Over the Rabbi’s Disk
Rabbi Howard S. Herman, D.D.
The "Other' New Year
Shanna Tova!! Happy New Year!
It’s the start of 2022. Beginnings of years always intrigue me. We all look at beginnings in different ways. Some of us begin the year with resolutions. We resolve that we are going to do things differently. Others look at the new year as opportunity, sort of a fresh start, so to speak. Still others view the new year with a kind of contempt as with the idea of “same old, same old.”
Some see the new year as a kind of benchmark, of being able to reach a milestone for a whole host of reasons. Some look at the new year with anticipation others with trepidation. Some with avarice, some with hope, some with optimism, others with boredom or hopelessness.
A new year represents something different to everyone. We are unaware of what the new year will bring to us and our families because none of us are able to predict the future. There are things that we can do to hedge our bets, but exact predictions are few and far between.
Judaism has a different approach for a new year. We as Jews have always seemed to prioritize goal setting. The Hebrew word “Torah” comes from the word “yarah” to shoot, so our Torah teaches us to take aim.
When we shoot, we hope to hit a bullseye. We aim toward a given direction and, as an archer, we shoot our arrow toward a target. Sometimes we take aim and miss. It is exceedingly rare that we get a bullseye on our first try. So what does an archer do? Archers practice to get better. A new year gives us the opportunity to begin again, to start fresh and go after what we want. We do not do it by making a resolution or wishing it will be so.
The new year gives us a starting point to begin practicing so that we can get better. It gives us a starting point to begin the work of exercise, or reparation or dieting, or amends, or preparation for some goal. A new year tells us we have a new twelve-month cycle to achieve what we want. There is no rush. There is no pressure. There is no penalty.
There is no reason to base the future on any failures of the past. The past is over, so start anew. Don’t beat yourself up for what you didn’t do last year. Practice! Take a different approach. Use a different mindset. Try different tools. Ask for help. All these things will aid in achieving what you are hoping to achieve. Our goals give us something to move toward--something quantifiable. The new year provides the perfect environment to think about what we want to change or accomplish, how we want to grow, to set up those new targets so that we can reach our full human potential and live the lives we want to live fully actualized.
For those interested in a brief history of secular New Year’s observances, I will give you the “Cliff Notes” version. In 46 BCE, Julius Caesar established January 1 as New Year’s Day as he introduced a new calendar, far more accurate than the one Rome had been using up to then. Before long, Roman pagans began marking December 31 with drunken orgies. But January 1 didn’t remain the start of the year for long.
As Christianity spread and became the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380, pagan holidays were either incorporated into the Christian calendar or abandoned. Emperor Theodosius incorporated it, very conveniently becoming the Festival of the Circumcision. If you count inclusively from December 25 to January 1 you get eight, as in on the eighth day circumcision. This was obvious to 4th Century Christians. By the time of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE this interpretation was standard and was ratified theologically.
By this time it was no longer called New Year’s Day. That connection, though, was still associated with Caesar’s pagan Rome, and Christians wanted to separate themselves from that un-churched, un-enlightened, pre-Gospel, pre-Christian time. So Christian Europe set March 25 -- Annunciation Day -- as the beginning of the year. It made sense because it was near the vernal equinox, the new year for many of the European tribes the Church was seeking to convert.
William the Conqueror was crowned King of England on December 25 1066, and at that time he decreed that January 1 should once again mark the New Year. His innovation lost favor with the Catholic clergy of England, and they realigned English custom to fit that of the Christian west. March 25 was to mark the New Year and it stayed there for roughly half a millennium.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII moved it back to January 1.
There is much more I can tell you about this but perhaps I will leave it for an adult education class. Happy New year to you and yours and may it be a year full of the richness of God’s blessings,
Rabbi Howard Herman DD