Firstly, if you want to find out the social events going on over the New Year, make sure to check out my IsraelB online community.
The question of whether or how we should mark the secular New Year comes up, mainly for Jews living in the Diaspora. I looked into the topic a little yesterday and came up with this.
1) ‘Chag Ha’Sylvester’
The Israeli term for New Year’s celebrations, ‘Sylvester’, was the name of the Saint and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic Saints are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day; hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.
2) In Halacha — Jewish Law:
There are 3 issues that came to mind:
(1) Avoda Zarah (Idol worship);
(2) Chukot Hagoy; (customs and mores of the Gentiles), and
(3) Adding Mitzvot .
I don’t think (1) or (3) are problems. Jews wouldn’t attribute religious significance to a day some claim Jesus had his circumcision or say that celebrating the secular New Year was some type of extra Mitzvah.
The question is (2) of Chukot Hagoy.
The Torah, in Vayikra 18:3, says that Jews are forbidden to copy the customs of non-Jews.
The Vilna Gaon said that all customs were deemed ‘Chukat Hagoy’ unless we are certain that they have a valid Jewish basis.
The Shulchan Aruch, of Rav Yosef Cairo, was more lenient and said they didn’t need to have a Jewish basis. The Rema, (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) adds that the prohibition against copying non-Jewish customs applies to activities that encourage inappropriate or immodest conduct or that are linked to Avoda Zarah.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, rules that as New Year’s Day nowadays is detached from its religious origins, it is permitted to mark the day. However, he does say that ‘Ba’al Nefesh’ – people who are particular about their observance won’t take part in celebrations.
3) In Jewish History:
Even though from a Halachic perspective, there may not be anything wrong with celebrating, it’s worth bearing in mind that the time period between the 25th of December and the 1st of January was a period of increased Anti-Semitism and Anti-Jewish activity and persecution in Europe:
On New Year’s Day 1577 Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services. On New Year’s Day 1578 Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a ‘House of Conversion’ to convert Jews to Christianity. On New Year’s 1581 Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community.
Throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, January 1, supposedly the day, on which Jesus’ circumcision initiated the reign of Christianity was reserved for Anti-Jewish activities: Synagogue and book burnings and persecution.
4) Celebrating in Israel?
There is of course nothing wrong with socializing and having fun. Especially for those who live in the Diaspora, it’s important to respect non-Jewish colleagues and friends by wishing them back whatever they wish you. Furthermore, the idea of looking back, doing Cheshbon Ha’Nefesh and reflecting on our achievements and deeds of the past year is in fact a very Jewish idea. I just think we all need to bear in mind, that we already four New Years that the Mishna in Massechet Rosh Hashanah lists, and have our own calendar with our own chagim.
Rav Moshe Feinstein was writing in America. I’m not sure if Rav Moshe was writing in present day Israel, he would have seen a need to permit celebrating the secular New Year, above showing respect to our non-Jewish colleagues, clients and friends.
So, I hope I have clarified a little of what ‘Chag Ha’Sylvester’ is about and whether it’s permitted or right to celebrate.