Hammurabi, Abraham, and an Eye for an Eye

This week’s Torah reading is Mishpatim, literally “ordinances”, which is primarily composed of legal matters, as its name suggests. One of the most famous Torah phrases is found in this parasha: “you shall give a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” (Exodus 21:23-24). In legal terms, this is known by the Latin lex talionis, the law of retaliation.

Most people are well aware of the fact that in Judaism, this verse was never taken literally. It does not mean that if one person poked out the eye of another, then his eye gets poked out in turn. A simple example: what if the person doing the poking out is blind? Then poking out his eye in retaliation wouldn’t accomplish anything! And so, Jewish law is unequivocal on the fact that the Torah verse simply means that the punishment should fit the crime. In most cases, the punishment comes in the form of appropriate monetary compensation. The compensation should include medical expenses, lost wages, and the costs for the damages, both physical and emotional.

The Vilna Gaon had a beautiful way of proving that the Torah never meant retaliation, but financial remuneration instead. In Hebrew, the verse literally says “an eye under an eye” (ayin tachat ayin). The word for eye is עין, where the first letter is “under” (ie. alphabetically before) the letter פ, the second letter is under the letter כ, and the final letter is under ס. The letters above spell כסף, literally “money”. Thus, when the Torah says an eye under an eye, it secretly hints to monetary compensation.

In Roman law, as well, lex talionis referred to financial compensation, and not direct retaliation. However, a more ancient legal system – one that predates both Roman law, and even Jewish law – did indeed use this principle literally. In fact, this legal system phrases the law in a very similar way.

The Code of Hammurabi

In 1901, archaeologist Gustave Jéquier made a monumental discovery while excavating around the ancient Persian city of Susa. A massive stone stele with 44 columns of text written in the ancient Akkadian language. By the following year, the stele had been translated. It was a legal code, composed of 282 laws, dating back almost four thousand years to the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (c. 1810-1750 BCE). The code begins with a brief legendary history of Babylon:

Stele of Hammurabi's Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris

Stele of Hammurabi’s Code, currently housed at the Louvre in Paris. The top of the stele depicts Hammurabi receiving the laws from his patron god, Marduk. 

“When Anu the Sublime, King of the Anunnaki, and Bel, the lord of Heaven and earth, who decreed the fate of the land, assigned to Marduk, the over-ruling son of Ea, god of righteousness, dominion over earthly man, and made him great among the Igigi, they called Babylon by his illustrious name, made it great on earth, and founded an everlasting kingdom in it, whose foundations are laid so solidly as those of heaven and earth; then Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil-doers; so that the strong should not harm the weak…”

The text (which can be read in full here) then lists the laws of Hammurabi’s kingdom. It is amazing to see how many laws parallel those of this week’s parasha, among them laws of slavery, theft, and damages. Some are even expressed in similar phrases. Law #196: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”

Who is Hammurabi?

Hammurabi’s code is perhaps the earliest known legal system. In fact, it is one of the oldest pieces of text ever discovered. Incredibly, archaeologists have also uncovered a multitude of tablets and writings from his reign, including as many as 55 of his own letters. And Hammurabi’s greatness goes far beyond these writings.

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Mesopotamia at the time of Hammurabi

Though initially his reign was peaceful, Hammurabi was soon mired in various wars by the aggression of neighbouring city-states. Hammurabi came out on top, and by the end of his reign had unified all the city-states of Mesopotamia under the Babylonian banner. He transformed Babylon into a metropolis and temple-laden holy city, putting it on the map for eternity. Thousands of years later, Jews still refer to the Talmud as the Bavli, the Babylonian (due to its composition in formerly-Babylonian lands, and to distinguish it from the lesser-known Yerushalmi Talmud).

Of course, Babylon also made its way into the Torah. Before there is mention of any of our patriarchs, there is mention of the city of Babylon, with its Tower soaring to the Heavens, and drawing God’s wrath. And it appears that Hammurabi himself made it into the Holy Book.

