Friday, December 30, 2011



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.


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  3. I think it was a big mistake to adopt this name in Israel. We know that the vast majority of the world does not celebrate sylvester, and it might seem like something some radical people entrenched in order to scare us away from commemorating. Little did they know, that rather than celebrating a mere turn of the calender, they virtually forced celebration of sylvester on everyone who just mentions it. Like the regular warnings here to stay away from anything yoga, going to a sylvester party and even asking someone what they are doing for sylvester means that we are all doing avodah zarah. Granted that most people deny they are celebrating this st. sylvester, the permanent damage has been made. Warning people away from celebrating 'sylvester' merely puts you into the radical religious group and ma la'asot?, sylvester is more funky way to call the party than long shana hadasha.
    Nonetheless, one of my personal windmills is not to prevent people from celebrating the new year, but at least to convince them to not say sylvester.

  4. "sylvester" is actually perceived as secular by xians. If you ask a priest or devout xian in jerusalem or rome if he's going to celebrate sylvester, he will probably reply "No!" and use a different expression which I will not post here. The very reason that "Sylvester" or even "sansilvester" expression arose in the west (in the 60s), was to find a suitable wish for atheist and irreligious westerners who wanted nothing to do with the traditional xian and catholic wishes. The "sylvester" expression is used in catholic countries only, as orthodox xian date for sylvester is some day in january (of their Julian calendar) and it is uncorrelated with their new year, which anyway, is a couple of weeks later. It was very popular in the 60s and 70s and early 80s, when there was social tension between catholics and atheists, but it is now not much in use e.g. in Italy or France, where people in our days, usually end up wishing each others a good 2012 and that's all.

    Outside israel one gets away by wishing a successful secular year or commercial year to jewish and nonjewish friends, which is important for friendship reasons, especially in countries where the "holidays" are a big deal; but to wish each other "shana tova" in israel on Dec 31, I am not sure it is the optimal solution.


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