On the Jewish New Year for Animals

(Photo: Unsplash/Fabian Burghardt)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster on why she thinks the time is ripe for the resurrection of the Jewish New Year for Animals.

One of the most poignant episodes of the Israeli War of Independence must have been the moment when the minuscule remnant of Orthodox Jews still remaining in the Old City of Jerusalem, managed on May 14 1948 to hear on the rickety radio provided by the fledgling Israeli army the voice of their new Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, hurriedly announcing in a heavily accented Modern Hebrew the re-creation of the new State of Israel.

What were the ultra-Orthodox rabbis still remaining in the Old City to make of this greatest event in Jewish history? The rebirth of a nation, no less! Had this ever happened before in world history? Probably not. Were these excessively cautious representatives of the religious Jewish community of the Old City to continue to act as diaspora Jews, always waiting for the Messiah to come, or were they to acknowledge that for the Jewish people, the Messianic Age had, through this one decision by their first Prime Minister, already begun?

After all, surely these rabbis had nothing to lose by ignoring the inevitable: in fact they had everything to gain by 'keeping calm and carrying on.'

They did no such thing. Surrounded by the ruins of their own, much-adored Old City, as ancient as time itself, later that evening, a Friday night, they repaired to the bunker of the Yochanan bar Zakkai synagogue (known for its devotion to Kabbalah) and held a defiant impromptu Shabbat service to the echo of gunfire from the surrounding Arabs, assisted by the British.

Seemingly impervious to the danger they were in during this seminal moment in their history, at the appropriate stage in the Friday night service, the Sephardi rabbi, Dean of Porat Yosef Synagogue, Rabbi Ben Zion Hazan (1887-1952), suddenly told the chazzan (cantor) to do something quite new. He told him to continue the Shabbat service by including the joyful Hallel service (based on Psalms 113-118), exactly as had been done a few weeks earlier at the festival of Pesach, which commemorates our Exodus from Egypt.

By making this seminal and, in his case, extremely shocking decision, less than a month after Pesach itself, and during the mournful seven-week Omer period, when celebrations are not permitted, Rabbi Hazan was making two points.

First, our Jewish Exodus from the Egypt of British and Arab occupation was nearly over. Secondly, from this moment on, the first Shabbat service on the evening of the first day of the re-existence of the renewed State for the Jewish people after a relatively short gap of 2,000 years, was to become part of the official religious Jewish calendar. Moreover, this completely new festival, celebrating the re-creation of the original political State for the Jews, would become known as Yom HaAtzma'ut (Independence Day), an annual day of religious joy and celebration all round.

I was reminded of this seminal event in the history of the Jewish people, when invited a few weeks ago to take part in a Zoom roundtable on the publication of a new book by the prolific Professor Richard Schwartz, formerly of New York, but now living in Israel.

Richard was at one time President of the Vegetarian Society of North America and, since retirement and Aliyah to Israel, he hasn't ceased promoting his espousal not only of vegetarianism, but of veganism. Moreover, he has based his mission within Jewish biblical norms and commentaries.

And now, Richard has published his e-book, advocating the re-admission of the defunct Jewish festival of 'New Year for Animals' - Restoring and Transforming the Ancient Jewish New Year for Animals: An Idea Whose Time has Come.

Basing all his arguments in biblical and rabbinic norms, what Richard emphatically does not do is to espouse the green lobby, whose main aim runs counter to religious norms.

So, when Richard invited me to participate by Zoom in this Jewish roundtable on the subject, I agreed. After all, I had already been consulted at the highest level prior to Cop 26 in November 2021 on what Judaism has to say about environmental issues, and had been cited verbatim at a number of venues.

Let me state from the outset that, irrespective of the bandwagons which have risen comparatively recently in the areas of the environment, I am and always have been, in favour of bringing back Jewish festivals that have simply fallen into disuse.

In my lifetime, these have included Tu B'Shvat (New Year for Trees), which takes place at the time when mid-winter morphs into spring, coinciding with the sighting of the first almond in Israel.

In my lifetime too, the major autumn pilgrim festival of Succot has grown in importance, celebrating the commemoration of the harvest period, when we build huts, decorate them and live outside, weather permitting.