While “Hammurabi” is an Anglicized name, the king’s name was actually pronounced Ammurapi, or Ammuraphi. In Genesis 14 we read: “And it came to pass in the days of Amraphel, king of Shinar…” Shinar is the Biblical name for Mesopotamia (likely stemming from shnei naar, the land between the two rivers, which is the same as the Greek Mesopotamia). Meanwhile, Rashi comments that Amraphel was none other than Nimrod, the great king of Babylon.

The tradition surrounding Nimrod is rich and varied. The Torah says he was a “great hunter before God” (Genesis 10:8) which some interpret to mean that he was a righteous, God-fearing man (Hammurabi’s stele also describes him as God-fearing). Others point out that his name Nimrod means “to rebel”, so he must have been the rebel who built the Tower of Babel in an attempt to conquer the Heavens.

Whatever the case, after the Great Dispersion and the confounding of languages that followed the Tower, Nimrod became Amraphel. His exit from the Torah comes at the hands of Abraham, who miraculously defeated him in the War of the Kings.

Though there is no way to say for sure that Hammurabi is Amraphel, or if he ever encountered Abraham, what we do know is that their lifespans certainly overlapped. The traditional Jewish dating for Abraham’s birth corresponds to the year 1812 BCE, while historical records suggest that Hammurabi was born around 1810 BCE.

Unfortunately, looking back so far into history is often futile, and presents a murky image at best. Perhaps future archaeological discoveries will clear up the past. Alas, for the time being we are left only to wonder about what could have been…

Jethro and the Druze

This week’s Torah reading is Yitro, named after Moses’ father-in-law, known in English as “Jethro”. It is in this parasha that the Israelites finally experience the great revelation at Mt. Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments, and the first portions of the Torah. This seminal event took place in the third month (Sivan), on the fiftieth day following the people’s exodus from Egypt. It is commemorated by the holiday of Shavuot, following the 49-day Omer-counting period that starts during the holiday of Passover. In many ways, this is the birth of the Jewish people, and the official starting point of the Torah tradition. And yet, the parasha is named after Jethro, who is described as a chief idol-worshipping priest in the land of Midian! Who was Jethro and what made him so special?

Moses and Jethro in the 1956 film 'The Ten Commandments'

Moses and Jethro in the 1956 film ‘The Ten Commandments’

In the House of Pharaoh

The Talmud and a number of midrashic sources provide details of Jethro’s earlier life. Though there are minor variations among these texts, the consensus is that Jethro was once an advisor to Pharaoh in Egypt, along with Balaam and Job. When Pharaoh asked his advisors how to control Israelite overpopulation, Balaam offered to throw the newborn into the river, and Pharaoh agreed. Jethro, unable to support such a cruel decree, resigned from his post, and having insulted the Pharaoh, was forced to flee. This is how he ended up in Midian.

(Interestingly, this is also how Moses got his miracle-working staff. According to tradition, this was a unique staff, created by God at the very start of time and presented to Adam. It was passed down from generation to generation, through Noah and Abraham, and down to Joseph. When Joseph passed away, it remained in Pharaoh’s palace. When Jethro fled, he took the staff with him. Arriving in Midian, he temporarily stuck it in the ground, but it immediately sprang forth roots, and no one was able to dislodge it, until Moses. Some even say this is what convinced Jethro to give his daughter Tzipporah to Moses for a wife!)

Meanwhile, although Job didn’t support the decree to murder the Israelites, he nonetheless remained silent. For this reason, he deserved the terrible punishment that he later suffered.

Idolatry and Repentance

Jethro travelled much of the known world and dabbled in various forms of idolatry. Finally, he settled in Midian, near the holy mountain of Sinai. He became a high priest, and prince, of Midian. Ultimately, though, after all of his idolatry, he recognized the unity and omnipotence of Hashem, and repented wholeheartedly. Many say he even circumcised himself later on.

