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September 1, 2015 | 17th Elul 5775

Israeli Culture III

Galilee Diary #247
August 21, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

There are four beginnings of the year: on the first of Nissan is the new year for kings and festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for tithing animals; Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years and sabbatical and jubilee years, for plantings and for [tithing] vegetables. On the first of Shevat is the new year for trees according to Bet Shammai; Bet Hillel say it is on the fifteenth [of Shevat].

Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1

The Mishnah recognized that we live in several different overlapping annual cycles. Some of these are no longer all that noticeable in our lives, but in modern Israel we have some additional beginnings of the year:
On the first of September – the opening of the school year for government schools
On the first of Elul – the opening of the school year for yeshivot
On the 22nd of Tishrei – the beginning of the annual cycle of Torah readings
The week after the 22nd of Tishrei – the opening of the academic year in Israeli universities
On the first of January – the beginning of the “secular” year

Living in overlapping yearly cycles was something we had apparently been doing long before the Mishnah (the Mishnah was compiled around 200 CE, in the Roman period). In Leviticus 23 we are commanded to observe Pesach in the first month – and the holiday we call Rosh Hashana on the first day of the seventh month (verse 24). It seems that in Eretz Yisrael, we referred to the months by number, starting in the spring; in Babylonia, where the surrounding culture observed a fall new-year festival, we borrowed the names of the months and a fall new year, and superimposed these on the order of the months in Eretz Yisrael. I wonder if in ancient times, there was controversy over the meeting of these different traditions. Were there purists who tried to reject borrowing the Babylonian calendar? Throughout all the years of life in Diaspora, one of the ways we kept our identity and our connection to Israel was through the calendar: whether we lived in pagan Babylonia or Moslem Spain or Christian Poland – or in Argentina or Australia where the seasons are reversed altogether - we lived simultaneously according to two calendars, and so, in a sense, we lived in two places: one physically, and one virtually.

I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, but somehow it is, that upon returning to our land and revitalizing our language, we still feel the need to live in at least two calendars. On one level, of course, the necessity is obvious: in the global world, you can’t function if you are not in synch with the calendar of commerce, industry, academia, and internet. On another level, however, sometimes it feels as if we gave up too easily on preserving the centrality of our own calendar. If the Orthodox educational world – and the secular universities – begin their school year according to the Jewish calendar, why do the public schools insist on operating on the Gregorian calendar? In elementary school, the teacher writes both dates on the board every morning, and the kids all know Naomi Shemer’s song of the months. But exam dates are Gregorian, as are movie schedules and business plans and party invitations. Private letters from businesses and individuals often carry only the Gregorian date; from public institutions, they generally bear both dates.

Our ambivalence about calendars seems to me a reflection of our general ambivalence about culture: on the one hand we wanted to come home, to a place where our culture would be dominant if not pure; on the other hand, it seems you can take the Jew out of the Diaspora, but you can’t take the Diaspora out of the Jew.

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