New Year’s Day and the Jews

The civil new year begins today, January 1st. According to Christian tradition, New Year’s Day celebrates the circumcision of Yeshu. January 1st is the eighth day, counting from December 25th. Ironically, the practice of circumcision was nullified in the early years of Christianity. Why? In his book “A History of Christianity” Paul Johnson explains that a large number of Romans were very attracted to monotheism and Jewish ethics, but were not willing to stop working on Shabbat, eating pork and other animals and I were terrified of circumcision. For this reason very few Romans converted to Judaism (it is important to clarify that we Jews, although accept converts, were never actively seeking them). Johnson says that the first apostles, who were actively seeking converts among the Romans, saw that if circumcision will not be required, thousands of Romans would convert to the new religion. This is when they formulated a light version of “Judaism”, which later became Christianity.  It was ironically in Yerushalayim, the council of Jerusalem (year 50) that circumcision was definitively annulled. Until then the early Christians were not very different from other dissident Jews, such as the Tsadoquim or the Mityavnim, for example, since Jews from time to time came up with new ideas, influenced by neighboring peoples and cultures. But from the moment circumcision, Berit Mila, God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants was annulled, Christianity was definitively detached from Judaism.
Rabbi Terumat Hadeshen (1390-1460) and Rama (1530-1572), both from Western Europe, referred to the day of the New Year as a religious Christian festival: the eighth day of Christmas (see Darkhe Moshe, Yore Dea 148:12). And while today’s January 1st is mostly a civil celebration, it would have been ridiculous at that time to ask if Jews could participate in the “celebrations” of the new year. First because it had an entirely religious significance, and second because this meaning implied the definitive abolition of Judaism, having consciously abandoned the covenant of circumcision. For that reason, for the Jews who lived in Christian lands, Christmas and New Year were not very happy days, but days where religious intolerance, negative decrees and persecutions against the Jews intensified.
Let’s see a small example from Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585), who instituted the new calendar, called in his name “Gregorian” and the celebration of the new year for all Catholics on the 1st day of January. It is noteworthy that this Pope is considered “favorable” to the Jews, since he protected them in the Rome ghetto, etc. However, on New Year’s Day, 1577, Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, under the threat of death, must listen to the sermons of conversion to Catholicism in the synagogues after the religious services on Saturdays. These speeches were given by apostate Jews who had converted to Christianity. Gregory also prohibited Jews from practicing medicine and healing Christian patients. On New Year’s Day 1578, Gregory forced the Jews to pay a special tax to finance a “House of Conversion”, conceived with the intention of converting them to Christianity. In New Year’s 1581 Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate all Hebrew literature of the Roman Jewish community. Thousands of Jews were killed in this campaign (see this). Not much to celebrate here….
We Jews celebrate our new year on the 1st day of the month of Tishri. Why is that day chosen as the beginning of a new year? Because on that day, the 1st of Tishrí, God created Adam HaRishon, the first man. The creation of the material world (the universe, our planet, animal life, etc.) is celebrated every week on Shabbat. And once a year, the 1st of Tishrí, the Jews celebrate the creation of humanity. For this same reason the Jewish New Year is also known as Yom haDin, the day of judgment. According to our Sages on that day humanity is judged, individually and collectively. And that is why during the day of Rosh haShana the Shofar is blown. The sound of the Shofar is the Jewish way of announcing that God is the King, the Supreme Authority, and as such, the Judge. The Jewish people, in the name of all humanity, declare God as Judge and submit to his judgment. This is an existential judgment. God granted us life and therefore we must giveHim account of what we have done with our lives the year that has passed. For the Jewish people, the day of judgment is a day of self-judgment. On Tishri 1st we judge ourselves before God, and begin a process of Teshuba, repentance and change, committing ourselves to live next year more focused on doing what HaShem wants from us.


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