In this week’s parasha, he comes to visit Moses and the Israelites after having heard the miracles that happened in Egypt. He rejoices for the nation, and even utters a blessing: “Blessed is Hashem, who saved you from the hand of Egypt, and the hand of Pharaoh…” (Exodus 18:10). Some suggest that he was the first to utter the popular phrase “Baruch Hashem”, although this term was first spoken by Noah (Genesis 9:26) when blessing his son Shem, and later by Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) when he found a wife for Isaac.

Critical Advice

In the parasha, we read about Moses’ gruelling daily schedule: taking care of people’s problems from early morning to late night. Jethro sees the toll it is taking on Moses, and advices him to appoint wise men and judges over the people. Jethro breaks it down much like a modern court system: a judge for every 10 families, then a greater judge for every 50, and an even more experienced one for every 100 families, followed by a grand judge for every 1000. Moses himself would serve as the “supreme court”, tackling only the toughest issues. This freed Moses to spend more time with God, and indeed, the very next passage describes his ascent of Mt. Sinai.

Had Moses continued to deal with all of the people’s problems all day long, every day, there would have been no opportunity to go up Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights like he did, and to bring down the Two Tablets, together with the first book of the Torah which he scribed (Exodus 24:7). Therefore, it is possible to say that without Jethro, there would have been no Sinai revelation!

Jethro the Prophet

The chapter ends by saying that Jethro left the Israelite camp and returned home. Rashi comments here that he went back to Midian to convert the rest of his family to Judaism. However, another religion has a totally different spin on the narrative.

Druze is a little-known, monotheistic religion that has its origins roughly a millennium ago. Today, it has as many as two million followers, most of whom live in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. The religion began in Lebanon as an attempt by a secretive group of scholars to fuse the teachings of the three great Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), together with concepts from Greek philosophy, Egyptian philosophy, and Hinduism. It was originally known as the “Unity Faith”.

The name of the religion is said to come from one of its early leaders, Muhammad ad-Darazi, “the tailor” (d. 1018 CE), originally an Ismaili Muslim from the city of Bukhara. Ad-Darazi became a high-ranking member of the Fatimid military, and was tasked with destroying the rising “Unity Faith”. His army was defeated, and ad-Darazi taken captive. Exposed to the teachings of Unity, he soon converted, and rose to prominence among the faithful. He was executed by the Fatimid Caliph just a few years later.

The Shrine of Jethro in Hittin, Northern Israel

The Shrine of Jethro in Hittin, Northern Israel

According to the Druze, Jethro was the greatest of prophets, and relayed his wisdom to Moses (whom they accept as a prophet as well). The Druze believe Jethro is the earliest founder of their religion, and their spiritual ancestor. What they believe to be the shrine and tomb of Jethro in Northern Israel is one of their holiest sites.

Since Moses, the founder of Judaism, married Tzipporah, the daughter of Jethro, many Druze see a special relationship between themselves and the Jews. Today, the Druze are recognized by the State of Israel as a distinct ethnic community, and serve in the IDF and in Israeli government. At least in a spiritual sense, it seems like the warm relationship between Moses and Jethro continues in modern times.

Should We Still Be Praying for Mashiach?

This week’s Torah reading is Beshalach, centered on the climactic narrative of the Splitting of the Sea. We read that following the Exodus, the Israelites are walking towards the Promised Land before suddenly being told by God to turn back. Soon, they find themselves at an outcropping near Yam Suf, the “Reed Sea”. Meanwhile, Pharaoh’s spies have informed him that the Israelites appear to be coming back to Egypt. Seeking his revenge, Pharaoh summons all the chariots of Egypt (led by 600 of the choicest officers) to obliterate the Israelites. Stuck between a rampaging military on one side and the sea on the other, the Israelites panic. We know how the story ends, of course, with God sending the greatest of His miracles in the nick of time, splitting the sea in two, allowing the Israelites to pass through unharmed, and drowning the Egyptian charioteers that attempt to follow.

'Splitting Sea' by AkiiRaii

‘Splitting Sea’ by AkiiRaii

Commenting on these verses, the Sages tell us that there were actually four types of Jews among those Israelites. The first group immediately fell into a fright and were so paralyzed by their fear that they were unable to do anything. The second group were the weak-spirited ones who immediately decided to surrender and return to Egypt. The third group were the brazen warriors who took up arms to fight the Egyptians to the death. And finally, the fourth group were those who started to pray fervently.

