How Many Jewish New Years?

In ancient times there were four new years on the Jewish calendar.

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The new year for setting the Sabbatical year, during which land may not be cultivated, is also 1 Tishrei. The command for observing a Sabbatical year appears in Leviticus 25:2-5, "When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…it shall be a year of complete rest for the land." Plowing and planting were forbidden from 1 Tishrei of the seventh year in the Sabbatical cycle, and people were allowed to gather only what the land could produce on its own, without cultivation.

Similarly, 1 Tishrei is the new year for setting the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year following seven cycles of Sabbatical years. Sowing was also forbidden during the Jubilee, but, in addition, all indentured Israelites were allowed to return to their homes and all tenured land was to be returned to its original owners. The laws of the Jubilee required that all land sales in Palestine be considered leases, with land costs computed in terms of the number of crop years remaining until the next Jubilee, which would begin on 1 Tishri.

1 Tishrei is also the new year for figuring the yearly tithe (ma'aser), or ten percent tax, on vegetables and grains. The Levites and priests were supported by these tithes, because they did not own land. The tithe for a particular year had to be paid with produce from the same year, thus requiring a standard date to begin and end each fiscal year. Tithing involved three steps: (1) The owner separated out the first tithe, or ma'aser rishon, and paid it to the Levites. (2) The Levites then separated out one tenth, called terumah, for the priests. (3) After separating out the first tithe, the owner had to put aside a second tithe, or ma'aser sheni, from the remainder of his produce. In the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the sabbatical cycle, the owner was required either to consume this tithe in Jerusalem or sell it and purchase food to be eaten in Jerusalem. In the third and sixth years, the owner distributed this second tithe to the poor as a ma'aser ani, tithe of the poor.

15 Shevat

man hugging treeThe second new year is 15 Shevat, the New Year for trees. Most Jewish sources consider 15 Shevat as the New Year both for designating fruits as orlah (that is, forbidden to eat, because they have grown during the first three years after a tree's planting) and for separating fruits for tithing. (Some sources, however, consider 1 Tishrei to be the new year for orlah and 15 Shevat for tithing.) This date was selected "because most of the winter rains are over" (Rosh Hashanah 14a), the sap has begun to rise, and the fruit has started to ripen. Fruits that have just begun to ripen--from the blossoming stage up to one third of full growth--are attributed to the previous year, whereas fruits that are more mature on 15 Shevat apply to the upcoming year. As with vegetables and grains, fruits that budded during one "fiscal year" could not be used as tithes on those that budded in another year.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.