New Year's in the Talmud

The rabbis of the Talmud speculated about the nature of the Roman New Year's celebration.

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All Jews living in the Christian culture of western society have felt the discomfort that comes with standing on the sidelines while our neighbors celebrate their winter holidays. Most of us are diligent about respectfully disassociating ourselves from the obvious religious implications of Christmas.

The "civil" New Year, on the other hand, appears to be another matter altogether. This is a day that does not have any denominational message, a mere symbolic commemoration of the start of a new year in the calendar that we all use in our day-to-day lives.clock at midnight

When we look back to the talmudic sources, however, we find that our ancient rabbis make explicit reference to New Year's, whereas the celebration of Christmas was, as far as I know, quite unknown to them.

The passages in question speak of the Roman festival of the "Kalends," that is, the Kalendae Januariae (etymologically related to our English word "calendar"), which was celebrated as the New Year in Roman times. The day is mentioned in the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 1:3) as part of a list of various Roman festivities on which Jews are required to avoid doing business with the pagans so as not to add to the worshipper's pleasure or appear to be showing honor to their idols.

Though they were aware that these festivals were being observed throughout the Roman world, the talmudic sages were not always clear about their purposes and origins. They offered some interesting suggestions about how the Kalends came to be and why it was celebrated in the way it was.

Adam's Celebration

One assumption that the rabbis frequently held was that pagan religion was somehow a corruption of authentic biblical traditions which had become misunderstood with the passage of time. Accordingly the Talmud would look for precedents for the respective holidays in the actions of the ancestors of these nations, including figures such as Esau (he was, according to rabbinic tradition, the progenitor of the Romans) or Adam, the father of all mankind.

Following this premise, for example, the Talmud records that the Egyptians' cult of Serapis had originated in their veneration of Joseph. Another source relates how the Egyptians had come to worship the ibis birds because Moses had used them in his military campaigns against the Ethiopians. Many similar instances of this phenomenon could easily be adduced.

A comparable approach was used by the prominent third-century Babylonian teacher Rav to explain the origin of the Roman New Year. According to Rav's account it was Adam, the first man, who had instituted the Kalends.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.