The Essence of the Hebrew Calendar
The first commandment given to the Israelites as a nation is significantly the charge to create the Hebrew calendar:
שמות יב:ב הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה.
Exod 12:2 This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
This commandment to order the months of the year, set at such an early and critical stage of the nation’s formation, recognizes the fundamental fact that the cognizance of time and how it is institutionalized is a crucial part of what shapes and distinguishes one culture from another.
Unlike calendars of the ancient world that were based on nature and couched in pagan myth and ritual drama (cf. the Assyro-Babylonian akitu festival), the Hebrew calendar marks the beginning of the year as rooted in an historiographical event - the Exodus from Egypt. In other words, it marks an event in the “history of the people” as opposed to something that happened only in the realm of the gods.
This first commandment thus 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 can be understood as a sort of declaration of independence for the people who had just won their freedom.
The Four New Year’s Days in the Mishnah
This innovation comes into sharper focus if we compare it to the description of the Hebrew calendar in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1.1. Although much later than the Bible, the Mishnah’s calendar is rooted in the ancient Near Eastern milieu.
Unlike other ancient and modern calendars that begin on a specific day, such as January First of the civil calendar or the beginning of Nisanu in Mesopotamia, the Mishnah teaches about four different days that are called Rosh Hashanah, the New Year:
ארבעה ראשי שנים הם.
There are four New Years.
באחד בניסן ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים.
On the first of Nisan is New Year for kings and festivals.
באחד באלול ראש השנה למעשר בהמה.
On the first of Ellul is the New Year for tithing cattle.
רבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון אומרים, באחד בתשרי .
R. Eleazar and R. Simeon, however, place this on the first of Tishre.
באחד בתשרי ראש השנה לשנים ולשמטין וליובלות, לנטיעה ולירקות.
On the first of Tishre is the New Year for years, for Shmittah (sabbatical) and Jubilee years, for planting and for [tithing] vegetables.
באחד בשבט , ראש השנה לאילן, כדברי בית שמאי. בית הלל אומרים, בחמשה עשר בו
On the first of Shevat is the New Year of the tree, according to the School of Shammai; the School of Hillel, however, places it on the fifteenth of that month.
1st of Nisan: New Year’s Day for Kings and Holidays
This is the New Year for:
- Kings, in other words, the beginning of the civil year. In biblical times, the kings of Israel counted regnal from this date.
- The religious calendar noting the year's cycle of festivals, identified by the pilgrimages to Jerusalem, called regalim.
1st of Ellul: New Year’s Day for Tithing of Flocks and Herds
This date, the sixth month (counting from Nisan), 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 Ellul must be tithed in the current year.
1st of Tishre: The “Official” Beginning of the Natural Year
The first of the seventh month, as it is called in the Torah, traditionally, marks the day from which the years are reckoned and it is the "official" beginning of the calendrical year (e.g., the transition from the year 5775 to 5776 A.M.). Others explain that it is the beginning of the civil calendar of the gentile kings for during the Hellenistic period the Seleucides began their calendar year from Tishre.
Some rabbinic sources claim that this date was chosen because it marks the creation of the universe (Anno Mundi), making this dating dependent on biblical conceptions of the world. (In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we repeat the words היום הרת עולם, "this is the day the world was conceived," meaning this is the day of Creation.)
This date was chosen because it was the beginning of the agricultural year for the ancient peoples of Syria and Eretz-Israel in general. For example, in ancient Canaan the year began in the autumn, when the rainy season set in. This is reflected in the 10th century BCE Gezer calendar or agricultural almanac, which begins with the ingathering ('asif) of the summer harvest.
The Mishnah notes that the Sabbatical year, when tilling the soil is forbidden, begins on this date, and approximately does the Jubilee year. The age of a tree is counted from this date, when reckoning the laws of ערלה, the three years during which the fruit of a young tree may not be eaten. All these rules are directly related to agriculture.
