May 21, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
May 21, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The First of Nisan, the Forgotten Jewish New Year

Part 3

(continued from last week)

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.”

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 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 also maluhia). Bsisa is also the name given to a special dish that is prepared for this day, which 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 prayers contain similar themes to the Egyptian-Jewish Tawhid 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 points out in an article in Davar (April 7, 1944), “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 Nissan is no longer as prominent as it once was in rabbinic Judaism, the two most prominent non-rabbinic Jewish communities, the Karaites and the Samaritans, have maintained the holiday into recent times. The Cairo Genizah contains leaves from a Karaite prayer book containing a service for the first of Nisan. This custom eventually fell out of the Karaite textual record as Karaite traditions fell in line with Rabbanite ones over the later Middle Ages. In his monumental study of the now extinct European Karaite community, historian Mikhail Kizilov discusses how Eastern-European Karaites underwent a gradual process of “dejudaidization” and “turkification” in the 1910s-’20s. This was largely due to the work of their spiritual and political head, Seraya Shapshal, who, aware of growing anti-Semitism in Europe, was determined to present his flock as genetically unrelated to the Jews (claiming instead that they were descendants of Turkic and Mongol tribes). He likewise sought to recast Karaism as a syncretistic Jewish-Christian-Muslim-pagan creed. Among the reforms instituted by Shapshal was the changing of the Karaite calendar. Although the Karaites of old began the calendar year on Nisan, as per Exodus, they had long assimilated the rabbinic custom of beginning the year in Tishrei. Shapshal sought to avoid a lining up of the Karaite and Rabbanite new years, which is why he switched the Karaite new year to March-April, thereby ironically reverting back to the ancient Karaite custom. This particular reform never took off and the community continued to celebrate the new year in Tishrei. Even the official Karaite calendars printed that date (which like the Rabbanites they called “Rosh Hashanah”). Currently, Karaites do not actually celebrate this day or recite any special liturgy, however they do nominally recognize this day as Rosh Hashanah and they will exchange new year tidings.

The tiny community of Samaritans in Israel preserve the most extensive observance of this day. According to the Samaritan elder and scholar Benyamim Sedaka, the Samaritans celebrate the evening of the first day of the first month—the month of Aviv—as the actual Hebrew New Year. They engage in extended prayers on the day followed by festive family gatherings. They likewise bless one another with the traditional new year greeting “Shana Tova” and begin the observance, as the followers of the Palestinian rite once did, on the Sabbath preceding the day. The entire liturgy for the holiday is found in A. E. Cowley’s “The Samaritan Liturgy.” The fact that the Samaritans, who have functioned as a distinct religious community from Jews since at least the second century BCE, observe this tradition is the greatest indicator of its antiquity. The antiquity of this custom is also suggested by the fact that the springtime new year is likewise celebrated by many other ethnic communities from the Middle East, including the Persians and Kurds (who call it Nowruz) and also, much closer to Jews linguistically and culturally, the Arameans and Chaldeans/Assyrians who call their new year Kha (or Khada) B’Nisan (the first of Nissan).

Minhag Eretz Israel 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 Shiloh and its founder and leader is an Australian-Israeli rabbi named David bar Hayyim. In private correspondence, Yoel Keren, a member of Machon Shilo, stated that his community observes the festival in the manner prescribed by the Geniza fragments. On the eve of the first of Nissan, 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 recently published a prayer book called Siddur Eretz Yisrael, which is based on the ancient rite.

By Joel S. Davidi Weisberger


Joel S. Davidi Weisberger runs “Luach Libekha, Tablet Of Your Heart” (formerly Jewish History Channel), a grassroots group dedicated to the dissemination of Jewish history and culture (find them on Facebook). You can also get to know him at the wonderful Cong. Beth Tefillah in Paramus, where he serves as an assistant. He resides with his wife and son in Fair Lawn and would love to hear from you at [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles