Posts Tagged 'new year'

Happy New Year for Trees!

In my last post, I wrote about how I’ve tried to make the secular new year a starting point for developing some healthier habits.  I’m proud to report that a little over 3 weeks in, I’m still going strong!  My husband and I went over our budget, I set aside time and money to dedicate to physical exercise, and I’ve found some great Torah to connect to, some of which I want to share with you today.

Today is the first of the month of Shvat, שבט, and this concept of Rosh Chodesh, or the “head” of the month, a new month, is also in this week’s Torah portion, Bo.  The very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, even before they became Jews!, was to declare new months and to create a unique Jewish time frame.

in the jewish calendar, months are based on the moon's cyclesThe Hebrew word חודש, chodesh, comes from חדש, chadash, which means new.  The Jewish calendar is linked to the cycle of the moon, which waxes and wanes over the course of the month. Like I said in my last post, Judaism strongly encourages teshuva, reconnecting, renewal, and opportunities for new growth.

Last night I attended a shiur about the Torah portion and Rosh Chodesh Shvat, which focused heavily on the commentaries by Rav Tzadok HaCohen, the author of the Pri Tzadik. He says the type of renewal of the moon, a renewal after a disappearance, is actually a new thing – not the same as it is before.  In other words, just because we enter a new month, it doesn’t mean that it has to be the same as last month. We choose whether to carry the same choices and habits with us into this new era.  To clarify the point, he quotes the Gemara in Gittin 43a “A person does not truly understand the words of Torah until he has tripped over them.”  Struggling, learning, and relearning are all part of the game.  If you misunderstand then get it; if you learn something and then forget it – but then you learn it again – ah! Then it really becomes yours.

King Solomon famously wrote in Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, that “There is nothing new under the sun.” Everything loses its value as it becomes old, because a person has become used to it.  The moon, however, is constantly changing and renewing, and that is how we as Jews are to live.

While this wasn’t brought into last night’s shiur, this concept reminds me very strongly of the laws of Niddah, which regulate when a husband and wife can be physically intimate, and ways which they should act when they are separate. One of the thoughts behind it is that a relationship which is allowed to constantly renew itself can grow stronger.  It’s more exciting to be together after a time apart than to experience what inevitably becomes the same old, same old.  Of course this can’t solve all of the complex problems that couples face, but it’s known that today, just as in yesteryear, that if people perceive a relationship to be stale, they may be tempted to chase after something, or someone, more exciting.

Now that we’ve established how wonderful the new month is, let’s get specific about this month.  The first mishna in Mishna Rosh Hashanah explains that there are multiple new years in the Jewish calendar.  And there is a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over when the new year for fruit trees is.

According to Beit Shammai, the first of Shvat is when the new year for fruit trees is. He relies on when the moon is the most hidden, it is the most dark. And there is a line of thinking that we are most ready for renewal when there is the most obscurity, perhaps we feel further from God, we lack clarity and seek it.

Beit Hillel holds that the new year for trees is on the 15th of Shvat, Tu B’Shevat, when the moon is full.  One could also suggest that when things are most clear, when we feel most connected to our personal and national mission, when we feel closest to God, that we are ready to take on the next challenge.

That is an interpretation given over by Rabbi David Sedley about the possible reasonings behind the two opinions. As usual, the sages side with Beit Hillel, so in this case, Tu B’Shevat is held as the new year for trees.

But today is still Rosh Chodesh, a day of renewal, Hallel, and celebration. Tu B’Shevat is the time of year that we expect to see almond blossoms bud, the sap to begin to emerge in trees, and also for the majority of the year’s rainfall to have landed.  Thank God, it’s been a rainy last two weeks, and I’m glad that we have two more before most of it is locked in.

We know of course, that the moon does not actually go through cycles and that this is merely our perception of the shadows and reflection of the sun’s light on the moon, as viewed on earth.  Jewish thinkers too, have known that the waxing and waning of the moon can be easily calculated.  The fact that this phenomenon is a result of our perception only strengthens the concept, however.  Opportunities for renewal, or the lack thereof are a matter of perception.  Things can be the same as they’ve always been, or they can be different. We can be cynical about things remaining the same, or we can make resolutions to change. It’s up to us.

As we say in the special additional Mussaf prayer for Rosh Chodesh, may we be blessed with good things, happiness and joy, salvation, the ability to support ourselves, rich lives, and peace.


