Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bo

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Bo 5761/ February 3, 2001

The Jewish Calendar

Prof. Aaron Demsky
Department of Jewish History

"This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you" (Ex. 12:2). This, the first of the commandments given the Israelites as a nation, conveys the essence of the Jewish calendar. Our duty is to investigate the inner significance of this calendar. We have often heard the expression "new year," but this is a relative concept: the first of January marks the beginning of the year in the Gregorian calendar, and it is the beginning of the fiscal year in many countries. In China the New Year is celebrated on the first new moon that generally occurs in the month of February, and in ancient Babylonia the New Year was celebrated during the first ten days of the month of Nissanu, which falls at the spring equinox.

The description of the Hebrew calendar in Mishnah Rosh ha-Shanah 1.1 is surprising. Not one, but four different days are given for the beginning of the year:
There are four new years. On the first of Nissan is new year for kings and festivals. On the first of Elul is new year for the tithe of cattle. R. Eleazar and R. Simeon, however, place this on the first of Tishre. On the first of Tishre is the new year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables. On the first of Shevat is new year for trees, according to the House of Shammai; the House of Hillel, however, place it on the fifteenth of that month.

The first of Nissan is the new year for kings, in other words, the beginning of the civil year. In biblical times the kings of Israel counted the years of their reign from this date. For example, if a king died in the month of Sivan, two months after the beginning of Nissan, the son who succeeded him would rule the other ten months of that year as a transitional period, but would start counting his first year of rule only from the beginning of the next Nissan. The Mishnah adds that this date is also the beginning of the year for the religious calendar described in the Mishnah as the regalim, pilgrimage festivals, since the year's cycle of festivals begins with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover.

Unlike most calendars of the ancient world, which were based on nature, the Hebrew calendar chose an historical event - the exodus from Egypt - to mark the beginning of the year. (This innovation was taken up by the other monotheistic religions, incorporating the historical principle in their calendars, as is evidenced by the celebration of Christmas, by observance of the millennium in the Christian world, and by the Moslems reckoning the years from the hegira.) The exodus from Egypt is the beginning of the year for the people of Israel: "This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months." The first commandment of the people as a whole charts a new and original understanding of time, measured from a point that characterizes and emphasizes the identity of the people of Israel as a free nation. A slave does not control his time, and therefore the commandment to establish a calendar constituted a sort of declaration of independence for the people who had just won their freedom.
The second new year mentioned in the Mishnah is the first of Elul, the sixth month (counting from Nissan); this month marks the time for tithing flocks and herds. According to the Sages, when a person brings tithes and gifts to the Temple and the priests, the animals born before this date belong to the previous tax year, whereas all animals born after the first of Elul must be tithed in the current year. It should be noted, however, that this date was subject to controversy, Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Simeon believing that the tax year for such tithes should begin on the first of Tishre, after the last birthings of the summer.

The first of Tishre, the seventh month, is yet another new year listed in the Mishnah. This date marks the day from which the years are reckoned and it is the "official" beginning of the year (e.g., the transition from the year 5760 to the year 5761). According to one opinion this date was chosen because it was the beginning of the year for other ancient peoples. For example, in ancient Canaan the year began in the autumn, when the rainy season set in. During the Hellenistic period even the Seleucid kingdom began its calendar year from Tishre. According to another view, central to Jewish tradition, this date was chosen because it marks the creation of the universe. The Mishnah notes that the sabbatical year, when tilling the soil is forbidden, also begins on this date, and likewise also the jubilee year. The age of a tree is counted from this date, which is important in reckoning the three years during which the fruit of a young tree may not be eaten. If a tree is planted even one month before the first of Tishre, on that date the tree is considered to be one year old and beginning its second year. All of these matters are of concern to agriculture, and hence the new year in their regard is at the beginning of the year in nature, namely autumn, when the rainy season sets in.

The fourth and final new year mentioned in the Mishnah is the first of Shevat, the eleventh month. This is the new year for trees, since the winter draws to a close, the sap begins to flow again, and the trees awaken from their winter slumber to begin a new season in the cycle of their lives. The House of Shammai hold that this date determines the beginning of the year for taking tithes of fruit to the Temple and the priests. The House of Hillel, however, maintain that the date is the fifteenth of Shevat, when the winter rainy season is more than half over. The halakhah sides with the House of Hillel, and the modern of state of Israel likewise celebrates the fifteenth of Shevat, Tu bi-Shvat, as a festival for planting trees (which falls on Thursday, Feb. 8).

