From the Rabbi (January 2017)
Happy New Year! The earth has completed another circuit of the sun and we are all a year older. I feel it more than most people, since my birthday is right after New Years’ Day on the 2nd, so the new year truly marks a milestone for me every year.
In Israel, this holiday is referred to as “Sylvester.” Apparently, in deference to the Jewish New Year in the fall, people avoid calling it “Rosh Hashanah.” Thus instead it is somewhat ironically referred to by the name of the Pope, Sylvester I, who died on December 31, 325. New Years’ Eve is thus St. Sylvester’s Day in the Catholic Church. Wikipedia, the source of all knowledge and truth, informs me that in German-speaking countries (and apparently in Israel as well), New Year’s Eve is referred to as “Sylvester.” Obviously, those ultra-Orthodox in the Holy Land who ignore the outside world and know only Jewish holidays do not use this designation nor do they refer to it as “New Years’ Eve” either.
I feel odd, however, among modern Jews when they wish me a “happy new year” but are careful to make it “happy (secular) new year” so as not to offend my supposed religious sensibilities. Personally, I think the more new years the better. If you open the Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah, it immediately informs us that there are four new years! “On the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of cattle…On the first of Tishri is the new year for years, sabbatical years, jubilees, for planting, and for [tithing of] vegetables. On the first of Shvat is the new year for the tree according to the school of Shammai. But the school of Hillel says it is on the 15th of Shvat.”
Some other time I’ll be happy to explain this mishnah in detail, however the point is we Jews are not limited to one new year. For various purposes, we have established multiple new years’ days. While in most cases these are artificially chosen cut off points for certain tithes and taxes, later teachers suggest that each new year may well provide us with an opportunity for reflection on the days before and on what the coming days may bring. That being the case, why not celebrate some more new years in our secular world: the beginnings of the fiscal year, the academic year, the tax year, the calendar year. Each new years’ day represents a new beginning, a new opportunity to review our lives and make new resolutions to redirect our course and find new meaning in the days ahead.
So I’m happy to join St. Sylvester or whomever in drinking “a cup of kindness for Auld Lang Syne.” Lord knows we can use all the kindness we can muster in this coming year. May God grant us a happy and healthy new year, a year of prosperity and peace, and may all of our worthy prayers and blessings be fulfilled in the days ahead.
Happy New Year to one and all!
Rabbi Edward Friedman