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I& Annual Anguish
January 10, 2005 by Howard Blas

Why do Israelis call the night of December 31, which most of us call New Year’s Eve, Sylvester? If you don’t know, you’re not alone. Rabbi Jeremy Rosen didn’t either.

Rosen confesses his ignorance at “Having been brought up in Britain, I only became aware of the controversy surrounding the New Year when studying in Israel… Angry rabbis made typically hyperbolic statements about the profound disasters that celebrating something called Sylvester would wreak on the Jewish world.”

Many sources, including agree that the custom, properly known as St. Sylvester’s Eve, commemorates Pope Sylvester I, who headed the Holy See from 314 CE till 335. Opinions differ on why. At it’s claimed that Sylvester cured the Roman emperor-to-be Constantine of leprosy, a turning point in the history of Christianity. More to the point, it connects December 31 revelry with the old custom of year-end processions to drive out evil spirits, which evolved, in the German-speaking world, into the annual St. Sylvester’s ball, where lentil or split pea soup and wurst are consumed.

Poles have a different take. At we are told that Sylvester imprisoned a dragon who threatened to devour “the land and the people, and set fire to the heavens” on the first day of the year 1000. When the world did not come to an end, the people partied.

In fact, it’s strange that the Jews, of all people, honor Sylvester at all. According to as pope he convinced the Emperor Constantine to ban Jews from living in Jerusalem, and sponsored anti- Semitic laws. And the website of the Orthodox church in America at describes a debate with 120 rabbis over which is the true faith (judging from the source, you can guess who they say won). At the same time, there are few purely Jewish references to a man who certainly wasn’t a philo-Semite; only by changing the spelling to “Silvester” did I locate a brief reference at

If Jews don’t honor Sylvester, their new years, wouldn’t you know it, are more complicated. An explanation at lists four New Years: the first day of the Hebrew month of Nisan (birth of Jews as a nation; new year for kings) and Elul (new year for tithing animals), the 15th of Shvat (trees) and the first of Tishrei (anniversary of the creation of the world), known as Rosh Hashanah.

Howard Blas
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