5767 - #15


The mishna at the beginning of Massechet Rosh Hashanah1 begins with the famous words: Arba’ah Roshei Shanah heim, “There are four New Years…” The mishna and then the gemara continue with an investigation of the various yearly cycles and the question upon which date each cycle begins. T.J. Rosh Hashanah 1:1 and Tanchuma 1:7 both state that this idea of different yearly cycles for different concerns is actually based on the words of Shemot 12:2. The first of Nisan is to be the first month for you, for the months of the year – but not for other matters such as, for example, Shmitta, the seventh year. The Torah is informing us that the year is to be seen differently in different contexts. In regard to one circumstance, the year should be seen as beginning in Tishrei; in regard to another, it should be seen as beginning in Nisan. The question is why.

            Time is fluid. It is a yardstick that essentially measures movement. What we often do not recognize is that how we measure this movement of time can also affect our understanding of this movement and, thus, our understanding of life. In Nishma Insight 5767-04: The Juncture of Humanity and Reality, we investigated this idea in regard to the unit of time of a day. There is a difference if we see a day as beginning and ending at sunset and if we see a day as beginning and ending at sunrise. How we define the day affects our understanding of how we move through time and, thus, how we understand the progression of our life. This idea also applies to our view of the year. How we see the year and use the year as a measurement of our own lives will affect our very understanding of our lives. The different ways of looking at the yearly cycle, as marked by different starting points for the year, would thus seem to be informing us that we should look at the movement of time, the movement of our lives, in different ways. Time should not be monolithic. Different issues within life demand different perspectives. The key to understanding these different perspectives is how we view the passage of time, how we structure the movement of the year.

            The question is not only how we view the movement of time over the year. There is clearly a difference in how we view the year if we consider it beginning in the autumn versus if we see it beginning in the spring. Years are also the measurement of time that we use to describe greater periods of time. In this regard, there is also a difference whether we mark this greater passage of time with years beginning in Nisan or years beginning in Tishrei. There is a difference if we count the years beginning with Yitziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus, or Bri’at Olam, Creation.2 Is the focus of our life to be more nationalistic or universal? A call for both may be reflected in the parallel different visions we may have of New Year as prescribed by Halacha. We can mark the complexity of life in the different ways we can describe time and the units of time. We can also learn how to respond to the complexities of life through the direction the Torah gives us in describing the nature of a year in differing circumstances.

This thought, perhaps, finds its most powerful expression in giving meaning to the two different units of a year, i.e. the solar year and the lunar year. While the lunar year is the dominant construct of a year for the Jewish People,3 the solar year still finds an influence in the Jewish calendar through ibur hashanah, the extension of a year into 13 months in order to maintain a connection between the months and the seasons. Thus, while we do not have a unit of a solar year, we do recognize that there is such a unit. More so, the solar year may actually have a true halachic representative within the world of Torah. When we refer to a year that begins with Tishrei, while the actual makeup of the year is lunar, the reference, in certain situations, may be to the concept of a solar year.

Any sources, including the Yerushalmi and Tanchuma referred to above, state that Nisan is to be the New Year for months but Tishrei is to be the New Year for years. What does this mean? T.B. Rosh Hashanah 8a explains that the statement regarding Tishrei concerns judgement which is to consider the entire year from beginning to end.4 The lunar year describes a year that is constructed from 12 months. The solar year describes a year that is then divided into 12 months. The difference is subtle but nevertheless important. When we view the lunar year, we see it as building upon the dominant construct of the month. It is the month that is the essence. When we view the solar year, we see it as building upon the dominant construct of the year. It is the year that is the essence. The approach to the movement of time, when viewed from the perspective of the solar calendar, is to be built upon the unit of a year. Movement is to be seen in the context of the year. While our understanding of the movement of time within a Jewish perspective is to concentrate on movement defined by the month, this gemara is informing us that din, judgement, is best understood when viewed in the context of the unit of a year. The solar year, which is not constructed from smaller units but represents its own prime whole, represents this concept. We acknowledge this concept in referring to our year, our lunar year, beginning with Tishrei.

Rashi, Devarim 11:12 simply writes that on Rosh Hashanah -- Tishrei 1 – we are judged on what will be at the end of the year. This gives us an interesting perspective on judgement. Din does not just concern immediate consequences. It must be considered in the context of the greater movement of time. It is the full year that is the context of din, for the proper evaluation of what happened and the proper consideration of what to do next have to consider and reflect the broader movement of time. The year is the proper unit of time for judgement. Other concepts and ideas demand a different perspective of time. Jewish identity, for example, would seem to demand the perspective of the month; it is living within the context of the month that ignites our Jewish consciousness. The method by which we describe time affects us – and so it should. The different units of time, and the variant ways we can see each unit, carry with them important lessons.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


(1)  T.B. Rosh Hashanah 2a. .
See, further, Malbim, Shemot 12:2 and Karban HaEida, T.J. Rosh Hashanah 1:1, d.h. Lachem.
Torah Shelaima, Shemot 12:2, note 30.quotes many sources that indicate, based on the word lachem, for you, in this verse, that the lunar year is to be the measurement of a year for the Jewish People while the rest of the nations are to use the solar year..
See, further, Torah Temima, Devarim 11:12, note 7.

(c) Nishma, 2007.

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