Most Jews would guess that the year begins with Rosh Hashanah, and in some ways, they would be right.
But the Mishnah at M Rosh Hashanah 1:1 informs us that there are actually four New Years, each with its own purpose, each emphasizing the simple, stirring truth that life is a constant process of new beginnings.
The counting of the years begins with Rosh Hashanah, making it a reasonable starting point.
But the counting of the months starts with Nisan, the month of Passover—so we could just as logically start there as well. (This is why the Torah gives the dates of Rosh Hashanah [at Numbers 29:1] as “the first day of the seventh month,” but also commands at Exodus 12:1 that Nisan, the month of Passover, be “the first of the year’s months for you.”)
Rosh Hashanah celebrates the birth of the world and Passover celebrates the birth of the Jewish people, but there are other New Years as well: the first of Elul, which tradition made the New Year for the purpose of tithing cattle, and the fifteenth of the month of Sh’vat (also spelled Shvat or Shevat) (or, according to an alternate vision, the first of Sh’vat), acclaimed as the New Year for the laws that govern planting trees and eating their fruit.
So when does the Jewish year begin?
In a circle, one beginning is as good as another, so we can begin with the High Holidays.
The Hebrew name for these holy days is yamim nora’im (days of awe), but this name is less old than one might think.
Isaac Klein, writing in A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice (p. 176), attributes the term to Rabbi Jacob ben Moses Moelin, known as the Maharil (1365–1427), and infers from this that the solemn mood we associate with Rosh Hashanah is the result of a long and complicated development that occurred over a period of hundreds of years.
Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.