Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 92

December 31, 2021 (27 Tevet 5782)

Happy New Year!

Dear Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you well and in good health. We hope you will be able to join us for our hybrid services, this Shabbat morning at 10:30am, which will be held in our sanctuary and over our regular Zoom prayer link. It should be late enough in the morning that even those of you, who will be reveling into the early hours of the morning, should be able to get a good night’s sleep!

At this time of year, I am often asked by Jewish folks if it is appropriate to celebrate the beginning of the secular new year. So, before I am inundated with calls before Shabbat, allow me to share a couple of thoughts before the dropping of the ball in Times Square!

First, the earliest recorded festivities, in honor of a new year’s arrival, date back some 4,000 years to ancient Babylon. For the Babylonians, the first new moon following the vernal equinox, the day in late March with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness, heralded the start of a new year. The Babylonians marked the occasion with a massive religious festival called Akitu. The name derived from the Sumerian word for barley, which was harvested in the spring. The holiday involved a different ritual on each of its eleven days. In addition to the new year, Atiku celebrated the mythical victory of the Babylonian sky god, Marduk, over the evil sea goddess, Tiamat, and served an important political purpose: It was during this time that a new king was crowned or that the current ruler’s divine mandate was symbolically renewed. Interestingly, like all our biblical holidays, this celebration had both a religious and agricultural component.

Second, some suggest, believe it or not, that the celebration on the night of December 31st is related to the circumcision of Jesus, who was born, according to tradition on December 25th. The night before a Bris is called Vacht Nacht, the “night of watching” in Yiddish, and it relates to an ancient custom in which someone in the home of a newborn remains awake the entire night, or at least until midnight, studying Jewish texts, including a specific excerpt from the Zohar, the classic work of Kabbalah, compiled by the 2nd-century great sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. Families would host a feast in their home on this night, where those who would take an active part in the ritual ceremony joined together to rejoice. There are historical records which indicate that this evening turned into a night of song, dance, music, revelry, and food, sort of like a New Year’s Eve celebration. No?

While this is a fascinating hypothesis, the suggestion is likely historically inaccurate as it is practically impossible to pinpoint Jesus’ actual birthdate, especially since the date of his birth is not stated in the gospels or in any historical reference.

Returning to the original question, however, there are definitely Jewish themes that resonate with the idea of celebrating New Year’s Day.

The tradition of making a New Year's resolution, or vow, in which a person resolves to continue good practices, change an undesired trait or behavior, accomplish a personal goal, or otherwise improve their life, certainly resonates within two specific aspects of Rabbinic thought.

First, a neder (נדר), a vow, is discussed in the Torah at length and is considered a very weighty matter. In Bemidbar 30:3 we read, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.” To clarify the Torah’s ideas, there is an entire Messechet (tractate) of the Talmud, called Nedarim, which discusses various types of vows and their legal consequences. In this thirteen-chapter section of the oral tradition, the Rabbis discuss the intention and interpretation of vows, as well as laws related to the annulment or release of these vows.

Second, Jewish tradition believes in the concept of teshuva (תשובה) or our ability to change/repent. This concept is part of the petition we make to God in the Amidah prayer, which is recited three times a day. The teachings of Rambam, the famous 12th century Jewish philosopher and legalist, say that one should repent, or change for the better, the day before one’s demise. Of course, not knowing when that will be, the true meaning of the text is that we can, and should, change for the better each day of our lives.

As we enter into 2022, I pray we will have the opportunity to celebrate in good health and safety and that we will use the occasion of the New Year to reflect on all of our commitments, so we are sure to honor them and can continue to be a blessing to our community and peoplehood.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD.
201 562 5277

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