Two New Years
Shalom and Chag Sameach, dear friends! The High Holy Days are almost here; in Israel, we are entering a season called Chagim: Feasts, or Holidays, and as always, we will pause our current series in order to look at these special days. We will continue our discussion of the book of Acts Acherey Hachagim – ‘after the Holidays’. For now, we will talk about the High Holidays, and since the first one is the Feast of Trumpets, that will be our subject for today.
You probably know this holiday as Rosh Hashanah – Jewish New Year. As always, those who are just beginning to be interested in Jewish studies can find some basic information here. “Rosh” is the Hebrew word for “head”, “ha” is the definite article (the), and “shanah” means year. Thus, Rosh HaShanah means Head [of] the Year, referring to the Jewish new year (by the way, one of four “new years” in Israel). Is it the Biblical New Year, though?
Surprisingly, the term “Rosh Hashanah” in its current meaning does not appear in the Bible. Leviticus 23:24 refers to the festival of the first day of the seventh month as Zikhron Teru’ah ([a] memorial [of] blowing [of Trumpets]); it is also referred to in the same part of Leviticus as ‘שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן’ (shabbat shabbaton) and a “holy day to God”; Numbers 29:1 calls the festival Yom Teru’ah (“Day [of] blowing [the Trumpet]”), and specifies different sacrifices that were to be performed. Thus, the biblical Hebrew name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”, and is usually translated as the Feast of Trumpets. There is nothing in the Torah that would indicate that this is the New Year festival, and yet Rosh Hashanah, the New Year celebration, is one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar today.
Many people are confused about that. Yes, in today’s Judaism the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) is celebrated on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei; on the other hand, we have clear biblical instructions regarding the first month. In Exodus 12:2, we read, “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you”. Therefore, according to the Bible and biblical calendar, the month of Passover – Nisan (or Aviv) – is the first month of the year, and the first day of this month should really be Rosh HaShanah – the beginning of a New Year. Thus, we see two different calendars: the Jewish calendar, observing New Year on the first day of the month of Tishrei (Fall), and the Biblical calendar, starting the year from the month of Nisan (Spring). The question is, how did the biblical Feast of Trumpets become the New Year Festival – Rosh Hashanah? Is there any scriptural basis for that?
The Context and the History
Scholars believe that the Jewish New Year could only be properly understood in the context of Ancient Near Eastern New Year traditions. For example, the Mesopotamian New Year, “depending on time and place, began either at the beginning of autumn, on the first day of the seventh month, called Tashritu, literally meaning “beginning”, or at the beginning of Spring, on the first day of the first month, called Nisannu, originally a Sumerian word meaning “First-fruit (offering)”. We see that even the names of both months speak of “beginnings” – and this whole tradition corresponds perfectly to the two New Years of the Jewish calendar (especially if we compare these Mesopotamian month-names with the Hebrew months of Tishrei and Nisan). Either as a direct influence from Babylon, or as an indirect influence through the Syrian and Canaanite cultures, the Ancient Near Eastern context certainly sheds light on the Rosh HaShanah celebration. Already in early Rabbinic literature, the first day of the seventh month, that is the first day of the month of Tishrei, was considered the New Year—a day of judgment, and also the day of God’s enthronement and kingship. But how was it linked to the Bible?
Most scholars agree that a missing link to the Bible was found in the sounding of the shofar. As we saw, in Leviticus and Numbers the first day of the seventh month is considered yom teru’ah, the day of Blowing (of Shofar). The blowing of the shofar is a major symbol of enthronement and kingship. Scholars suggested that the sounding of the shofar indicates God’s enthronement for the New Year: on Rosh Hashanah, God created the world, and by blowing our shofars we proclaim Him as our King. Thus, we are coming to the main theme of the High Holidays.
God is King
God’s Kingship is a main theme of Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Awe it inaugurates. The special prayers for these days are filled with references to God as King. How do the Jewish commentators explain this connection between Rosh HaShanah and God’s kingship?
While opening a new year of the Jewish calendar, Rosh HaShanah commemorates the anniversary of Creation. However, the day we celebrate as Rosh Hashanah, the first of Tishrei, is not actually considered the anniversary of Creation itself – rather, it is the anniversary of the sixth day of Creation, when Adam and Eve were created. The anniversary of the first day of Creation would be five days before, on the twenty-fifth day of Elul. Why? Because, according to Jewish understanding, it is only when man was created that the whole of creation became meaningful. We see this clearly in the very first chapter of the Torah, where the slow ascent of the cosmic drama culminates in the creation of man. As we read the description of each day of creation, we feel the story building up, and then in Genesis 1:26-27 we come to the crescendo: So God created man in His own image… In Rabbinic tradition, it is only the birth of humanity that made it possible for God to be proclaimed King. Therefore, when we blow Shofar on this day, it is akin to a coronation: we proclaim God’s enthronement and God’s Kingship for yet another year. This is the reason why the “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, our King) prayer is recited daily from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.
Rosh Hashanah is also the Day of Judgment: Yom HaDin. According to the Talmud tractate on Rosh Hashanah, three books are opened on this day: the Book of Life for the righteous, the Book of Death for the most evil, who receive the seal of death, and a third book for an intermediate class. The intermediate class are allowed a period of ten days, until Yom Kippur, to reflect and repent – the final judgment not taking place until Yom Kippur
Rosh Hashanah customs include attending synagogue services, sounding the shofar, and reciting special liturgy—and of course, enjoying festive meals and eating symbolic foods, such as apples dipped in honey, hoping for and wishing everybody Shanah Metuka – שנה מתוקה – A Sweet New Year!
The Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah is Chapters 21 and 22 of the book of Genesis. It is impossible to overestimate the significance of these chapters in God’s mystery. Next time, as we will look at this special Rosh HaShanah reading, I would like to share some personal experiences connected to this reading – and even though these will be chapters of my personal journey, I still hope they will touch some hearts and minds.
 Dr. Uri Gabbai, Babylonian Rosh Hashanah, https://www.thetorah.com/article/babylonian-rosh-hashanah-battle-creation-enthronement-and-justice
New Year is a time of gifts, so here is my Rosh Hashanah gift to you: during these special days, from September 5 through September 9, you can download a free copy of my book “In The Beginning” from “The Bible Stories You Didn’t Know ” series. Sending this book to you as a Rosh HaShanah gift has a special meaning: Rosh Hashanah commemorates creation, and this book presents Hebrew insights into the story of creation, into very first verses and chapters of the book of Genesis. To get this and my other books, click here.
CHAG SAMEACH, my dear readers! SHANAH TOVAH VE-METUKA! I wish you all a very blessed and sweet New Year!