A drasha for the civil New Year by Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur
Shana Tova… The beginning of this new calendar year is a time to offer good wishes and to make good resolutions, just as we do whenever a new year begins. We hope this new year will bring with it winds of change and of hope that we need so much after the terrible year we have just been through.
Nearly three months have passed since Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Jewish new year. The Jewish new year and the new calendar year both celebrate renewal but in quite opposite ways. At Rosh Hashana, we tend to look back, but on January 1st we look forward. Rosh Hashana is called Yom Hazikaron, a day of remembrance and introspection focused on the year that just ended. By contrast, at the start of a new calendar it is common to behave as if we could simply move on, forget everything and start afresh with a clean slate and pious vows.
Here and there I hear my Jewish friends ask: Can we really celebrate the beginning of the new calendar year? Can Jews wish each other “Happy New Year” on 1st January or organise a New Year’s celebration? Some orthodox rabbis answer “no” to this question in the name of maase hagoyim: these celebrations belong to a tradition of foreign nations and the Jewish people must be fundamentally distinguished or separated from the practices of others.
But to respond to this question, it is worthwhile to delve into the historical origins of the celebration of January 1st and the way it became the beginning of the calendar year, particularly in France, because in reality practice was not always as it is today!
In several French provinces, the start of the year was celebrated at the end March or early April, corresponding to the beginning of spring (which is quite similar to the biblical calendar year that begins with the month of Nissan)….or so it was until 1564 when Charles IX decided by the edict of Roussillon that the year would begin everywhere on January 1st. (According to several historians, this explains the origin of April fool’s day: as not everyone was aware that the new year’s date had changed it became customary on April 1st to make fun of the ignorant by offering them gifts and making jokes at their expense.)
In short, to unify practices across the country, the date of 1st January was fixed as the single reference date for celebrating the new year. An interesting choice of date that throws us back to Roman rituals or more precisely to Janus, the god of gates and passages who was celebrated a few days after the winter solstice.
It is this same date that was later chosen by the Christian world for the birth date of Jesus. It seemed logical to relate this birth to the moment when the light returns to the world, a moment of clarity, leaving obscurity behind.
Jesus was Jewish so 1st January was his eighth day, the day of his brit mila, which explains why January 1st was identified in the Christian calendars until 1970 as Saint Prepuce (the feast of the circumcision of Christ).
Why tell you all this? Because there is something fascinating and instructive in exploring the historical origins of 1st January. Because that date carries within it the history of France, of Roman rituals, of Christian theology and even the temporality of Jewish ritual through circumcision. January 1st is thus a hybrid date, a composite, a rich mixture of civilisations transformed by their interaction with others.
So here we have a slice of history well worth meditating on. Our cultures and histories are interconnected, they have nourrished each other, they have been translated into one another. Our various legacies have been enriched even if they are notdetached from the history of others. Yet each tradition tends to likes to tell its own story as if independent of others, as if we could say we are pure and free from any outside influence … of maase hagoyim, the practices of other nations.
It is useful to reflect on this as we end a year of murderous fundamentalism and xenophobic temptations. January 1st must remind us that we exist with and among others. All things are not the same – the readings, interpretations and inheritances of some are not the same as those of others. But it is always worthwhile to know how others have helped to shape and enrich them; it is even essential to their renewal and their vitality.
May your year be full of renewal and of life!