Happy Yom Sylvester!

To most of us, January 1 is a day set aside for relaxation and celebration. In our culture, we celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, and Jews are no exception. True, some especially religious Jews shy away from celebrating the beginning of a new Gregorian year, perhaps seeing it as inappropriately rivaling the spiritual celebration of the Jewish New Year on Rosh Hashana. But since we keep time according to both the Jewish calendar and the Gregorian calendar, there is nothing inappropriate about marking the beginning of a new secular year, greeting each other with wishes of “Happy New Year” and even making resolutions that we hope to keep in the next twelve secular months. Our welcoming of 2016 in no way overshadows or competes with our celebration of a new Jewish year.

Israelis also celebrate the beginning of a new secular year, though the day isn’t a national holiday and most celebrations are more subdued than those we experience here in America and elsewhere in the world. And in Israel, New Year’s Eve is called by a different name—it’s known as Yom Sylvester. The reason is both intriguing and a bit amusing.

In 46 BCE Julius Caesar decreed that the first day of the year should be January 1 rather than in March. In the centuries that followed, many European countries named New Year’s Eve after Pope Sylvester I, who was Pope from 314-335 CE and who died on December 31 (it was common to hold a feast in his memory on that date). Jews were, of course, aware of the designation of the occasion in memory of Pope Sylvester. In the early years of the modern State of Israel, secularists who wanted to celebrate the beginning of the Gregorian year called New Year’s Eve “Yom Sylvester” because it seemed highly inappropriate to call it “Rosh Hashana.” The name has stuck to this day.

But there is also something ironic about calling New Year’s Eve “Yom Sylvester.” It turns out that Pope Sylvester was a particularly anti-Semitic Pope. Among other decrees, he convinced Constantine to prohibit Jews from living in Jerusalem. Pope Sylvester is long gone, but the Jews are still here and are living in the Land of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital. So perhaps the name “Yom Sylvester” is used with a slight touch of irony and humor.

Whatever its history and whatever we call it, I wish you a Happy New Year. And while I won’t say “Shana Tova,” I certainly express the hope that the new secular year that is about to begin brings you much to celebrate and many reasons for you to be happy and fulfilled.

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