Why do we begin a new year when we do? It seems that it would be logical to start the new year in the spring when life begins to renew itself, when “a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of baseball.” Few, if any, cultures count their new year from the first day of spring. The Western world and the Chinese begin their new years after the beginning of winter, between December and February. Perhaps the logic of this is that the dead of winter is when we most need hope, and that is what a new year symbolizes.
The most important of the four new years days of the Jewish calendar, Rosh HaShanah, falls not in the spring or early winter, but around the beginning of autumn. Why does the “head of the year,” the literal translation of Rosh HaShanah, come then? For an agricultural society, perhaps it is logical to end the year at the end of the harvest. (That assumes that God needs logic for anything he does.) There is another reason, however. Traditionally, this holiday commemorates the beginning of the creation. If you know what day God started creating the world, then it makes sense to start a new year on that day. It’s a sort of birthday celebration for creation.
If Rosh HaShanah celebrates creation, then some other things begin to make sense. Ten days later comes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is when God closed the books on the sins of the past year, and supposedly sealed people’s fate for the following year. Sounds like a good New Year practice. Leading up to this final sealing of one’s fate are days when one has the opportunity to seek forgiveness from other people for sins they have committed against them. These are days of reflection, repentance, and resolve. In other words, days of re-creation, of renewing the creation, at least the creation which is mankind.
An interesting tradition has developed in some parts to go along with this latter idea. On Rosh HaShanah many people will go out to a riverside and throw bread crumbs or pebbles into the stream. The idea of this practice, called taslich, is that one is symbolically casting away the sins of the past year. Have you lied? Throw it in the river. Did you think evil of another? Cast it away. Some use rocks, figuring their sins are hard. Others use bread crumbs, allowing the fish (the silvery minnow in Albuquerque?) to eat their sins. The idea is not that of Ecclesiastes 11:1, “Cast your bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.” Instead it is with the hope and knowledge that those sins will not come back.
Many people who have had their sins forgiven by God refuse to let go of those sins themselves. God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.” (Jer 31:34) These people have a better, or worse, memory than God. Perhaps it is just such people, and we all are among them at times, that taslich would benefit the most. God has forgiven the sins; now we have to cast them away from us as well. As we approach the birthday of creation, we also need to say, with the psalmist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.” (Ps 51:10)
Rosh HaShanah 5764 is September 27, 2003