There are several New Years in the Jewish calendar. In Torah, the biblical New Year coincided with the month of Nisan, of Passover, which begins toward the end of March with the start of spring around the vernal equinox. Rosh HaShanah — literally “Head of the Year” — became the Jewish religious New Year from rabbinic tradition some 2,000 years ago, connected to the fall harvest celebration around the autumnal equinox. Marking a new year at the start of spring or fall makes sense. Celebrating it at either one of the two solstices would also make sense. The one date that, at first glance, makes no sense for marking a new year is the seemingly random day of Jan. 1. So, how did it come to pass?
Our search begins circa 700 BCE. At that time, like in the Jewish biblical era, most nations celebrated the new year with the vernal equinox. The Roman king Numa added two months at the end of the existing calendar, dubbing them Ianuarius and Februarius. Ianuarius was named after the god Janus, god of thresholds and beginnings, who had two faces: one looking back at the past, one gazing toward the future. Eventually, the first day of Ianuarius became the day of installing new Roman consuls and, in time — for ease of tenure tracking — the first of the year.
The flawed Julian calendar of early Christianity (adapted from Julius Caesar’s calendar of 46 BCE) changed the New Year to Jesus’ birth, Dec. 25, which, at the time, fell on the day of the winter solstice. It also had a second New Year, the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, which fell on the vernal equinox. The Gregorian calendar of 1582, fixing the Julian calendar’s mistakes, brought the New Year back to Jan. 1. Though Catholic countries readily adopted the Gregorian calendar, Protestant lands — including the British American colonies — celebrated the New Year on March 25 until 1752, when they finally accepted the reformed calendar. Jan. 1, eight days from Christmas, became the Feast of the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus Christ.
There is very little religious or spiritual meaning to our New Year celebrations anymore, and it would feel awkward to connect it to the ritual of circumcision. Yet, in Torah, God demands the circumcision of the flesh as well as that of the heart as a spiritual practice aimed at breaking the spell of our identification with our physical and psychological self and remembering the soul-beings we are. Perhaps the invitation of each crossing into a new year is an invitation into Spirit, into freedom from the slavery of ego, to set a deeper kind of intention for ourselves, our nation and our world in the year about to be.
Olivier BenHaim is the Rabbi of Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue in Seattle.
Read more in the Dec. 30, 2020 - Jan. 5, 2021 issue.