By Rabbi Richard Baroff
Janus was the two-headed god who stood over the doorways of the Romans and of the ancient natives of Italy even before the Romans. The month of January is named for him.
January has become the first month of the year in the West and in most of the world. When did that happen, and why?
January became the first month under the calendar of Julius Caesar. Janus’ two heads seemed to be looking both forward and back in time, towards the past and to the future. It seemed natural for the Romans that January should be the first month.
But the date the new year started was Jan. 14, not Jan. 1.
Jan. 1 became New Year’s Day only when the Gregorian calendar came to be in the late 16th century. For the English-speaking folks in the United Kingdom and in her colonies, the Gregorian calendar was not adopted until the middle of the 18th century, not long before the American Revolution.
Any calendar would logically have to have a day starting the new year, and that being so, many civilizations have felt compelled to celebrate it. They include the Egyptians and the Babylonians, the Persians and the Chinese, the Greeks and the Romans, the Muslims and of course the Jews. But when the new year should begin is not obvious at all.
Many cultures felt compelled to start the year on the winter or summer solstice. The solstice is that time of the year when the sun is farthest from Earth’s equator. One effect is that on the summer solstice the daylight is longest in the Northern Hemisphere, and on the winter solstice the daylight is shortest.
The winter solstice takes place on or near Dec. 22; the summer solstice is on or close to June 21. During this time the sun appears not to move in the sky. It is not a coincidence that Christmas occurs close to the winter solstice.
Other cultures commence the year during the autumnal or spring equinox.
On the equinox the daylight is exactly half the 24-hour day. March 22 is the vernal equinox, and Sept. 22 is the fall equinox.
The Jewish New Year’s Day, Rosh Hashanah, may have been situated near the autumnal equinox. But because the Jewish calendar is mostly lunar, Rosh Hashanah wanders a certain amount over time before and after Sept. 22.
According to the Mishnah, Judaism has four New Year’s Days: the civil new year on Rosh Hashanah; the festival new year, which falls in the spring right before Passover and close to the vernal equinox; the new year for the tithing of cattle, which takes place in the late summer; and the birthday of the trees, Tu B’Shevat, which falls either in January or February (it starts Friday night, Feb. 10, in the coming year).
Based on the Hebrew calendar adopted during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century B.C.E., the Jewish New Year’s Days fall as follows:
- Rosh Hashanah takes place in Tishri, which is both the first month (in the civil calendar) and the seventh month (in the religious calendar).
- Nisan is the spring month during which the civil calendar commences.
- The new year for cattle tithing takes place during Elul, the month right before Tishri.
- Tu B’Shevat takes place on the 15th day of the month of Shevat and is also called Chamisha asar bishvat.
None of those Jewish New Year’s Days is a cause for revelry. Rosh Hashanah, being the day of judgment, is a somber day. But the secular new year is party time (not for me, but for many). Leave it to the Romans — any chance for a party.
The Chinese, of course, would go on to have parades replete with dragon kites and fireworks.
The early Americans would be particularly raucous on New Year’s Day, with lots of drinking and even shooting (into the air, Baruch HaShem).
On Rosh Hashanah, Jews say, “L’shana tova” — for a good year.
But on New Year’s Eve we say in Yiddish, “A glikhlikn nay yor” — literally, happy new year.
So for 2017: A glikhlikn nay yor!
Rabbi Richard Baroff is the head of Guardians of the Torah.