How Rosh Hashanah Became New Year's Day

From Nisan To Tishrei .

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Moving from the theories of Bible scholars to the interpretations of Jewish commentators, we see an acknowledgement of the existence of the two new years, Nisan and Tishrei, along with attempts to derive meaning from this doubling. Because Rosh Hashanah occurs at the beginning of the seventh month, counting from Nisan, Nachmanides (Ramban), a 13th century commentator, tied the two together by positing that the very process of counting tied Rosh Hashanah to the redemption from Egypt. This, suggests Ramban, is similar to the tie between the weekday and Shabbat that is also accomplished by counting:

Just as we remember the Sabbath day by counting according to it?the first day of the Shabbat cycle, the second day of the Shabbat cycle [in Hebrew, the weekdays do not have names, they are numbered in relation to the coming Shabbat]?as I will explain below, so we remember the Exodus from Egypt by counting the first month, and the second and third month from our redemption. For this is not the enumeration that we apply to the year, for the beginning of our years is in Tishrei, as it is written (Exodus 34:22), "the Festival of gathering, at the year-season," and it is written (Exodus 23:16), "at the going-out/changing of the year." Therefore, when the month of Nisan is called "first" and Tishrei "seventh," the meaning is: the first from the redemption and the seventh therefrom. And this is the meaning of "the beginning-one let it be for you." For it is not the beginning of the year, but the beginning for you, for it is thus-called in memory of our redemption.

Modern interpreters of Judaism also look for meaning in the existence of two new year festivals. Ismar Schorsch and others focus on the roles of the two new years as exemplars of the particularist/universalist balance in Judaism--the relative weight Judaism gives to an inward focus on the Jewish people vs. an outward focus on all of humanity.

Schorsch points out that although R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua argued in the Babylonian Talmud's tractate Rosh Hashanah about whether Nisan or Tishri was more significant, they both accepted the existence of a calendar with more than a single new year. Both cite verses purporting to prove that a series of critical events took place in their favored month?the creation of the world, Israel's future redemption from exile, the birth and death of the patriarchs, conception of a child by the matriarchs, and Joseph's release from prison.

The reason, maintains Schorsch, was to give greater weight to either the nationalist or the universalist trend in Judaism. Because R. Yeshoshua saw national redemption as the fulcrum of Jewish history, he held with the Torah that Nisan was the first month. Nisan's role as the new year for Jewish kings as well as the anniversary of Jewish nationhood reflects Yeshoshua's national focus. With his more universal thrust, R. Eliezer supported Tishrei as the anniversary of the creation of Adam and hence of all humanity. Within the universalist compass of Tishrei, issues of sin and renewal applicable to all human beings were emphasized. The fact that Tishrei is the new year for counting of the reigns of gentile kings also reflects this worldly perspective.

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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.