It’s not unusual for congregants at Temple Israel Community Center/Cong. Heichal Yisrael in Cliffside Park to receive New Year’s greetings from their rabbi on the first of Nisan (this year, April 5) or to be reminded on Rosh HaShanah that, well, it’s actually the first day of the seventh month, not the first.
What is unusual is for the congregation’s men’s club to hold a New Year’s party on Nisan 1, creating what it hopes will be a new tradition, or, said Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, "renewing an ancient tradition."
"Celebrating ‘new year’s’ on the first of Tishri is sort of like going to Times Square on July 1 and waiting for the ball to drop," said the shul’s religious leader and Jewish Standard columnist. "The Torah tells us that the year begins on the first of Nisan."
According to Engelmayer, the Mishnah speaks of four new years: the first of Nisan, which is the start of the Jewish religious year (also known as the New Year for Kings); a "new year for animal tithes," on the first of Elul, one month before Rosh HaShanah; the first of Tishri, known at least since talmudic times as Rosh HaShanah; and the "new year for trees," Tu B’Shevat.
"Different societies in the ancient world celebrated the new year either in the spring or in the fall," Engelmayer said. "The ancient Babylonians, for example, celebrated their New Year’s in the spring, on the first of Nisanu," as they spelled it, "just as the ancient Israelites did, although we knew it then as the month of Aviv, or the spring month. The Egyptians and later the Persians celebrated theirs in the fall.
"When we were living in Babylon during the first exile, the Persians invaded and took over, so their calendar would have dominated there and in the land of Israel, which the Persians also controlled back then."
That Jews, interacting with a foreign culture, adopted its calendar is no surprise, said Engelmayer. "It happened before and since," he noted. "We use the Hebrew forms of Babylonian month names and when you ask us what year this is, we say ‘008, not 5768."
Nevertheless, Nisan remains "the beginning of the religious calendar," said Engelmayer, pointing out that the three pilgrimage festivals Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot begin with the month of Nisan. "Sukkot is the last, not the first, festival" he said, noting that many people think of the festivals in the reverse order, probably because they think of Rosh HaShanah as the start of the Jewish year.
Engelmayer explained that the "Nisan is New Year’s" event will be preceded by the normal Shabbat afternoon service, the traditional seudah shlisheet, the evening service, and havdalah. "Then we will sound the shofar to announce the new year, offer a champagne toast, and go into the social hall for an evening of dinner and dancing," he said.
David Warner, the synagogue’s first vice president as well as co-president of its men’s club, said the event is garnering a positive reaction. "People think it’s clever," he said. "Hopefully, it will start a new tradition," he added, although he admitted "we were lucky this year because the first of Nisan falls at the end of Shabbat."
Warner, a Teaneck resident and member of the shul for some nine years, said he first met Engelmayer when the latter was his teacher at the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School. (Engelmayer continues to teach in the Melton program, now under the aegis of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.) Even in Melton, said Warner, the rabbi talked about Rosh HaShanah’s artificial claim to the "new year" title.
Warner said the New Year’s party was his idea. He noted that "Rabbi Engelmayer eschews all talk about the secular new year or its observance. So I suggested this. And it’s not copyrighted, so people can rip it off and bring it back to their own congregations."
The timing is fortuitous, he added. Many people have already begun cleaning their homes for Pesach and may view going out for dinner two weeks before the festival as "not such a bad idea. We want everyone to have a great time," he said.
"We do want to give people a good time," agreed Engelmayer. "But we’re also trying to get them to refocus, to take the Jewish calendar more seriously. On Rosh HaShanah, we’re focused on teshuvah, repentance. Here the focus is on Torah and peoplehood."
Nisan, he said, is "the month of our freedom, our birthday as am Yisrael and 10 weeks away from Shavuot, when we received the Torah and our ‘working papers’ as God’s kingdom of priests. It’s the start of the religious calendar for the next year."
Warner pointed out that the New Year’s party is open to the entire Jewish community, at a cost of $57.68. For reservations and/or an explanation of the odd cost (if necessary), call (’01) 945-7310.