Celebrating New Year’s Day and Halacha
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta, and is a member (dayan) in the Beth Din of America
A number of years ago I wrote an article addressing celebrating Thanksgiving according to halacha, which concluded that many halachic authorities accept that:
- Thanksgiving is a secular holiday with secular origins
- While some people celebrate Thanksgiving with religious rituals, this is unusual, and does not cause Thanksgiving to be classified as a Christian holiday
- Jewish law permits one to celebrate secular holidays, but not with people who celebrate them religiously.
The article concluded that according to most poskim (including Rabbis Feinstein, Soloveitchik and many others) Jewish law permits one to have a private Thanksgiving celebration with one’s Jewish or secular friends and family, so long as one does not treat Thanksgiving as a religious ritual or holiday. Such conduct is proper in my view and I generally celebrate Thanksgiving, although as Rabbi Yehuda Henkin notes, I do so without any religious fervor and sometimes skip a year, as I did this last year, since my eldest son was married on Thanksgiving day.
Shortly after that, I was asked about trick or treating on Halloween, and I concluded that halacha prohibits celebrating Halloween by wearing a costume while collecting candy, since Halloween has a clear pagan origin and in order to celebrate a holiday with a clear pagan origin one of four conditions must be met:
- Halloween celebrations have an additional secular origin.
- The conduct of the individuals “celebrating Halloween” can be rationally explained independent of Halloween.
- The pagan origins of Halloween or the Catholic response to it are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations can be attributed to some secular source or reason.
- The activities memorialized by Halloween are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.
Since it was clear to me that none of these statements are true, I concluded that celebrating Halloween by dressing in a costume was prohibited.
A few years later, I was asked about celebrating Valentine’s Day (February 14) from the view of halacha. I concluded that Valentine’s day has a clearly Christian origin but that the Christian origin has nearly completely vanished in our secular society. I argued that celebrating Valentine’s Day is quite different from Halloween, which also has lost much of its religious origins, and understanding the reason for this difference is very important. Halloween has an irrational component to it in which the form of celebrating can only be justified and explained by having it traced back to its gentile origins (dressing in costume and trick & treating). On the other hand, the mode of Valentine’s Day celebrations can be explained in our secular society completely rationally, grounded in such notions as sharing love, noting friendship and (perhaps most importantly) eating chocolate. Each of these values are not inherently religious or can be explained rationally, as the Rama (YD 178:1) requires for transposing actions with religious origins into secular practices that Jews can engage in.
That article made the following observation, which is important to recall. Even when a holiday is completely pagan in nature, halacha still recognizes that this does not make all modes of involvement prohibited. Rabbi Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:11(4)) is logically correct in his observation that:
Thus, it is obvious in my opinion, that even in a case where something would be considered a prohibited Gentile custom, if many people do it for reasons unrelated to their religion or law, but rather because it is pleasurable to them, there is no prohibition of imitating Gentile custom. So too, it is obvious that if Gentiles were to make a religious law to eat a particular item that is good to eat, halacha would not prohibit eating that item. So too, any item of pleasure in the world cannot be prohibited merely because Gentiles do so out of religious observance.
Thus, I concluded that eating chocolate on Valentine’s Day and even giving chocolate to another, so long as there is not notation of why such is being giving, is permissible, even if one disagreed with the analysis above and thought Valentine’s Day was still a Christian holiday. The same can be said for any activity intrinsically of value, such as a husband expressing his love of his wife, or giving flowers to a beloved — each of which would be a nice gesture all year round.
I concluded that it was the conduct of the pious to not overtly celebrate Valentine’s day, although bringing home chocolate, flowers or even jewelry to one’s wife is always a nice idea all year around, including on February 14.
Celebrating January 1st and Jewish Law
January 1st as New Years day has a clearly pagan origin. As Wikipedia notes (link):
The Romans dedicated this day to Janus, the god of gates, doors, and beginnings. The month of January was named after Janus, who had two faces, one looking forward and the other looking backward. This suggests that New Year’s celebrations are founded on pagan traditions. Some have suggested this occurred in 153 BC, when it was stipulated that the two annual consuls (after whose names the years were identified) entered into office on that day, though no consensus exists on the matter. Dates in March, coinciding with the spring equinox, or commemorating the Annunciation of Jesus, along with a variety of Christian feast dates were used throughout the Middle Ages, though calendars often continued to display the months in columns running from January to December.
