for you, the first month of your year.”
When do we observe New Year?
Rabbinical Judaism – the mainstream and the majority of the Jewish community – observe New Year in Autumn on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei). Karaite and Talmidi Jews on the other hand, observe New Year in Spring on the first day of the first month (Aviv or Nisan); the first day of the seventh month is instead called by its biblical name, Yom Tru‘ah (Day of Shout and Trumpet).
Why this dichotomy? After all, the biblical lists of the festivals start with Pesach (Passover), and end with Sukkot (the Festival of Booths); the months in the bible are listed simply (first month, second month etc), and the first month of Spring is specified as the beginning of the year. In addition, the way the harvesting and sowing around the Sabbatical Year is described (Lev 25:20-22), also proves that the first month in Spring was considered by the writers of the Torah as New Year.
If the New year was supposed to be in Autumn in the seventh month (Tishrei), then the bible would list the festivals from Yom Tru‘ah (the Day of the Shout and Trumpet), and end with Shavu‘ot (The Festival of Weeks). And most of all, why would the bible call Nisan the first month, if it’s not the first month!!
The bible irrefutably makes Nisan the first month, in which Passover is observed. So why does rabbinical Judaism observe it in the seventh month? It may be connected to the tithing system. The tithing year ends with Elul (the sixth month). Sowing always began in November/December, and the harvest season ended in September/October, so it was easy to make the sixth month the cut-off point for calculating the annual tithe. The following month was then the New Year.
In addition, the pagan Canaanite year may also have begun in the Autumn, and some early Israelites may have taken over the pagan harvest year. Although the northern kingdom of Israel seems to have observed New Year in Spring, the southern kingdom of Judah observed New Year in Autumn. These various elements came together, and resulted in the modern rabbinical Jewish community observing New Year in the Autumn.
How is the first month calculated?
From various passages in the Miqra (bible) – Ex 13:4, 23:15, 34:18, Deu 16:1 – we are instructed to keep the month of ‘Aviv’ (pronounced ah-VEEV). Aviv is the earliest name of the first month. It means ‘ripe barley’, and the first month is reckoned by watching for the ripening of the barley harvest in Israel. The Karaite Jewish community have done this for centuries; it is how it was done in pre-rabbinic times too. We Talmidis rely heavily on the Karaites for the proclamation of Aviv.
About a month or less before the expected date of New Year, Karaites send out observers to find out how the barley is ripening. Barley is said to be aviv when the grain has hardened sufficently after its ‘juicy’ or soft, watery stage to be cooked by fire. If it is still watery, it can easily be squashed between the fingers, and will shrivel to a crisp when roasted.
Once barley in its aviv stage has been found, then this fact is proclaimed to the community at large, and the first New Moon (Chodesh) after that becomes the first month of the New Year.
As a result of this, the biblical Jewish New Year can occasionally as much as one month’s difference from the rabbinical Jewish month of Nisan. More frequently it differs by a day or so.
The meaning of New Year
The main themes of New Year are: the wondrousness of Creation, and therefore awe in its Creator; the birthday of the Earth; and the enthronement of YHVH our God as Sovereign Ruler and Majesty over the whole Universe.New Year is also the birthday of Creation, of the Universe, and more specifically of the Earth. On this day we are awed by God’s works, and by the power of God’s creative ability. The Earth, on which we all rely for sustenance, is renewed once more.
Ancient Rabbinic Judaism largely shied away from any appreciation of Nature, but New Year was precisely that. The ancient rabbis feared that respect for Nature would lead to worship of it. Nowadays, we are sufficiently removed from knowledge of the false pagan gods of Nature that we cannot be tempted by them. Instead, our awe when regarding the wondrousness and beauty of all life only increases our amazement and reverence for YHVH our God. By standing in awe and wonderment at the world of nature around us, its beauty, complexity, intricacy and interconnectedness, we get a glimpse of its Maker. Abraham worshipped God as the creator of heaven and earth, and it is as the Great Creator that YHVH was first known and identified.
In ancient times, New Year was the ritual celebration of God’s kingship, of YHVH as Ruler of the Universe. The biblical New Year is a celebration of the royal, official opening of the Year. Royal as in, ‘YHVH is our King’. It is a supreme celebration of the kingship of YHVH.
On New Year’s day, we remember that YHVH is our King – the true King of Kings – and we are awed by the fantastic works of God. While standing in awe at the great works of God, we are either too modest or simply forget that we ourselves are awesome creations.
We should bless God for the stars, the sun and the moon, the planets and everything in the Universe. On this day, we also remember life on earth – the animals, the plants, the living planet itself.
By ignoring the fact that YHVH is in fact the Creator, we have lost our concern and care for Creation. For some people, this has resulted in a disdain for the living world. Some people see wild plants and animals as a nuisance and therefore to be gotten rid of. We have forgotten that we are stewards of the earth, for we were made in the image of God – that is, we were made to carry out a function that God fulfills, and look after and care for the earth and all life around us.
Various psalms (specifically 47, 93, 96, 97, and 99) were connected with this time of year. They speak about the enthronement of God as our Sovereign Majesty and King. In earliest Yahwism, (from the time of re-settlement in Canaan to the time of King David), the ark of the covenant would have been carried in procession to symbolise God’s Sovereign Majesty, and YHVH was symbolically enthroned. The people would shout out, “YHVH is seated on His holy throne! YHVH is King of all the earth! YHVH reigns!” with great joy and enthusiasm (see psalm 47).
Lastly, it is remembered as a time of redemption. The month of Aviv was when the Israelites left Egypt, so it is a time for a new beginning, a spiritual renewal.
How is it observed today in the Talmidi Community?
Because New Year’s day is also a New Moon Festival, the New Year is consequently a day of rest. It is however, not as strict as a Sabbath. One may cook and serve food and light fires. It is a New Moon festival par excellence.
As with all Hebrew dates, the day begins the previous evening at nightfall. Some pious people like to watch for the New Moon, and then bless God and sanctify the New Year once the New Moon has been sighted.
In ancient times, it was also an occasion of feasting and joy (cf. the New Moon feast that David says he cannot attend, 1Sam 20:18-42). Although not specifically commanded in Torah, traditionally some people like to have a special family meal, and cook special foods. It often becomes a good opportunity to use up any food in the house that contains leaven (yeast), since Chag ha-Matsot is fast approaching!
One can also send gifts of food to those in need, such as the poor, soldiers in service, orphans and the elderly.
Other people like to do things that will stimulate within them a sense of awe and wonderment at God’s creation, such as watching the beauty of the night sky, or going out to an open piece of land or a hill, and beholding the beauty of what God has made. However, we must always remember that it is the potter who is praised and blessed, not the pottery.