Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year…. A Bit Early

Today is the first day of 2009. It is time to change the right hand digit on any check you may write. But is it the New Year?

New Years Day is also a Christian religious holiday, commemorating the circumcision of Jesus. The actual date of the birth of Jesus is not established with certainty. Since he was born to an observant family, the one chronological fact of his birth is that his circumcision occurred eight days later. Indeed, even some Christians such as Puritans, in a desire to retain the early character of Christianity as they interpreted it have questioned the inclusion of Christmas on the Christian calendar.

Jews mark the first day of the seventh month as the beginning of a new year, marking the creation of the world. According to the Jewish calendar, we are therefore in the year 5769.

Samaritans calculate the beginning of the year from the first day of the first month, in which occurs Passover. Their months, however did not acquire Babylonian names, as did the of the Jewish months. The Samaritan calendar is dated from the year of the Exodus, which they calculate as 3646. They have a calendar with a leap month that is similar to the Jewish calendar. Jews and Samaritans find this month necessary to keep holidays from sliding around the seasons. Without a leap year, a calendar that is lunar based will lose around eleven day a years against a solar calendar. This would eventually result anomalies like Passover coming out in July, and Hannukah coming out in May. The leap months maintain the seasonal placement of Jewish holidays. Muslims do not have a leap month. As a result, their holidays slide around the Gregorian calendar with no correction.

The Assyrian year is also reckoned from the first day of the first month. They come up with April 1. They are in the year 6758.

The calendric notation for January 1 is 1/1/08. But is it really the first day of the first month? An examination of some of the names for the months tells a different story. September, October, November and December are the seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth months. July and August used to be named Quintilus and Sextillus before their names were changed to honor Roman emperors. This would make January and February the eleventh and twelfth months respectively.

This etymological examination of the months clearly points to March 1 as the first day of the first month. If you are writing a check, 1/1/09 should therefore refer to the first day of March . I do not recommend using this as an excuse to bounce a mortgage check.

It is additionally interesting to note that the Jewish New Year on the first day of the month of Tishrei is also the seventh month. It always overlaps or is adjacent to September, which is also the seventh month on the Gregorian calendar. Since the Jewish calendar commemorates the creation of the world, it is arguably a holiday of universal importance. Judaism also has a New Year for trees on the 15th of Shvat, which usually falls out in February. This year it starts on the of February 8, and continues until sunset the following day.

Calendars have great political and religious importance. During the French Revolution, one of the revolutionary changes was the French_Republican_Calendar, which abolished the seven day week and the twenty four hour day, replacing them with decimal time. Wikipedia describes it briefly as follows.

“The first day of each year was that of the autumnal equinox. There were twelve months, each divided into three ten-day weeks called décades. The tenth day, décadi, replaced Sunday as the day of rest and festivity. The five or six extra days needed to approximate the solar or tropical year were placed after the months at the end of each year. Each day was divided into ten hours, each hour into 100 decimal minutes and each decimal minute had 100 decimal seconds. Thus an hour was more than twice as long as a conventional hour; a minute was slightly longer than a conventional minute; and a second was slightly shorter than a conventional second. Clocks were manufactured to display this decimal time, but it did not catch on and mandatory use was officially suspended 7 April 1795, although some cities continued to use decimal time as late as 1801.

A period of four years ending on a leap day was to be called a “Franciade.” The name “Olympique” was originally proposed [2] but changed to Franciade to commemorate the fact that it had taken the revolution four years to establish a republican government in France.[3]

The leap year was called Sextile, an allusion to the “bissextileleap years of the Julian and Gregorian calendars, because it contained a sixth complementary day.

The French Revolutionary calendar would have wreaked havoc on religious observance. That is probably what they intended. The Bolsheviks in Russia attempted something similar, but junked it fairly quickly.

A new day does not begin at midnight for everyone. Hindus begin their day at sunrise. Both Jews and Muslims begin the day at sunset. In Jewish calendric calculations, midnight is the mid point between sunset and sunrise. Mid day is the midpoint between sunrise and sunset. These times, which fluctuate with the seasons affect the times for Jewish prayers.

In Judaism, the calendar is considered sacred. Its proper calculation is essential to the observance of all of the Jewish holidays and establishing yahrzeit, the anniversary of death, when the Kaddish prayer is said to aid the ascent of a departed soul. Many Jewish families also observe birthdays according to the Jewish calendar. Observance of the Jewish calendar is a matter of pride to observant Jews. I am sure that many other ethnic and religious groups take special pride in their respective calendars.

There are around forty calendars in use in the world today. It is interesting to reflect upon the history behind each of them and the historical forces which brought about the survival of some calendars and the demise of others. For me, January first is a day when I reflect upon how time is marked. It brings with it a lot of reflection upon events in Jewish and in world history. On this occasion, I wish my readers a happy New Year and strength in their personal resolutions.

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