Celebrating ‘Çhag Ha’Sylvester’ or New Years – What’s the fuss about?

31 12 2014

jewish new years

The question of whether or how Jews should mark the secular New Year comes up each year.

Obviously in business there is no problem in wishing non-Jewish clients and colleagues a ‘ Happy New Year’ – in fact there is probably more of a Halachik problem in not.

Also, as those of us who have worked with non-Jews abroad know, there are often office parties which everyone is expected to attend. I don’t see why there is a problem is attending as it’s for business rather than pleasure.

The question is, is there a problem in formally celebrating the secular new year – like the non-Jews, for purely social reasons. No, of course there is nothing wrong with socializing and mixing with friends, including on the evening of the 31st of December. But again, that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about copying and behaving like non-Jews do in the evening of the December 31st at parties by getting into that secular spirit and culture.

Here is some background behind the day and other ideas I wanted to share:

1)Chag Ha’Sylvester’

The Israeli term for New Year’s celebrations, ‘Sylvester’, was the name of the Saint and Roman Pope who reigned during the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.). The year before the Council of Nicaea convened, Sylvester convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. At the Council of Nicaea, Sylvester arranged for the passage of a host of anti-Semitic legislation. All Catholic Saints are awarded a day on which Christians celebrate and pay tribute to that Saint’s memory. December 31 is Saint Sylvester Day; hence celebrations on the night of December 31 are dedicated to Sylvester’s memory.

2) In Halacha:

There are 2 issues that came to mind:

(1) Avoda Zarah (Idol worship);

(2) Chukot Hagoy (customs and mores of the Gentiles),

(1) Chag Ha Sylvester is rooted in Christianity which still has remnants of  Avodah Zarah.  The fact that Jews wouldn’t attribute religious significance to a day some claim Jesus had his circumcision is irrelevant.There is therefore a pseudo – Halachik problem in being connected to such a day. Therefore there is also a problem in wishing someone, ‘Happy New Year’ unless you need to.

The question is (2) of Chukot Hagoy.

The Torah, in Vayikra 18:3, says that Jews are forbidden to copy the customs of non-Jews.

The Vilna Gaon said that all customs were deemed ‘Chukat Hagoy’ unless we are certain that they have a valid Jewish basis.

The Shulchan Aruch, of Rav Yosef Cairo, was more lenient and said they didn’t need to have a Jewish basis. The Rema, (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) adds that the prohibition against copying non-Jewish customs applies to activities that encourage inappropriate or immodest conduct or that are linked to Avoda Zarah.

Rav Moshe Feinstein, rules that as New Year’s Day nowadays is detached from its religious origins, it is permitted to mark the day as he says about Thanksgiving in the US. However, he does say that ‘Ba’al Nefesh’ – people who are particular about their observance won’t take part in celebrations.

3) In Jewish History:

Even though from a Halachic perspective, there may not be anything wrong with celebrating, it’s worth bearing in mind that the time period between the 25th of December and the 1st of January was a period of increased Anti-Semitism and Anti-Jewish activity and persecution in Europe:

On New Year’s Day 1577 Pope Gregory XIII decreed that all Roman Jews, must listen attentively to the compulsory Catholic conversion sermon given in Roman synagogues after Friday night services. On New Year’s Day 1578 Gregory signed into law a tax forcing Jews to pay for the support of a ‘House of Conversion’ to convert Jews to Christianity. On New Year’s 1581 Gregory ordered his troops to confiscate sacred literature from the Roman Jewish community.

Throughout the medieval and post-medieval periods, January 1, supposedly the day, on which Jesus’ circumcision initiated the reign of Christianity was reserved for Anti-Jewish activities: Synagogue and book burnings and persecution.

4) Celebrating in Israel?

Rav Moshe Feinstein was writing in America. I’m not sure if Rav Moshe was writing in present day Israel, he would have seen a need to permit celebrating the secular New Year, above showing respect to our non-Jewish colleagues, clients and friends. TG we have many reasons in our own Jewish calendar to celebrate.

Anyway, just some thoughts.

Benjy Singer.

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