It is quite clear that on a historical level that Catholic Europe celebrated New Years day religiously for centuries. Indeed, consider the simple remarks of the Rama writing in the Darchei Moshe YD 148 quoting the Terumat Hadeshen. He states:
It is written in the Terumat Hadeshen 195 that even nowadays one who wants to send [gifts] on the eighth day after Christmas which is called New Years should send such [gifts] during the day before [December 31st] and not on the day of the holiday, itself. And if the day before the holiday falls out on Shabbat, one may send on the day of the holiday, itself as there is a matter of hatred [eiva] if one sends later than that or more before then.
While the Rama in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 148:12) does not quote this formulation exactly, it is clear to me that this is function of censorship within the Rama and not because the matter is in dispute. According to Rama, New Year’s day is a Christian Holiday (indeed the formulation in the Terumat Hadeshen makes it clear that we are discussing the eighth day of Christmas as much as New Year’s day) whose celebration must be avoided and can only be marked when long term life threatening hatred to our community will result if gifts are not given.
On the other hand, the reality seems to have completely changed. New Year’s Day – like Valentine’s Day and unlike Christmas – seems to have completely lost its Christian overtones. Even in the deep Christian South where I live there are no indicia that connect New Years Day to Christianity. The “first generation” Hindu and Muslim communities in Atlanta – who would never celebrate Christmas – have New Year’s Eve parties. It is obvious that the status of New Year’s Day has changed in the last three hundred years.
Indeed, in contemporary America there is little religious content or expression to New Year’s Day. Few would classify it as a religious holiday, as there is a clear secular method and reason to celebrate New Year’s day, and thus it has lost its status as a Christian Holiday. Rabbi Feinstein notes this directly himself in Iggerot Moshe (Even Haezer 2:13). He writes with regard to New Year’s:
The first day of the year for them [January 1] . . . is not prohibited according to law, but pious people [baalei nefesh] should be strict.
This insight, written in 1963, is even more true nowadays. The Christian origins of New Year’s is even more cloaked now than a half century ago.
Modes of Celebration
My own sense is that the central question here is “what do we really mean by celebrating” and that this is a good tool to use to determine how we ought to conduct ourselves as a matter of halacha. Since New Year’s Day clearly has a pagan origin, the basic rule that we ought to follow is found in the Rama YD 178:1, who seems to rule that in order to permit engaging in conduct that might have pagan origins, one must show one of four things.
- The debated activity has a secular origin or value.
- The conduct the individuals engage in can be rationally explained independent of the gentile holiday or event.
- The pagan origins are so deeply hidden that they have disappeared, and the celebrations can be attributed to some secular source or reason.
- The activities memorialized are actually consistent with the Jewish tradition.
This method of analysis seems applicable to New Year’s as well, which clearly has a Christian origin. Each of the various activities of the day need to measure against that test. So, for example, I think that one can schedule davening on New Year’s Day on a Sunday schedule even as that “celebrates” the day in some way, as later davening time can be explained since people do not work on January 1, and sleeping later is a rational activity and thus that is permitted. So too, I think an employer who own a business is much better off as a matter of halacha giving New Year’s bonuses to workers than giving Christmas bonuses. So too, I think that one can go to an office New Year’s Eve party when one feels that such conduct is needed and part of the culture of the office one works. Assuming other aspects of Jewish law can be observed, I think that Rav Moshe’s assertion that avoiding such a party is the conduct of the pious is correct, and technical Jewish law permits such.
Jewish law has a clear method for analyzing whether secular holidays are religious, such as Christmas, and thus prohibited in celebration at all, or completely secular in origins (such as July 4th or Thanksgiving Day) and thus permitted in celebration. There is as well a middle category of holidays which have Christian origins but which are now celebrated secularly, and in such a case, halacha asks whether the mode of secular celebration can be rationally explained or the religious origins are fully hidden and have been replaced with a secular source or reason.
 See “The Celebrating of Thanksgiving at the End of November: A Secular or Religious Holiday,” J. Halacha & Contemporary Society 30:42-66 (1995).
 See “Celebrating Secular Holidays,” Emunah Magazine 28-32 (Fall, 2000).
 See http://ottmall.com/mj_ht_arch/v51/mj_v51i27.html
 This has nothing to do with the mode of celebration which I will discuss in the next section. Of course, celebrating New Year’s Day by engaging in public drunkenness or inappropriate parties is a violation of Jewish law – no different than celebrating Chanukah or Thursday nights in such a way.