A Jewish Perspective on a Secular Phenomenon

AshiraBy Ashira Konigsburg, Associate Director of Rabbinic Services, RA

Another year has gone by already? Perhaps it is because time seems to fly that we find ways to mark the new year. Both the Jewish and secular calendars have developed traditions and customs surrounding timekeeping.

On the secular world, the calendar is marked by the beginning of the academic year, the fiscal year, and, of course, the calendar year. In the Jewish tradition, we mark the calendar with four beginnings:

אַרְבָּעָה רָאשֵׁי שָׁנִים הֵם. בְּאֶחָד בְּנִיסָן רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לַמְּלָכִים וְלָרְגָלִים. בְּאֶחָד בֶּאֱלוּל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לְמַעְשַׂר בְּהֵמָה. רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמְרִים, בְּאֶחָד בְּתִשְׁרֵי. בְּאֶחָד בְּתִשְׁרֵי רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לַשָּׁנִים וְלַשְּׁמִטִּין וְלַיּוֹבְלוֹת, לַנְּטִיעָה וְלַיְרָקוֹת. בְּאֶחָד בִּשְׁבָט, רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה לָאִילָן, כְּדִבְרֵי בֵית שַׁמַּאי. בֵּית הִלֵּל אוֹמְרִים, בַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ:
- מסכת ראש השנה, פרק א, משנה א

There are for new years. The first of Nisan is the new year for the kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for tithing animals, (according to Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon this is on the first of Tishrei). On the first of Tishrei is the new year for Years and for sabbaticals and jubilees, for planting and for produce. On the first of Sh'vat is the new year for the trees according to the house of Shamai. The house of Hillel says, on the fifteenth.
– Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1

In the days leading up to this new year, many of us will take stock of our actions from the past year. Are we living our lives in ways that we are proud of? We use this time to reflect on our past actions and use the secular new year as an excuse to allow ourselves to start over and select a new set of goals.

This process should be familiar to those of us who went through a similar process in Elul leading up to Rosh Hashanah. During the season of repentance, our deadline for penitence is extended first until Yom Kippur, and then until Hoshanah Rabbah. The message that comes across is “if you're still not the person you want to be, it's not too late.” R. Eliezer reminds us to repent the day before we die. שוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך (Avot 2:10) He means to remind us: The time for change is now!

On December 31st many of us will count down the hours, minutes and seconds until the moment that the new year begins. Such counting should be familiar to those who count down the days leading up to another significant milestone in the life of Jews, the receiving of the Torah on Shavuot. Shavuot is also a holiday where it is also customary to stay up at night in anticipation and excitement for what the next day brings. A new beginning indeed.

And so for both new years, we celebrate. Whether it's a family dinner on Rosh Hashanah or a kiss at the stroke of midnight, we gather with those whom we love to mark this occasion together. So next time you lift up your glass to a new beginning, whether it is full of wine or Champagne, take a moment to be thankful for a fresh start. Remember that these cycles are, to some extent, arbitrary. More important is to make time for those whom you love and to remember that it's never too late to make a change.

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