HAPPY NEW YEAR! - NOT SO FAST...
A calendar is part of what defines any culture. It marks the steady passage of time and thus provides a civilization with a means by which to gauge its own progress. Further, it creates a framework within which national and religious holidays, as well as personal celebrations, may be arrayed in a constant and organized fashion. Throughout the ages, in all parts of the world, nations have been sensitive to the pre-eminence of the calendar in their daily lives. Some of the earliest ruins found of South American cultures have contained spectacular and intricate calendars; the Thermidorian calendar was set up by the French revolutionists to distinguish themselves from their oppressors; and many of the major arguments throughout Jewish history have revolved around calendar issues (this was a major point of contention among Karaite scholars roughly a millenium ago).
In halacha, much emphasis is placed on the issue of controlling the calendar. A substantial portion of tractate Rosh HaShana, as well as sections elsewhere, is devoted to explaining how the lengths of the months and the years were to be determined. In fact, the gemara learns that the verse "For it is your wisdom and your understanding before the nations" (Devarim 4:6) refers to the power of the Jewish courts to figure out the leap years.
Despite this, Jews have often found themselves in a peculiar situation. Having been dispersed to all parts of the globe, it is often inconvenient for a Jew to refer only to the Hebrew calendar. As such, Jews, like everyone else, use the calendar of the country in which they reside, at least when dealing with the world at large. The question that we will deal with is to what extent is this permissible. The particular issue will be using the Gregorian calendar, as it dates itself from the birth of Jesus, thus bringing issues of idol-worship into play.
Shemot 23:13 states "Make no mention of the name of other gods."Rashi has two comments on this verse. The first comes from the gemara in Sanhedrin 63b and the Mechilta (Medrash halacha on Shemot) - "Do not say 'wait for me by such-and-such idol.'" Rashi then adds on that one must also not say "Come with me on the day of such-and-such idol." While the two statements are ostensibly the same, the latter point, dealing with idolatry as a calendar issue, is barely discussed in halacha. As such, we will discuss this issue in its broad context first before returning to the particular point of the calendar.
The aforementioned gemara in Sanhedrin lists several applications of the prohibition against mentioning the names of other gods. In addition to the one already cited, it also forbids making a partnership with an idolater, as such a situation might lead to the Jew asking his partner to take an oath, thus causing the idolater to swear in the name of his deity. This aspect of the prohibition extends the law not only to a Jew not mentioning the name of another god, but even to a Jew causing such a name to be said. The gemara also states that any idolatry mentioned in the Torah may be said, but not one that is not mentioned there.
There are two main questions to be dealt with here. The first concerns the particular names that can and cannot be recited. The second deals with the contexts in which such names may or may not be mentioned.
The most sweeping approach to this prohibition comes fromRosh. He claims that it is forbidden in all contexts to mention the name of any idol. His rationale is that as the verse does not make any distinctions, but rather commands that one not make mention of any foreign god, this must mean that there is no room for leniency (this is also the position of Semag lo ta'aseh #32). His position is supported by the general fact that the Torah is particularly strict when it comes to forbidding idolatry, with over forty mentions of various forms of such sins mentioned throughout. However, there are several views that allow for leniency in the case of certain names. First, the Yere'im (#245) provides a reason for the statement in the gemara allowing one to mention the names of idols that appear in the Torah. He claims that this is allowed because these idols no longer exist and thus their names no longer carry the same idolatrous connotation that they once did (the gemara in Avodah Zara similarly discusses the fact that one may derive benefit from a piece of an idol that has been voided by its worshippers). Along these lines, Tosafot in Bechorot 2b and Hagahot Maimoniyot (to Hil. Avodah Zara 5:11) state that the only names that are forbidden are those are used to refer to an idol qua its status as a divine being. However, any other "personal" name that is used for the idol may be mentioned. This allowance applies both to those idols mentioned in the Torah and those that are not. As such, the GR"A points out that "Yeshu," referring to Jesus, appears several times throughout the gemara, without there being a problem of mentioning his name. Finally, the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 147) notes, in the name of the Ra'avyah and others, that one may state the names of the holidays of idolaters, although one should not do so in any fashion that accords special significance to the name.
