This Shabbat is also the Holiday of Yom T’ruah or Rosh HaShanah. The biblical name refers to the sounding the Shofar, while the rabbinical name speaks to the future, i.e. the Kingdom of G-d. First of all a point of clarification must be made. Often times I hear people saying that there was some change in the Jewish calendar today from that which was given in the Bible in regard to the beginning of the year. This is not the case. Everyone agrees that the first month of the year is Aviv (Nissan) and that Tishre, the month that begins this Shabbat, is the seventh. If this is the case, why then does Judaism proclaim that in the month of Tishre is the beginning of the year?
The Talmud provides the answer. According to the section called Rosh HaShanah there are four “new years” in Judaism (kings and festivals, tithes, years, and trees). They are: the new year for kings and for festivals which is the first of Nissan, the new year for tithes: agriculture and animals is the first of Elul, the new year for years is the first of Tishre, and finally the new year for trees is on the fifteenth day of Shevat.
Therefore, on the first of Nissan, an additional year would be added to the amount of time that the king has ruled. In the bible one is not given a year, like 2009; rather it is said, for example, in the first year of the reign of king…. Even if the king took the throne on the last day of the month of Adar, on the first day of Nissan he would begin another year. Hence the king could have only ruled two days and it would be said in the second year of his reign. The first of Nissan is also the year for establishing the festivals. Hence the first festival of the year is Passover and not Rosh HaShanah. The Bible says that every Jewish male twenty years and over was required to go to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice three times a year. If a man turned twenty after the first of Nissan he would be exempt for Shavuot and Succot that year even though he was literally twenty years old. He would not have to go up to Jerusalem until the following Passover.
In regard to tithing of produce of the land and animals, the year starts on the first day of the sixth month (Elul). In Israel most animals are born in the month of Av the fifth month; hence those animals born the following month were of a different year and could not be offered with those born in the month of Av.
Years (sabbatical and Jubilee) are calculated from the first day in the seventh month, Tishre. This means that one could not plant in the seventh year after the month of Tishre. The Jubilee year is figured according to the years beginning each Tishre, but would not begin to be observed until the blowing of the Shofar on Yom Kippur. Hence if this year was a Sh’mitah year (sabbatical, i.e. letting the land lie fallow) it begins in Tishre. One could harvest the crop of the things planted before Tishre in the first year of the sabbatical year.
Finally the New Year for trees begins on the fifteenth day of the month of Shevat. You will recall the prohibition in the Torah (Lev. 19:23-25) that one cannot eat fruit from a tree the first three years and on the fourth year the fruit must be offered to HaShem, and only on the fifth year and thereafter one may enjoy the fruit of the tree. If one plants a tree prior to the fifteenth day of Shevat it is of the previous year and receives another year on the fifteenth day of Shevat. The tradition in Israel is to plant trees on the fifteenth day of Shevat to give it a full year of growth before the second year is numbered.
Of course much of what is discussed in this week’s Blog is rabbinical in nature, but I hope it provides a clarification that the calendar has not changed. Nissan is still the first month and Tishre is the seventh. The question that should arise in your mind is why did kings receive a new year in Nissan and the new year, in a general sense was in Tishre? Liberal scholars would answer to show a distinction between kings who were seen as divine appointments and secular matters. Today in Israel secular issues receive the Gregorian dating while things of a spiritual element, weddings, bar mitzvahs, etc. receive a date from the Jewish calendar. Rabbis agree with this dichotomy but speak to the reason somewhat in a different manner. Because redemption is the main message of the Scripture one can read about a debate in Meseket Rosh HaShanah in the Gemara concerning what is the month that the final redemption will take place. The argument is between the month of Nissan or Tishre. The conclusion is that as the first redemption (Exodus from Egypt) took place in Nissan so will the final. So what about Tishre? Rabbis say it is the month where G-d will judge the world and bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. In saying this, they make a distinction between the work of redemption and judgment.