The postman knocks twice: Holier than thou? Try studying Jewish history

The Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s religious establishments should stop battling windmills.

Jewish calendar (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jewish calendar
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Soon it will be January 1, New Year’s Day by the Gregorian or secular calendar, one of the few things that unite disparate parts of the world. For example, the traditional Chinese calendar determines holidays in China and several of its neighbors. But for civil usage, as in Israel and like almost every country in the world, those Far Eastern countries use the Gregorian calendar.
The holier-than-thou crowd will doubtless fulminate against those celebrating New Year’s Eve. Hotels’ kashrut certificates will be threatened if such “pagan” parties are planned to take place in them. It’s not only because the Christian term “Sylvester” is the name commonly used in Israel for New Year’s Eve.
That name was imported by Central European immigrants in the 1930s. Pope Sylvester I was buried on December 31 in the year 335 and later beatified as Saint Sylvester. Thus, in German- speaking countries, the saint’s name day of December 31, Sylvester, was used for New Year’s Eve celebrations. This added fuel to the fire. To hold a party marking a non-Jewish calendar and celebrating a Catholic saint?
The “sin” of using a non-Jewish calendar and celebrating such a “non-Jewish” holiday as New Year’s Eve is the work of those who believe that the purity of Jewish sources and values have never changed. In their fettered eyes, throughout history Jews had nothing to do with non-Jews. Jewish culture down the ages was never influenced by non-Jewish cultures and remained pristine and virginal from Day 1.
Well, let’s start with our Hebrew calendar. Years ago I discovered, while trying to learn a bit about ancient Near Eastern cultures, that in ancient Sumeria (from 4000 BCE) and on through Akkadian, Assyrian and Babylonian culture, there was a god by the name of Tammuz. At some time these proto-Iraqis then named a month after him.
Moreover, every single one of the other 11 Hebrew months bears a non-Jewish name adopted by those who returned to Zion from the Babylonian exile. In plain English, the names of the Hebrew months are Babylonian.
Now, a few hundred years later the Book of Esther appeared. Though the action takes place in Persia, the two lead characters, Mordecai and Esther, are named after Mesopotamian gods. Marduk was the “chief god” in Babylon, and Ishtar was, naturally, the goddess of love, sex and political power, among her other attributes.
After Alexander the Great swept through the Middle East and Persia in the third century BCE, Greek language and culture permeated the entire area from the Adriatic to the fringes of India. Let’s take a look at how this influenced the sages in the Land of Israel, as outlined in the tractate Avot studied annually as Pirkei Avot.
In that very century, Antigonus of Sokho is the first Jewish national leader to bear a Greek name. A few centuries later we find Shmaya and Avtalyon. The latter, again, is a Greek name. The original name was probably Ptollion, but Hebrew does not tolerate starting a word with two consonants. Ptollion, who became Avtalyon, was a convert to Judaism.
My own favorite Greek word among the many used in the Mishna is kapandria, a shortcut. It has been rolling musically around my tongue since I first learned it in Toronto many decades ago. It sings.
Sa’adia Gaon, who headed the great Babylonian seminary of Sura, wrote mainly in Arabic. His audience was Jewish and Arabic was their lingua franca. That was a thousand years ago. Speaking Arabic and living among Muslims, Jews obviously absorbed and also transmitted the great works of Arab linguistics and philosophy.
About the same time in Cordoba, Spain, a brilliant Jew who was a talmudist, grammarian and a very fine Hebrew poet, Shmuel Hanagid, was both vizier and general of the armed forces of an Islamic ruler.
Spanish Jewry conversed in Spanish, Hebrew and for part of its history, Arabic. Europe owes a great debt to the Hebraists of Toledo in the 12th and 13th centuries who helped translate ancient Greek and medieval Muslim (and a few Jewish) philosophers into proto-Spanish, Latin or Hebrew. This made it possible for the teachings of these ancient and medieval philosophers to reach then-benighted Europe.
These were the great Sephardi examples. In Ashkenaz about a thousand years ago, Rashi certainly knew German and French. The occasional translations of words into old French in his commentaries are extensively used by specialists in the development of the French language.
Italian, German and Slavic languages became a must for those Jews who dealt in primitive banking. The first book on stagecraft was written in Mantua, Italy, in the 16th century by Leone de Sommi, who led an ensemble of Jewish singers, actors and musicians who entertained the duke. Solomone de Rossi (Shlomo Min Haadumim) both composed for the court of Mantua and created synagogue music. They did not play on Shabbat.
Ashkenazi Purim is wilder and more drunken that the Sephardi custom, doubtless because of its proximity to Carnevale, a Christian hedonistic extravaganza preceding the sad days of Lent. Hanukka gifts every night and the glamorizing of the candle- lighting ceremonies have been documented as an effort to offset the colorfulness of gift-laden Christmas.
Is not the Chabad custom of lighting public hanukkiot in the Diaspora an attempt to balance the public colorful Christmas tree? And are not the shtreimel and hassidic garb a copy of what Polish and Ukrainian nobility wore centuries ago? So how about a dash of realism and historical honesty, ye of the holier-than-thou contingent. The Gregorian calendar and the English language today are universally accepted, just as were Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Spanish etc. – each in its own time. All the more so since the Internet blazed across the world’s skies in just a few decades and now reaches the furthest points of the globe.
The Chief Rabbinate and Israel’s religious establishments should stop battling windmills. Knowledge of history and a little sensitivity to the outside world might help. Just go ahead and enjoy New Year’s Eve parties if you so wish. It is not my cup of tea; but if it’s yours, just have fun.
We have enough serious issues to deal with on a daily basis. We all deserve a break. Pay no regard to those who deny Jewish history in all its openness.