The second issue is one that is discussed alongside the first one, namely specific occasions and circumstances and how they affect this law. The gemara focuses on two particular cases - using an idol as a meeting place and causing a non-Jew to mention an idol.Rambam, in Hilchot Avodah Zara 5:10 claims that this prohibition extends beyond the context of oaths, as the verse states only that one may not mention idolatry - in any context. The Shulchan Aruch codifies this by saying that the prohibition applies whether or not there was a need to mention the idol. Picking up on a point mentioned earlier, the Sefer HaChinuch cites a view that this law applies only on the festival days of idolaters, as that is when there is the most prevalent danger that the idolater will mention his deity with the intent of worship. This view would seem to imply that he main problem lies in the intent, and if such a name is mentioned without any idolatrous thoughts there would not be a problem. Similarly, Semak (#119) states that those who swear in the name of the celestial bodies act in violation of this law. Although the words "sun" or "moon" are not per se idolatrous, the idolatrous thoughts behind the action render the oath a breach of this law.
TheBach and Ramo both cite a surprising opinion that it is permissible to say to an idolater "May your god help you." Both the Bach (retracting his initial statement) and the Taz reject this idea, claiming that it is based on a printer's error (ta'ut soferim) in the Rambam's commentary on the mishna. The Shach, however, refines this law to say that one may tell an idolater "May Elokim be with you," as there the name of the true God is being mentioned, albeit with regard to an idolater. The Beit Lechem Yehuda quotes the Sefer HaChassidim, which forbids using the name of an idol even to take a false oath. The Shulchan Aruch and the Bach both permit mentioning an idol for the purpose of disdaining it, and the Meiri allows such names to be mentioned for the purpose of learning about such practices so as to teach others to avoid them (l'havin u'lehorot).
To sum up what we have said until now: The main allowance for mentioning the name of an idol relates to the divinity given to that name. If the name itself is either no longer used or is a "personal" name, not a reference to the godliness of the idol, there are those who permit stating it. Similarly, if one is speaking about an idol merely to know about it or in a contemptuous manner, there are again those opinions that permit such an action. However, in all cases there are opinions that claim that mentioning or referring to an idol in any way for any purpose is expressly forbidden by the Torah, and there is very little room for leniency.
What about the calendar issue? As we mentioned above, Rashi slips this point into his commentary on the Torah, but it is an issue that barely comes up throughout most available Rabbinic literature.Rav Ovadiah Yoseif deals with the particular question of the Gregorian calendar in his collection of responsa Yabia Omer (Y.D. 3:9). First, he claims that there may be no problem at all due to technical reasons. As it is unclear when this calendar begins, it is possible that it does not begin from the birth of Jesus, and thus it may not actually use a foreign worship as a reference point. However, assuming that it does use Jesus as a starting point, there are several issues to be considered. First, he claims that there is no problem of following the ways of the nations ("U'bchukoteihem lo teleichu") with using this calendar, as the reason that a Jew uses such dates is to write a date that can be understood by all. He then discusses a question asked to Maharam Schick concerning whether or not it is permissible to write the Gregorian date on a Jewish tombstone. Maharam Schick forbade such an action, but Rav Yoseif claims that it may be permissible, citing the view of the Yere'im that the prohibition applies only when there is an issue of divinity involved. As a Jew would certainly have no such intention in such a case, there is room to allow such an action. Rav Yoseif then makes mention of several letters that he had seen written by various Torah-scholars that had the "secular" date printed on top. While there is a statement of the Chatam Sofer which claims "woe to those who use such dates" (Chatam Sofer, commentary to Shemot 12:2), Rav Yoseif contends that the Chatam Sofer was referring specifically to those members of the Enlightenment who had made every effort to assimilate themselves into non-Jewish society. While Rav Yoseif clearly permits using the Gregorian calendar, he does provide one caveat: one should not refer to January as the first month, February as the second month, and so on. As Shemot 12:2 says that "This month shall be the first of all months for you," giving any other month in any other calendar status as the "first" month would contravene the will of Hashem. This would forbid the common practice of writing the secular date in shorthand, e.g. 1/2/97. Finally, Rav Yoseif points out that as much as possible, one should write the date according to the Jewish calendar, and certainly should do so in the Land of Israel.
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