Time has always been a sacred Jewish concept. In the first moments of creation, G-d began to distinguish times – “there was evening and there was morning, day one.” There was no sun, moon, or stars, but already there was a separation in time – evening to morning, one day from the next. By the end of the week, time had been divided, not only into days, but into sacred and profane – Shabbat, and every other time. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Shabbat is holy partially because it is an island in time. Whereas sacred space can be destroyed, sacred time exists always, whether we observe it or not. “Judaism,” he wrote, “teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year.” Further, he said:
The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.
So the Sabbath creates a weekly holy island in time, but Judaism also sanctifies its years. We think of the Jewish New Year as Rosh Hashanah, but actually according to the Mishnah, there are four Jewish New Years. This was to ensure that certain commandments were completed at their appointed times. For example, the Israelites were required to contribute a tenth of the current year’s produce, so therefore they needed to know exactly when the current agricultural year began and ended.
The first of Tishrei is Rosh Hashanah. This is the holiday that we think of when we think of the Jewish New Year. It aligns approximately with one of the secular New Years too – the beginning of the school year. Rosh Hashanah is the new year for seasons. The Talmud associates it with the anniversary of the creation. It is also considered the beginning of the civil calendar, and thus the new year’s for measuring the reigns of foreign kings, for setting the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and figuring the yearly tithe.
Rosh Hashanah is also a spiritual New Year. This is when we consider our lives and how we wish to change and become better people. For most Jews, the only two “New Years” we observe are Rosh Hashanah and January 1st.
But for those who remember their days in Hebrew school, they might also remember that Tu B’shvat is the New Year for trees. This is when the sap has begun to rise and fruit has started to ripen (in Israel.) It is customary on this date to eat the fruit of the new season. Ashkenazi Jews eat 15 different kinds of fruit. In the 16th century, the Sephardic mystics of Sfat expanded the Tu Bishvat observance with a seder that uses the symbolism of fruits with and without shells to enact the process of opening up to G-d’s holiness. In modern times, we also associate this holiday with environmentalism and the planting of trees in Israel.
Rosh Hashanah and Tu B’shvat are the two most well known Jewish new year’s. But there are two more. 1 Nissan corresponds to the season of the redemption from Egypt and the birth of the Jewish people. It says in the Torah, “this month [Nisan] is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be the first month of the year to you.” We observe Passover on the 15th of the month of Nisan. The first of Nisan is also the New Year for the reigns of Jewish kings (as opposed to secular ones), the renting of houses, and the counting of festivals between making and fulfilling a vow.
The last of the four new years is 1 Elul – the new year for tithing cattle. This one seems irrelevant today. The Temple no longer stands and how many of us keep cows? Still, many environmentalists are arguing for bringing this one back into prominence. The holiday can be about seeing the sacredness of all living beings and considering our place in our food system. It is a day on which to, as Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg put it, “abjure cruelty and affirm our kinship with creation.” Of course Elul is also the month of selichot recitations in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Can there be a connection between our consideration of the treatment of animals and our own cheshbon hanefesh – the examining of our souls? The psalmist looks at a deer’s yearning for water and sees reflected an image of our own yearning for G-d. On Rosh Hashanah we will face our animal instincts – as we begin that inner accounting, an examination of our treatment of animals can connect.
These four ancient observances give us a gift of renewing ourselves and our communities in different ways over the course of the year. It’s really quite brilliant. Rabbi Ismar Schorch wrote of Rosh Hashanah and 1 Nissan (with its approach of Pesach):
…both sacred seasons express the fullness of human need. In the spring, we join with family and friends to celebrate the rebirth of our people. Nature and history converge in a burst of new vigor, hope and creativity. We have a need to belong, to attach our lives to something greater and more lasting than ourselves, to find meaning beyond the self.
But the self is not to be denied. It must find some sacred solitude within the totality of community and peoplehood. And so we gather again in the fall against the backdrop of a natural world that is beginning to wither in order to contemplate what the passage of time means in our own lives.
Rosh Hashanah is a deeply personal, inner examination of our lives. Tu B’shvat connects us to nature and food, celebrates the rebirth of spring after a dark and cold winter, 1 Nissan connects us to our people – to our extended families and our shared Jewish story, 1 Elul begins the process of personal repentance and connects us to all life and its sacredness. Through the marking and celebrations of all four new years, we have the chance to explore our lives from many different facets and with greater depth. And the secular new year gives us a moment of sparkle and joy that makes us glad to exist in a world where sacred and secular can shine together.