To celebrate or not is not a question

To celebrate or not is not a question

With New Year’s Day fast approaching, we are reprising an edited version of a column written in 2010.

Should we celebrate the onset of the secular year?

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 actually is 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 January 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 seen also 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 that meaning by the time of the exile (or because of it). In the first exile, therefore, the displaced Jews 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 why not to celebrate New Year’s Day. (Hint: Yesterday was the first of the month of Tevet.)

There is another reason.

By whose calendar is January 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 “2012”; it is A.D. 2012, Anno Domini 2012, the “year of our lord” 2012.

Why is the upcoming year 2013 and not, say, 5773, or some other number? Because Charlemagne, who was crowned Holy Roman Emperor just 1,212 years ago, insisted that the years should be counted from the birth of Christianity’s founder because “Christ alone was the ruler of all mankind – and His reign had begun when He had first been born into the world….[It] served as the pivot around which all of history turned.” (See Tom Holland, “The Forge of Christendom,” Doubleday, pages 32-34.)

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 b’rit 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 earlier this 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; bending down to drink from a spring in which an idol has been placed; and drinking from fountains shaped like human beings, which could 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.

We have our own holidays and festivals. Before we celebrate someone else’s, let us relearn how to celebrate our own special days. Shabbat shalom.