June 15, 2024
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‘May This Coming Year Come Upon Us in Peace:’ The Ancient First of Nisan Celebration

Part II

(continued from last week)

If the first of Nisan is such an important date to both the Bible and Talmud, why is the day celebrated today only by this small Jewish community? To answer this question we must look to the Geonic period of Jewish history, corresponding roughly to the second half of the first millennium. Over the past decade, historians increasingly see this period as one in which a number of variations of Judaism were vying for supremacy. These included several schools of Jewish jurisprudence based in different geographic constituencies across the Mediterranean Diaspora. Two of the most prominent were the Babylonian (minhag Bavel, based in Baghdad) and Palestinian (minhag Eretz Yisrael) rites.

The Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was abolished in the fifth century by Byzantine decree. Its various successors could not recapture its prestige, and the rabbis of Eretz Yisrael gradually lost their power to sanction the new moon.

The most notorious controversy between the two schools involved Saadiah ben Joseph Al-Faumi, the head of the Babylonian academy better known as Saadiah Gaon, and Aharon ben Meir, the head of the Eretz Yisrael academy. In 921-923, the two engaged in an extended and very public argument regarding the sanctification of the Hebrew year 4682 (921/22). While the core of this debate surrounded the complicated methods of calculating the Jewish calendar, it became a referendum on which academy, and by extension rite, would become authoritative in the Diaspora. Saadiah emerged victorious (historians Marina Rustow and Sacha Stern argue that his authority on these matters may have resulted from his mastery of Abbasid advances in astronomy).

In Eretz Yisrael, however, the Jewish community continued to follow minhag Eretz Yisrael, which also exerted influence on other Near Eastern Jewish communities such as Egypt. The heads of the Jerusalem academy still often insisted that the right to intercalate the year rested solely with them. As late as the 11th century, Rabbi Evyatar Ha-Kohen, the head of the Israeli academy (partially in exile in Cairo) would declare:

“The Land of Israel is not part of the exile such that it would be subject to an exilarch [a title often applied to the head of the Babylonian academy], and furthermore one may not contradict the authority of the nasi [the head of the Eretz Yisrael academy], on the word of whom [alone] may leap years be declared and the holiday dates set according to the order imposed by God before the creation of the world.”

All in all, the competition between Babylonia and Eretz Yisrael ended in a decisive Babylonian victory. This was due to several factors, not least of which is the fact that Babylonian Jewry experienced much more stability under Sasanian and later Islamic rule, while its Eretz Yisrael counterpart was constantly experiencing persecution and uprooting. The greatest blow to minhag Eretz Yisrael was delivered in July of 1099 when an army of Crusaders broke through the walls of Jerusalem and massacred the city’s Jewish inhabitants. With the destruction of its center began the decline and eventual disappearance of many unique Eretz Yisrael customs. It is only due to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah in the 19th century that scholars have become aware of many of those long-lost traditions and customs. At the end of the first millenium, Babylonia’s prominence too began to decline as the Sephardic communities of the Iberian Peninsula and the Ashkenazic communities of France and Germany were increasingly on the ascendancy (both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites contain both Bavli and Eretz Yisrael elements. The Ashkenazi rite seems to have been more influenced by Eretz Yisrael, probably due to the ties between the proto Ashkenazim and the yeshiva of Eretz Yisrael).

Late medieval evidence of the celebration of the first of Nisan comes to us from the 13th century and it would seem that even by this time it was all but stamped out by those who were determined to establish the primacy of the Babylonian school. This period coincides with the increased activism of Rabbi Abraham, the son of the Rambam, who championed standardization based on his father’s codification. He exerted great pressure against the Synagogue of the Palestinians in Fustat, Old Cairo, to bring their ritual into line with Babylonian standards. He was for the most part successful but, as we have already seen, this unique custom was retained (albeit in diminished form) among Egyptian Jews to this very day.

In an April 20, 1906, article for the English Jewish Chronicle, Herbert Loewe provides an eyewitness account of an Al-Tawhid ceremony in the fashionable Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo. Two years later, a more detailed description was recorded by the chief rabbi of Egypt, Refael Aharon ben Shimon, in his book Nehar Misrayim (p. 65-6).

After extolling this “beautiful custom,” ben Shimon laments how the custom had become so weakened and how so many had become lax in keeping it. He states that this is largely due to the fact that the city had experienced such large-scale expansion and many members of the Jewish community had relocated to the suburbs. He concludes on an optimistic note with the hope that the custom will experience a renaissance in the near future.

Two other North African Jewish communities that I know of retain more pared-down versions of the celebration of the first of Nisan. In the communities of Tunisia and Libya, the ceremony is referred to as bsisa and maluhia respectively. Bsisa is also the name given to a special dish that is prepared for this day that is made of wheat and barley flour mixed with olive oil, fruits and spices. Several prayers for the new year are recited, whereupon the celebrants exchange new year greetings with each other. Many of these Judeo-Arabic prayers contain similar themes to the Egyptian-Jewish Tahwid prayers discussed above. (For example: “Shower down upon us from Your bounty and we shall give it over to others. That we shall never experience want—and may this year be better than the previous year.”)

As in the Egyptian community, however, the new year aspect of the celebration is not especially stressed. As the eminent historian and expert on North African Jewry Nahum Slouschz pointed out in his article, “It is impossible not to see in these customs the footprints of an ancient rosh hashanah that was abandoned with the passage of time because of the tediousness of the Passover holiday and in favor of the holiness of the traditional [Tishrei] Rosh Hashanah.”

Although the observance of the first of Nisan is no longer as prominent as it once was, and minhag Eretz Yisrael is now effectively extinct, today, however, there is a small community of predominantly Ashkenazic Jews in Israel who seek to reconstruct this rite. Using the work of scholars who have labored to piece the Palestinian rite together based on the Cairo Genizah, this community endeavors to put it back into practical usage. Among many other customs, they celebrate the first of Nisan. The flagship institution of this movement is called Machon Shilo and its founder and leader is an Australian-Israeli rabbi named David bar Hayyim. This community observes the first of Nisan in the manner prescribed by the Geniza fragments. On the eve of the first of Nisan, the community waits outside to sight the new moon, then recites the Kiddush prayer and finally sits down to a festive meal. The community has also been behind a prayer book called Siddur Eretz Yisrael, which is based on the ancient rite.

The author is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at [email protected].

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