“They are four ‘New Years,’ in the Jewish calendar. The first of the month of Nisan is the New Year for kings and for holidays… The first of the month of Tishrei is the New Year for counting years… the New Year for trees is on the fifteenth of the month of Shvat” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah, 1:1).
This excerpt from the Mishnah, a sacred Jewish text codified in 200 C.E., teaches an ancient version of a concept that we know very well: the different ways to calculate a year. According to the Rabbis, the first of Nisan was the date that the years of a king’s rule were counted, and was the date that determined the order of the Jewish holidays (Passover, which begins on the fifteenth of Nisan, is considered the first holiday in the Jewish calendar). The first of Tishrei was the first day of a new calendar year (which is why we celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, on this date). The fifteenth of the month of Shevat (also known as “Tu B’Shvat”) was used to calculate the age of a tree, which was necessary for tax and tithing purposes.
Today, we count our years in similar ways. We mark the first of January as the beginning of a new calendar year. A new school year begins in September. Each of us celebrates a birthday, which allows us to keep track of how many years we have been alive. Tax Day, on the fifteenth of April, is its own marker of sorts. And our country marks each new term of presidency on the twentieth of January, a date at the forefront of our minds this week.
These ancient and modern markings of different new years converge as they never have before: Inauguration Day, Tu B’Shvat, the declaration of Nisan as the first month, all take place this week.
This past Wednesday, January 20, the day of counting the years of a presidency, our country inaugurated its 46th President and Vice President. This pair is historic in so many ways, including in their identities: a Catholic man and our first Black, South Asian woman. They seek to usher our nation into a new era of unity and peace.
Next week, on January 28, we celebrate the ancient holiday of Tu B’Shvat. Though this holiday’s original function was like that of our modern Tax Day, throughout the centuries, it has taken on new meaning. In the Middle Ages, Tu B’Shvat was rediscovered in the town of Tzfat in Northern Israel, a hotbed of mystical fervor. Tu B’Shvat was a time when mystics celebrated the beauty and sanctity of nature, which allowed them to enter new spiritual realms. Many modern communities continue the mystical tradition of holding a Tu B’Shvat seder. Today, as our world finds itself on the precipice of climate disaster, Tu B’Shvat serves as a call to save and protect the Earth. It is an opportunity to find ways to live sustainably and in harmony with our precious planet.
And finally, it is in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, that God declares Nisan to be the first Hebrew month of the year (Exodus 12:2). It is the month in which the Israelites will escape from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. It is the month in which they will cross the Red Sea on dry land in order to flee a stubborn and hardened Pharaoh. It is the month in which they will begin their forty-year journey toward the Promised Land.
Rashi, the medieval commentator, imbues this moment with even more spiritual significance. In his commentary on the Torah, he plays with the similarities between the Hebrew word for “month” (chodesh — חודש) and “renewal” (chadash — חדש). In Rashi’s understanding, when God declares the Nisan to be the first month, God is also saying: “This stage of renewal [of the moon] shall be the moment of the beginning of the months.”
Renewal. That’s what’s giving me hope as we embark on these monumental new years. There is so much to celebrate: A woman serves as our Vice President. We continue to gather on Zoom to support one another through life’s joys and sorrows. Many members of the JCP staff have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccination.
We are on the edge of a new era, one that we hope is filled with societal cohesion, good health, strength, and indeed, renewal. As we enter these new years, let’s pray for the fulfillment of the ancient words spoken by our new President, Joe Biden: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” (Psalms 30:5).