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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Sylvester Day

I understand that in Israel the secular New Year is referred to as "Yom Sylvester." Where does this name come from?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

In 46 BCE the Roman emperor Julius Caesar made adjustments to the Roman calendar, including beginning the new year on January 1 rather than in March. (He egocentrically decreed that the calendar should henceforth be called the "Julian" calendar.)

In practical terms, all cultures celebrate the new year according to their particular calendar and the Romans were no different. When the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire under Constantine, at his mother Helena's behest, the Christian world carried on the custom of celebrating the Roman new year.

In many European countries this day was named after Saint Sylvester. There have been three popes named Sylvester (who later became Saints), but the one after whom the day is named is Sylvester I (314-335). Christianity grew under his rule and it is believed that he died on December 31. In addition, during his rule it was believed that he had been swallowed by the Leviathan sea monster and that the monster would return in the year 1000 to destroy and kill. When it did not, people were relieved and they celebrated.

As you see, there is nothing remotely Jewish about "Sylvester Day." So why is it celebrated in Israel?

Israeli society flows according to the Jewish calendar. Schools and businesses are closed on Shabbat, and the whole country shuts down on Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur. For that reason the secular/Christian new year has little significance. Yet when some ultra-secularists discovered that most of the world holds a "New Years party," they didn't want to feel left out.

Yet they couldn't call it "New Years" because that title was already taken by Rosh Hashana. So the name Sylvester was adopted in its stead.

Choosing Good Over Evil

For a long time it has bothered me what the Torah means by: "God created man in His image" (Genesis 1:27). Given that human beings are finite and corporal, how are we created in God's image?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Obviously the "image of God" is dealing with the non-physical part of us - the soul. Our drive for morality and meaning, our drive to make a difference is from the soul which is in the "image of God."

But there's more to it than that. Just as God has independent choice, so too does each human being have independent moral choice. The image of God means that we have the ability to choose.

Choice is the essential issue of what makes us special? Because life only becomes meaningful due to our ability to choose. For example, the difference in being "programmed to love" and the choice to love, is precisely what makes love significant. In other words, if I have the ability to choose good or evil, the good becomes significant.

But it goes deeper still. For choice to be authentic, there have to be consequences. If every time I get in trouble, dad comes to bail me out, that's not really choice. Choice means consequences.

Sometimes God does make a miracle, but it is typically in a way that is not obvious, that enables us to retain free choice.

In the 1991 Gulf War, 39 Scud Missiles rained down on Israel and only one person was killed. It was a miracle, but God still left open at least the possibility for someone to say, "No, there was no miracle. It was a fluke of nature."

So now we can understand that "image of God" means that God created beings who have the ability to make decisions, and those decisions will create consequences that will make this being a co-partner in the development of the world.

For free choice to operate, evil has to have the possibility of existing. If every time someone chooses to do evil, God is going to interfere, then there's no moral choice. If every time the gun is pointed, the turret points backwards, after a few times you'll get the message. If you eat pork and get struck by lightning, then you're not "morally choosing," you just see it doesn't work. It simply becomes pragmatic not to do evil.

If the lives of the righteous were obviously perfect, that too would destroy the possibility of choice. Pragmatically, we'd figure it pays more to be righteous because look at the millions of dollars that come my way! That's not choice. That's not becoming God-like.

In other words, a world where a human being can create himself into a Moses, also carries the possibility of a person creating himself into a Hitler.

Names of Hebrew Months

How did the Hebrew months get their names? When did the names of the months come about and to whom are they attributed?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

If you look in the Bible, you'll see that the Hebrew months don't have names. Rather they have numbers, counting from the month of Nissan, which is described as "the first month" (Exodus 12:2).

In 1-Kings 6:2 the month of Iyar is referred to as the "month of Ziv." The word "ziv" is an adjective and means "radiance." Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov explains that it is called "radiance" because in this month the sun is in full radiance. Similarly, the Jewish people came into full radiance in this month, for they were made ready to receive the Torah during this month.

1-Kings 6:38 refers to the month of Cheshvan as "the month Bul," related to the word "baleh" which means, "withers," and the word "bolelin" which means "mixed." It is described in this fashion since the grass withers in this month, and the grain is mixed for the household livestock. The Radak explains that the word "bul" is related to "yevul" which means produce, since plowing and planting begins in this month.

Other names we use today are Babylonian in origin, adapted by the Jews some time during the Babylonian Exile, circa 400 CE. Ironically, the month of Tammuz is the name of an idol which appeared (via optical illusion) as if it was crying. This was achieved by putting soft lead into its eyes, and by kindling a small fire inside, which would melt the lead. This explains the reference in Ezekiel 8:14: "There were women sitting, causing the Tammuz to cry."

There are other opinions about the name of this month. Rashi says that the name Tammuz is an Aramaic word meaning "heat," since it is a hot summer month.

Another interesting note: Tammuz-17 was the name of the Iraqi nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel in 1981. It was so named because the 17th of Tammuz is the day that Jerusalem was sieged prior to the destruction of the Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, and Saddam Hussein was known to fancy himself as the heir to Nebuchadnezzar's fallen dynasty.

It's not any more unusual than the Western world whose months are connected to pagan practices: March is named after Mars, June is named after Juno, etc. Furthermore, even the days of the week - e.g. Sunday, Monday - are called after "sun" god and the "moon" god. The name Tuesday is connected to the Norse god of war.

Even though the names of the months are linguistically speaking Babylonian, they were adopted by the Jews with the understanding that they were Divinely inspired names, and are laden with kabbalistic nuances. Based on this, the Sages expounded the names of the months - e.g. Elul is an acronym for "ani ledodi vedodi li" (I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me”), and Nisan is the month of "nissim" (miracles).