A meditation prompted by what we call the new year
By Herbert Rothschild
Did a new year begin Monday? According to the Gregorian calendar it did. For peoples who still use lunar calendars, or calendars that combine in some ways lunar and solar calendars, that wasn’t the case. The Chinese new year occurs on the new moon of the first lunar month; the date can fall any time between Jan. 21 and Feb. 21. Iranians celebrate new year on the day containing the northward equinox, which usually occurs on March 20 or 21. For many people in South Asia and Southeast Asia, the new year falls between April 13 and 15. There are other variations.
The virtue of the Gregorian calendar is synchronicity. Our planet takes 365.2422 days to complete one revolution around the sun. By intercalating an extra day every four years, the Gregorian calendar gives its users an average year of 365.2425 days. What Pope Gregory XIII was most concerned to synchronize when he decreed its use in 1582 was the timing of the Easter celebration. Catholic countries and their overseas possessions immediately adopted it. Protestant countries did so one by one in later years. In our globalized world, most cross-border activities need to be synchronized, so the use of the Gregorian calendar has spread, although not necessarily the celebration of the new year on Jan. 1.
Only humans “keep track of time.” Other animals and plants have internal clocks synchronized to the daily and seasonal processions. So do we. We have our wake-sleep, or circadian, rhythm, a natural oscillation that repeats roughly every 24 hours. Women have their “periods” attuned to the lunar cycle. And our bodies change over the years in predictable ways. None of these activities require tracking. They just happen. They let us know that we were once immersed in nature like other living beings, and that to some extent we still are. They set limits to our hubris.
Humans may have kept some track of time for religious purposes before they domesticated plants, but once they became farmers it was a necessity. Humans then became watchers of the sky, architects of observatories and inventors of calendars. We were no longer entirely immersed in nature, but natural rhythms still ordered our lives. So, too, did ruling castes, since humans now had something to steal from one another. The rulers lived at one remove from nature and had an additional temporal orientation — the date of their ascension to power. Every year the cosmological order over which they presided as divine deputies was constituted anew, but it might be recorded as the third or fifth or 10th year of their reign.
Regarding when the new year begins, no calendar is more confusing than the Jewish calendar. According to the second century A.D. Mishnah, the first large collection of Jewish oral traditions, there are four different beginnings to the year, each used for a different purpose. Rosh Hashanah and Passover are the ones relevant to this meditation on time.
Rosh Hashanah is commonly referred to as the Jewish new year. It falls in Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. Tishrei marks the end of one agricultural year and the beginning of another. In that regard, ancient Hebrew society was fundamentally indistinct from its neighbors.
Its designation of Nisan, not Tishrei, as the first month of its calendar (Exodus 12:2) is what made Hebrew society distinct from the cultures that surrounded it. Nisan is when Passover is celebrated, and Passover has nothing to do with nature. It commemorates a historical event. Historical events can be celebrated repeatedly, but they can’t be repeated. They happen once, and uniquely. Later events may resemble them, but always with differences.
Hebrews didn’t think of themselves as a people created at the beginning of time. They thought they were formed at the Exodus, when they were separated out from other people. They had existed before, of course. “My father was a wandering Aramean.” (Deuteronomy 26:5). But they became a people when “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders” (Deuteronomy 26-8). Note the change from the singular pronoun “My” to the plural “us.” Their biological descent wasn’t their identity. Their history was.
So, the Jewish year has two beginnings because the ancient Hebrews were farmers and pastoralists, like the nations around them, but they were also a historical people, which was unique. Hebrews invented history, and their primary god was outside of nature, though in the Promised Land they kept reverting to a cyclical sensibility and the gods who controlled the natural cycles. The prophets and the Deuteronomist school of scribes regarded that reversion as a betrayal of the Sinai covenant and ascribed to it the historical disasters that befell their people.
You and I live in historical time. Nothing meaningful in our lives except bookkeeping stops at the end of one year and restarts at the beginning of another. We read the New York Times, not the Farmers’ Almanac. In part, that’s because we inherited the Jewish understanding of time and its modified transmission by Christians, who emphasize the end of history even more than its beginning. Mainly, though, we live in historical time because we are city dwellers. Our bodies may still respond to natural rhythms; our minds respond to the news.
Which poses a serious threat to our equanimity. So, I always plant my spring-flowering bulbs and hold my biological progeny close. But there is that in my character which won’t permit me to awake altogether from the nightmare of history.
Herbert Rothschild’s columns appear on Friday in Ashland.news. Opinions expressed in them represent the author’s views and may or may not reflect those of Ashland.news. Email Rothschild at firstname.lastname@example.org.