Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Seventh Month

A New Year

"Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishrei . . .
Rabbi Joshua says: The world was created in Nissan."
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a

The Jewish New Year is, as has been the case in modern times, is on the first of Tishrei, which corresponds this year on the civil (Gregorian) calendar to September 24th after sundown—all Jewish holidays begin after the sun sets. Yet, the new year for the Jewish people worldwide begins on the seventh month, and not on the first. There have been all kinds of interesting rabbinical explanations for this apparent inconsistency or contradiction, what we do know, however, is that at about the time the Jewish sages were compiling the Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah become the Jewish new year. "The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year [rosh hashanah] for years, sabbatical cycles, and the jubilee," it says in Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1. In this essay, Prof. George Jochnowitz provides some interesting and noteworthy historical insights on the holiday that today even the most secular or non-observant Jews worldwide celebrate with much anticipation, gladness and joy. L'Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.

by George Jochnowitz

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you are to have a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work; it is a day of blowing the shofar for you” (Numbers 29:1). Those are the words in the Torah that tell us to observe Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. Something is missing from that verse, since there is nothing about a new year. Besides, does a year start on the first day of the seventh month? Apparently it does.

Passover begins in the month of Nissan, but according to the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim) it begins in the month of Aviv. Aviv is Hebrew for “spring,” and it occurs in the name of the city Tel Aviv (hill of spring). Nissan is the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar nowadays, if we count the months beginning with Rosh HaShanah. But if Rosh HaShanah takes place in the seventh month, then Aviv—now called Nissan—is the first month.

The Bet Alfa synagogue in Israel was built in the sixth century of the Common Era. One of its mosaics has a circular panel with the signs of the Zodiac. There are zodiac representations in synagogues all over the world, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum, in New York City. I once went to a synagogue in Tel Aviv and saw the Zodiac symbols there. I asked a congregant, who told me they represented the twelve tribes. Since there are twelve months and twelve tribes, turning the symbols from Zodiac signs into representations of the tribes is a way to reconcile the symbols with Jewish tradition.

The Zodiac was part of the Babylonian calendar, and so Jewish traditions involving these symbols may have been borrowed during the Babylonian exile. However, the Babylonian year began with the month of Nissan.

The language spoken on the island of Sardinia is usually considered a separate language and not a dialect of Italian. The name of the month of September in Sardinian is caputannicaput means “head” and anni means “of the year.” Thus, caputanni is a perfect, direct translation of Rosh HaShanah, “head of the year.” There is a possibility that the name reflects a pre-Roman calendar that began the year with September. It is also possible, and probably more likely, that the name goes back to the year 19 C.E., when the Jews were expelled from Rome, and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to force labor on Sardinia.

Twelve years later, the order was rescinded, and so Jews had the choice of going back to Rome or remaining where they were. A Jewish population remained in Sardinian until 1492, when the island belonged to Spain and Jews were expelled. There is a second word in Sardinian that appears to be of Jewish origin, cenabura, pronounced [kenabura], meaning “Friday,” and coming from cena (feast) and pura (pure), suggesting the Sabbath meal. These words remained in Sardinian after the expulsion of the Jews.

And then there’s September, from Latin septem meaning “seven,” with what is probably an adjectival suffix –ber. September, October, November and December mean 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th. Yet they are the 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th months of the year. In the days before the Roman Republic existed, however, there were 51 winter days that were not part of any month. Around the year 713 B.C.E., King Numa Pompilius introduced two months into the winter season, Januarius and Februarius, and designated them as the first two months of the year. Julius Caesar renamed the fifth month, Quintilis, after himself, calling it Julius (July in English). Augustus Caesar named the sixth month, Sextilis, after himself, calling it Augustus (August in English).

And so the Jewish calendar begins with a month originally called the seventh, which occurs in September, a name meaning “seventh.”

Shana tova!

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937. He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects. As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at george@jochnowitz.net.

Copyright ©2014. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved. It is republished here with the author's permission.