The New Year of Spring: A Ritual Fantasy

The new moon of the Hebrew month of Nisan, which this year falls on March 29, is one of the Jewish harbingers of spring. The Torah tells that the new moon of Nisan is the anniversary of the desert Tabernacle’s construction and dedication, and also the anniversary of Miriam’s death. According to the Mishnah, the first of Nisan is a new year of the Jewish calendar. One passage in the Talmud claims there is an argument about whether the first of Tishrei, in autumn, is the anniversary of creation, or the first of Nisan, in spring. My own drash on this is that the first of Tishrei is the creation of life, while the first of Nisan marks the creation of time. What would it mean to celebrate the first of Nisan as a new year? This "ritual fantasy" tries to imagine an answer.

Imagine a shrine in the wilderness made of embroidered curtains, its shape eternally shifting in the desert wind. Imagine a fire lit upon a simple stone altar, tended so that it will never burn out. Imagine a branched lamp, adorned with flowers like a tree in springtime. Imagine at the heart of this shrine an empty space.

You come to this shrine bringing an armful of firewood, a sheaf of barley, incense, perhaps spring flowers. You are part of a large crowd of pilgrims that begins to gather around the four openings into the inner courtyard of the Tabernacle, bearing baskets and bowls, the gifts of the new year of the spring. It is just before dawn. Within the shrine a drum is sounding like a heartbeat, an eternal pulse, the rhythm of life. The new year of the fall marks the creation of life in the world, but on this day, you have been told, the Divine shook itself awake and created time itself. That is why, on this day long ago, the Tabernacle of your people was set up for the first time, for the Tabernacle represents the beginning of all things.

The pilgrims wait at the doorways of the shrine, bearing gifts in gratitude for the blessings of time and change. Within the courtyard, every sacred object shines, having been polished in preparation for this day. As you listen, priests and priestesses chant the seven sacred songs of the new moon of Nisan, the interwoven songs of the cycles of time: the song of waking and sleeping, the song of the Sabbath, the song of the moon’s turning, the song of planting and harvest, the song of the sun’s year, the song of the cycle of life, the song of the tribe’s memory of all things. At the center of the shrine, the high priestess beats the drum of Miriam, the heirloom of the tribe’s earliest days. Its voice must never cease as long as the Tabernacle stands. At the end of the songs, there is only her drumbeat. Then, at the moment of dawn, she lets her mallet fall to the ground. The drumbeat stops.

This moment recalls the time before time, before there was earth or life: the pre-creation where only the Infinite dwelled. This moment recalls the day the heartbeat of the prophet Miriam stopped, for she died on the new moon of Nisan. This moment recalls the stilling of the heartbeats of every lost loved one. The priests fall silent and prostrate themselves on the ground. There is a long silence. Then the pilgrims begin to clap their hands, rhythmically, first quietly, then loudly. These sounds plead with the Divine to return the sacred drumbeat, to give back the gift of time. Children too clap their hands solemnly, trying to begin creation again. You too clap along with the crowd, keeping the pulse of life. Yet eventually, quietly, sadly, the clapping comes to an end. Time has stopped again. Miriam's heartbeat will not return. At last, the pilgrims begin to wail. Children cry and huddle against their parents. The weeping crescendoes into a long, toneless cry.

The priests and priestesses are silent. The high priest takes a bowl of water and extinguishes the sacred fire, except for a single coal he puts into a tarnished silver bowl. Before your eyes, the priests and priestesses rise and begin to dismantle the shrine. The pilgrims begin a mournful chant as each frame and tapestry is unscrewed, untied, unbolted. Fabrics are folded, metal bars are gathered into bundles, vessels and garments are packed into chests, stones from the altar are wrapped and put onto litters. Within minutes nothing remains. You stand in a vast expanse of wilderness, with no building in sight. Soon even the pilgrims’ chanting and weeping ceases. All is stillness. All you see before you in the sand is charred firewood and an empty cistern, abandoned and dry. The priests and priestesses put their burdens on their backs and begin to walk. The high priest bears the glowing coal of the altar fire. The high priestess takes up the drum and joins the line. Silently, you follow.

It is unclear who leads the procession. Every once in a while the line of people seems to bend in a new direction, as if seeking something. When the wind changes, the direction of the line changes. Sometimes it is a child that nudges the line, sometimes an elder. The sliver of the new moon hangs in the sky, perhaps a guide. When children cry they are rocked into peace again. If someone becomes too tired or ill to walk, youths bring a litter to carry them. At intervals the procession pauses for rest and food, but a meditative silence prevails. There is a kind of endlessness to the day. At noon, after the meal, the eldest pilgrim steps to the priests' burdens, picks one sacred object from the many bundles, and leaves it behind on the road. Then the line begins to move again. It is forbidden to look back, but one priestess does anyway, a tear sliding down her cheek.

As the afternoon wears on, exhaustion slows the pace of the travelers, but they keep on. At the moment of sunset, the line stops. The youngest of the priests takes the cornerstone of the altar off its litter and sets it down. This is the place chosen by fate, where the tribe will begin time again.

The pilgrims walk seven circles, designating the new place as holy. In the center of the pilgrims' circle, the priests and priestesses unwrap their burdens and rebuild the Tabernacle. Curtains and frames appear, then enclosures and a courtyard. The high priestess and priest anoint each sacred vessel, lamp, and altar with sacred oil. Then they anoint each stone of the rebuilt altar. The children bring wood they have gathered for a fire atop the altar.

When all is finished, the seven songs of the new moon of Nisan are sung one more. The high priestess takes her seat at the center of the courtyard, picks up her mallet, and begins to hit the drum. The silence is broken. A roar goes up among pilgrims and clergy alike. The high priest blows the shofar, sending blasts of joy into the sky. Then, to the sound of song, he takes out of its bowl the coal he has carried all this way and relights the sacred fire. The flames rise into the evening sky. The branched lamp, lit by a torch, begins to glow. Timelessness, changelessness, has been defeated. Miriam’s heartbeat has returned. The people have embraced the newness of the year.

The pilgrims joyfully press forward into the newly-made courtyard to offer their gifts: barley, milk, and oil, wool, flowers and firewood. The high priest and priestess place each basket and bowl on the altar, then take each offering down to be given to the priest, the poor, the widows and orphans, the strangers in need of sustenance. “For a blessing and not for a curse,” they sing as you present your offering. “For fullness and not for hunger. For life and not for death.” With your offering, you offer all your wishes for a prosperous year, a year of change for the better. Wild dancing begins, and goes on all night. Tired pilgrims doze in one another's arms and against the stones. Drummers and other musicians play, a chorus of song and rhythm.

Dawn comes. The high priest sounds a shofar sounds twelve times, filling the months of the year with blessing. Cheers rain on the walls of the tabernacle. The twenty-five hour ceremony is over. As each pilgrim leaves the courtyard, a priest or priestess anoints his or her head with oil. The pilgrims begin to return home, happy, tired, and prepared for the hard work of harvest. A few pilgrims stay, moved to be priestesses and priests for the year. A few priests and priestesses leave for the fields. These things happen without words. When the last of the pilgrims has left, the high priestess gives the drum into the hands of one of her sisters and goes to her new bed. The beat goes on.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the director of Tel Shemesh and the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, as well as the forthcoming The Jewish Book of Days: a Companion for All Seasons.

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