Rabbi Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton sent this email to his congregation. He summarizes the four Jewish new years and considers the meaning of the Gregorian New Year that is observed on Dec. 31.
Which New Year Is It?
The Mishnah records that there are not one, but actually four new years. The rabbis needed one new year for reckoning the date of festivals (the first of Tishri), one for determining when the reign of a king begins (the first of Nisan), one for calculating to which year new-born animals belonged (the first of Elul, after the summer calving season had ended), and one for calculating the produce of trees (the fifteenth of Shevat). According to Biblical law, it was not permitted to use the produce of trees during their first three years.
The new year observed in the Gregorian calendar (January 1) has little to do with the sacred themes of the Jewish calendar. It has a lot to do with ancient themes of chaos, and the conquest of chaos in the coronation of a supreme deity. That chaos is replicated in the revelry of New Year’s Eve, which comes to a halt when the clock strikes twelve and everyone kisses and sings Auld Lang Syne.
In contrast, the Jewish New Year observed in the dead of winter (Tu Bishvat) is one marked by a sacred and optimistic commitment to the future–the planting of trees. No raucous parties accompany this act, just a sense of wonder in the miracle of nature, and a sense of obligation that was put into words in a famous Midrash from the Talmud: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so shall I plant for my children.”
Likewise, the new year for the festival cycle, Rosh Hashanah, emphasizes themes of reflection and personal assessment. People talk about making new year’s resolutions on the Gregorian New Year, while Rosh Hashanah is less concerned with making promises to ourselves, and more concerned with examining what we have done with the past year. It’s easy to look forward and ignore the past; it is more difficult to confront oneself and acknowledge our weaknesses.
I enjoy the festive quality of the Gregorian new year, while recognizing that the important work of our lives is not about conquering chaos. It is the steady work of planting for the future, and self-examination, that make our lives a continuous work of art.