Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The New Year of Nissan (Aviv)

The New Year of Nissan (Aviv)
Rabbi Yehudah ben Shomeyr

“LaShannah Tovah!”

It may seem a bit odd for some to hear this at this time of year, as many Jewish people say this in the Fall at Rosh HaShannah (Yom Teruah/Feast of Trumpets). But the first of Nissan (Aviv) is also a new year, and really THE New Year of New Years.

You are to begin your calendar with this month; it will be the first month of the year for you – Exd. 12:2

There are actually traditionally four new years on the Hebraic calendar.

The four Jewish new years specified in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1 are the first of Tishri, the 15th of Shevat, the first of Nisan, and the first of Elul.

The First of Nissan (Aviv) – The Hebraic New Year

The first of Nissan (Aviv), is the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the Israelite nation. This particularistic national event defines the spiritual nature of this quasi-spiritual-civil calendar. The Torah's command that "this month is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year to you" connected all counting of Hebraic and Jewish festivals to the Exodus from Egypt, and this special religious counting system distinguished Israel from other nations. 

The first of Nisan is also the New Year for the calculation of the reigns of Jewish kings. The first of Nissan (Aviv) is also the due date for using the half-shekel contribution described on Shabbat Shekalim to purchase communal sacrifices for the Temple.

The First of Tishrei, Rosh HaShannah – Feast of Trumpets – The Jewish New Year

We celebrated the new year exclusively on the first of Nisan (then called Aviv) until the time of the Babylonian exile. But exile in Babylon had its effects on us because the first month in the Babylonian calendar is also called Tishrei, and the first of Tishrei is the Babylonian new year.

Despite all of this the first of Tishrei is just as a legitimate new year as the first of Nissan (Aviv) because in the Torah it is "a day when the horn is sounded" (Leviticus 29:1), the Talmud expanded its religious connotations to make it the new year and the anniversary of creation. Rosh Hashanah 8a explains, "For R. Zeira said [that Tishrei is considered the new year for years in relation] to the seasons. And this [opinion of R. Zeira] is [in consonance with the view of] R. Eliezer, who said that the world was created in Tishrei." The rabbis focused primarily on the creation of human beings, without whose perceptive ability the physical creation would go unappreciated. 

The first of Tishrei is also considered the new year for calculating the reigns of foreign kings, the new year for setting the Sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:2-5). Plowing and planting were forbidden from the first 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. Also the first of Tishrei is the new year for setting the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year following seven cycles of Sabbatical years. Sowing was also forbidden during the Jubilee, but, in addition, all indentured Israelites were allowed to return to their homes and all tenured land was to be returned to its original owners. The laws of the Jubilee required that all land sales in Palestine be considered leases, with land costs computed in terms of the number of crop years remaining until the next Jubilee, which would begin on the first of Tishrei.

The first of Tishrei is also the new year for calculating the annual tithe (ma'aser), or ten percent tax, on vegetables and grains. The Levites and priests were supported by these tithes, because they had no inheritance in the land. 

The 15th of Shevat (Tu’ B’Shavat) is the New Year for trees, the Jewish Arbor Day or Earth Day if you will. Most Jewish sources consider 15 Shevat as the New Year both for designating fruits as orlah (that is, forbidden to eat, because they have grown during the first three years after a tree's planting) and for separating fruits for tithing. Though some sources, however, consider the first of Tishrei to be the new year for orlah and 15 Shevat for tithing. But this particular date was selected "because most of the winter rains are over" (Rosh Hashanah 14a), the sap has begun to rise, and the fruit has started to ripen.  

Finally, the first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of cattle. The tithe for cattle had to be made from cattle born in the same fiscal year, between 1 Elul one year and the next.

Now I do believe The first of Tishrei (Rosh HaShannah) adopted some traditions from the first of Nissan (Aviv). We associate Rosh HaShannah with a “sweet” new year, with the eating of sweet pastries. However, the first of Nissan is a “sweet” new year too because in preparing for Passover we begin removing all leaven from our households and so we eat up before we bag up and though out. So do our best by using up all the leaven prior to us having to remove it. So we bake many sweets with the leaven so as to use it up and thus begin the new year of the first of Nissan (Aviv) satisfying our sweet tooth.

Tradition is good, there is nothing wrong with celebrating Yom Teruah (Rosh HaShannah), the first of Tishrei as a new year, but it is important to prioritize our traditions in light of Torah. The G-d of Israel had a good reason for making Nissan the first month of the year because Nissan was the month in which He brought our people out of the land of Egypt (Deut. 16:1). By recalling that each day we reckoned the rest of the days of the year in relation to the month of Nissan (Aviv), the month when YHWH took us out of the land of our bondage by the Exodus, we can be thankful for that great redemption all year long.