Considering that New Year’s Day falls out on Shabbat this year, there should not be even a question about whether Jews should celebrate it. That it is even a question is a sad commentary on Jewish life today.
There is a more serious question lurking here: whether we should celebrate the onset of the secular year, period.
Keeping the faith: One religious perspective on issues of the day On the surface, that question would seem silly. After all, we live by the secular calendar. Celebrating the arrival of a new year, then, is nothing more than an acknowledgement that a number has advanced by one digit.
Besides, what we call Rosh HaShanah, our very own new year’s day, is itself an acknowledgment of a secular calendar, not a Jewish one. Our “January 1” is the first of Nisan, which occurs in the spring and whose advent as New Year’s goes unmarked by us. What we celebrate as Rosh HaShanah is actually the first day of our seventh month; it is our “July 1.”
Let us, then, put the question into context: Our New Year’s falls out on the first day of Nisan, but we pay no mind to it at all. We mark it as the start of just another Jewish month. Instead, we celebrate a “secular” New Year’s as the start of our year. If so, what is wrong with celebrating the current version of the secular New Year’s Day on Jan. 1?
To begin with, the situations are entirely different.
Our real new year, the first of Nisan, is also known as “the new year for kings.” In exile in Babylon after the fall of the First Temple and the Davidic monarchy, it seemed inappropriate to celebrate something that could only bring sadness and increase despondency and the sense of abandonment by God. It made sense, therefore, to stop celebrating the Jewish new year. It probably was also seen as somewhat disrespectful of the kings of Babylon and even a bit seditious, because it was the new year for our kings, not theirs.
According to the Torah, the first day of the seventh month was “the day for remembering the blowing of the shofar” (Leviticus 23:24), but otherwise goes undefined. Whatever meaning it had in the Land of Israel, it clearly had lost its purpose by the time of the exile (or because of it). In Babylon, therefore, the exiles had a celebration without definition while others around them were joyously celebrating a new year. To risk letting the exiles adopt that celebration in place of whatever it was they were supposed to celebrate could have led to apostasy.
Thus, the day was transformed into an adjunct of Yom Kippur, which occurs on the 10th day of the seventh month. It became a day of meditation, reflection, and prayer. Most important, the day was integrated into the Jewish calendar; it did not replace it. The Jewish year remained intact. Everyone knew when it began and when it ended. And every day, everyone knew where they were in that calendar.
What is today’s Hebrew date? If you cannot answer that question without consulting a calendar, you understand the difference between then and now. And that is one reason not to celebrate New Year’s Day.
There is another reason.
By whose calendar is Jan. 1 New Year’s Day? It is the Gregorian calendar that makes it so, meaning the calendar established by Pope Gregory XIII 400 years ago. The current fast-fading year is not just “2010”; it is A.D. 2010, Anno Domini 2010, the “year of our lord” 2010.
(To those who say that “no one uses A.D. anymore, or B.C.” – Before Christ – check out the pages of almost any general circulation newspaper, including The New York Times. Despite requests that newspapers adopt the more inclusive “Common Era” and “Before Common Era,” neither the Times nor the Associated Press, which sets newspaper usage standards, is willing to do so.)
In fact, New Year’s Day is meant as a day of celebration of and is technically known as the Feast of the Circumcision. Guess whose brit they are talking about; whose “blood was shed for mankind” for the first time on that day.
That the current calendar has a religious orientation can be seen in how and when nations adopted it. Catholic nations jumped on the bandwagon almost immediately. Protestant countries, for the most part, did not come on board for 100 years or more.
Britain, which abhorred anything coming from Rome, did not sign on until 1752, nearly 200 years later. Japan and Egypt waited about 300 years to adopt it. The Balkan states and Russia, which followed the Eastern rite, did not adopt the calendar until early in what’s commonly called the 20th century. Most Muslim states tolerate it, because it is the calendar the rest of the world uses (which is also our excuse for adapting to the secular calendars of our countries of exile), but they prefer their own.
Jewish law tells us to avoid even the most innocent behavior if there is the appearance of apostasy in it. In the Babylonian Talmud tractate Avodah Zarah 12a, we are given several examples of such innocent behavior: bending down before an idol in order to remove a splinter from one’s foot; bending down before an idol in order to pick up some coins that dropped; not bending down to drink from a spring if there is an idol nearby; and not drinking from fountains shaped like human beings, so as not to give the appearance of kissing an idol.
These may sound silly, but there is nothing silly about them. We live in a world in which appearances are everything. Just because we live by the secular calendar does not mean we have to celebrate doing so.
This year, of course, as noted, there is a most obvious reason not to celebrate New Year’s Day, at least not on the evening of Dec. 31 or during the day on Jan. 1. Many hours before the ball drops in Times Square, the sun will drop below the horizon and Shabbat will begin. Even if there was no religious significance attaching to New Year’s Day, celebrating it on a Shabbat violates the spirit of a truly sacred day.
Besides, Shabbat is reason enough to celebrate.