By Rabbi Moshe Bloom
Torah VeHa’aretz Institute
“The four new years are: On 1 Nissan, the new year for kings and festivals; 1 Elul, the new year for tithing animals; … 1 Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years, and for the Jubilee years, planting [trees], and vegetables. On 1 Shevat, the new year for trees … the House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
The fact that the year is cyclical makes it possible to cite its beginning at various points. Different religions mark their New Years on different dates, generally based on an ethical message. It seems that the strangest of them all is the Jewish New Year — simply because there isn’t just one of them. The Mishnah counts four (!) New Years, each marking the New Year for a different area. We could make do with individual explanations for each one of them, but since the decision of when to begin the year is significant, it seems that local explanations will not suffice.
Since two of the four New Years (1 Elul and either 1 or 15 Shevat) are purely functional, we will focus on the more prominent New Years: 1 Nissan and 1 Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah).
Nature and Above Nature
The first of Tishrei is the natural New Year, symbolizing the beginning of the agricultural season. While 1 Nissan marks the beginning of a new stage, when the world shakes off its winter slumber and returns to life, it is not the beginning of something new. At most, it is the manifestation of the life forces that had remained latent until then. If we take a deeper look, we see that 1 Nissan is truly a starting point for things not rooted in nature — concepts that are unique to the Jewish people. The first of Nissan is the New Year for counting the years of Jewish kings (the majority opinion in the Gemara). It also marks the first of Jewish festivals, whose date is determined by the Jewish people “Who sanctifies Israel and the times; Israel who sanctifies the times.” had we not received the Torah, none of these festivals would have existed.
In contrast, the 1 Tishrei New Year governs areas connected to the natural and the universal: years (“the age of the world,” Rambam) and agricultural mitzvot. These include Shemittah, Yovel, planting (trees planted 44 days before Rosh Hashanah begin their second year on 1 Tishrei vis-à-vis orlah) and for vegetables (some ma’aserot change from year to year; ma’aser sheini is taken in years 1, 2, 4, and 5; ma’aser ani in years 3 and 6).
Idolatry Vs. Redemption
The ancient pagan outlook was that everything in the past will exist in the future; the year and the entire world is a repetitive cycle that cannot be broken, with no hope for anything better. Winter is followed by spring, fall follows summer, and this cycle will repeat itself over and over ad infinitum. Judaism gave the world a whole new message: the world advances, it continues to move ahead and ascends until the coming of the Final Redemption. This idea spread to other religions as well. These distorted the original Jewish message but took with them the hope for a brighter future — to the point that the messianic idea has become a fundamental belief of the majority of the world population (including atheists espousing Communism and Humanism; even Darwinism is based on the concept of advancement; see Orot HaKodesh part 2, p. 537).
The novelty in the original Jewish approach is that change will come from within nature, but with Divine assistance. It is insufficient to believe that one day we will emerge from the quagmire of this bleak and dismal existence. Rather, our G-d-given duty is to uplift and sanctify our lives within their natural framework. This holds true for the natural world, where we are charged to rectify the world through the mitzvot ha’teluyot ba’aretz, and it holds true for any other system in our lives. History, historiya in modern-day Hebrew, is not only a description of the random events that took place in the world, but rather G-d’s hidden hand that guides His creation towards rectification.
The Rosh Hashanah Spiral
The basis for the change that bypasses natural systems, in the form of an ever ascending straight line, is laid by the month of Nissan — the month we left Egypt amid blatant miracles. On the other hand, the natural, cyclical basis is laid by Tishrei, the month the world was created (the opinion of R’ Eliezer, whose opinion was accepted and appears in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: “This is the day Your works began”). However, this is not a circle that repeats itself in a loop, but rather a spiral such that each year we return to the same spot, only higher. The Jewish New Year is not a mere historical landmark, but rather shows the advancement of the world to yet another stage, guided by G-d’s hidden hand.
Outside of the Land of Israel, the Jewish people could not rectify the world within nature, which is why the New Year mentioned in the Written Torah, given in the desert (its “new year” status determined while we were still in Egypt), is 1 Nissan. The Oral Torah, on the other hand, with its fundamental texts, Midrash, halachah, and the Mishnah, was composed in the Land of Israel, and these texts cite 1 Tishrei as the New Year.
The second Mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashanah cites an additional event occurring on 1 Tishrei: “All inhabitants of the world pass before Him as bnei maron.” That is, on this day all creations are scrutinized, and G-d assesses whether they have progressed, or if they remained in the same place they were last year, the only difference being their location within the circle that has no beginning or end.
Wishing everyone a good and sweet New Year, a year when we will merit to advance the entire world towards its eternal destiny.
Rabbi Moshe Bloom is head of the English department of Torah VeHa’aretz Institute. Torah VeHa’aretz Institute (the Institute for Torah and the Land of Israel) engages in research, public education, and the application of contemporary halachic issues that come to the fore in the bond between Torah and the Land of Israel today. For additional information and inquiries, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-8-684-7325.