New Year

Living by more than one calendar is, for me, one of the signposts of relativity. By “relativity” I mean the opposite of “absolute.” I do believe that there are absolutes, but I also think that it’s very hard for us as human beings to put our hands on them. And I’m pretty sure that believing that we have the absolute truth (about big things anyway) is a recipe for disaster. A little humility, a little second-guessing, is good for us. Living with multiple calendars is a reminder. Sort of like having two watches: You never quite know what time it is for sure. A person with one one watch is secure in the absolute time of day. It may be wrong, but it’s certain.

For most people in the world, I imagine, approaching 2007 means something. For me too: there’s power in numbers. I mean, there’s power in the several billion people who agree that 2006 is ending and 2007 is beginning. (Similarly, turning from 1999 to 2000 was thrilling, though I spent it at home alone watching how it was being celebrated around the world, then went out to stand on the roof of the porch to watch the fireworks — which didn’t happen exactly at midnight by my watch.)

But it’s also 5767, and nothing in particular happens at midnight on the 11th of Tevet — the date doesn’t even change. (Jewish days begin and end at sunset.) Yesterday was the fast of the 10th of Tevet, unnoticed by most Jews including myself (more info here), but significant because in Israel, it is the day of the year when Kaddish is recited for those whose date or place of death is unknown. This reminds me of Israeli Memorial Day, which comes the day before Independence Day, so that you enter Independence Day every year with an awareness of the loss and sacrifice which have made independence possible. Entering New Year’s Eve immediately following a day which reminds us of those who came before us, particularly those whose death was not recorded, gives a similar thoughtful beginning to the new year … reflecting on mortality will do that…

We are in the 10th month of the Chinese Year of the Dog; the new year generally begins on the 2nd new moon after the winter solstice. (Feb. 18, 2007 will be the beginning of the Year of the Pig.) According to Wikipedia, traditional Chinese days are divided into 12 divisions (hours?), beginning at what we would call 11pm; I imagine that means that the new year begins at 11pm, but I don’t know. On Feb. 18 or 17?

In the Muslim calendar, we are in the year 1427 since the flight (or move) of Mohammad (PBUH) from Mecca to Medina, the Hijrah. We are in the 12th month, the month of Hajj (pilgrimage), and indeed we are during the days of the Hajj itself; depending on where you were in the world, yesterday was Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, commemorating the near-sacrifice of Ishma’el by Abraham. Since each new month of the Muslim calendar is still determined by a verified sighting of the new moon, dates may actually differ in different localities. I have been told, however, that with modern communication, a verified sighting in one locale may be accepted elsewhere as well. The new year will begin around the 19th of January, 2007.

The Jewish calendar also used to be based on the sighting of the new moon, but it’s been calculated for at least 1,000 years, and the calculations are “rigged” a little bit so that certain holidays can never fall on certain days of the week. (E.g. Yom Kippur never falls on Friday or Sunday; think about preparing for a traditional Shabbat on Yom Kippur, or preparing for the 25-hour fast on Shabbat.)

The Jewish calendar is a luni-solar calendar, which means that it’s based on the cycles of the moon but “corrected” with leap months (7 times in 19 years, the same as a blue moon) to keep it in line with the seasons. The Muslim calendar, contrariwise, is strictly lunar. Its months, and therefore its holidays, swing slowly around the year over the course of a 28 or 30 year cycle. For instance: if Ramadan occurs in winter, when daylight hours are short, when you are a child, by the time you are an adult it will be falling in the middle of summer, when the dawn-to-sunset fast is much longer.

Oh yeah — in the Jewish calendar the New Year is celebrated on the first day of the 7th month! The first month is in the Spring, and it was clearly the beginning of the year in Biblical days; New Year probably came to be celebrated in the Fall after prolonged contact with Babylonian culture (see here). January 1 was a Roman invention; in various times and places, Christians have used a number of different days to begin counting the years as well.

Actually, there are 4 new years in the Jewish calendar: one for counting the reign of kings, one for tithing cattle, one for counting how old a tree is, and one for counting years. The one for counting years is Rosh HaShanah, the New Year that everybody knows about, which comes in September or October; since it is understood to be the world’s birthday, the world was apparently created in the 7th month. Huh???

In any case, according to the Jewish story of the world, this is the 5,767th year since the creation of the universe — “according to the way we count.”

That tag line is included in the “boilerplate” of a ketubah and other Jewish legal documents. As I’m thinking about it now, I’m realizing that it’s fascinating, because it acknowledges that there are other calendars out there. Contemporary Reconstructionist Judaism explicitly acknowledges that we live in two (or more) cultures, as Jews; but I think it’s fair to say that that awareness has been a part of Judaism over the last 2600 years. We’ve had to acknowledge that there are other ways to count time than our own, and I think that’s been healthy for us. A dose of relativity, as I defined it above; perhaps a little vaccination against fundamentalism.

Note for the procrasitators among us: “Dates on this calendar are closer than they appear!”