Jewish Calendar Marks Many Occasions By Rabbi Ari Ballaban

Most Jews are aware of two new years we celebrate per calendar year: Rosh Hashanah in the fall and the secular new year, on January 1st, in the winter. Knowledgeable Jews may also note that there is a third new year that comes each spring—Tu BiShevat—which marks the new year for trees. How many of you, though, knew that Judaism actually suggests that we mark four new years (not including January 1st)?                                                     

This idea, fittingly recorded at the start of the Mishna’s Tractate Rosh Hashanah, teaches:

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“These are the four new years:

  1. On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals;
  2. on the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of cattle (though Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Shimon say this falls on the first of Tishrei);
  3. on the first of Tishrei, the new year for the years, for the agricultural sabbatical, and for Jubilee years, for planting and for vegetables;
  4. on the first of Shevat, the new year for trees (according to the House of Shammai)—the House of Hillel says it is on the 15th.”

In the generations after this text developed—when the Rabbis of the Talmud discussed, interpreted, and debated the meaning behind it—they suggested a wide variety of reasons why the calendar needed to have been structured in this fashion. And, as those Rabbis would surely tell you were they still around, a great need to mark each and every one of those new years for its own reasons did exist.

Nevertheless, I suspect that most of you do not mark a new year for kings, tithing of cattle, or Jubilees! On the other hand, I bet you do mark certain other yearly beginnings that this passage doesn’t include: years of age via birthdays, years of finances years via taxes and tax deadlines (oy…), years of politics via elections, and more. As it turns out, there are all manners of “new years” that each of us opt to mark in order to give structure and meaning to our experience of time.

To that end, those of you with young children or grandchildren probably are well aware that one such modern, important new year actually just occurred: the new year for the school year. (And, even if you don’t have a direct connection with kids who are starting school, you probably felt the school year begin if your Facebook page is anything like mine!)

While Makor’s first day hasn’t happened yet (it’s on September 23rd, so make sure to sign up if you haven’t yet), Temple Beth Or obviously also participates in this ritual of our contemporary annual cycle— our first day of school is a big deal to the synagogue. (I’m probably a little biased in saying so, but I think our Makor new year is one of the most important “holidays” of the year!) Just like the Rabbis of old, we at Temple Beth Or, and, more broadly, in the 21st-century US, actively make choices about which new years we are committed to celebrating, and, for us, the school year clearly makes the cut.

As the fall moves on and the first days of school, Makor, and Tishrei all are celebrated, I encourage you to take a moment to think about the times in your year that are most special to you, to make decisions about which occasions you most need to most mark in your calendar and commemorate so that you can further enrich your life.

Shanah  tova,

Rabbi Ari Ballaban