Religion and State

Rosh Hashanah or January 1st?

When does the year start for Israelis – the first of January or the first of Tishrei? Most of us conduct our daily lives according to the Gregorian (non-Hebrew) calendar and are not aware of the Hebrew date on any given day.

Even special personal days, such as birthdays or wedding anniversaries, are usually celebrated on their Gregorian dates. Our marking of time adjusts to the global clock, joins wider world, and abandons the unique, the local, the traditional.

Photo by TPS

But this is only a partial picture. In the great moments of our lifecycle, especially in their public aspects, we turn to the Hebrew calendar. We are about to celebrate two days of Rosh Hashanah, followed by Yom Kippur. These aren’t “leisurely long weekends”; an acute feeling of a new and festive beginning prevails in them. This is a time of summing-up and reflecting upon the path we have traveled, and of stepping through the departure gate for a new annual journey. We don’t feel the same way on the first of January.

In Israel, the start of the non-Hebrew year is a time for parties, top-ten lists, and fireworks, but it lacks personal-existential meaning and a national or religious flavor. Rosh Hashanah, however, is HaYom Harat Olam, the day that celebrates the creation of the world. And Yom Kippur stirs the soul of most Israelis.

This is important: if we wish to preserve ourselves as an identity group, we must take care to shape the cycle of time in our own way. The meaningful use of the Hebrew calendar – from Tishrei to Elul – is therefore a great remedy for two serious maladies:

The first of these ills is the divisiveness that is eating us alive. We rarely do things together. The rifts between different groups, each with its own identity and interests, are deep and chronic. Then Rosh Hashanah comes along and allows us, by choice, to undergo a collective and unifying experience. The Haredi and the secular Jew, the settler and the Tel Avivian, the rich and the poor – all dip apples in honey and wish each other “a good and sweet year.”

Yom Kipur. Photo by TPS

This is also the case throughout the year: On Yom Kippur we all transcend our quotidian lives as one; on Hanukkah, candles flicker in most Israeli homes; and on Seder night, 90% of us sit at tables laden with matzah, wine, and charoset in a celebration of freedom. This is an effective group therapy that preserves us as one national and cultural unit. It is important to emphasize that the Hebrew calendar is not solely the province of the religious or the traditional. It belongs to all Jews, and that is the source of its great power and its great importance, especially for the present generation.

The second malady the Hebrew calendar remedies is assimilation, social and cultural. Although, in many respects, our world has become flat: the same material goods can be consumed at malls in Florida, London, and Kiryat Shmona. Likewise, the cultural products that bombard us in the media are similar everywhere. What, then, allows us to remain “us”? In what sense do the Jews maintain their uniqueness? Part of the answer lies in the cycle of time.

The Muslim calendar is based on the moon. The Christian calendar is based on the sun. The Jewish calendar is a fascinating combination: the months, as is well known, are in accordance with the moon, while the year as a whole follows the sun. The discrepancy between the two is periodically reconciled with a leap year. The cycle of time we live by is ours alone. Completely unique. As a result, although the New York, Hong Kong, and Frankfurt stock exchanges will carry on with business as usual on September 26th, our capital market will be closed on the first of Tishrei. Monday and Tuesday next week will be regular work days in the sleek offices of Silicon Valley and in the rice fields of China. In Israel, though, on those two days the country’s high-tech geniuses and Golani soldiers, its prime minister and the leader of the opposition, will listen together – actually or metaphorically – to the sound of the shofar.

Happy New Year to us all.

Published in “the Times of Israel”.