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Dvar January 3 2020

Here we are… the first Shabbat of 2020. Remember when you were younger and you thought of the new years to come: 1990, 2000, 2010…2020! No that sounds like a futuristic time that isn’t even conceivable! But here we are.


For me whenever a secular holiday comes along I grapple with whether it feels right to celebrate it given I’m a religious Jew. With all the pomp and circumstance of the secular New Year: parties, drinking, the ball drop, the intense pressure to find a person to kiss at midnight. Like all holidays which have deep roots within a culture, it seems almost religious-like and if we look back far enough there are religious roots. So is it sacrilegious to join the crowds and intensity of the secular new year when our tradition has its own new year? Does the Jewish New year conflict with the secular new year?


I feel we may this question by looking at two points within Judaism:

1: Understanding that Judaism has 4 new years and what they mean

2: Acknowledging our dual identity being Jewish and American


How many new years are there in Judaism? What are they?

Our tradition tells us in Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:1-

משנה ראש השנה א׳:א׳

(א) ארבעה ראשי שנים הם.באחד בניסן ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים.באחד באלול ראש השנה למעשר בהמה.רבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון אומרים, באחד בתשרי .באחד בתשרי ראש השנה לשנים ולשמטין וליובלות, לנטיעה ולירקות.באחד בשבט , ראש השנה לאילן, כדברי בית שמאי.בית הלל אומרים, בחמשה עשר בו.

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1

(1) The four new years are: On the first of Nisan (Rosh Chodesh before Passover), the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; in the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

Therefore, how many new year’s do we have in Judaism alone? 4


And these new year’s are all based on what? Different times within the year, seasons, specifically seasons within the agrarian year cycle! These new years are a break to check in with nature, with ourselves, with the functioning of our society. To thank G-d, to close one season as we prepare for another. As we approach another season, another marker of agrarian culture, we are given time to come together as a community, to celebrate, and to prepare for the next season. And this deeply embedded and important within our Jewish history and religious beliefs.


Isn’t this the original intent of our secular new year? Although it began with religious links, the secular new year, for most, has taken on a different meaning in today’s world. It is now about family, connection, celebration, hopes for the new year, etc.


This leads me to my second point, our identity as Jewish Americans. Innately, by living in this country, we have a dual identity. We are both Jewish and American. I acknowledge that being Jewish and American is difficult and scary given what has been happening around us recently. And I too am grappling withholding both of these identities without judgment, fear, or concern. But in all my studying and experiencing Jewish communities throughout the world I see that being Jewish and American allows us to contribute such a wonderful and unique point of view to the world. In a way, there is not a unique tension between the secular new year and Jewish new years because we embody this tension every day. How do we acknowledge our Judaism and Americanism? How do we celebrate both?


From both of these points, we gather that Judaism and specifically our Jewish American culture have duality deeply embedded within it. We have four new years to acknowledge that there is not just one peak of the year in which we must strive but that it is healthy: physically, environmentally, spiritually, communally, to have check-in points throughout the year. Check-ins and celebrations. And this is because life is complex and the healthier we are by acknowledging that complexity. We as Jewish Americans are challenged and privileged to have dual identities, again demonstrating our human ability to be dynamic and complex, not one way of being (no matter how much pressure there is to be one way).


Therefore, I pose the question to you: is there a conflict celebrating the secular new year while knowing the holiness of Judaism’s new years?