Four Beginnings to the Year

  • Rav Mordechai Breuer


Translated and Adapted by Mordechai Weinstein


The Mishna (RH 2b) specifies four New Year's Days. Two of the dates are accepted by all opinions; the two others are a subject of rabbinic disagreement:

a) The first of Nissan is Rosh Ha-shana for Kings (determining the year of dynasty).

b) The first of Tishrei is Rosh Ha-shana for the calculation of calendar years, sabbatical years, Jubilee years, and for matters of agricultural significance.

c) The first of Elul is Rosh Ha-shana for the purpose of animal tithes (according to R. Meir); or the fifteenth of Nissan is Rosh Ha-shana for pilgrims (R. Eliezer and R. Shimon).

d) The first of Shvat (R. Shimon) or the fifteenth of Shvat (Beit Hillel) is Rosh Ha-shana for trees.

The fact that the year could begin at different dates is not in itself unusual, nor is it surprising that a few of these dates are subjects of controversy. For, after all, a year represents a period, a cycle of time, which has no actual beginning or end. Therefore, the very idea of a "New Year's Day" is merely a legal fiction: any point along a circle might be considered the starting point of the circle, and any day of the year might be called "Rosh Ha-shana."

Nonetheless, there are at least two dates which could be considered "natural" New Year's Days, since the year breaks naturally into two six-month periods - six months of summer and six months of winter. These two seasons are not themselves circular, and therefore have both beginning and end. The summer months begin on the first of Nissan, and the winter months begin on the first of Tishrei. It seems only reasonable, therefore, that the year also should begin from one of these two dates - at the beginning of winter (first of Tishrei), or at the beginning of summer (first of Nissan).

Which of these two dates, then, is the real, "natural" Rosh Ha-shana? For this, we have no clear answer, for the fusing of summer and winter together creates the circular year, which has no start or finish. So the idea of Rosh Ha-shana remains a legal fiction: if one wishes to consider the beginning of summer Rosh Ha-shana, winter follows summer; if one wishes to consider the beginning of winter Rosh-Hashana, summer follows winter. So the two Rashei Ha-shana which are agreed upon in the Mishna are the two "natural" ones - the first of Nissan and the first of Tishrei. The circular year denies precedence of one over the other, and the two dates are unanimously accepted halakhically - each for its own purpose.

What is true for the large yearly period also holds true for the smaller daily period. The day is also circular, with no actual beginning nor end, yet is split naturally into two sections - the daytime hours and the nighttime hours. Therefore the beginning of sunlight and the beginning of evening represent natural starting points. The halakha recognizes both of these starting points: in the Temple, the day begins at first light, and outside the Temple, the day starts with the first appearance of stars.

The correspondence between the year and the day is recognizable from another perspective, as well - the two seasons of the year parallel the two sections of the day. The "dying" natural world of winter only revives with the arrival of summer. Likewise, the nighttime seems created for the very purpose of sleep, and the daytime, for waking activity.

In light of this, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsh explained the details of the halakhot of new years and new days. In his opinion, the rule is as follows: outside of the Temple the day begins with evening; even if one rises upon daylight, the day also ends at night. Inside the area of the Temple, however, the day begins with morning; even if the sun sets at the onset of evening, the end of the day will once again be morning. Likewise years: the year for Eretz Yisrael and its produce begins with fall; even if the spring and summer arrive, the end of the year will be fall again. For the holidays and kings of the People of Israel, however, the year begins with spring; even if the fall and winter arrive, the end of the year remains spring: "This month will be FOR YOU the first of months, the first FOR YOU of the months of the year" (Shemot 12:1).

It seems possible to apply this idea to a framework outside the realm of Torah. The non-Jewish nations recognize new years and new days; their day begins midway through the night, and they determine new years according to a midpoint in winter. We find, then, that their days and years cycle from darkness to darkness! At the beginning of their day they are sunk in slumber, and the beginning of the year frozen in a deathly chill. Even if they rise to light and renewed summer life, their end returns to sleep and dark cold.

These are intriguing ideas which might speak to one's heart, but we must still investigate the simple, halakhic meaning of the Mishna. First, we must state that it is not at all clear that the halakhot of the new year are necessarily tied to those of the new day. We will therefore address here only the topic of the new year. We will first attempt to define the difference between a year beginning in Tishrei and one beginning in Nissan.

The year for Eretz Yisrael and its produce begins with the onset of winter, at the rainy season. Only one who plows, plants and receives rain in winter will reap in summer: "The lazy man does not plow because of the cold; therefore he will beg for food, empty-handed, in harvest time" (Mishlei 20:4). The first of Tishrei is therefore Rosh Ha-shana for most of the laws pertaining to the land; it is also Rosh Ha-shana for the purpose of counting years and gentile kings, for the very sustenance of man depends upon the blessing of the land - even "the king tills the field" (Kohelet 5:8). The account of Creation itself, in Sefer Bereishit, involves Hashem's exhortation to Adam to work the land upon his exit from the Garden of Eden. Therefore, it is reasonable that Creation finishes at the onset of fall, at the beginning of the year with respect to the land and sustenance. We therefore count the years of the world's Creation from the first of Tishrei, for on this day Creation was finished, and the first year of the land (with human involvement) began.

As opposed to this, the history of the Jewish people begins on the first of Nissan, for in the "month of spring" the People of Israel left Egypt, and with the passage of twelve months their first year of freedom ended. From this point on, all historical Jewish years are numbered from Nissan. Likewise, the kings of Israel count their dynasties according to this benchmark, for they sit upon the throne of Hashem, who is revealed to the world through the history of Israel.

So we find that two cycles coexist within the framework of the Jewish calendar: the year of the land and creation of the world (beginning on the first of Tishrei), and the year of the history of the Jewish people (beginning on the first of Nissan).

