Nisan or Tishrei: Will the Real New Year Please Stand Up

Posted on March 30, 2022

by Hazzan Barbara Barnett

My son Adam was born on the first day of spring, that year, the fifth of Nisan. Just before Pesach. Thirteen years later, he celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah, his 13th secular birthday on Shabbat HaChodesh. This Shabbat is the 18th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. Shabbat HaChodesh (Shabbat of the Month, literally), but really “the” should really be capitalized and italicized so it is Shabbat of The month—the first month—according to the Torah.

It is the Shabbat that heralds in the month of Nisan—the month in which we celebrate Passover. This year, it falls on Rosh Chodesh, the first day of Nisan.

Nisan is the first month of the year. As the text (Exodus 12:2) of the HaChodesh maftir reads:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחׇדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

If you are scratching your head at this point, thinking at Tishrei (the beginning of which is Rosh Hashanah) is the first month, I don’t blame you. We send out New Year cards, offer “Shanah Tova” (A good year) greetings—not to mention changing the calendar from one year’s to the next. (At next Rosh Hashanah it will turn from 5782 to 5783!).

In fact, the Torah states that Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are all in “Hachodesh hashevi’i”—the seventh month.

So, will the “real” New Year please stand up! Is it the first of Nisan or the first of Tishrei? No wonder you’re confused! (I won’t even go into the other “new” years in our tradition! If you want to know, feel free to give me a call or send an email.)

The answer was certainly the subject of debate among the rabbis of the Talmud, particularly Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua who argued about it in the Babylonian Talmud. Although there was agreement that the calendar has within it more than one new year.

Weighing the significance of events that took place in Nisan vs Tishrei, including the biggies: the creation of the world (Tishrei) and the redemption from exile marked by Nisan, the two Talmudic rabbis had differing perspectives: R. Yehoshua took a more nationalistic/particularlistic stance, viewing the redemption as the pivot point of our existence as a people (not to mention that Nisan is stated as the first month in the Torah.) R. Eliezer took a more universalistic approach, noting the anniversary of the creation of humanity. He believed that issues related to sin and renewal of the spirit relating to everyone pointed to Tishrei as truly the “new year.”

Certainly, both can be true. Although we mark the start of Nisan only as Shabbat Hachodesh (and with little other fanfare than most Rosh Chodesh observances), some Egyptian-Jewish communities around the world that mark the first of Nisan’s as a New Year with much more fanfare with Al-Tawhid (Seder Ha-Yikhud in Hebrew).

And, with that, I wish you a happy season of renewal and redemption as we prepare to welcome chag ha-aviv (the festival of spring), one of the names for Pesach.