Developing Jewish Habits

I recognize that the new Gregorian Calendar year 2012 has zero significance in Judaism, but as a part of the wider Western culture in which I live, I couldn’t help but notice that January 1 is a time that many people try to make changes in their lives to develop healthier habits and achieve their goals.  While January 1 isn’t celebrated with a lot of big bashes in Israel – in fact for many people it goes unnoticed – after all, January 2 is another work day (even though it was a Sunday this year).  I even forgot what was going on when I heard fireworks coming from the Arab neighborhood next door at midnight.

But I’m reading blogs about having a healthier, happier new year, and I want to be a part of that.  I feel myself sliding out of good habits and into some bad habits.  And I realized that a lot about observant Judaism is following the right habits.  Certainly if one keeps Shabbat merely out of habit or ritual then a lot is lost, but the regularity of the week, focused on Shabbat, the regularity of prayer and of daily ritual, are designed to maintain a mode of being and living that follows the Torah.

Shabbat is many wonderful things, and it’s also inconvenient at times.  But for Jews who have been observing Shabbat laws for years or their entire lives, it’s also a habit.  A person learns not to take long trips on Friday afternoon or to schedule the DVR to record the basketball game on Saturday.

Sometimes I’m enjoying a relaxing Friday afternoon or the opposite, a crazed, rushed, get-everything-in-before-Shabbat afternoon, and I joke to my husband that I’d like to reschedule with God because Shabbat is just inconvenient right now and I’d rather do Monday.  Of course it doesn’t work like that.

But before I became observant there weren’t too many absolutes in my life.  I could reschedule pretty much anything if needed be.  When I first started observing Shabbat, I would sometimes get invited to something on a Saturday and I’d say, “I can’t because of Shabbat”.  Uninitiated friends would say “Oh, it’s this week too?”  I’d joke that I had a standing appointment with God.

For a fun video representation of the type of situation, see the video below.

Check any strategy about fulfilling a new year’s resolution, and I think you’ll see two things in common — commitment and consistency.  You can’t lose weight and keep it off with one week or proper diet and exercise.  Spiritual growth requires the same, and so no, Shabbat is not optional.

I’ve fallen out of the habit of praying on a daily basis.  And it is harder to get started again than it was to wake up on a morning that I’m feeling unmotivated and uninspired and to begin a conversation with God.  What would be even harder is if I had never done it in the first place.  Because I already know how to pray, at least in terms of traditional prayer, it’s easier to get started again than if I hadn’t ever.

As with building any sustainable habit, it’s also important to start small. It’s unrealistic to think that I’ll now spend an hour a day in prayer.  I’m disappointed in myself for committing to only 5 minutes a day.  But I know that it’s most definitely better than nothing.

Our sages understood that there would be times when a person would be unable or unwilling to pray, and they instituted laws for such times – condensed prayers or even exemptions.  Today it’s accepted that one should pray daily pretty much no matter what, because of the understanding that if there are too many interruptions to this important habit, that it will be more difficult to pray when our minds are again at ease.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is the established time for Jews to reflect on the past year, repent for misdeeds, and make resolutions to correct their behavior in the upcoming year.  What is less widely understood and advertised is that once a year isn’t really enough. Teshuva, repentance and self-reflection is for all year long, and while it’s easy to mock people who make new years resolutions, knowing full well that the odds of success are statistically against them, I admire those who make an honest effort.  Striving to do better, physically, emotionally, or in any other way, is a Jewish value and what it means to be fully alive as a human being with the capacity for conscious change.

Rosh Hashnah comes 10 days before Yom Kippur, the “Day of Judgment”, when God inscribes our fate for good, in “The Book of Life” or, well, something else.  However, according to Kabbalah, our fate is not “sealed” until Hoshanah Rabbah, the last day of Sukkot.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach taught that we even have until Hanukkah.  Additionally, Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each month, is considered a mini Yom Kippur, and as such some people even have the custom of fasting and adding special prayers on the day before Rosh Chodesh.  And in the daily Amidah prayer, there is a prayer for forgiveness where one has the opportunity to review and ask for forgiveness for transgressions.  While many people wait until the days before Yom Kippur to ask forgiveness from their fellow man they have wronged, the fact of the matter is that we can do this any day of the year.  My yoga teacher says that each breath is an opportunity to cleanse and start anew.

There are a lot of reminders that we can do better, with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the loudest calls for spiritual improvement (shofar blasts), and the secular new year the loudest call for physical improvement (free one-month gym trials).  Given how difficult habits are to establish and keep, I think it’s great we have so many reminders.

The key is not to get discouraged, for each year, month, week, or day, is another chance to try again.


Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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