“There are four New Years:….The first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri” (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)
The first of Elul was the date for ma’aser behemah – tithing ones animals, as we read (Leviticus 27:32) “the tenth [animal of the flock] is “kodesh L’Adonai – separated for God. Everyone was obligated to this mitzvah – to count out a tenth of each of the animals and bring them to the Temple in Jerusalem, where they would be sacrificed and eaten. The Mishnah tells us how this was done:
MISHNA: In what manner does one tithe the animals? He gathers them in a pen and provides them with a small, i.e., narrow, opening, so that two animals will not be able to emerge together. And he counts the animals as they emerge: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine; and he paints the animal that emerges tenth with red paint and declares: This is tithe. “(Bechorot 58b)
It is , I think, one of the earliest descriptions of the marking of animals for their identification, but more interestingly to for me is the connection between this event and the liturgy – in particular the great piyyut of unetaneh tokef which speaks of each of us passing before God, “kivnei maron” usually translated as “a herd of sheep” and continuing the idea –As a shepherd herds his flock, Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff, So do You cause to pass, count, and record…””
The phrase comes from the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 18b): The Mishnah teaches: On Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before God like “b’nei Maron”. The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of the phrase “b’nei Maron? And answers itself: Here [in Babylonia] they interpreted [it as}: Like a flock of sheep [kivnei imarna]. Reish Lakish disagreed and said: Like the ascent of Beit Maron, [which was very steep; only one animal could ascend at a time. And anyone standing at the summit could watch everyone climbing the mountain very easily. Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: Like the soldiers of the house of King David, who could be surveyed with a single glance.”
Which of the explanations for ‘b’nei Maron’ is the true one, the writer of the piyyut chose it to mean that we are each like a sheep that is watched by the shepherd as it goes alone through the narrow gate to be recorded, measured, seen.
We are each, so to speak, treated as the domestic animals were treated for the purposes of tithing, though rather than one in ten being “kodesh L’Adonai”, each of us is marked out as being required for God’s work.
The act of ma’aser behemah is no longer applicable, there being no Temple in Jerusalem for us to fulfil the mitzvah, but the idea of accounting for our relationship with animals– of us reflecting on and making an accounting of all the animals we have used directly or indirectly in the year just gone – eating their flesh, using their feathers or hair for ourselves, using their skins for leather, drinking their milk… and an accounting of all the animals whose environments we have controlled and damaged – from the battery farmed eggs and the cows kept perpetually in lactation, to the rain forests destroyed leaving animals without their habitats, the seas we have polluted… the list goes on.
Today is the first of Ellul, the day for ma’aser behemah, the New Year for animal accounting. We have a month before we reach the date of Rosh Hashanah the New Year for our own accounting, also known as Yom haDin.
As we go into this period of reflection during Ellul, maybe it is time to think in a different frame of those sheep under the eye of their shepherd, to recognise the similarities we have to them as we are like sheep under the eye of God, and to recognise the responsibility we have not just to our own lives, but to the world which God gave us in order to protect and nurture it.