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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Since in the very first year of his life he had no way of knowing the cyclical seasonal changes that occur in the lengths of the days, Adam became very disturbed when the first winter began to approach and he saw that the days were getting shorter and the nights longer. He began to fear that the day was being consumed by a cosmic serpent, and that the pattern would persist indefinitely until daylight disappeared altogether.

This dread continued to trouble Adam until the arrival of the winter solstice, when the pattern began to reverse itself and the days began to lengthen. At this point, relates Rav, Adam--in an allusion to what would become known as the Kalends--exclaimed Kalon dio, a Greek phrase which has been construed by assorted modern scholars as meaning, "Praise be to God," "Beautiful day," or "May the sun set well."

From that day onward, the Talmud concludes, the day of the solstice has been observed by Adam's descendants, though the original reason may have been garbled in the transmission.

A Mythological Motif

Another noted talmudic rabbi, Yohanan, proposed a different explanation of the origin of the Kalends. According to this version the story has nothing to do with biblical history, but goes back to a heroic exploit in Roman history.

Once, during a war between Rome and Egypt, the two sides, recognizing the futility of continued combat, decided to award the victory to whichever general would agree to sacrifice his life by falling on his sword. The Roman general, an old man named Januarius, was persuaded to pay the ultimate price when he was assured that his twelve sons would be honored with noble titles as dukes, hyparchs, and generals. After he had performed the heroic deed, they renamed the day in his honor "the Kalendes of Januarius."

It would appear the Rabbi Yohanan has interpreted the New Year Festival as a purely national holiday without any objectionable religious connotations. A closer look at the story however reveals some clearly mythological motifs.

For example, the twelve sons bear a suspicious resemblance to the twelve months of the year that are being renewed at this point in time. The general Januarius reminds us of the two-faced Roman divinity Janus who is actually being honored on this day and who gives his name to the first month.

According to some scholars Janus was originally worshipped by the Etruscans as a god of Light and Day--a connection which fits in very nicely with Rav's legend of Adam and the shortening days. As a two-faced deity, Janus was believed to look simultaneously at the past and the future, and hence he was selected as the appropriate god for the new year.

Though a similar account of a King Janus is recorded in a later Christian source, that story is certainly not referring to an actual historical event. Some scholars have explained that underlying Rabbi Yohanan's account is an old myth about how the ancient god Janus, the father of Time, died to make room for his twelve sons, the twelve months.

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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.