Passover and the new year

Faith and science are always in conflict. Jews gather each year for the Passover meal. It commemorates the exodus of the Jews from Egyptian bondage. There’s actually a little more. It may seem like a trivial pursuit but Passover is technically and biblically considered the new year because it’s the first month of the Jewish calendar. In terms of science, calendars are unique time markers. In terms of faith, they were all different. Using the Bible as a guide, Passover occurs in the first month but the new year occurs in the seventh month. Does that make sense?

At the dawning of civilizations, faith and reason were one. People observed the sun as day and the stars as night. They would be as ancient astronomers witnessing changes of the earth and sky. Time as we know it didn’t exist. The most dependable cycle of the night was the changing of the moon from bright to invisible. As groups developed and as customs developed, the moon (lunar) cycles were labeled and calendars were created. Each calendar was group-specific. In agrarian cultures, believed to have developed 10,000 years ago, the new year was the brighter and warmer time. Many ancient artifacts presume the new year began in what we call Spring, around the equinox.

There is a sort of oddity about the holiday of Passover. Passover marks the beginning of Spring and also the first month of the Jewish year. Yet, 7 months later, the Jewish high holy days also mark the new year. The New Year can be said to begin on the 1st of Nisan (Leviticus 23:5) or on Rosh Hashanah, the 1st of Tishri (Leviticus 23:24). Nisan marks the story and redemption of the Egyptian slaves into new freedom. Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the world’s creation. Both days fall around the equinox.

Calendars were fairly new concepts in ancient biblical times. The concept of months didn’t matter in those early days and nights when people lived on earth. For the most part, they were pantheists, observing day and night skies and their immediate environment. Primitive societies followed broad concepts, counting the year as starting when leaves sprout on a particular tree or describing someone as having lived through a certain number of harvests. This followed many generations and the Bible counts time by generations.

Passover marks the spring equinox and Rosh Hashanah is around the autumn equinox. Nisan is the first month of the Jewish quasi-lunar year. It’s name comes from a root word meaning miracle and honors the first miracle of freedom from bondage and subsequent miracles.

Yet, the dawn of Spring influenced many types of New Year festivals around the world. Each clan or group had different calendars. When people were conquered, they had to follow different calendars. The Gregorian calendar, the common calendar, is solar. Christian Easter is calculated on the basis of a lunar calendar. The Islamic calendar is entirely lunar, and the Jewish calendar (like the ancient Athenian) is a mix of lunar and solar (lunisolar). The calendar of the Romans, until the end of the Republic was lunar, too. The Roman calendar year began in March, with the beginning of each month (the kalends), corresponding with the new moon, and the middle of the month (ides) corresponding with the full. One of Passover’s alternate names is holiday of Spring.

Evidence of calendars were found in Egypt, Sumeria, Mesopotamia, Athens, and Babylonia. Each were slightly different and codified different meanings. It was extremely difficult to use these as definitive time markers on wider scales. Christianity eventually developed a more expansive calendar that is more commonly in use today.

Moon cycles from new to full, as well as seasons, provide approximate time frames. The Bible was originally spoken, carried through generations, and (finally) written down when technology was available. According to these writings, Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the month of Tishrei (the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve), is not the first month. Rosh Hashanah is actually referred to in the Torah as the first day of the seventh month.

Essential customs of Passover are found in the book of Exodus:

And this day shall become a memorial for you, and you shall observe it as a festival for G-d, for your generations, as an eternal decree shall you observe it. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes … you shall guard the unleavened bread, because on this very day I will take you out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree. – Exodus 12:14-17

In the five books of Moses, the beginning of the year was clearly set at 1 Nisan, in the context of a description of the first Passover. This new year celebrated the creation of the Jewish nation through the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt:

“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2).

This commemorates the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. It is also a symbolic way of removing the “puffiness” (arrogance, pride) from our souls. This is a simpler version of Rosh Hashanah as a return to G-d to ask for redemption for our indiscretions.

Among the customs of Passover is the Seder. Over the past thousand years, the Sanhedrin (a main rabbinic council) tweaked the Jewish calendar and the liturgy that is part of the Passover Seder and its specific order.

Considering the ambiguities and confusion as to whether Passover or Rosh Hashanah are the New Year or not, the common association is the start of Spring and the start of Autumn. Unlike many other religions, Jewish followers have two new year holidays to follow.

The miracles of the Exodus through Deuteronomy dominate Passover. Interestingly, on Rosh Hashanah – the new year of the seventh month, the last chapters of Deuteronomy are read. Added to those, is the Haftorah. These are fragments from the Bible that are selected as addendums on Sabbath. The practice seems to stem from around 200 BCE, when the Jews were under Persian rule and forbidden to read from the scroll. The Haftorah for Rosh Hashanah tells the story of Abraham and the one god of no material form. At the time, all gods had forms and idolized. Abraham’s god was as voice or thoughts. So Rosh Hashanah may be G-d’s birthday. Passover is the beginning of the year.

Rabbis have debated the time of the new year perpetually. Like discussing politics and faith, there are no finite conclusions. Based on a living calendar from 4000 years ago, Nisan and Passover are the feasts of the new year. Based on older events, Rosh Hashanah is the time to return to G-d. You can understand the intricacies.

And as the joke goes, “Put two Jews together and one will always question the other.” Perhaps G-d made Passover one new year and Rosh Hashanah as the other new year as a jovial stimulant to keep debates and questions going. Perhaps that is why the Seder begins with 4 questions. Happy Passover and happy new year. All should be well.