Moses addresses all four groups: “Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see Hashem’s salvation that He will do for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall never see them again for eternity. Hashem will fight for you, and you shall remain silent.” (Exodus 14:13-14) To those who feared, Moses said not to be afraid. To those who wanted to return to Egypt, he promised they would never see the Egyptians again. To those that wanted to do battle, Moses reminded them that God will do the fighting for them. And to those that prayed, Moses said to be silent.

It is easy to understand Moses’ command to the first three groups. Why fear after all that God had done for them? Why return to Egypt when God had already brought them so far? Why battle when God had battled on their behalf?

But what of the fourth group? What’s wrong with offering a prayer at such a difficult moment? Does it not show their faith in God? Indeed, although Moses silenced those who prayed, the following verse tells us that he himself prayed! And then it was God who silenced Moses! Why was God not looking for their prayers at that moment, and what was He looking for?

A Test of True Faith

The Talmud (Sotah 37a) fills in the details of what was going on at the time. God told Moses to stop praying, and Moses replied: “What is there in my power to do?” Moses felt powerless at that moment, and was waiting for God to act. God, however, was waiting for His people to make a move. Thus far, He had done everything for them. He had brought the plagues upon their tormentors, took them out of Egypt with riches and fanfare, and had proved beyond any reasonable doubt that He exists and protects His people.

Now, God was telling them: v’yisa’au, “go forth!” Cross the sea. Yet, the people stood still, as did Moses. Where was their faith? Did they not understand by now that God would never abandon them, or let them perish? Did they not recognize that everything had gone exactly as God had commanded? If God directed them to go into the sea, that is what they needed to do! This was not a time to pray, but a time to act.

One person did understand this. His name was Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of the tribe of Judah. He realized that if God commanded them to cross the sea, than that is exactly what they needed to do. And so, he marched on into the waters, and as he did, the waters parted before him. The Talmud states that only at this point did God tell Moses to lift up his staff and keep the waters parted.

A Time to Pray and a Time to Act

There are many lessons to be derived from this passage. Central among them is that prayer alone is not a solution. It is certainly beneficial to pray, but we mustn’t forget to act. And this is what God expects from us in the most difficult of times: not prayers, but actions. For example, the Mishnah (Avot 1:12) teaches us that it isn’t enough to just pray for peace, but we must do as Aaron did and actively pursue peace. This is especially important today, when we are walking in the era of the “footsteps of Mashiach”. The Talmud (Sotah 49b) describes our times in this way:

“In the footsteps of Mashiach, insolence will increase and honour will dwindle. The vine will abundantly yield its fruit, yet wine will be dear. The government will turn to heresy, and there will be none to offer them reproof. The meeting places of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate, fearers of sin will be despised, and truth will be lacking. The youth will put the elders to shame; the old will have to stand before the young. A son will revile his father, a daughter will rise up against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and a man’s worst enemies will be the members of his household. The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog; a son will not feel ashamed before his father. And upon whom is there to rely? Only upon our Father in Heaven.”

It sends shivers down one’s spine to read these words, composed over 1500 years ago, that ring so true today: A world of abundance, yet so many hungry mouths. Corrupt government, and no one to stop it. Places of scholarship are places of immorality – a fitting description for most of today’s university campuses – and an increasingly atheist society despising those who fear sin. A world so full of information, yet ironically so full of ignorance and mistruth. A generation that resembles a dog: animalistic, licentious, unashamed. And there is no one to rely upon, save for God.

Years ago, I heard a powerful interpretation of this passage. Unfortunately, I cannot recall in whose name it was cited, but it went something like this: The last phrase in the passage – that there is no one to rely upon except for God – is also part of the list of things signifying the footsteps of Mashiach. In other words, it’s not that the Sages are listing a whole bunch of things wrong with the world, then concluding by saying there is no hope, but rather, the fact that people think there is no hope is also part of the list of things wrong with the world! When we come to the point where we think nothing can be done, and we must only pray to God, that in itself is a failure on our part.

