Why Does the Year Begin in the Seventh Month?

  • Rav Amichai Gordin

Translated by Alexander Tsykin

 

The mishna at the beginning of Rosh Ha-shana (1:1) rules that we are to count four separate calendars:

            There are four beginnings of the year:

            the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals;

            the first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of animals;

the first of Tishrei is the new year for the counting of years, for shemitta (the seventh year), for yovel (the fiftieth year), for planting trees (to count the three years of oral, when its fruits may not be consumed), and for vegetables (those which grow in different years may not be tithed together);

the first of Shevat is the new year for the trees (to know from which year to tithe them).

Thus, for every day of the year, there are four dates. For example, 7 Elul is within the sixth month for the counting of kings, but also in the first month for counting for the tithing of animals. In addition, it is in the last month for the counting of shemitta and yovel, and it is also in the eighth month for counting the ages of trees.

Upon deeper examination, we find that there are two main calendars: the calendar that starts in Nisan and the calendar that starts in Tishrei. The other two calendars relate only to narrow areas. The calendars of Tishrei and Nisan, on the other hand, are significant on many levels.

Here we encounter a discrepancy between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. In the Mishna, “Rosh Ha-shana” usually means the first of Tishrei. See, for example, the famous debate between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua with regard to the dating of key events in both Jewish and world history:

 

It was taught: Rabbi Eliezer says:

Rabbi Yehoshua says:

The world was created in Tishrei,

The world was created in Nisan,

Our forefathers (Avraham and Ya'akov) were born in Tishrei,

Our forefathers were born in Nisan,

Our forefathers died in Tishrei,

Our forefathers died in Nisan,

Yitzchak was born over Pesach,

Yitzchak was born over Pesach,

On Rosh Ha-shana Sarah, Rachel and Chana became pregnant,

On Rosh Ha-shana Sarah, Rachel and Chana became pregnant,

On Rosh Ha-shana Yosef left prison,

On Rosh Ha-shana Yosef left prison,

On Rosh Ha-shana our forefathers in Egypt no longer had to work for the Egyptians,

On Rosh Ha-shana our forefathers in Egypt no longer had to work for the Egyptians,

During Nisan they were redeemed,

During Nisan they were redeemed,

During Tishrei they are destined to be redeemed.

During Nisan they are destined to be redeemed.

 

Even though Tishrei and Nisan are compared in a range of areas, the expression “Rosh Ha-shana” means the first of Tishrei according to both opinions.

In spite of this, when we look at the Torah we discover that Nisan is the point of beginning. This finds expression in the first commandment Moshe received in Egypt:

And God said to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt: "This month shall be for you the first month, it shall be the first of the months of the year."

For the entire length of the Torah, months are numbered from Nisan. The second month is Iyar, the first is Nisan, and the seventh is Tishrei. In that case, what caused such a wide gap between the Written and Oral Torah?

A careful reading of the language of the Torah and of the Mishna will show us that there is no contradiction between the sources. The Torah did not rule that Nisan is the beginning of the year. Rather, Nisan is the first of the months (rosh ha-chodashim) and Tishrei is the beginning of the year (rosh ha-shana). We count years from Tishrei, and we count months from Nisan.

This strange situation came about because the Jewish calendar utilizes both the lunar and the solar calendars. The beginning of the lunar calendar is in Nisan and the beginning of the solar calendar is in Tishrei.

This gap between the lunar and the solar calendars is connected to two other calendars. The solar calendar is the international calendar, whereas the lunar calendar is the internal Jewish calendar. The Mishna establishes that we count for kings from Nisan. The Gemara limits this teaching twice:

Rav Chisda said: "This was only said about Jewish kings, but for kings of the nations of the world we count from Tishrei."

…Rabbi Abahu said: "Koresh [king of Persia] was a righteous king [for he permitted the Jews to build the Second Temple]; therefore they counted for him [from Nisan] as they do for Jewish kings."

We learn from this discussion that Nisan is the beginning of the year for the internal calendar of the Jewish people. It is relevant to Jewish kings, and sometimes to non-Jewish kings who were especially significant within Jewish history.

Based on what we have said, we can see that on the one hand, Rosh Ha-shana is a day of judgment, for on that day the year begins and therefore "all the denizens of the world pass before you like sheep." On the other hand, Tishrei is also the seventh month for the Jewish people. Just as the seventh day is holy only for the people of Israel – the Shabbat is "between Myself and the people of Israel it is an eternal covenant" (Shemot 31:17) – so too the seventh month is holy for the nation of Israel. For us, the first of Tishrei is not merely a day of judgment; it is also the day of God’s revelation through the holiness of the seventh.

For the rest of the world, Rosh Ha-shana is only a day of judgment. But for the nation of Israel Rosh Ha-shana has two goals: judgment and coronation. As the solar new year, which is relevant to the entire world, it is a day of judgment; as the seventh month, which is unique to the nation of Israel, it is a day of coronation.