1st (or 15th) of Shevat: New Year’s Day for Tithing Fruit
The first or the fifteenth of the eleventh month (the date is debated), is the New Year of the tree. Around this time the winter starts drawing to a close, the sap begins to flow again, and the fruit trees awaken from their winter slumber to begin a new cycle of fruition. (Only in modern times did Tu beShevat [the 15th of Shevat] become celebrated as a secular arbor day, especially in Israel.)
Two Kinds of New Year’s Days
Although the Mishnah does not distinguish a hierarchy between these dates, they do not have equal weight in Jewish life. These New Years fall into two categories:
- The first of Ellul and the first/fifteenth of Shevat are New Years that pertain to tithes of animals and plants; these are connected to the economic basis of the ancient Israelite agrarian society. The controversy regarding their dates indicates that they are of lesser significance.
- The First of Nisan and Tishre are central in Jewish life, not having diminished in importance even after the destruction of the Second Temple and long exile. They both emphasize fundamental values and themes of the Jewish people. These dates, close to the spring and fall equinox, are definite and undisputed, and divide the year into two equal, six-month segments.
Calendars as Expressions of Nature
Calendars in the ancient world were typically a reflection of the natural world. 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 divine and were reflected in the calendar.
Egypt and Mesopotamia: River Cultures Begin in the Spring
The world in which the ancient Israelites lived was surrounded by two major centers of civilization: Mesopotamia and Egypt. Both, like other great civilizations such as India and China, began their history as river cultures.
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 temporal fixed point, i.e., a single New Year, they created a calendar that intertwined nature, religion, and civil government.
Canaan: Rain Cultures Begin in the Fall
Israel has no central river; agricultural life was determined by a seasonal rain culture (Deut 11:11):
והארץ אשר אתם עברים שמה לרשתה ארץ הרים ובקעת למטר השמים תשתה מים.
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.
This is reflected in the festival calendars in Exodus (chapters 23 and 34), where the Feast of Ingathering, alternately called Sukkot, is at the “end” or the “turn” of the year:
שמות כג:טז וחג האסיף בצאת השנה
Exod 23:16 and the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year
שמות לד:כב וחג האסיף תקופת השנה
Exod 34:22 and the Feast of the Ingathering at the turn of the year
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 mythic connection finds expression in the demythologized term sdeh ba`al (lit. "field of ba`al," m. Baba Batra 3;1) used to describe a field irrigated by the rain. The pagan origins of this mishnaic phrase are obvious.
A Universalist and Particularist New Year
In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is a sacred day on a cosmic level, the day on which all humankind is judged and the world of nature is created anew. The celebration of the creation of the world and the judgment of all humanity emphasizes the day’s universal features. In contrast, Nisan begins the Jewish year, and expresses a particularistic point of view, associated with the Exodus from Egypt.
Parsing Time in Jewish and Human Ways: Balancing Nature and History
Jewish tradition, as codified in the Mishnah, includes both the religious, particularistic calendar and the natural, universalist one. However, there is a certain overlapping. The agricultural aspects of nature in the Land of Israel are celebrated in the three festivals: Passover takes place at the time of the barley harvest (Deut 16:1, Josh 5:11), Shavuot marks the wheat harvest and the offering of first fruits, and Sukkoth celebrates the ingathering of the fruits of the trees (Exod 23:16, 34:22). The biblical narrative has imbued these seasons with historical meaning. Pesach celebrates the exodus from Egypt and the protection of the Israelite’s firstborn (Exod 12:27), Shavuot the giving of the Torah (only explicitly in post-biblical literature), and Sukkot God’s protection of Israel during the wilderness wandering (Lev 23:43).
Like these festivals, the Hebrew calendar balances the paradoxical complexity of our personal and collective Jewish identities. On one hand, we want to maintain our unique national identity formed in the light of history, while on the other hand we recognize the ties we have with all of mankind in nature. The Mishnah confirms this duality and finds harmony in the two most important New Year’s days, which divide the year into two equal halves.
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Prof. Aaron Demsky is Professor (emeritus) of Biblical History at The Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Bar Ilan University. He is also the founder and director of The Project for the Study of Jewish Names. Demsky received the Bialik Prize (2014) for his book, Literacy in Ancient Israel.
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