When I was young, many eons ago, the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) were celebrated in Shul, where we kids were instructed to be on our best behaviour for hours, having been reminded beforehand that this was a very solemn time of year (often coinciding with return to school) and not much more.

By contrast, the spring festival of Pesach was mainly celebrated at home with strange foods, including no leaven, i.e. matzah rather than bread, and bitter herbs in the shape of 'chrein' (grated horseradish), a bitter concoction adored by my father, which was ironically supposed to remind us of our bitter time in exile – and – well, that was really it!

At the winter festival of Chanukah, children received chocolate money and during the early spring festival of Purim, there was certainly no carnival or dressing up for children in my part of the UK during the late 50s and early 60s. I still remember post-War rationing, to be honest!

But since then all the above festivals have been livened up tremendously for our own age, and made child-friendly, which is certainly no bad thing!

But, and most important of all, in addition to all these old-new festivals which have undergone a facelift in recent years, we now have, during the tragic seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot (Pentecost), three extra religiously sanctioned commemorative days falling just after Pesach, deliberately bunched together as close as possible.

These three new Jewish festivals are Yom Hashoah (commemorating the Holocaust), Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terrorism) and Yom HaAtzm'aut (Independence Day), whose amazing origins during the War of Independence of 1948 were mentioned above.

So, I have always wondered why on earth, just as we have New Year for the Planet (Rosh Hashanah), also known as 'the birthday of the world'; New Year for Seasons (celebrating the first Jewish month of Nisan two weeks before Pesach); and New Year for Trees (Tu B'Shvat, mid-winter morphing into spring), we couldn't simply restore New Year for Animals, which historically took place in the New Month of Elul, which this year takes place on 27 August, a month before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year).

In addition, I was often asked this very question by enquiring minds when teaching cheder (Jewish Sunday School) in my younger days, and despite my best efforts could never find an adequate response to why it was OK to have a New Year for Trees, but not a New Year for Animals.

But now, as I stated at the recent Zoom roundtable to celebrate the publication of Richard's new book on the subject, I think the time is ripe for the resurrection of this historic early autumnal Jewish festival, and, as it states in Pirke Avot, as well as in Primo Levi, if not now, when?

My first reason is, as stated above, that if we don't do it, so-called 'animal rights' will be forced upon us by the neo-pagans who now run the Western world, and whose aim is the destruction of the entire Jewish project.

In Europe, a combination of far leftists and green activists has taken over a number of parliaments and forced their anti-Jewish agenda of banning brit milah (circumcision of the Jewish male) on an entirely compliant Jewish community, which, unlike Rabbi Hazan of the Jewish Old City, doesn't understand the meaning of 'fighting for your rights'.

What Richard Schwartz is suggesting is nothing new in itself: it is simply to reintroduce at this opportune time in our history, the well-honoured practice throughout our Bible, Midrash, Mishna, Talmud and later writings, to consider every living creature, as G-d tells us we should, and parallel the wonderful early spring festival of Tu B'Shvat (New Year for Trees) by the autumn festival of late August/early September, Rosh Hashanah LaBehemot (New Year for Animals).

In addition, by celebrating animals at this time of year, we would be adding another dimension to the sombre month of Elul, which comes before Tishrei, the time for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot, and finishes with the culmination of the biblical cycle of readings, and the recommencement of the Book of Bereshit (Genesis), in which G-d states (as interpreted by Rashi) that 'Be-reshit' means that G-d created the world 'on account of the first fruits', ie for the human species, and for the entirety of G-d's creation.

In this Shemittah year, wouldn't it be fitting for biblical scholars, law-makers, environmentalists, medical practitioners and others to get together in Israel and to think through the mechanics. After all, it didn't take Rabbi Hazan more than a few minutes to make his extraordinary decision on behalf of Jewish people everywhere to create a completely new religious festival.

And he wasn't the only one. Before him, Rav Kook (1865-1935) and, after him, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen of Haifa (1927-2016), whose eye-witness report about that first Yom HaAtzma'ut in the Old City of Jerusalem is simply priceless, as well as various other Jewish thinkers, scholars and biblical experts, all agree that there is really no viable argument against the idea of going full cycle, and incorporating to the Jewish New Year for the entire world, seasons, and trees this last step in the Jewish project, thus helping to usher in the Messianic Age for all.

