The Talmud [Rosh HaShanah 10b] reveals a dispute about Creation. Rabbi Eliezer insists that God created the world in the month of Tishrei. Rabbi Yehoshua contends that the world was created in Nisan. Their argument has practical ramifications. Should Rosh HaShanah, celebrating Creation, be in the spring (Nisan) or fall (Tishrei)?
Rabbi Yehoshua’s position that the New Year should be celebrated in Nisan finds its roots in Sefer Shemot [Exodus 12:1], which calls Nisan the first month of the year. Immediately before the Israelites left Egypt, God commands, “This month is for you the head of the months; it is for you the first month of the year!” It is less clear, however, how Rabbi Eliezer derives his position, as there is no reference in the Torah to a New Year in Tishrei.
Instead, what we now know as Rosh HaShanah is called in the Torah [Leviticus 23:24-25] a day of Zikaron (remembrance) and Truah (the sound of the shofar), to be observed on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei).
The 13th-century commentator Ramban (Nachmanides) explains that, according to Rabbi Eliezer, the Jewish calendar really has two beginnings. The year begins in Tishrei, when the world was created, but the months are counted from Nisan, when the nation of Israel was born. When we call Nisan the first of the months, we mean that Nisan is the first month of our redemption from Egypt. This is the meaning of the words, “This month is for you the head of the months.”
Nisan is not the beginning of the year for the whole world, but it is the first month for you YOU — the people of Israel — because it was then that Israel became a free and independent nation.
Our Rabbis ultimately accepted the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer that the world was created in Tishrei. This idea is mentioned many times in our Rosh HaShanah prayer service. Every time we hear the blasts of the shofar during Musaf we respond: “Ha’yom harat olam” — “on this day the world was created.” It would seem that the Rabbis chose to set Rosh HaShanah in the month of Tishrei to emphasize that it is a day of repentance and judgment for every person. As the Mishnah [Rosh HaShanah 1:2] states: “On Rosh HaShanah all the earth’s inhabitants pass before God like a flock of sheep.” On the anniversary of Creation, every human being gets a moment with God to determine if he or she will merit another year.
What lesson can we learn from the fact that Judaism recognizes two beginnings — Rosh HaShanah in Tishrei, commemorating humanity’s creation, and the month of Nisan, commemorating the birth of the nation of Israel? Rosh HaShanah celebrates every individual, all humanity. But Nisan celebrates the special destiny of the Jewish people. The existence of two beginnings of time in the Jewish calendar teaches us that in Judaism national identity and individual humanity are important values that go hand-in-hand.
The existence of two Roshei Shanah — two New Years — also reflects the complexity of blending a religious life with a life in the wider world. Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik described this challenge with eloquence: “What do we say to the Jew from America? You are a stranger and a resident. You can participate fully in all political, cultural and economic activities. You may feel yourself a resident at the university, in the laboratory, in financial circles, in the press, in Congress — but this is not all. You possess a world that is entirely your own, a world of sanctity and chesed (loving-kindness); of Torah]; of the Shabbat and of education.”
Rosh HaShanah is the season of introspection and resolution for every Jew. It is the season to reflect on the year that has passed and to set priorities for the future. If so, as we make our New Year resolutions, each of us must consider our dual role — as human beings and as Jews. We must seek to harmonize our universal destiny as part of God’s creation with our unique identity as God’s chosen nation.
As we celebrate the anniversary of Creation, we must challenge ourselves to be the best human beings and the best Jews that we can possibly be. n
Rachel Friedman is dean of Lamdeinu, the center for adult Torah learning in Teaneck. Please visit lamdeinu.org.
Candles: 6:20 p.m. (Fri.); 6:17 p.m. (Sun.); 7:15 (Mon.)
Torah: Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftorah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9
Havdalah: 7:19 p.m. (Sat.); 7:14 p.m. (Tue.)