5…4…3…2..1…Happy New Year! As we enter the secular New Year and begin a new decade, I have been reflecting on how we organize and categorize time in the moment when many are focused on developing and sticking to new year resolutions.
In Judaism, the mishnah describes four new years in Tractate Roshanah 1:1: “The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month.”
Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei, celebrates the creation of the world. In ancient times, it also served as the starting date for new rulers and kings, calculating the vegetable tithes for the Levites, and for legal documents. Tishrei also sets the sabbatical and jubilee years. The 15th of Shevat celebrates the trees and the fruits that are just starting to ripen in the land of Israel. Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel disagree on the start date and ultimately conclude that the 15th of the month of Shevat is when we celebrate the new year of the trees. The first of Nisan recognizes our freedom from slavery in Egypt and celebrates our redemption. The first of Elul was the cattle tithe, which concerned all the new cattle born in that year.
All of the markers of time bring order, laws, and rituals out of chaos. The new years were practical reminders and ways to derive meaning from time.
What are the advantages today to having four designated new years?
Resolutions made on January 1 are hard to keep. As soon as the new year begins, gyms become more crowded and people seem kinder, although this is generally hard to keep up. It is often short-lived; generally daily routines and habits shift back into old patterns. There is tremendous value in having four new years as part of the Jewish calendar, spread out over the four seasons. Another way to view them is a system of reinforcements where the community is invested in individuals’ personal growth over the course of the year.
Although we no longer associate it with cattle tithes, Elul is a preparatory month that helps us to prepare fully for the first of Tishrei. The first of Elul recognizes the need for an entire month of spiritual preparation to fully embrace the upcoming new year. Rosh Hashanah, on the first of Tishrei, is the time for an official cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. We atone for our sins, engage in the work of teshuva to repent, and change our behaviors for the new year. The intensity of the fall chaggim is like a spiritual respite, guiding through the start of the new year. Once the fall holidays are behind us and the darkness of winter has us feeling down, Tu Bishvat reminds us that new trees and new life are on the horizon. It spiritually re-energizes us so that we can stay true to enhancing ourselves. Even when we may want to fall into familiar habits, the new fruits and the Tu Bishvat seder pull us out of the bleakness that winter can bring. If we have lost our way in the absence of holidays, it helps us to re-center, reminding us that spring is around the corner. With the start of Nisan and Passover, we can more fully shed our winter baggage and once again engage in a spiritual cleaning. As we rid our homes of physical chametz, we simultaneously rid ourselves of the emotional chametz that we need to let go. The work of resolutions, when done well, requires that we have systems of support.
The original intentions of each Jewish new year were likely units in time that had great significance for leadership, economics, agriculture, and personal growth. The Jewish calendar has grown and changed with the Jewish people to reflect modern holidays and observances. In its evolution, some of the Jewish new years have lost significant observance. I see an opportunity for all four Jewish new years to help us keep accountable to the spiritual work of becoming better versions of ourselves and sticking to our resolutions.
The new years, whether Jewish or secular, help us to recognize that personal transformations are connected to communal time. The beauty of four Jewish new years is that they keep us accountable in every season to recognize the passage of time and derive order and growth from it.
As we celebrate the new secular year and create resolutions, we have the Jewish calendar to hold us accountable.
Ariel Russo, the rabbi of CSI Nyack, was educated by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and inspired by Camp Ramah. In her spare time she wrangles her kids into car seats and explores the lower Hudson region with her husband.