The Jewish calendar traditionally has four new years days each with a different purpose. While this may seem strange at first glance it is not so different from the modern American calendar. We have the regular calendar year (January-December), fiscal or budget years for businesses which can have various start dates, the government's fiscal year (October-September), and the school year (September-June), just to name a few.
The Four Jewish New Years
- 1st of Nisan: The first new year is the 1st of the Hebrew month of Nisan, usually in the early spring (April). Nisan is considered the first month of the Hebrew calendar though years are counted from the 1st of Tishrei, the seventh month. The 1st of Nisan was considered the new year for counting the years of the reigns of kings in ancient Israel. It is also the new year for ordering the Jewish holidays. The month of Nisan is closely tied with the festival of Passover, while Rosh Hashanah is seen as the anniversary of the creation of the world, the 1st of Nisan is seen in a way as the anniversary of the founding of the Jewish people when they escaped from Egypt during the Passover story.
- 1st of Elul: The second "new year" is on the 1st of Elul, the sixth month of the Hebrew calendar which usually falls in the late summer (August). According to the Mishnah this was the new year for animal tithes. It was used to determine the start date for the animal tithe to the priestly class in ancient Israel, similar to how we use April 15th in the US as tax day. Generally this new year is no longer observed, although the month of Elul does mark the beginning of preparations for Rosh Hashanah.
- 1st of Tishrei, aka Rosh Hashanah: Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year we are most familiar with. It falls on the 1st of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which usually corresponds to sometime in the month of September. It marks the day when the Jewish calendar year advances and is seen traditionally as the date when the world was created. In ancient times it was also used for calculating certain tithes, such as those for vegetables, and for calculating the start of Sabbatical and Jubilee years when land was left fallow. For more on Rosh Hashanah, click on this link.
- 15th of Shvat, aka Tu B'Shvat: Tu B'Shvat is considered the new year for trees, usually falling between January and February. According to the Torah fruits cannot be consumed from trees less than three years old, Tu B'Shvat was used as the starting date for determining the age of the trees. Unlike the 1st of Nisan and the 1st of Elul, Tu B'Shvat is still widely observed as a minor Jewish holiday. For more on Tu B'Shvat, click on this link.
Origins of the Four New Years
The main textual origin for the four new years comes from the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 1:1. There are references to several of these new years days in the Torah as well. The new year on the 1st of Nisan is mentioned in both Exodus 12:2 and Deuteronomy 16:1. Rosh Hashanah on the 1st of Tishrei is described in Numbers 29:1-2 and Leviticus 23:24-25.