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Beginning at Midpoint

It is a curiosity of Jewish tradition that Rosh Hashanah, the New Year holiday, which begins at sundown on September 29, is not actually the start of the traditional calendar year. That comes in the spring, two weeks before Passover, on the first of the lunar month of Nisan, which the Bible calls the first month. Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the seventh month, the midpoint of the calendar year.

The date is fixed in the Bible, in Leviticus 23. The chapter is devoted to outlining the five annual days of solemn assembly, when work is suspended and special Temple sacrifices (nowadays, synagogue services) are held. One is the Day of Atonement. Three are the pilgrimage festivals — Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot — which are variously explained as agricultural festivals, marking the three harvests in Israel’s Mediterranean climate and three moments in the historical narrative of the Exodus. The fifth, Rosh Hashanah, is presented in the Bible as a “solemn day of rest” and a “memorial.” There is no explanation of what is being memorialized and no meaning offered for the holiday.

Rabbis writing centuries afterward described the day as the new year of the soul, the birthday of the world, the anniversary of creation. They attached it to Yom Kippur, a week and a half later, and thus created a 10-day season of repentance. These are now core Jewish canon, central to the religion and culture we inherit. But they are not written in the Torah. The day is given to us as a puzzle — or, perhaps, as a blank slate for us to fill in.

The text does offer several hints, however. By joining the day to Yom Kippur, in timing and in text, we are seemingly challenged to create our own repentance cycle. By placing a special “day of rest” at the onset of the seventh month, the text seems to create a sort of Sabbath writ large for renewal and regeneration.

The other clue is a strange passage immediately before the edict of Rosh Hashanah. Tucked into the annual cycle, right between Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, is a commandment not to harvest the corners of one’s wheat field but to leave them for the poor. It is, in the manner of the Bible, not a suggestion but a law. Property owners are forbidden to extract the full profit from their enterprise; part of one’s earnings goes in a tax — not a voluntary donation — to feed the poor. The odd placement suggests a message: If Leviticus 23 describes the yearly arc of Jewish existence, here is the beginning of its meaning. If Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Law, here is its essence. If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a time for reflection and repentance of the community’s sins, start with this.

We at the Forward wish our readers a happy and healthy year.


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