The question should be simple enough to answer. When does the Jewish year begin?
There is a problem, however; there is no clear “beginning” to the Jewish year. While other faith traditions identify one yearly date as their year’s commencement; the Jewish calendar contains numerous rashei shana, dates identified as “Heads of the Year.” Our year is apparently multi-headed, featuring a number of possible beginnings.
We might be tempted to suggest that this phenomenon reflects our people’s famed inability to agree with each other on anything. The truth, however, is much more profound. The Jewish year’s multiple portals reflect the natural cycles around us that begin at different times of the year. As the spring season approaches, for example, the 15th day of the month of Shevat is recognized as the “Head of the Year” for trees. With the arrival of fall, the first day of the month of Elul is identified as the “Head of the Year” for domesticated animals. The list continues…
By reminding us that we share the globe with all of God’s creations, our yearly passage helps counteract our innate self-centered view of the world. We are alerted to the fact that we are not alone. The natural world surrounding us has independent value. Our year must mirror its presence and importance, as well.
The question, however, remains. When does our year begin? Accepting that the various rashei shana of the year mark the multiple beginnings surrounding us, when is the Jew’s rosh hashana? What exact calendar date marks the beginning of our yearly journey?
At first blush, the answer to this question would seem evident. Clearly our year begins in the fall, with the two-day biblical festival that opens the month of Tishrei. Designated in rabbinic sources as Rosh Hashana, the Head of the Year, this festival launches a period of deep personal introspection and is universally seen as the Jewish year’s beginning.
Surprisingly, however, another viable calendar candidate presents itself for the year’s beginning. Centuries before the rabbis label the first days of Tishrei as Rosh Hashana, the Torah itself openly refers to the month we are about to enter, the springtime month of Nissan, as the “first of the months of the year.” In addition, the Torah relates that God launches the Jewish calendar on Rosh Chodesh Nissan, the first day of this “first month” of Nissan, immediately before the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. This momentous act initiates the Divine transmission of mitzvot to the Israelites. Finally, Nissan prominently features the Festival of Pesach, which marks the onset of the Jewish national journey. Based on this clear biblical testimony, Rosh Chodesh Nissan is a logical candidate for the Jewish year’s beginning.
A quandary, therefore…
Which date shall we choose as the beginning of our year? Should we view our yearly cycle as beginning in the fall season, with the month of Tishrei; or does the year begin now, exactly six months later, in the spring, with the onset of Nissan?
Apparently we are not meant to choose, at all. So complex are Jews’ place in the world that their yearly passage must include two rashei shana. Their personal yearly cycle does not begin once a year; it begins twice.
The rashei shana of Tishrei and Nissan speak with very different voices…
The Tishrei rosh hashana liturgy proclaims: “On this day the world came into being. On this day He (God) makes all creatures of the world stand in judgement.” The universal tone struck by this statement courses through the entire festival. “God is the God of all creation,” we loudly declare. “The entire world, not just the Jew, is judged on this holy occasion.” As each Jew traverses this uniquely personal festival, each one is meant to do so with an acute awareness of his or her shared humanity. All of God’s creatures have inherent value in the eyes of their creator; all of humankind has its place and its role to play in God’s world.
If the rosh hashana of Tishrei is universal, however, the rosh hashana of Nissan is specific. Nissan celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation and the establishment of its unique relationship with God. The central festival of this month, the festival of Pesach, marks God’s hand in history, as God leads God’s “Chosen People” toward freedom and nationhood. Nissan reminds Jews of their distinctiveness, of the exceptional place that they occupy in God’s world, and of the role that they alone are meant to play in that world.
Evidence of the philosophical distinction between these two rashei shana is seen in a technical talmudic mandate. Legal contracts that are dated according to the reign of non-Jewish kings, say the rabbis, must reflect the universal rosh hashana of Tishrei. Contracts, on the other hand, which reference the reign of Jewish kings, are dated according to the Jewish rosh hashana of Nissan.
The message conveyed by the structure of our calendar could not be more powerful or profound…
One might have thought that with the Jewish Nation’s birth, its specific rosh hashana would replace the universal rosh hashana on its calendar; that the rosh hashana of Nissan would supplant the rosh hashana of Tishrei. This clearly is not the case. Both rashei shana remain in place. Together they create a critical balance, essential to each Jew’s self-definition.
Centuries before the Exodus and the birth of Jewish nationhood, Avraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people, confronts the society surrounding him by describing himself as a “ger v’toshav,” a “stranger and a citizen.” Each Jew may be a “stranger,” each may be unique, with a role that may be distinctive and apart; but each Jew nonetheless is a “citizen,” a participating member of the world community. Jews fulfill their divinely ordained role only when they play out their uniqueness against the backdrop of the surrounding world; only when they set an example of holiness for others.
This year, as we prepare to mark our specific Rosh Hashana of Nissan, echoes of the universal Rosh Hashana of Tishrei ring loudly in our years. Rarely has humanity’s connectedness and shared vulnerability been as apparent to us as it is today, in the face of the health crisis sweeping the globe. While we certainly have every right, in fact the obligation, to offer particular prayers for our own health and the health of our people, still, prayers for others cannot be absent from our lips. This is a crisis shared with the world, and our heartfelt concern must be for all who are in pain.
The rosh hashana of Tishrei and the rosh hashana of Nissan both remain for the Jew. We experience two beginnings to our year, six months apart from each other. And the balance that these two occasions create in our yearly journey sensitizes us to the delicate equilibrium we must achieve in our role as an ohr la’goyim, a “light unto the nations.” We must simultaneously remain a part of and apart from surrounding society, as we strive to partner with God in the sanctification of God’s world.