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January 14, 2013
Happy New Year! Doesn't it seem like Jews are always wishing each other a Happy New Year? We celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in September, and then we mark the secular New Year each January 1st. But in fact, there are even more opportunities within Judaism to wish someone a Happy New Year, as Jewish tradition teaches that there are a total of four Jewish New Years. Let's explore the four together and learn what meaning and application these four celebrations might offer us today.
The first Jewish New Year is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the month in which we celebrate Passover. Two weeks before Passover (and before the nights of Passover seders), we begin the month of Nisan, about which God says in the Torah, "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you" (Exodus 12:2). Nisan is a month in which we celebrate our freedom from Egypt, and today, from all other plagues and constraints that might keep us from feeling free. The Jewish New Year of Nisan is an opportunity to reconnect with yourself, to identify those unhealthy habits or relationships that enslave you, and to renew your sense of freedom.
The second Jewish New Year is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, usually toward the middle/end of the summer. Traditionally the Jewish New Year of Elul is about animal tithes, bringing a percentage of your bounty to pay a tax, and ultimately to support the community. Elul today is an opportunity to reconnect with other people, your friends, your family, and your larger community. Since Elul is the month right before Rosh Hashanah, it is a perfect time to make donations to Jewish organizations that are meaningful to you in order to support your community.
The third Jewish New Year (the rabbis worked chronologically, so while we might consider this one the most important, it's third in the year, since the year in terms of holidays begins with Nisan) is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. Today, of course, we call this the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. It is our opportunity for spiritual renewal and for personal resolutions. But beyond resolutions to get to the gym more often (self) or to repair relationships with friends and family (community), which might be goals of Nisan or Elul, respectively, Tishrei is our chance to renew our relationship with God. Sign up for a class about prayer offered at your local synagogue or take some time to journal your thoughts and hopes and prayers. Center yourself, find your breath, recognize the divine within you and within everyone you meet. Find a way to create space within yourself to allow God in.
Finally, the fourth Jewish New Year is not on the first, but on the fifteenth of the Hebrew month of Shevat (though there is, of course, some debate over this in the Jewish tradition!). This is the New Year for trees. While it may seem odd to celebrate trees during the cold North American winter (in most places of North America, that is), we are actually celebrating the trees of Israel. In biblical times, when we planted a tree, we could not benefit from the fruits of that tree for the first three years. Since trees might be planted at different times, the 15th of Shevat was determined the birthday of trees as a way of marking each year and counting towards that third year, when we could finally benefit from the produce of that tree. Today we celebrate Tu (Hebrew acronym for 15) Bishvat (Hebrew for "in Shevat") by honoring our environment and planting trees here (such as planting parsley seeds that will grow in time for Passover, to be on your seder plate) and in Israel by donating to the Jewish National Fund. In so doing, we take the opportunity of this final Jewish New Year, the birthday of trees, to reconnect with the world around us and to consciously protect the earth's future. This Tu Bishvat you might want to try a new fruit (preferably one from Israel!) or to start planning your personal gardening for spring.
So there you have it: four New Years, and four opportunities for joy and celebration. We honor our commitment to ourselves, to our community, to God, and to the world around us as we mark each of these days. So we can say it once, or we can say it four times: Happy New Year!