NEW YORK – Whether marking the end of 2016 or the eighth day of Hanukka, there is reason for everyone to celebrate on Saturday night. But some rabbis in the US can’t help but provide a little Jewish guilt to go along with the merriment.
Orthodox Rabbi Gideon Shloush of Congregation Adereth El in Manhattan told The Jerusalem Post he doesn’t view New Year’s Eve as a holiday for Jews.
“Granted, we live in a secular society, and yes, we are aware that today we are in December,” he said. “Certainly we value and appreciate and respect what’s going on around us and that the society around us is celebrating their ‘Rosh Hashana,’ but it’s not our Rosh Hashana,” he explained. “We just have to be true to our heritage.”
Rabbi Mark Wildes of the Manhattan Jewish Experience told the Post that it is the Jewish calendar that carries tremendous spiritual weight, containing many significant spiritual landmarks along the way. “The Gregorian calendar carries more of a Christian or Roman tradition, and so for Jews it simply does not contain the same spiritual significance,” he added.
Nevertheless, the beginning of the secular calendar may present new opportunities for growth and positive change, Wildes said.
“I believe the secular new year can serve as opportunity for any of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, to reflect on the past year and make some ‘New Year’s resolutions’ for the coming one,” he explained.
According to him, the resolutions differ if they are made on Rosh Hashana or on December 31.
“Rosh Hashana is a time when we make our spiritual resolutions for the Jewish new year, the secular New Year can be a time when we resolve to do better in a more physical sense: better attendance at the gym, more punctual to meetings at work,” he explained.
Reform Rabbi Marc Katz from Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn also agrees there is a fundamental difference between the “New Year’s resolution” that people make for the upcoming year and the kind of inner work that people do for repentance during the High Holy Days.
“I feel like there is a license during the secular new year to be a little bit more selfish in a way,” he said.
“New Year’s is all about ‘I’m going to be healthier, I’m gonna read more books... etc.’ Those are the New Year’s resolutions. I think you lose something at Rosh Hashana if your tshuva has that quality.
“There is a Jewish value in losing weight, it’s shmirat haguf, taking care of your body, but people don’t frame it like that during the secular new year,” he said. “Your resolutions for the High Holy Days should have a little bit of a Jewish tinge to them.”
Having the secular new year, Katz says, gives Jews an outlet to be a little more self-centered during that time of year, so that [they] can do the more important work during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
According to Katz, the secular calendar is not completely foreign to Jewish texts either.
“American Jewry lives in two calendars and even the rabbis from the Talmud lived in two calendars. They acknowledged that there are 365 days in the year, there is a quote in the Talmud that says that,” he said, referring to a passage about Judaism’s 613 commandments, divided into 248 positive ones and 365 negative commandments, a number consistent with the number of days in the year.
Whether they choose to celebrate it or not, this Saturday will be festive for Jews as December 31 coincides this year with the last day of Hanukka, on which the eighth candle is lit.
Katz said a parallel can be made between the two events, both of which mark new beginnings.
“Hanukka is all about rededication,” he explained. “It’s about something that existed before, the Temple, and rededicating it. That’s what Hanukka means.”
Like New Year’s, he added, “it allows us to take an account of ourselves, rededicate ourselves to the causes important to us and to say where we are, where we are going.”
While he, on the other hand doesn’t see any meaningful connection between the two holidays, Shloush said this year, the eighth day of Hanukka has particular significance.
“We are living in momentous times, this is obviously a difficult time for the Jewish people in light of what happened at the Security Council,” he said. “Like the Maccabees, we have to be the light in the darkness and try to help the world understand the significance and the attachment of the Jewish people to the State of Israel, to the Land of Israel.
“As much as we are commemorating a miracle that took place 2,200 years ago, we remind ourselves that the miracle of the existence of the State of Israel is very much alive and apparent for our very eyes today,” he added.