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The Jewish New Year – Why Now?

On September 28, 2019

The Jewish New Year – Why Now?

It’s a new year.  One of four.  This one is the new year we count foreign kings’ reigns  by.  (This is sort of like all race horses having January 1 for their official birthdays.)  A few months from now will be the new year for taxing trees.  In the spring, is the new  year for renting houses.  And just before the next new year for foreign kings comes the new year for cows.  (They all also have the same birthday.)

In ancient times, the spring was the real new year.  The trees come alive, the baby lambs are born, the sun gains ascendancy over darkness.  But sometime in the late Second Temple period, the first day of the fall month of Tishri, the 7th month of the Jewish year, became the new year.  And because that’s our tradition now, we have been forced, over the years, to come up with justifications for why we should celebrate the New Year when all of nature is dying.

Some have decided that this is analogous to starting days at sunset (which is when Jewish days start).  It means that we don’t worship the sun.  That’s made up, but so is everything else about culture and religion, after all.

Others believe that when the ancient Hebrews changed from a herding culture to a farming culture, the fall rains became the most important influence on their lives.  Rosh Hashanah was just part of a 2-week new year holiday including the most important day at the end of Sukkes (Sukkot) which brings the rains. As the people spread across areas other than Israel, Egypt and Iraq (the largest communities of proto-Jews in the last era), they became more urbanized and the rain-making ceremony became subordinated to a religious new year.

Then there’s always the old stand-by of 7 as a magic or lucky number.  Many of our holidays are 7 days long.  Rosh Hashanah, the new year we celebrate now, is the first day of Tishri, the 7th month. 

The real challenge for us is not to discern the historical reasons why our new year is in the fall, though, but to draw out our own meaning from this happenstance.

So, what can we make of a new year in the autumn?  As the days shorten and cool, the leaves fall from the trees to join the earth that feeds those trees.  We see the trees’ structure unclothed, unadorned by leaves and flowers and fruit.  We see the strong and weak branches.  We see the way the branches of trees intertwine with those of other trees in the forests.  

The trees in the fall are a metaphor for ourselves.  Our new  year is not a drunken brawl with party hats and noisemakers.  It is a solemn occasion.  At our new year we see ourselves unadorned.  The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the time we examine our true underlying structure.  And we see how our lives intertwine with the lives of others.  And, like the trees, we take the fruits and blossoms of the prior year to give us strength for the year to come.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year in a world where all are equal, free and welcome.

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