The Torah specifies only one Rosh Ha-shana, however - that of Nissan: "This month will be for you the first of months" (Shemot 12:1). According to this, we are justified to name only one Rosh Ha-shana. I suggest the following explanation:

Within the agricultural framework of creation, it is not appropriate to number months whatsoever; rather, each month is referred to by its name - according to its importance and meaning within the seasons of the year. This, we indeed find in the Torah: Nissan is called Chodesh Ha-aviv (Month of spring), Iyar is Chodesh Ziv (Month of Shining Light), Tishrei is Chodesh Eitanim (Month of Power), and Cheshvan, Chodesh Ha-Bul (Month of the Flood).

The Nissan-based year, however, which we explained to be historically-concerned, is both itself numbered as a whole (years from the Egyptian Exodus) and internally numbered with respect to months - Nissan is the first month of the Exodus, Tishrei the sev. The pattern now stands clear: the months of the year beginning from Tishrei receive names, while the months beginning from Nissan are numbered.

Now we will turn to dates subject to controversy in the Mishna. Regarding the first disagreement, the halakha goes according to R. Eliezer and R. Shimon, and against R. Meir: the fifteenth of Nissan is Rosh Ha-shana for pilgrims. This Rosh Ha-shana is halakhically significant for the purpose of fulfilling vows, which have a time-limit of three pilgrimage festivals, in their order. The order of the pilgrimage festivals as consistently reported throughout the Torah - Pesach, Shavuot, then Sukkot - indeed justifies this beginning date of Nissan.

Dates of holidays are classified by the Torah in two different ways. In parashat Mishpatim and parashat Re'eh, the holidays depend only upon the season of the year - Chag Ha-matzot falls in Chodesh Ha-aviv (spring), "for on this day you left Egypt" (Shemot 23:15), and Chag Ha-Sukkot falls at the end of the summer, "upon the gathering of your labor from the field" (Shemot 23:16). In parashat Emor and parashat Pinchas, the holidays are essentially dependent upon the order of the months and the number of the days. Chag Ha-Matzot begins "Mo'adei Hashem" (God's seasons); signifying the birth of Israel, it is only fitting to be placed in the first month, Nissan, at the height of the month - the fifteenth. Chag Ha-Sukkot is "Chag Hashem," and concludes the yearly festivals. It falls in the seventh month, the sabbatical month of the year, and also at the height of the month - the fifteenth of Tishrei.

We find, therefore, that parshiot Mishpatim and Re'eh explain the content of Sukkot only as a harvest festival, whereas parshiot Emor and Pinchas associate with Sukkot an additional attribute: "I made the Israelite people dwell in sukkot upon their departure from the land of Egypt" (Vayikra 23:43). The parallel to Pesach, which also falls on the fifteenth of the month, and also is centrally concerned with the Exodus, stands clear.

As we said, the order of the pilgrimage festivals is consistent: Pesach, then Shavuot, then Sukkot. This order could be dependent upon either the order of the months or of the seasons. We can, then, differentiate between the different parshiot of the Torah. In parashat Emor it is not stated that Pesach is in the spring month, but the time, with regard to month and day, is set. From this, the order of the festivals in this parasha could be dependent merely upon the order of the months: Pesach is the first festival because it falls in Nissan, the first month. In parshiot Mishpatim and Re'eh, though, the months are not numbered, but rather the Torah specifies only seasons: Chodesh Ha-aviv and Onat Ha-Asif (Season of Harvest). Springtime Pesach precedes Sukkot, which concludes the harvest. From here, we see that the order of festivals in these parshiot are not arranged relative to the year of months, but rather only according to the year of seasons.

As we stated, the seasons as defined by the festivals begin and end halfway through the month - the spring begins on the fifteenth of Nissan, at the beginning of "Chag Ha-matzot," and the harvest season finishes on the fifteenth of Tishrei, immediately after "Chag Ha-asif" (Sukkot), whose very name indicates its temporal significance: "you shall make for yourself Chag Ha-sukkot for seven days, after you have gathered in your grain and wine" (Devarim 16:13).

So we find that the two year-cycles co-exist within the Jewish calendar: the "year of months," which always begins on Rosh Chodesh, and the "festival year," whose beginning depends upon the timing of those festivals. Each of these year-cycles could be determined from spring to spring, or from fall to fall. The "year of months" could begin either on the first of Tishrei or the first of Nissan, and the "festival year" could originate with Pesach, on the fifteenth of Nissan, or with Sukkot, halfway through Tishrei.

I once heard a strong proof for all we have said here from one of my students: the pasuk in parashat Noach enumerates six parallel seasons: planting and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter. Their times are given by Rashi (Bava Metzia 106b): planting - from halfway through Tishrei; winter - halfway through Kislev; cold - halfway through Shvat; harvest - halfway through Nissan; summer - halfway through Sivan; heat - halfway through Av. All of these times are appropriate to the "festival year," which itself, and all its holidays, begin always at midpoints of the months. Rosh Ha-shana for trees now receives a new meaning - on the same day the seasons for planting and winter have already departed, but the season of cold has not yet arrived.

In closing we will recall one other date, which, though not itself one of the Rashei Ha-shana, remains connected to them: in the time of the Temple, on the fifteenth of Av those responsible would finish cutting the wood for use in the sacrificial fire, for the intense heat of the summer ceased to dry the wood appropriately. This date is also dependent on the "festival year," and is parallel to Rosh Ha-shana for trees as reported by Beit Hillel, for it falls exactly six months after the fifteenth of Shvat. This is therefore a second meaning for these dates within the framework of the seasons: the fifteenth of Shvat represents the end of winter, and fifteenth of Av represents the end of summer.