I have a friend who lives rather far from our congregation. I hope she doesn’t mind me describing her for a moment. I think her story is an interesting one.
She is intermarried and from a religious Jewish background. In intermarriage she has chosen primarily to be involved in a church. Her Jewish life is calling to her always and is growing, especially through her relationship with her father, an assistant rabbi in Florida.
She comes around for holidays, even though our synagogue is an hour or more from her house. And she stays in touch in other ways, such as on our Facebook group at the synagogue and by emailing me with questions from time to time. As you can imagine, I get a special kind of joy from answering her questions and hearing her stories and point of view. She is uniquely interesting.
The question she asked today is one that I am sure many have, so I thought I would address it.
How can Rosh HaShanah be the new year? Is Rosh HaShanah the first day of the first month or of the seventh? How can it be the new year when the Bible calls it the first day of the seventh month (Lev. 23:24)?
One way you can go with this, and sadly too many people do, though my friend certainly did not, is to assume the rabbis simply wish to change the Bible at every opportunity. There is a strand of thought that goes like this: the Torah gave us a simple and pure system of life and the rabbis came in and made everything complicated. Whoa, slow down. If you read the rabbis much, you should know they are far smarter than that.
You learn, or I should say you ought to learn, as you read Torah, that there are gaps, assumptions, and tensions in the text. It is not as simple to determine how to live Torah as some people think. For them, a quick read of Deuteronomy should make anyone an expert in Torah-living.
But the idea of Rosh HaShanah as the new year is a good example of complexity that is too easily bypassed. You will find that the rabbis quite new what they were doing. It is still possible and even praiseworthy to disagree with certain rulings. If you read rabbinic literature, you will find there is usually room for debate.
On the one hand, we have the statement in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you,” which is about Nisan (Aviv), the month in which Passover falls. This agrees with the calendrical system expressed in Leviticus 23:24 in which Rosh HaShanah is the first of the seventh month.
On the other hand, we have the statement in Leviticus 25:9, “you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land,” marking the beginning of Jubilee years (and by extension Shabbat or shmittah years).
The false assumption would be that there is only one kind of new year. The correct assumption, reflected in rabbinic writings, is that there are four new years (all with a scriptural basis).
There are four new years: in the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals, on the first of Elul is the new year for tithes on cattle, on the first of Tishri is the new year for the reckoning of years and release for jubilee and planting vegetables, and on the first of Shevat is the new year for trees.
-Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:1
Leaving aside two of these four new years, for now, and looking at the new year for years and the new year for kings and festivals, we find that the Bible speaks of both of them.
For festivals and other purposes, the new year is in the spring, and Passover is the first festival. For years, so that Shabbat and Jubilee years are counted properly, the seventh month (Tishri) is the beginning. Israel of old, Judaism today, and the Bible are able to maintain the complexity of a year marked by more than one kind of new year.
The traditions of Israel are based on a close reading of Torah and a wise application of its complexities. My prayer is that learning the traditions of the sages of Israel will become a joyful occupation for many more people in the Messianic Jewish movement. The study of Torah brings us closer to God and adds to our lives in countless ways.
May your season of repentance (this month, Elul) be meaningful and may the High Holidays bring you into close encounter with the Holy One of Israel, blessed be he.