The fact that we observe the Jewish New Year in the autumn month of Tishrei creates a misleading impression that Tishrei is the first month of the Jewish year. This is clearly not the case. The Torah explicitly designates the springtime month of the exodus—the one that was later called Nisan—as "the beginning of months."
From the study of old liturgical compendia and fragmentary manuscripts of prayer books, we learn that in the land of Israel it was customary to attach special prominence to the month of Nisan in prayers and blessings. In Arabic, the first day of Nisan was given the title “Ras al-Halal al-Kabir,” the Great New Moon. Where the normal New Moon service refers to “this beginning of the month,” the prayer for Nisan spoke of “this beginning of the beginnings of the months. ”The evening service—which marks the onset of a new day according to the Hebrew calendar—was introduced by a special recitation of Psalm 97: “The Lord reigneth, let the earth rejoice.”
Moreover, there was even a special Kiddush blessing for this day that was recited over a cup of wine in the synagogue following the evening service, a rite that had no equivalent for any of the other New Moons of the year. In some respects—such as its elaborate preamble of rhymed stanzas designed to be sung in a variety of musical styles—the solemnity of this Kiddush more than rivaled those of the major biblical festivals.
Indeed, the New Moon of Nisan inspired a distinctive genre of liturgical poetry (piyyuṭ) that stressed the primacy of this date as the the time when the ancient Israelites were first notified of their approaching liberation from Egypt. Hence the day also served as an inspiration to strengthen the people’s faith in the imminence of the messianic redemption.
A popular genre of piyyuṭ for this occasion took the form of literary debates in the Aramaic language between Nisan and the other months, as each argued its case for why it was more deserving to be chosen as the time for Israel’s liberation from Egypt. Other poetic creations dwelled on the numerous events associated with the first of Nisan. The poets commemorated such themes as the inauguration of the Tabernacle in the desert, the offerings of the tribal princes, the investiture of the priests and the centralization of the sacrificial rites. And of course they recalled that the month as a whole was the occasion of the very first Passover celebration, the exodus and the miraculous parting of the Red Sea.
Documents from the Cairo Genizah allow us to trace the development of these prayers from the mists of antiquity through to the thirteenth century. Most of the testimonies relate to the “Shami” Jewish community [referring to the followers of the Palestinian rite] of Cairo, and all indications point to the fact that they were celebrating the first day of Nisan as a lively and popular spring festival. Although the Shami community originally observed special prayers for the beginnings of all the Hebrew months, the one for Nisan was the only one to survive past the thirteenth century.
In April 1906, a young Semitics student named Herbert Loewe (who would later become a prominent scholar at Cambridge University) was living in Cairo, and he submitted an article for the London Jewish Chronicle in which he provided an eyewitness description of the mass celebration by the Jewish community in Cairo’s Abasiyya quarter on the evening of the first of Nisan.
The ceremony was known by the Arabic name “Al-Tawḥid”—literally: the oneness, unification or uniqueness. In a compendium printed in 1908 chronicling the Jewish customs of Cairo, Rabbi Raphael Aaron Ibn Simeon associated that puzzling name with an Arabic prayer that was chanted by the cantor extolling “the greatness of the creator, his uniqueness and his many acts of kindness toward his creatures.” I consider it more likely that the original meaning was probably related to the idea that this is Day One of the first month of the year. A special prayer book for the occasion was published in Alexandria in 1887.
In his newspaper report, Herbert Loewe described how the festive venue and the roads leading to it were adorned with oil lamps, banners, wreaths and branches, and the local police tried ineffectually to keep the street open to the pedestrian traffic. The interior of the synagogue, whose construction was not yet completed at the time, was decorated with colourful tapestries, and the organizers positioned chairs upholstered in garish red for the benefit of the community dignitaries. The crowd partook of the food, drink and singing that are the norm at Jewish religious festivities.
The service combined a standardized set of hymns that were recited from year to year—Loewe singled out for mention the “Mippi El,” which is still a hit at our Simḥat Torah festivities— alongside a few novel offerings composed especially for that year’s celebration. In general, the songs exhibited conspicuous influences from prevailing Arab musical fashions. Several of the hymns were bilingual, consisting of alternating Hebrew and Arabic stanzas. The service concluded with a version of the “Prayer for the Welfare of the Sultan” that was all but indistinguishable from the one that was recited in the mosques.
When the rabbi rose to deliver his sermon in Arabic, it was not, as we might have anticipated, on such themes as Passover or redemption from oppression, nor about the mysteries of the Hebrew calendar or any of the usual ideas that are standardly associated with the first of Nisan; but rather he spoke about the construction of the Tabernacle, an event that had indeed occurred on that date, and had the added advantage of allowing him to divert his sermon into a fund-raising pitch on behalf of the synagogue building fund. There was no subtlety here. After the sermon, the beadle individually approached each and every Effendi in the congregation, and the cantor chanted a “Mi-shebbeirakh” blessing in honour of each contributor.
In spite of all the public recognition that was bestowed on the donors, the campaign was a dismal failure and netted the community nothing more than a bit of small change. Only the community’s elders were delighting in the venerable and familiar ceremony, whereas the younger attendees seemed bored and fidgety through the whole affair. Raphael Ibn Simeon noted that in the early twentieth century the custom was losing much of its popularity as a result of urban sprawl, as young Jewish families were moving away from the traditional Jewish quarter to become scattered in the far-flung reaches of Cairo’s suburbs. Furthermore, the mercenary tone of the proceedings likely contributed to a widespread disaffection on the part of the community’s younger members.
It appears unlikely that we will be witnessing a revival of the public “First First Month” festivities any time soon. Nonetheless, there is much to admire in this powerful symbol of national and spiritual renewal.
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