January 1 as the new Year

I’m sure many of you who interact with gentiles, commonly face a situation where wishes for a “Safe, healthy etc new year” are conveyed. There are poskim who still forbid writing a non-Jewish date on correspondence. General practice is to be lenient, especially outside Israel.

Tosfos in Avoda Zara 11a describe two different styles of custom forbidden by the prohibition of imitating non-Jewish customs as described in Vayikra 18:3 vis-a-vis the Gemora in Sanhedrin 52b. The Ramo, who we follow, in Yoreh Deah 178:1 is lenient and writes that as long as a custom has no pagan origins, and makes some common sense, it is permitted. On the other hand, the Vilna Gaon ad loc takes the opposite view: unless a custom has a specific Jewish origin, it is always forbidden. In general we don’t follow the stringent view of the Gaon.

According to wikipedia:

The Romans dedicated New Year’s Day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings for whom the first month of the year (January) is also named. After Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 BC and was subsequently murdered, the Roman Senate voted to deify him on the 1st January 42 BC[2] in honor of his life and his institution of the new rationalized calendar.[3] The month originally owes its name to the deity Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking backward. This suggests that New Year’s celebrations are founded on pagan traditions. Some have suggested this occurred in 153 BC, when it was stipulated that the two annual consuls (after whose names the years were identified) entered into office on that day, though no consensus exists on the matter.[4] Dates in March, coinciding with the spring equinox, or commemorating the Annunciation of Jesus, along with a variety of Christian feast dates were used throughout the Middle Ages, though calendars often continued to display the months in columns running from January to December.[citation needed]

Among the 7th century pagans of Flanders and the Netherlands, it was the custom to exchange gifts at the New Year. This was a pagan custom deplored by Saint Eligius (died 659 or 660), who warned the Flemings and Dutchmen, “(Do not) make vetulas, [little figures of the Old Woman], little deer or iotticos or set tables [for the house-elf, compare Puck] at night or exchange New Year gifts or supply superfluous drinks [another Yule custom].” The quote is from the vita of Eligius written by his companion, Ouen.

Most countries in Western Europe officially adopted January 1 as New Year’s Day somewhat before they adopted the Gregorian calendar. In England, the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25, was the first day of the new year until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1752. The March 25 date was known as Annunciation Style; the January 1 date was known as Circumcision Style,[5] because this was the date of the Feast of the Circumcision, considered to be the eighth day of Christ’s life, counting from December 25 when his birth is celebrated. This day was christened as the beginning of the New Year by Pope Gregory as he designed the Liturgical Calendar.[6]

Accepting this historical record would imply that the notion of celebrating January 1 as a “New Year” is forbidden even according to the lenient view of the Ramo. Indeed, the idea of Yidden getting together for a New Year’s eve party, may be forbidden according to Torah law, as above. Without trying to sound too judgemental, if a Yid wishes me a “Happy New Year” or something similar, I respond that our new year is not at this time. How though does one respond to a gentile?

It seems to me, and I repeat, that my view is not LeHalacha and not LeMaaseh and just pitputim, and each person really needs to ask their own Local Orthodox Rabbi: that there would be nothing wrong with issuing a pareve style response along the lines of

“I hope that the ensuing new calendar year is a successful one for you, yadadayada”

This is not just a throw away line. I think we do want our non-Jewish associates and friends to be healthy, wealthy and wise. Mipnei Darchei Shalom and Mishum Eyvo (that is, just to be a diplomatic mentch in a non-Jewish society) I think it is appropriate to make such statements, but to leave it at that.

Chas V’Shalom to ascribe any special meaning to the day, however, even if it has now become secular. The roots are pagan, and therefore forbidden in practice. Some believe it corresponds to the Yom HaMila of אותו איש, which of course it wasn’t, but even if they think that, it’s enough.

Author: pitputim

I'm a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia. I skylark as the band leader/singer for the Schnapps band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel.

13 thoughts on “January 1 as the new Year”

  1. You have a nice point in this article, however, using your logic, you cant use the days of the weeks names, ie Sunday, Monday Tuesday etc. They also originate from pagan sources.

    Just to mention, i asked a few Rabbanim and Roshie Yeshiva today about this specific question, and i was told that the Rebbe of Blessed memory, once wished a Yid by the name of Sydney Hecht, a “Happy New Year” and followed to quote the Posuk ” Hashem Yispor Bechsov Amim”

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      1. My point is that Lav Davka there is any issue with wishing people a Happy New Year.
        It’s like saying happy Sunday etc.
        And especially in light of this story of the Rebbe and the Posuk he quoted.

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  2. Interesting, though the names of the Jewish months are pagan in origin as well.
    In fact, doesn’t it seem unlikely that God made a new calendar for the Jews at Sinai? Wouldn’t they have just continued to use the same old pagan calendar as before, but invested with new monotheistic meaning?
    I have no idea, and these are just pitputim on top of pitputim…
    (Not denying calendar changes at Sinai re:unique lunar solar calendar, but do you think it was from scratch?)

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    1. R’ Sprung: There are so many days in a Solar year and so many days in a Lunar month. Anyone designing a calendar that combines these two periods will necessarily have twelve months in a regular year and thirteen in a leap year; they will have some months that are 29 days, some 30 days, and some variable; and they will have a cycle in which the patterns of long, short, and intercalated (leap year) months repeat themselves. I understand that a number of Eastern cultures have a calendar that greatly resembles ours, and I presume they came up with it independently.

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    1. Thanks for that. I have the first two volumes. I think. He was in Kollel at KBY and sat not too far away from me. Looked very different to what he does now, and lets not get into the alleged subsequent scandals 😲

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  3. Yitzchak

    an interesting article here

    http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=33967&st=&pgnum=27&hilite

    דרשה לראש השנה לרמב”ן

    ואלו השמות שאנו קורין אותן ניסן אייר סיון, שמות פרסיים הם ולא תמצא אותם לא בתורה ולא בנביאים אלא בכתבי הקדש הנעשים בבבל, ולא בימי מלכות בבל עצמה שאינם בספר דניאל, אלא לאחר שכבשו הפרסיים המלכות הוזכרו כן בספר עזרא ובדברי זכריה נביא בבל, ובמגלת אסתר מזכיר אותם בחודש הראשון הוא חודש ניסן כלומר בחודש הראשון לישראל שהוא נקרא ניסן למלכות פרס, וכן בחודש השלישי הוא חודש סיון, והענין הזה הזכירוהו רבותינו ז”ל אמרו בבראשית רבה (פמ”ח ט) וכן בירושלמי (ר”ה פ”א ה”ב) שמות החדשים עלו עמהם מבבל כלומר שמתחילה לא היו להם שמות בישראל עד שיצאנו מבבל והעלינו השמות משם,

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  4. With all this in mind it is not a stretch to suggest that these icons could have been forced on the Jewish population, as was the case in our Gemmara. It can also be said with the closure of the great Yeshivas, coupled with the general decline of Talmudic scholarship could have easily led to lack of clarity in Jewish law. We see in Halachic literature that many of the customs of the Jews of the land of Israel were abandoned with the arrival of the Sephardic expellees after the Spanish inquisition. Ultimately the Jews of Eretz Yisrael merged with the Sephardic community.As one can see, there is a basis for the builders of these synagogues within the realm of Jewish law. However the question of why they did it will remain a question until we have more evidence.

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