This post was written by Aharon Varady, of OpenSiddur.org, in honor of the ancient tradition of a Jewish New Year for Animals, which was counted on the new moon of Elul. As we are nearing Rosh Hashana 2013 (5774)- one year away from the next Shmita- this is an opportunity to begin thinking of an aspect of Shmita that is somewhat overlooked: the way Shmita informs and directs our human relationships with animals, both domesticated and wild. Read on for more about the Rosh Hashana La’Beheimot (New Year for Animals):
Judaism has a New Years festival for animals. I’ll repeat: Judaism has a NEW YEARS FESTIVAL FOR ANIMALS!
When I first learned this, in 5th grade, studying the Mishna, I was floored. Really? I had just learned that Judaism had a New Years festival for Trees. A universal day of healing for the Tree of Life, Tu Bishvat, a former tithing day for dedicating first fruit offerings to the Temple, had been recovered by Jewish mystics 1500 years after the destruction of our Temple. Jews, especially the historic rabbis I admired, were creative thinkers, lovers and poets, like Rabbi Moshe Cordovero who in 1588 wrote in his work the Palm Tree of Devorah (Tomer Devorah), “This is the essence: to have compassion on all living creatures.”
My religion was awesome. A year before my family adopted our first stray cat from a no-kill shelter in Cincinnati. We accepted him into our Jewish family completely. I hadn’t learned about it in school, but in a book my mother brought back from our JCC’s Jewish Book Fair, I read that Judaism had an important mitzvah: to be mindful of the suffering of all living creatures. In Hebrew the mitzvah was called tsar baalei ḥayyim. From this commandment, I was obligated to feed my cat before myself at breakfast. I really appreciated that Judaism was mindful enough to speak for creatures that had no voice of their own. This all helped to convince me that Judaism, regardless of whatever boring or annoying social experiences I had in day school, was essentially a good religion, thoughtful and caring. It was up to me to live up to its peaceful and compassionate vision.
Later, when I was 18, in the first month of my first year in Israel, I got a strong flavor from my Lithuanian-style yeshiva of what the period preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Elul Zman, could really feel like… the increasing sense of urgency to repair and correct all of my relationships was intense and heartbreaking. (Isolated in a fairly monastic institution in a disputed corner of Israel, I was despairing what few personal relationships I had to repair.) Elul Zman was a month for a practice called ḥeshbon nefesh – making an accounting for one’s soul and it began with Rosh Ḥodesh Elul, the new moon festival coincident with the New Years festival for Animals. What was the connection between the two days?