The Historical Background of the Four New Years

Kay Cynamon
West Side Minyan, Ansche Chesed, NYC

This dvar torah is a "Learning Shabbat" — rather than discussing today’s Torah reading I was inspired to explore the historical background of the four new years of the Jewish calendar, by Michael Williams’ short drash last Rosh Hashana. I chose this date since today's Torah reading mentions the new year (which we celebrate as 1 Nisan) and the next new year on our calendar, Tu B’Shvat, is upcoming in 10 days.

I want to start by pointing out that we in our modern society have several different new years, notably a new year for the months (Jan 1), an academic year (commonly commencing September, but the medical academic year commences on July 1), a tax year (April 15 for individuals), a fiscal year (eg NY State uses April 1, and this differs among companies and municipalities) We also have our birth years – for instance, my year for being 63 years old started on May 2 2014 and will end on May 1 2015 (G-d willing) Most relevant to this discussion is our tax year: no matter when we make certain financial decisions between Jan 1 and December 31, the tax reckoning is defined as the following April 15, which is thus 3-1/2 to 15-1/2 months after the transaction.

Let’s look at the Hebrew nation as it was formed after the exodus from Egypt, roughly 1500 years BCE By the time the wanderers settled in the Promised Land, they had develop a complex society, evolving from a tribal organization in which everyone was pretty much equal, to a society that supported a priestly class that of necessity was supported by the average guys who tended to food production. Laws developed to establish exactly how this system should work: each member of the food-producing class had to give a tithe, or 1/10, of crops and animals to the Levites, and the Levites then gave 1/10 of this tithe to the priests. The food producers had to produce a second tithe to be consumed in Jerusalem, or to be sold for food that was to be consumed in Jerusalem, in each of the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the sh’mitta cycle. In the third and sixth years, the this second tithe went to the poor. Of necessity, this system demanded different tithing dates for different crops and growing seasons, and the tithe had to come from that year’s production, so different agricultural years were established.

We’ll see how this agricultural- and societal-based system gave us our 4 different new years.

The earliest references to new years in the Jewish calender are biblical: Exodus and Deuteronomy for Nisan, and Leviticus and Numbers for Rosh Hashanah
From Exodus 12:2 , just before the 10th terrifying plague and anticipating the exodus, the Lord commanded “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” This is a reference to the month of Abib which means “when the ears of barley ripen” We now call this month Nisan. The passage further delineates the details of how to observe the holiday, including rituals of sacrificing a lamb and eating unleavened bread. Deuteronomy 16:1observe the month of Abib and offer a Passover sacrifice to the Lord your G-d, for it was in the month of Abib…that the Lord your G-d freed you from Egypt”

From Leviticus 23:22-25 = the Lord commanded Moses to instruct the people “In the seventh month, on the first day …you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion, commemorated with loud blasts (zichron t’ruah) You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring a gift to the Lord” And Numbers 29:1-6: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded (t’ruah). You shall present a burnt offering …and a grain offering.

From these biblical verses, Nisan is the New Year, the beginning of the months, analogous our January 1, but also marks the formation of the Hebrew nation after redemption from Egypt. Whereas the first of Tishrei is a day of rest and prohibition from work, just like the Sabbath, and also is Yom T’ruah – sounding the horn It is not described as Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, and there is no reference to the repentance and judgment.

One thousand years after the Exodus, the first Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE and the Jews exiled in Babylonia for over 100 years. The prophet Ezekiel was in the first wave of exiles; a phrase from Ezekiel 40:1 = “In the twenty-fifth yearof our exile, at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month” This sounds like the new year was proclaimed on Yom Kippur By 450 BCE, Cyrus the Great of Persia permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah Here is what Nehemiah has to say about 1 Tishrei:

From Nehemiah chapter 8 (I’m abridging):
8And all the people gathered themselves together…; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which theLordhad commanded to Israel. And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law. 5And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up And Ezra blessed theLord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped theLordwith their faces to the ground. .
9And Nehemiah [the big shot] and Ezra [the priest and scribe], and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto theLordyour God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law.
10Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto ourLord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of theLordis your strength.
11So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved.
12And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth,
13And on the second day were gathered together the chief of the fathers of all the people, the priests, and the Levites, unto Ezra the scribe, even to understand the words of the law.
14And they found written in the law which theLordhad commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month (and then it describes observances for Sukkot)

Lots more partying than the holy day we read about in Vayikra and Bamidbar, but still no mention of Rosh Hashanah or the Days of Awe.

