Columns - 2012

    Crazy Etz

    by Doug Brook
    Southern Jewish Life columnist

    The rabbis in the Talmud knew how to party.

    Why else would Judaism have not one, not two, not three, but four New Year festivals designated in its calendar? And that doesn't even include the Rocking Eve one that the Talmudic rabbis established for their contemporary, Rabbi Richard Clark. Or the Chinese New Year (which we observe for the food).

    Top scholars point out that four New Year celebrations is a surprisingly small number, given the Talmudically mandated two-rabbis-to-three-opinions ratio, plus how many rabbis are in the Talmud.

    Rosh Hashanah is the best-known New Year festival, particularly by Jewish posteriors near the end of the second day's sermon. Of course, the rabbis had to compound matters by giving this first of four New Year festivals four names: Rosh Hashanah (The Head of Shauna), Yom HaDin (The Day of Dean), Yom HaZikaron (I forget this one), and Yom Teruah (The Day of Being True).

    Rosh Hashanah, observed on the first of Tishrei (and celebrated once the service is finally over), commemorates the creation of the world. However, despite festivizing the first day of Existence, this New Year festival was not the first to Exist.

    The Torah tells us that the New Year is on the first of Nisan, fifteen days before Passover. Not only does the first of Nisan mark the New Year for Japanese automobiles, this biblically ordained New Year also used to measure the reigns of kings (the ones who actually ruled longer than a year).

    The rabbis decided to have the bigger New Year service on Rosh Hashanah instead of the first of Nisan when their spouses pointed out that necessitating Rosh Hashanah-size dining two weeks before Passover could induce a new rabbinical practice of sleeping on the couch.

    The least-known New Year is on the first of Elul, one month before Rosh Hashanah. What might seem like a warmup for Rosh Hashanah is really the New Year for Animals. Specifically, animal tithes.

    In Talmudic times, people would dress their animals in suits and tithes to go to Jerusalem and pay their taxes before their second IRS extension expired. (Some Jews still observe this practice today, without going to Jerusalem. And without bringing the animals, though some still dress them up.)

    The fourth New Year is on the fifteenth of Shevat: Tu B'Shevat, the New Year for Trees. This holiday first took root in the Mishnah, as the rabbis decided that the New Year observances should branch out.

    The rabbis were stumped about what date to use. Their seemingly endless debate finally bore fruit, as they scheduled it based on when winter rains are over. Talmudic scholars are tied in knots figuring out where those rabbis lived that they thought the rains end by then, but wherever they were they must have stayed indoors.

    Tu B'Shevat traditions included a special rite with the Cohns, which incorporated their famous salute with open palms. However, after the rabbis got needled by the masses, they saw that this was a holiday to usher in spring and get one's hands dirty. The rabbis accepted that they were barking up the wrong tree.

    The fates of the four New Years are quite varietal. Rosh Hashanah can never come late enough. The Torah mentions the first of Nisan every year.

    The New Year for Animals has gone to seed, and is no longer observed. (It has no relation to the common fall celebration for animals, linked to the Torah reading of Noah, for which people bring their pets to temple dressed as formally as they let their kids dress for services.)

    For a long time, Tu B'Shevat's observance was truncated. But thanks to the popularity of planting trees in Israel, the popularity of Tu B'Shevat still may pull ahead of other holidays. The many Jews who pine for more entertaining Jewish activities would find this okay.

    Regardless, by accounting for the Torah, the regular calendar, animals, and trees, the Talmud leaves no stone unturned.

    Doug Brook is a writer in Silicon Valley who believes that every day is the first day of a new year, which explains his behavior the night before. For more information, past columns, other writings, and more, visit For exclusive online content, become a fan at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.