The truth is, there is much to be done, and each person has an unlimited potential to make a difference in the world. If we really do want to usher in the era of Mashiach, we must remember that two thousand years of praying for it has not worked. Just as it was with the Israelites by the Sea, now is not the time to focus on our prayers, it is time to focus on our actions.

How Long Were the Israelites Actually In Egypt?

This week’s Torah reading is Bo, chronicling the final events in the exodus from Egypt. We read about the final three plagues (locust, darkness, and the smiting of the firstborn), the first Passover night, and at last, the liberation of the Israelites. Here, we are told that the Israelites left Egypt after having dwelled there for 430 years (Exodus 12:40). However, Jewish tradition (based on counting up all the years mentioned in the Torah) holds that the Israelites were only in Egypt for 210 years! To further complicate things, God had prophesized to Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a foreign land for 400 years (Genesis 15:13). So, which is it? Were the Israelites in Egypt for 430 years, 210 years, or 400 years? There appears to be a simple answer to this question, and is the one most commonly cited. However, upon closer examination, this explanation breaks down entirely, and the real answer becomes much harder to find.

The Simple Answer

'Departure of the Israelites' by David Roberts (1829)

‘Departure of the Israelites’ by David Roberts (1829)

Let’s begin with the simple answer. Rashi’s commentary on the verse in question is that the Israelites were indeed in Egypt for only 210 years, since this is the sum one comes to when counting the lifespans of Jacob, Levi, Kohath, Amram, and Moses. According to this chronology, the Israelites lived prosperously in Egypt for 116 years. By this point, Jacob and his sons (the original immigrants) had all passed away, and a new pharaoh ascended to power in Egypt. Envious of Israelite prosperity and success, and suspicious of their populous numbers, the new pharaoh began instituting various anti-Semitic laws. Tradition holds that this period of segregation and persecution lasted 30 years, after which the Israelites were formally enslaved. Thus, the Israelites were slaves for 86 years. The year of their enslavement corresponds to the year of Miriam’s birth, hence her name, which literally means “very bitter”. Moses was born 6 years later, and liberated the Israelites when he was 80.

Rashi states that since 400 or 430 years in Egypt is impossible, one must assume that by “dwelling” and “sojourning”, the Torah refers to all the dwellings and sojourning since the time of Abraham. Rashi points out that if one counts back 400 years from the exodus, one comes to the year that Isaac was born. Another 30 years before that was when Abraham envisioned the “Covenant of the Parts”, and received the prophecy that his descendants will be slaves and foreigners for 400 years. Therefore, when the Torah states that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years, it is going all the way back to Abraham’s Covenant, which happened exactly 430 years earlier. And when God told Abraham his descendants would be slaves for 400 years, He literally meant all of Abraham’s descendants, starting with his first son, Isaac, born 30 years later. This explanation seems to work, at least when reinterpreting the definition of what it means to be “enslaved” and what it means to be “in Egypt”.

However, even Rashi is unhappy with this answer. He says that one has no choice but to accept this explanation al karchacha, literally “against one’s will”. He finishes by saying that this was one of the things that the Sages edited when translating the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy.

(Over two millennia ago, Ptolemy gathered 70 rabbis, put them in separate guarded rooms, and forced them to translate the Torah into Greek. Despite their separation, all 70 rabbis produced the exact same translation, making the exact same amendments where necessary, to make the text more palatable to the Greeks. This text became known as the Septuagint, because of the 70 rabbis. According to Yalkut Shimoni, there were 72 rabbis, and they made 15 changes to the text, one of which is the duration of the Israelites’ dwelling in Egypt.)