And there is more: the reading for Rosh Hodesh (the New Month - which incidentally is a monthly festival dedicated to Jewish women everywhere) comes from the final book in the prophecies of Isaiah, Chapter 66.

This Isaiah finale is pertinent to our project and to Richard's new book. In Isaiah 66, G-d starts by reminding the Jewish people that He is the creator of absolutely everything. G-d desires a spirit of humility in His creation.

For this reason, says Isaiah, in the Messianic Era animals will no longer be killed, and should be treated with the same consideration as we should now show to human beings. Simply slaughtering animals for sacrifice or for our own satisfaction will no longer be tolerated, and any such sacrifices will be treated with the contempt they deserve.

Then, mindful of it being Rosh Hodesh, a special festival for women, G-d turns to female imagery. No longer will we have to suffer in Exile. For G-d is like the ultimate mother, who knows the pains of labour, but in the Messianic Era, birth will be painless and quick.

From our Jewish perspective, this birth according to Isaiah is the rebirth of the Jewish State, and especially the special city of Jerusalem. And the Jewish people will relive the bliss of the unconditional love offered to a new-born baby by the breast-feeding mother.

The thing about breast-feeding is that the more the baby sucks, the more love is given. And then, the reborn Jewish people will rejoice in their reconstructed city of Jerusalem, leading to the peoples of the world being encouraged to join them in the new Jewish state, where they will 'drink' of her bounty, learn from her, and even accompany the remaining Jewish exiles back to their mother country, their Jewish home.

So, following on from the last chapter of the Book of Isaiah, what we all need now is a reconstructed mindset.

We should not automatically say 'No' to novel ideas, but reconsider these new ways of looking at old ideas, especially when they are simply reconstitutions of what has always been with us and simply need to 'wake up' and take on new life once again.

Richard's new book is rich in historical and literary sources which back the reintroduction of this noble and ancient Jewish New Year. He is also, in great American fashion (which is still not quite understood in the UK), not shy of citing all the endorsements for his idea from many contemporary Jewish professionals in the field of Bible, environment and medicine, to name but a few.

The Zoom roundtable made abundantly clear, through contributions from scientists and medical professionals, that the status of animals and our attitudes to animal consumption, should be taken very much more seriously when thinking about the future health of the humans on our planet, as well as about the future of planet itself.

For those who would argue by contrast that the 'world was made at root for human beings', may I just state that the great Bible commentator, Spanish Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164), as well as the later Rambam (1135-1204), also originally from Spain, both beg to differ.

In his magisterial Commentary on the Bible, written in beautiful Lucca, northern Italy, around 1145, the great ibn Ezra stated categorically that the world was not made for humans. We human beings are, states this stubborn genius, simply 'a tiny speck in the large scheme of things'.

Doesn't this tally with what G-d says to Isaiah in the final chapter of his great prophetic book, which is read in Shul at this time of year as the 3rd of the 7 Haftorahs of Comfort, leading up to Rosh Hashanah.

'On this person I will look, on the person of humble and contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word.'

Without at all jumping on any bandwagon, it is, in my opinion, essential that we Jews take the opportunity to make the changes and to be in charge of our own destiny.

After all, the State of Israel has demonstrated beyond the call of duty that she is up to dealing with enemies both physical and mental; she is number one in the world in Research and Development; more Jewish children now live in Israel than in any other part of the world; for more than a decade Tel Aviv has been the global city with the world's largest Jewish population (and is also, interestingly, the vegan capital of the world).

So, in the large scheme of things, bringing back this wonderful concept of the New Year for Animals, would simply be coming full circle, and righting a wrong. We have the will; we have the evidence; we have the endorsement from all the Jewish books; now all we need are the religious legislators to provide the halakhic approval.

In the meantime, I would like to recommend Richard's new book, published by Lantern Press, to all our readers. It is steeped in Jewish writings, and can be shared by Jews and Christians everywhere.

And this is a link to the Zoom roundtable, so that, like me, you can discover new arguments in favour of The New Year for Animals, this wonderful contribution to the Jewish project.