Growing up, I always thought it was great fun to celebrate two New Years within just a few months: one in the fall when Rosh Hashanah rolled around, and then the secular one in the middle of winter.
Frankly, I always thought it was odd to have a New Year start in the middle of the coldest season—it seemed logical to start the year when schools reopened from summer break—but I wasn’t one to complain. More parties, more food, and more company are fun!
Should Jews Celebrate the Secular New Year?
There’s a fair amount of commentary on the Web about this. Overall, the answer seems to be yes but don’t go crazy over it because it is, after all, a more or less Gentile tradition.
Rav Parry is an American rabbi who is the online expert for Virtual Jerusalem. He’s a teacher and Talmud instructor in Los Angeles, and as a mashgiach ruchani, has a specialty in counseling those converting to Judaism. He’s served as a Kashrut supervisor, wrote The Complete Idiot’s Gide to Hebrew Scriptures, started a kosher food stand at Dodger Stadium, and has published in several papers including the Los Angeles Times, Jerusalem Post, and Washington Post.
A few years ago, a reader emailed him asking this very question. Rabbi Parry’s answer notes that there are three items to consider when it comes to invitations to secular and Gentile celebrations:
- Does it involve idol worship?
- Does it require adopting Gentile customs?
- Does it add to mitzvoth?
No one could possibly confuse the merrymaking of New Year’s Eve with Rosh Hashanah, which while joyous, doesn’t generally include fireworks or all-night ice fishing parties for that matter. It’s still too warm in September and October to even consider polar bear swims in much of the country.
Few Canadians engage in idol worship and those that do probably don’t meet many in our community anyway.
Hosting people is certainly a mitzvah, I think, particularly if they would otherwise be alone and feeling lonely (and certainly, there are people who have no problem being alone). Visiting the sick or infirm is a mitzvah, and one can easily make that part of a New Year’s celebration. And it’s an honor to be invited to a wedding in another faith, or to witness a baptism or other event commemorating a new life.
So, does attending and enjoying New Year’s Eve events risk emulating Gentile customers? Not if it contradicts how you conduct yourself the rest of the year.
For example, as Parry points out, some Chasidics don’t wear neckties because there’s no valid Jewish reason to do so. But many, if not most, Jews do so for occasions that call for it. Chasids also accept wearing a uniform, such as medical scrubs or military/police uniforms. In general, the prohibition is clothing that promotes licentiousness or other forbidden behavior. This is why many religious Jews hesitate to let their kids dress for Halloween.
Parry’s final advice is, yes, it’s OK to celebrate the secular New Year but do so with common sense. Don’t drink and drive or allow others to act recklessly. Do a mitzvah and call for a taxi, or volunteer to be the designated driver.
Observant friends already know to avoid nonkosher food and when in doubt, ask. Here’s a nice light meal or side dish to serve on New Year’s Day. I found it on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Health and Wellbeing site. It goes with dairy, which is probably a good thing to consume on a day when eating sparingly may be a good idea.
Beans with Fig and Toasted Hazelnuts
12 oz green beans
2 oz lowfat feta cheese
1 fresh fig; dried is fine
2 t lemon juice
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Wash and trim the beans, and put them in the boiling water for 3-4 minutes.
- Drain and immediately plunge into ice-cold water. This stops the cooking process and keeps them crunchy.
- Let them cool, pat dry with paper towel and put in a large bowl.
- Out a small frying pan on medium heat and add the hazelnuts. Do not add butter, oil, or water. Toast for a few minutes until you get that wonderful aroma and remove from heat.
- When they cool, you can rub the nuts to remove the skin. But you don’t have to do this.
- Add the nuts to the beans, toss, and crumble in the feta. Add lemon juice and toss gently.
- Slice the fig into quarters and cut down until you have nice thin wedges. Put on serving plates and add the bean mix.