The Mishnah clearly does not speak of four new years dividing the year into equal parts, nor does it maintain that the various new years have equal weight in Jewish life. The new years fall into two categories. The first of Elul and the fifteenth of Shevat are new years that pertain to tithes of animals and plants, and the fact that there is controversy regarding these dates reinforces the notion that they are dates of lesser significance. The other two dates are central in Jewish life, not having diminished in significance even after the destruction of the Second Temple. They both emphasize fundamental values and themes of the Jewish people. These dates, close to the spring and fall equinox, are definite and unchallenged, and divide the year into two equal, six-month segments.

What lies behind these dates? In many respects calendars in the ancient world were an expression of nature. In the pagan world nature and religion were always intertwined; the sun and moon, the fields, forests, rivers, storms and fertility - all were viewed as manifestations of the gods and were reflected in the calendar. The ancient world, into which the Israelite people were born, had two major centers of civilization: Mesopotamia and Egypt. Both, like other great civilizations such as India and China, began their history as river civilizations. They harnessed the might of the river to their needs, through it establishing political power as well as developing religious expression. Mesopotamia's economy and culture were based on irrigation from the Tigris and Euphrates, just as Egypt's was based on the Nile. These societies set their time cycles accordingly: the year began in the spring, after the snow had begun melting in the mountains and had started flowing into the rivers. By means of this date they structurally formalized their relationship with nature, religion, and civil government.

The ancient Israelites lived in Canaan, a region with no central river affecting their lives; hence their agricultural life relied on the rains: "but the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven" (Deut. 11:11). Canaan, which later became the land of Israel, begins its natural year with the onset of the rainy season. The Hebrew name for this season, stav, is borrowed from an Aramaic word meaning winter (a similar word in Arabic, sita, means rain). This season follows summer, kayitz, whose name perhaps alludes to the end, ketz, of the cycle of the year (cf. Amos 8:1-2). Ancient Canaanite religion expressed the transitions from season to season mythically in terms of their primary deity, Baal or Hadad, the storm god who brings the rain and causes the soil to be fertile. This connection finds expression in the term sdeh baal [lit. "field of Baal"] used to describe a field watered by the rain. Even though this phrase, used in the language of the Sages, is a technical, secular expression, its pagan religious origins are obvious.

From the point of view of the land of Israel, the natural year begins on the first of Tishre. But for the Jews this date has both natural and super-natural significance. The Jewish New Year and the Day of Atonement are sacred days on a cosmic level, days on which all mankind is judged and the world of nature is created anew. In the Rosh ha-Shanah liturgy we stress the universality of the day in our repetition of the words ha-yom harat olam, "this is the day the world was conceived," meaning this is the day of Creation. Likewise, we proclaim the Day of Atonement as "judgment day for all living things." These points attest to the first of Tishre as the beginning of the natural year in Judaism. On this date the lives and physical needs of Israel and of the entire world face judgment, with especial emphasis on the central role played by the Jewish people in determining the fate of mankind.

In contrast to this universalist aspect, Nissan was chosen as the beginning of the Jewish year from a particularist point of view. As we have said, this was the first time in history that a calendar was established based not on nature but on an historic event. Beginning the year in the spring was exceptional in a society where most beginnings were connected with the fall. The implicit message is that Judaism is not based on nature. Jews live in another dimension. We celebrate and sanctify dates of historic events, and do not necessarily celebrate the transitions between the seasons that were sanctified in the pagan world around us. We do not deny nature but neither do we champion a god of nature. The agricultural expressions of nature in the land of Israel find their expression in the three festivals, all of whose names reflect events tied to the exodus and our wanderings in the wilderness: Passover takes place at the time of the barley harvest, the Feast of Weeks marks the wheat harvest and the offering of first fruits, and Sukkot celebrates the ingathering of the fruits of the trees.

The Hebrew calendar balances the paradoxical complexity of life's events. It lends expression to our desire for a unique and special identity on the one hand, while strengthening our bonds with all of mankind on the other. The particularist aspect (e.g. kingship and faith) finds expression in the New Year beginning in Nissan, while the universalist (i.e., natural) aspect is manifest in the New Year beginning in Tishre. The Mishnah confirms this duality and the harmony of two New Years that divide the year into two equal halves.