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September 17, 2014 10:34 am

Rosh Hashanah and the Jewish Months

avatar by George Jochnowitz

Torah scroll. Photo: Wiki Commons.

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you are to have a holy convocation; do not do any kind of ordinary work; it is a day of blowing the shofar for you” (Numbers 29:1). Those are the words in the Torah that tell us to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Something is missing from that verse, since there is nothing about a new year. Besides, does a year start on the first day of the seventh month? Apparently it does.

Passover begins in the month of Nissan, but according to the Book of Deuteronomy (Devarim), it begins in the month of Aviv. Aviv is Hebrew for “spring,” and it occurs in the name of the city Tel Aviv (hill of spring). Nissan is the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar nowadays, if we count the months beginning with Rosh Hashanah. But if Rosh Hashanah takes place in the seventh month, then Aviv – now called Nissan – is the first month.

The Bet Alfa synagogue in Israel was built in the sixth century of the Common Era. One of its mosaics has a circular panel with the signs of the Zodiac. There are Zodiac representations in synagogues all over the world, including the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a museum, in New York City. I once went to a synagogue in Tel Aviv and saw the Zodiac symbols there. I asked a congregant about them, who told me they represented the twelve tribes. Since there are twelve months and twelve tribes, turning the symbols from Zodiac signs into representations of the tribes is a way to reconcile the symbols with Jewish tradition.

The Zodiac was part of the Babylonian calendar, and so Jewish traditions involving these symbols may have been borrowed during the Babylonian exile. However, the Babylonian year began with the month of Nissan.

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The language spoken on the island of Sardinia is usually considered a separate language and not a dialect of Italian. The name of the month of September in Sardinian is caputanni – caput means “head” and anni means “of the year.” Thus, caputanni is a perfect, direct translation of Rosh Hashanah, “head of the year.” There is a possibility that the name reflects a pre-Roman calendar that began the year with September. It is also possible, and probably more likely, that the name goes back to the year 19 C.E., when the Jews were expelled from Rome, and 4,000 young Jews were condemned to forced labor on Sardinia. Twelve years later, the order was rescinded, and so Jews had the choice of going back to Rome or remaining where they were. A Jewish population remained in Sardinia until 1492, when the island belonged to Spain and the Jews were expelled. There is a second word in Sardinian that appears to be of Jewish origin, cenabura, pronounced [kenabura], meaning “Friday,” and coming from cena (feast) and pura (pure), suggesting the Sabbath meal. These words remained in Sardinian after the expulsion of the Jews.

And then there’s September, from Latin septem meaning “seven,” with what is probably an adjectival suffix -ber. September, October, November, and December mean 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th. Yet they are the 9th, 10th, 11tth, and 12th months of the year. In the days before the Roman Republic existed, there were 51 winter days that were not part of any month. Around the year 713 B.C.E., King Numa Pompilius introduced two months into the winter season, Januarius and Februarius,  and designated them as the first two months of the year. Julius Caesar renamed the fifth month, Quintilis, after himself, calling it Julius (July in English). Augustus Caesar named the eigth month, Sextilis, after himself, calling it Augustus (August in English).

And so the Jewish calendar begins with a month originally called the seventh, which occurs in September, a name meaning “seventh.”

Shanah tovah!

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