Happy 2009 or is it 5769?

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By Judi Siegal

Here it is, another New Year, and for most of us we are glad the old one has passed into history. Gone is the craziness of the holiday season and its excesses. We are left with the stark reality of the times and how we will  manage our lives in the coming year.

In the Jewish tradition the whole celebration of a New Year is completely different from the secular one. There is no kissing of strangers at midnight or the wearing of funny hats. Nobody gets so drunk as to need designated drivers and nobody has hangovers the next day.

We do not usher in a New Year at midnight but rather at sundown. While my friends and I are always looking for a good excuse for a party and New Year’s Eve is no exception, how Jews approach a passage in time is very different from those we live among.

In the Jewish tradition there are actually four new years: Nisan 1 for dating regular years, festivals, months and the reign of kings; Elul 1 for tithing cattle; Tishrei 1 for civil purposes and the spiritual year; and Shevat 15 which is the New Year of the Trees.

Nisan 1 was important in ancient times for it marked the beginning of Jewish history as a people. It should be noted that Nisan is the month of spring and the time of the Exodus from Egypt. It was fitting, therefore, to begin the year at a time of redemption, hope and rebirth.

It was the raison d’être for the festivals since many of them where reminders of the Exodus. At every major Biblical festival, wine is blessed and the liturgy mentions the Exodus, the starting point of Jewish peoplehood.

The reign of the kings was also counted from Nisan 1. Today, the date is no longer observed.

Elul 1 was used for tithing cattle. A tenth of an owner’s cattle was brought as a sacrifice to the Temple in Jerusalem. Other tithes consisting of produce and those for the poor were offered at special yearly cycles dating from Elul 1.

Because the Temple no longer exists, this practice no longer is done. The concept of tzedakah (righteousness, charity) has replaced the tithing.

Tishrei 1 is the New Year most familiar to people. It is part of the High Holiday Days and is called by its Hebrew name, Rosh Hashanah or Head of the Year. It is the spiritual New Year and the one that changes the numerical notation each year.

For example, in Jewish notation, which is based on the creation of the world according to the rabbis of ancient times, it is the year 5769. When Tishrei 1 rolls around (usually in September) the year will change to 5770. (Personally I prefer the secular notation of 2009; doesn’t make me sound so old!)

The Jewish New Year is celebrated with sweet foods (for a sweet New Year), the blowing of the shofar, introspection and repentance. It is a very holy season of taking stock of oneself and trying for improvement. It is observed 10 days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Shevat 15, also known as Tu Bishvat or the New Year of the Trees, has rocketed into the limelight with the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel. Originally a minor festival used to determine the age of trees for tithing purposes, it gained in popularity as a time to plant trees in Israel to beautify the land.

In modern Israel, it is Arbor Day, when school groups trek en mass to plant trees in nearby groves or forests. In the lands outside of Israel, it is a time to enjoy the fruits of the Holy Land, such as carob, oranges, figs and dates.

Many people plant trees by proxy by contributing to the Jewish National Fund which plants trees in Israel for a contribution. It is also the beginning of spring in the Jewish state and Jews all over the world express their solidarity with Israel with song and other celebrations.

Whether it is 2009 or 5769, may this year be a good one for us all. Let us move forward in making this world a better one for all and may we all dwell together in peace.

Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Sun Valley with her husband, Phil.