Forward 700 years to the 2nd century CE, the Mishnah is codifed and in the book of “Mo’ed , or Festivals, we have a Tractate titled Rosh Hashanah

From chapter 1:
“There are four New Year days. The first of Nissan is New Year for the ascension of Kings and for calendar of festivals. The first of Elul is New Year for the tithing of cattle (although R. Eliezer and R. Simeon marked the cattle tithe on the first of Tishrei) The first of Tishri is New Year’s day for ordinary years, for sabbatical years, and for jubilee years, and for planting of trees and herbs. The first day of Shevat is the New Year for trees, according to the school of Shammai; but the school of Hillel says it is on the fifteenth of Tishrei”

Thus the Mishna established 1 Nisan as the marker for the reign of Israel’s kings (our April 15); this is necessary because legal documents were dated by the year of a monarch's reign Nisan is also the start of the year of pilgrimage festivals beginning with Pesach, then Shavuoth and Sukkot .

The Mishnah defines four functions for 1 Tishrei:

1) it is Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, our Jan 1, the date which marks the number of years since Creation (more about creation later)

2) it marks the shmittah year, every 7th year in which fields are “released” from tilling ( we are currently in a shmittah year since last Rosh Hashanah) . 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.

3) it marks the Jubilee - the final year of 7 cycles of 7 years, in which land is returned to its original owners, debts are forgiven, slaves and indentured servants are freed.

4) the tithing marker for certain crops By end of the Talmud period, it also was the year marker for the reign of foreign kings (as opposed to Hebrew kings for 1 Nisan).

Tishrei still sounds mostly like an agricultural new year but the Mishnah adopts an excerpt from Psalm 33:13-15: "On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before Him as troops, as it is said, "the Lord looks down from heaven; He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all Also a number of other Psalms [1] that focus on God's kingship were incorporated into the holiday ritual. Recurring themes in these Psalms reflect ideas important in the rabbinically created holiday of Rosh Hashanah: G-d as creator, G-d as King, and G-d as judge. Several more Psalms allude to the sounding of the shofar. [1] 47, 93-100, 149, etc.

Now we have the Day of Judgment Mishnah notes that “the world is judged four times a year: on Pesach for crops, on (Shavuot) for fruits of the tree, on Rosh Hashanah, for people, and on Sukkot for water The phrase for Rosh Hashanah was “all human beings pass before you” ; this was a new strain of thought for Rosh Hashanah and anticipates the Un’tanah Tokef by 800 years; by then, the Middle Ages, Rosh Hashanah had become the gateway to Yom Kippur, the first of 10 days of repentance.

How did holiday marking agricultural years and zichronot shofar evolve into the Creation of the World and the Days of Awe? Other societies in Biblical times marked the autumn harvest and arrival of the rainy season as the beginning of a new agricultural year Exodus 23:16 implies an agricultural year for Sukkot: “And the feast of harvest, the first fruits of thy labours…and the feast of ingathering, which is in the end of the year…” Similarly Exodus 34:22 And thou shall observe the feast of weeks, of the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year's end R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua disagreed as to whether Nisan or Tishri was the more significant holiday; from chapter 8 in RH R. Eliezer… said that the world was created in Tishrei. Tishrei became the anniversary of the Creation of the world, and Nissan marked the anniversary of the creation of the Hebrew nation after the Exodus from Egypt Since Nisan is the first month, we develop from a Jewish new year marking the anniversary of nationhood and the ascension year for Jewish kings, to a new year for humankind, marking year for all other kings and for the creation of the World; for the latter holiday, sin and repentance and forgiveness apply to all.

Now briefly discuss the 2 new years that are anniversaries for tithing: 15 Shevat for trees, 1 Elul for cattle:

Tu B’Shevat, = 15 of Shevat, occurs at the end of the rainy season when fruit is starting to ripen. From Leviticus 19:23-25 ”when you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden. Three years it shall be forbidden for you, not to be eaten. In the fourth year all its fruit shall be set aside for jubilation before the Lord; and only in the fifth year may you use its fruit –that its yield to you may be increased.”

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. Most authorities consider 15 Shevat as the date designating fruits asorlah(that is, forbidden to eat, because they have grown during the first three years after a tree's planting) or for tithing. Some sources honor both Shammai and Hillel by marking 1 Tishrei to be the new year for orlah and 15 Shevat for tithing.

The holiday marks the date for tithing the fruits of the trees, so every tree has a birthday on Tu B’shvat and ages 1 year. In modern times, this holiday is observed with several customs. One is to eat, for the first time, a fruit from the new season, particularly those cited in Deuteronomy 8:8, which describes Israel as “a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey.” Some people have seders featuring 15 different kinds of fruits. Many recite the shehecheyanu blessing. The Sephardic mystics of Safed in the 16th century celebrated Tu Bishevat with a seder that uses the symbolism of fruit to enact the process of opening up to God's holiness. In modern Israel, we plant trees and honor Tu Bishevat as a symbol of the redemption of the land and the importance of environmental protection

1 Elul -- This defines the new year for tithing cattle In modern times, most observe this date on 1 Tishrei (according to R. EleazarandR. Simeon) and the 1 Elul begins the period of spiritual cleansing and preparation for the Days of Awe.