by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths
Israel is an amazing mix of world cultures. Jews arrived, survived, fled to and immigrated to Israel from over 60 nations around the world. This means I could enjoy a Shabbos with gefilte fish for the appetizer (a dish from Eastern European Jewish culture), marak taymanee for the soup (Yemminite soup, a spicy chicken soup), and chicken enchiladas for the entrée (a Mexican dish) and have met every Shabbos custom while enjoying traditions of Jewish communities from multiple countries.
Passing through malls recently in Israel I noticed some stores with “Silvester Sale!” signs. So I had to find out, what is Silvester? (In the U.S., Silvester is best known as a cartoon character cat who spends his life unsuccessfully chasing a little yellow “tweety bird”. Somehow I don’t think that’s what everyone is referring to.)
A bit of quick research found that “Silvester (also spelled szilveszter, sylvester or sylwester) is used in some countries as a name for New Year's Eve.” Ok, I figured that out already (the sale signs have dates on them). But why?
More research, “the origin of the name is Saint Sylvester's Day in the Roman Catholic Church, named after Pope Sylvester I, who died on 31 December 335 (CE).” According to legend, he was a slayer of dragons and resurrector of dragon victims. Per history, he was responsible for firmly entrenching Xianity into the Roman Empire and builder of great church buildings on the top of gravesites of martyrs. (Apparently many of the oldest church buildings are actually built on top of cemeteries???)
Silvester’s legend explains his success in creating the start of the Holy Roman Empire (making Rome Xian) as a disputation between Silvester and his students and between the Jews. The legend says…
“When Helen, the mother of (Roman Emperor) Constantine, dwelling in Bethany, heard say that the emperor was become xian, she sent to him a letter, in which she praised much her son of this that he had renounced the false idols, but she blamed him much that he had renounced the law of the Jews, and worshipped a man crucified. Then Constantine remanded to his mother that she should assemble the greatest masters of the Jews, and he should assemble the greatest masters of the xian, to the end that they might dispute and know which was the truest law.”
Naturally, according to the legend, Silvester won the disputation even to the extend of convincing the Jews to convert as well. He then went on (the next day) to slay a dragon that was killing 300 men a day and turn the whole city of Rome away from the worship of idols and to the worship of xianity.
While records of this disputation no longer exist, we know from plenty of later ones the standard pattern was to set the Jews up and then torture them to death if they won, or offer the conversion or death if they lost (with a partial judge doing the judging). So we know the value of the words of the legend.
The name Silvester for New Years was carried to Israel by Polish, German, Hungarian and Italian immigrants and survivors from the Holocaust.
So while some blogs have investigated halachically whether one can wish another Happy New Year’s or even take part in a New Year’s event (concluding that nowadays the holiday has been stripped of any historical religious association – though New Years style partying is inappropriate), in Israel wishing someone a Happy Silvester or, for a store owner, having a Silvester sale, is not permitted.