(July 7, 2015 / JNS) Tishrei is among the most well-known months on the Hebrew calendar because it contains the High Holidays and marks the beginning of the year. Or so it seems.
Indeed, to modern-day Jews, Rosh Hashanah is considered the Jewish New Year. But traditionally, the Hebrew calendar actually has four “New Year” days: the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah); the first of Nisan; the 15th of Shevat (Tu B’Shevat, or the New Year of trees); and the first of Elul, the New Year of animal tithes (taxation).
The Torah specifically names Nisan as the first month of the Jewish calendar. So where did Tishrei come from, and how did it gain New Year status?
Rabbi Donny Schwartz, midwest regional director for the Orthodox youth organization NCSY, explains that Tishrei relates to the sun, which is connected to the solar year. In Hebrew, the word year is translated as “shana,” which is related to the Hebrew words “sheni” (second/repeatable) and “yashan” (old).
“Tishrei represents a system that never changes,” says Schwartz. “You wake up on the morning and it is just another day. You know you drive on the right side of the street, put clothes on your body. You know who you are. It’s a ‘blah’ feeling sometimes, but there is a benefit to that.”
On the other hand, Nisan relates to the moon, which is changing daily, if not more frequently. Nisan is therefore the “head of the months,” and is “all about renewal” and change, Schwartz says.
Tishrei and Nisan also are tied to the seasons in which they fall. Schwartz believes that at different times of year, there are different energies in the world. Tishrei falls in the autumn, a time of great material beauty, namely the changing of the colors of the leaves. Nisan, on the other hand, falls in the spring, a time when beauty is only budding—renewing or resurfacing fresh off the winter.
Rabbi Jessica Minnen, resident rabbi of New York’s OneTable initiative, which brings together Jews in their 20s and 30s for Shabbat dinners, takes this idea a step further. She says Nisan is the planting season, and Tishrei the harvesting season. Minnen tells JNS.org that a recent course she was teaching examined the differences between the two creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2, which many modern scholars believe are competing stories.
“In Genesis 1, God is breathing into Adam, into the Earth, the ground, the shape that is formed into a human being. In Genesis 2, God physically shapes Adam out of the ground,” Minnen says. “This is the planting and the harvesting, this is Nisan and Tishrei. We need both creation narratives, and we need Nisan and Tishrei to form a complete sense of who we are and who we can be.”
“God created the world in Tishrei. But when did God start thinking about creating the world? That was Nisan,” notes Rabbi Mendy Wineberg, program director of the Chabad House Center of Kansas City.
Wineberg says that while the first man was fashioned by God in Tishrei, the Jewish people became a nation in Nisan, when God took them out of Egypt and ultimately gave them the Torah and its mitzvoth.
“God became king of the people on Rosh Hashanah. God became our personal king in Nisan,” says Wineberg.
Minnen says the main message of all the Jewish New Years—Tishrei, Nisan, Shevat, Elul—is one of continuity.
“You have these four opportunities to start over, to redefine who you are now and where you want to go,” she says. “Every day can be your New Year.”