The first of Tishrei serves as the New Year for several purposes, the best known being the New Year for the civil calendar, or “the new year for seasons.” Rosh Hashanah literally means “the head of the year.” Jewish years are traditionally figured from creation (for example, the current Jewish year (2011-2012 on the Gregorian calendar) is considered the 5772nd year from creation), with the New Year beginning on 1 Tishrei. Although Rosh Hashanah is not a well-defined holiday in the Torah, distinguished mostly as “a day when the horn is sounded” (Leviticus 29:1), the Talmud expanded its religious connotations to make it the Jewish New Year and the anniversary of creation. Rosh Hashanah 8a explains, “For R. Zeira said [that Tishrei is considered the New Year for years in relation] to the seasons. And this [opinion of R. Zeira] is [in consonance with the view of] R. Eliezer, who said that the world was created in Tishrei.” In fact, the rabbis focused particularly on the creation of human beings, without whose perceptive ability the physical creation would go unappreciated.
As the beginning of the civil calendar, 1 Tishrei is also considered the new year for measuring the reigns of foreign kings, necessary because legal documents were dated by the current year of a monarch’s reign. Rather than measuring a king’s reign from the date he took office, 1 Tishrei served as a standard anniversary marking the end of a full year of rule, even if that “year” had only been part of a year.
The new year for setting the Sabbatical year, during which land may not be cultivated, is also 1 Tishrei. The command for observing a Sabbatical year appears in Leviticus 25:2-5, “When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard…it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” Plowing and planting were forbidden from 1 Tishrei of the seventh year in the Sabbatical cycle, and people were allowed to gather only what the land could produce on its own, without cultivation.
Similarly, 1 Tishrei is the new year for setting the Jubilee year, the fiftieth year following seven cycles of Sabbatical years. Sowing was also forbidden during the Jubilee, but, in addition, all indentured Israelites were allowed to return to their homes and all tenured land was to be returned to its original owners. The laws of the Jubilee required that all land sales in Palestine be considered leases, with land costs computed in terms of the number of crop years remaining until the next Jubilee, which would begin on 1 Tishri.
1 Tishrei is also the new year for figuring the yearly tithe (ma’aser), or ten percent tax, on vegetables and grains. The Levites and priests were supported by these tithes, because they did not own land. The tithe for a particular year had to be paid with produce from the same year, thus requiring a standard date to begin and end each fiscal year. Tithing involved three steps: (1) The owner separated out the first tithe, or ma’aser rishon, and paid it to the Levites. (2) The Levites then separated out one tenth, called terumah, for the priests. (3) After separating out the first tithe, the owner had to put aside a second tithe, or ma’aser sheni, from the remainder of his produce. In the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the sabbatical cycle, the owner was required either to consume this tithe in Jerusalem or sell it and purchase food to be eaten in Jerusalem. In the third and sixth years, the owner distributed this second tithe to the poor as a ma’aser ani, tithe of the poor.
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