Renewing the ancient New Year for animals with a vegan spin

The focal points of the renewed celebration of the New Year For Animals are three major events which will be held online in the US, UK and Israel.

Cow illustrative (photo credit: KIM HANSEN/WIKIPEDIA)
Cow illustrative
(photo credit: KIM HANSEN/WIKIPEDIA)
There’s the Rosh Hashanah we all know, with the apples and honey, shofar, special synagogue prayers and wishes for a shana tova (good year) that is celebrated on the first of Tishrei. But did you know there are actually four New Years in the Jewish calendar?
One of the four Jewish New Years is being reclaimed, in an attempt to focus public attention on what Dr. Richard Schwartz, president emeritus of Jewish Veg and president of the Society Of Ethical and Religious Vegetarians (SERV) called, “increasing awareness of Jewish teachings on compassion to animals and how far current realities for animals are from these teachings.”
Referred to in Hebrew as Rosh Hashanah L’Ma’sar Behemah, in Temple times, Rosh Hodesh Elul (which begins this year at sundown on Thursday, August 20), was the date shepherds used to determine which of their animals were to be counted when calculating tithes. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the New Year for Tithing Animals fell into obsolescence.
Schwartz would like to imbue Elul 1 with new meaning for modern times. Toward that end he’s directing “a campaign to renew the ancient New Year for Animals” as a day to focus on the harm done by eating animals. Schwartz, the author of the classic Judaism and Vegetarianism, is framing his campaign with Jewish values.
Dr. Richard Schwartz (Courtesy)Dr. Richard Schwartz (Courtesy)
“Judaism has powerful teachings on compassion to animals, but most Jews are ignoring the horrendous mistreatment of animals on factory farms and in other settings,” he explained.
In addition, according to Schwartz, “Animal-based diets and agriculture seriously violate basic Jewish teachings on preserving our health, treating animals with compassion, protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, helping hungry people and pursuing peace.” Even so, Schwartz commented that, “only a small percent of Jews are vegans or even vegetarians.”
The focal points of the renewed celebration of the New Year For Animals are three major events which will be held online in the US, UK and Israel. The local event is scheduled for 8 p.m. Israel time on Thursday, August 20.
The event, hosted on Zoom, will feature Schwartz discussing the history, rationale and importance of efforts to restore the ancient holiday. Other speakers include Dr. Yael Shemesh, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University; Rabbi Yonatan Neril, who is writing a commentary focusing on environmentalism in the Torah; and Dr. Alon Tal, from Tel Aviv University, author of Pollution in the Promised Land, and one of Israel’s leading environmental experts.
Speakers will discuss Jewish teachings on compassion to animals and the negative health and environment effects of animal-based diets. There will also be an opportunity for the panel to respond to questions from participants.
Parallel to these online events, the vegan organization Shamayim: Jewish Animal Advocacy (shamayim.us) is running an animal welfare sermon contest. Synagogue rabbis are being encouraged to speak to their members on the topic of Jewish responsibility toward animals during the month of Elul. There is a $500 cash prize for the best sermon on the topic.
Schwartz has cultivated an impressive number of organizational alliances, among them the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Jews for Animal Rights, Concern for Helping Animals in Israel, the Green Zionist Alliance and The Vegetarian Mitzvah.
Among the local rabbis who support this initiative are Rabbi Adam Frank, of Congregation Moreshet Yisrael in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yonatan Neril, a panelist on the live events and founder and executive director of the Jerusalem-based Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development in Israel.
RABBI IRVING (Yitz) Greenberg, former president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, expressed his support for the project when he wrote, “The Jewish tradition mandates that we are stewards of all God’s creation. In our day, we are increasingly sensitized to suffering of those living creatures in our care; this initiative helps us to recognize our obligation to animals and so helps us be more fully human.”
Similarly, Rabbi David Wolpe, of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, expressed his support for the project. “Transforming this holiday, which was originally a time to tithe one’s flocks, into a day to focus on the treatment of animals on modern farms would provide an excellent educational opportunity. Unlike our farmer/herder ancestors who had daily contact with animals, modern Jews are often completely out of touch with where their food comes from, or how it is produced,” he wrote.
Additional support comes from Jewish leaders like Nina Natelson, founder and director of Concern for Helping Animals in Israel (CHAI), in partnership with their Israeli sister charity, Hakol Chai (Everything Lives), Hakol Chai works to “prevent children’s violent behavior toward animals” in Israel’s Arab sector.
Rabbi David Rosen is a member of the Chief Rabbinate’s Commission for Dialogue with Religions and a former chief rabbi of Ireland. He said, “The idea to develop the ‘New Year for Animals’ from its original limited reference to become a day for raising awareness of human responsibility for animal welfare is, in fact, nothing less than an initiative to enhance our love of the Creator Himself, and is a sanctification of the Divine Name.”
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder of Shamayim, the organization that is sponsoring the sermon contest, has been recognized several times as one of America’s most influential Jews. In his message of support, Yanklowitz referenced the Garden of Eden, calling it, “the one locale where human and animal resided side-by-side, where one side didn’t dominate the other for gain.”
As much as meat is widely considered crucial for celebrating Shabbat and holidays, there is support for the idea that, in the Messianic era, we will return to the Garden of Eden’s original vegan diet.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-State Israel, taught that the permission granted to mankind after the time of Noah and the Flood was meant as a temporary concession, not a permanent state of affairs.
The organizers believe that reviving and transforming the observance of the New Year for Animals is vitally important because it demonstrates how Judaism applies its eternal teachings to contemporary issues. It also stresses the compassionate side of Judaism, making Jewish values relevant to vegan and vegetarian Jews who care about animals and the environment.
Besides Tishrei 1 and Elul 1, the other two Jewish New Years are the 15th of Shvat and Rosh Hodesh Nissan.
The 15th of Shvat is commonly known Tu Bishvat. On this date, Jews celebrate the New Year for Trees. When the Temple in Jerusalem was standing, this was the time of year when farmers calculated which fruits needed to be tithed. Today, especially in Israel, Tu Bishvat is both as a symbol of the Land of Israel being returned to the Jewish people and an ideal time to plant trees all over Israel.
Rosh Hodesh Nissan is known as the New Year of Jewish Kings, when the counting of the reign of Jewish kings began. With the end of the Jewish monarchy in 586 BCE, Nissan 1 has also fallen into disuse.
To learn more about Jewish teachings on compassion to animals, check out JewishVeg.org. For more information about celebrating the New Year for Animals, email Schwartz at VeggieRich@gmail.com.