The Problem with the Simple Answer

Aside from the fact that the Israelites were slaves for 86 years, not 400, and that the Torah states that they dwelled specifically in Egypt for 430 years, and not elsewhere, there is a much more pronounced problem with the simple answer. If we say that the 430 figure comes from the moment when Abraham first received the prophecy, that means that Abraham got it 30 years before Isaac was born, which means Abraham was 70 years old at the time (since Isaac was born when Abraham was 100). However, the Torah tells us that Abraham only came to the land of Israel for the first time when he was 75 (Genesis 12:4). Sometime after this, he descended to Egypt because of a famine, then returned to Israel. Years later, he participated in the war against the Mesopotamian kings (Genesis 14). It is only following this war that the Torah states, “After these things the word of Hashem came to Abram in a vision…” (Genesis 15:1). And it was in this vision that Abraham received the prophecy of 400 years. It is therefore impossible that he was 70 years old! In fact, the very next chapter speaks of the birth of Ishmael, Abraham’s first son through Hagar, who was born when Abraham was 86. Based on this, some commentaries suggest the Covenant of the Parts happened when Abraham was 85 or 86 years old.

So, we may accept the figure of 400 years starting with Isaac, but where did 430 come from? In lieu of a historical answer, we may have to delve into more mystical literature.

The Metaphysical Answer

In characteristic fashion, the Arizal sees the 430 figure not necessarily as a literal number of years, but as a figure hinting at something deeper. It is well-known that God has two primary names (among many others): the ineffable name of Hashem, which represents God’s kindness, and the name Elohim, which represents God’s judgement and severity. When it comes to the Exodus, God expressed His strict judgement. The Arizal (in Sha’ar HaPesukim) points out that there are five major expressions using the name Elohim with regards to the events of the Exodus. The numerical value of the name Elohim (א-ל-ה-י-ם) is 86. Multiplying 86 by 5, one arrives at 430. This figure, therefore, represents all of God’s severity, which was revealed in this time period. It was only after “430 years” – ie. only after God had fulfilled all of His plans – that the Israelites were finally liberated.

There is one final answer that may be the best of all, allowing us to take the 430 year timespan literally. The full passage in the Torah reads: “And the habitation of the Israelites that dwelled in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years, and it was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, on that very day, that all the legions of Hashem came out of Egypt” (Exodus 12:40-41). The Torah tells us that it was God’s legions of angels that finally left Egypt after 430 years. Thus, 430 years earlier, God had sent his angels to Egypt to prepare the way for the arrival of the Israelites. It was 430 years earlier that God had put His plan in motion. The Arizal might add that the souls of the Israelites destined to be born in Egypt were already dwelling there, so to speak, 430 years earlier. Whereas the Israelites physically dwelled in Egypt for 210 years, their spiritual habitation there – together with God’s Heavenly legions – spanned 430 years.

Beautifully, at each Passover seder we drink four cups of wine, and pour a fifth for Eliyahu. The numerical value of cup (כוס) is also 86. And so, the five cups total 430.

 

Should Jews Celebrate New Year’s?

Next Thursday, much of the world’s population will stay up past midnight to commemorate the start of the new calendar year. This event is considered to be the most widely-celebrated public holiday in the world. Yet every year, many Jews wonder if they should be participating in these celebrations. Some answer with a quick no, since January 1st is associated with the circumcision of Jesus (as it is the 8th day following Christmas, December 25th). Others may say yes, since, among other reasons, we all use the Gregorian calendar, and January 1st is simply a secular holiday, having lost any past religious affiliations. As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Back to the Roman Calendar

Roman Empire (Credit: Ancient History Encyclopedia)

Roman Empire (Credit: Ancient History Encyclopedia)

Today’s Gregorian calendar is based on the older Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar. Historical records show that by the time of Julius Caesar, the Romans celebrated their new year on January 1st. In fact, “January” is named after the Roman god Janus, the deity of beginnings and ends, doors and gateways. Janus is always depicted as a double-headed god, with one head looking back into the past, and the other gazing into the future.

January 1st was also the start of the consular year in Rome, when the two highest-ranking elected officials, the consuls, took up their office for a single year term. From this information, we see that January 1st was already celebrated as a new year long before the time of Jesus.

Was Jesus Circumcised on the 1st of January?

Today, some Christian denominations still commemorate January 1st as the “Feast of the Circumcision”. The math is simple: if Christmas is the holiday of Jesus’ birth, then like all Jews he would have been circumcised on the eight day following his birth – January 1st. The question is: was Jesus actually born on the 25th of December?

Of course, many are aware of the fact that Jesus was certainly not born on the 25th of December. The New Testament does not mention the date of his birth at all, and suggests it was sometime in the summer, since it mentions people going to take a census (always done in the summer months), and that the shepherds were out watching their flocks (which they probably wouldn’t do in the cold winter nights of December). Early Christian leaders gave various dates to the birth of Jesus, ranging from March 28th to November 18th. Today, scholars believe it was likely the end of September.

Ironically, early Christian leaders actually mocked those who celebrated birthdays of any kind, especially that of Jesus, and considered it a pagan ritual. Alas, this is where Christmas actually comes from. Originally, December 25th was around the time of the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Later, it was also instituted as a holiday in honour of the birth of Sol Invictus, the solar deity. This comes from an ancient tradition to celebrate the “birth of the sun”, since the days start getting longer around this time of the year, hence the “solar rebirth”. To make Christianity more palatable to pagans, Christian leaders eventually switched “birth of the sun” to “birth of the Son”, ie. Jesus. And so, Jesus was not born on the 25th of December, and certainly wasn’t circumcised on the 1st of January.

(That is, of course, if Jesus had existed at all. More and more scholars are agreeing that Jesus probably never existed to begin with. Click here to read more about this.)

Celebrating the New Year on the 1st of January

Most European countries actually adopted January 1st as the start of a new year quite recently. The British Empire celebrated the New Year on March 25th until 1752! Similarly, many calendars continue to celebrate a new year sometime in the spring, including the Iranian, Assyrian, and several Indian calendars. Others have New Year’s days at other times, most famously the Chinese New Year in late January/early February. Nonetheless, most of these places, including China, also commemorate January 1st as the start of an international new year. Today, January 1st is definitely devoid of any real religious significance, and is perhaps the one truly global celebration. Having said that, it still comes with a historical bitterness to the Jewish people.

Sylvester’s Day

In several European countries, New Year’s Eve is called “Sylvester” or “St. Sylvester’s Day”. In Israel, too, December 31st is called “Sylvester”. This is the day of the passing of Pope Sylvester I, later canonized as a saint. Essentially nothing is known of this pope, though various legends arose over the centuries. Historical records suggest that it was during his reign that the Roman Emperor Constantine proclaimed the Edict of Milan which, among other things, stripped Jews of various rights and forbade them from living in Jerusalem.

Some point out that Jews in Europe were often massacred between Christmas and New Year’s. In fact, it was very common for Jewish massacres to take place around all Christian holidays. To be fair, Jewish massacres also happened around Jewish holidays, and one could probably find a Jewish massacre having occurred on just about any day of the year, so to avoid celebrating New Year’s for this reason is a bit faulty.

New Year’s in the Talmud

Amazingly, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8a) actually discusses New Year’s, calling it by its Roman name, Kalenda, or Kalends. The Mishnah here begins by listing it among the holidays of idol worshippers. However, it then goes on to explain that Kalenda originates in the Torah!

The Rabbis explain that following the consumption of the Forbidden Fruit, Adam soon noticed that the days were gradually getting shorter. (Since he was created on Rosh Hashanah – in the autumn – and consumed the Fruit that very same day.) Adam mistakenly thought that the days must be getting shorter because of his sin, and the world was descending into eternal darkness. He started to fast in repentance, and after eight days of fasting, the winter solstice came, and Adam noticed that the days were once again getting longer. In celebration, Adam established an eight-day feast (to balance out his eight-day fast). The following year, Adam commemorated both the winter solstice (around December 25th) and the day that marked the end of his eight-day feast (January 1st). The Talmudic sages conclude: “However, [Adam] established them for the sake of Heaven, but the [heathens] appropriated them for the sake of idolatry.”

So perhaps, if we have the sake of Heaven in mind, we may just be able to celebrate New Year’s after all.