Isaac, Ishmael And Rosh Hashanah


In previous years, when the High Holy Days arrived, I would stop the series I was writing, in order to publish posts about the holidays. This year will be different, with my “Isaac and Ishmael” series: I can’t imagine a more fitting season to write about Isaac and Ishmael than during Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎, “The Head [of] the Year”), our Jewish New Year, when we read Genesis 21 and 22 as part of the holiday Torah reading.

Ishmael was 13 or 14 years old when Isaac was born. Undoubtedly, from that time until the moment he was expelled, he must have had very mixed feelings in his heart. He probably loved his cute little brother; however, along with this love, envy and jealousy must have been welling up in his heart as the years passed. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if chapters 21 and 22 of the book of Genesis had been switched. What would have happened had Ishmael still been at home on that morning when Abraham saddled his donkey, cut the wood, took Isaac, and went to Mount Moriah?

If Ishmael could have seen just a glimpse of his chosen brother’s future; if he could have known somehow how much suffering Isaac’s destiny would hold; if he could have realized even vaguely that the chosen one’s path leads to an altar, his jealousy would probably have been less acute, his resentment less painful. Ishmael, however, saw nothing of this. The years he spent in Abraham’s house after the birth of Isaac were spent in envy: he would have been jealous of their father’s love, jealous of the status of Isaac’s mother, and jealous of God’s promises to Isaac and his chosen status. Again, if only he knew how much pain and suffering the chosen one must face, perhaps he would even have been glad that in the end, he wasn’t the Son of the Covenant. However, all that Ishmael saw was that Isaac’s life was smooth and easy, and this was his perspective when he had to leave his father’s house. This is how he remembered Isaac; this is the impression he took with him, along with bitterness and resentment. Ishmael doesn’t see his brother being led to Mount Moriah. Instead, he is cast out of the house while everything in his brother’s life is still comfortable and easy. Genesis 21 comes before Genesis 22.



For years, I had thought of Genesis 22 as the most difficult, almost unbearable chapter of the Bible. Whenever I opened my Bible, “I would make every effort to skip as quickly as possible over these pages, afraid to be hurt anew by even the smallest glance at the terrifying story of how, in obedience to God, Abraham took his son and led him to Mount Moriah to present him there as a burnt offering.”[1] It almost hurt physically to read it. Every time I did read the chapter, I felt as if I was seeing before me the mountain itself, as if the chapter itself was this scary peak of Akedat Yitzhak. For years, Genesis 22 had symbolized the Peak of the Sacrifice for me: a high and lonely Peak; a Peak of unprecedented and inimitable obedience; the center and the culmination of Abraham’s life. All the chapters around it seemed much less significant, less important, almost vague and foggy in comparison with this daunting peak, clearly visible against the backdrop of heaven, a sharp, craggy silhouette with its frighteningly clear request. That’s why my attention had always been drawn to the fact that Genesis 22 is read every Jewish New Year. “It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year, this portion, Akedah, about the binding of Isaac is read. The people of Israel look at this story with mixed feelings of fear and wonder, understanding that it somehow bears significance to their fate, but are unable to discern the truth: that they are looking into a mirror.”[2]

It was not until I began to write about Isaac and Ishmael, that I started to see, for the first time, that Abraham had to sacrifice both his sons. That there were actually not one, but two sacrifices in the old patriarch’s life. That Genesis 21 was just as much about sacrifice as Genesis 22 and that the sacrifice of Genesis 21—the banishment of Ishmael—was also extremely tortuous and painful for Abraham. All of a sudden, the lonely Peak of Genesis 22 was not so lonely anymore. The Peak of Genesis 21 grew up alongside it, almost as high and scary as the Peak of Genesis 22. And then I realized—though in my head I had known it all along—that every year, we also read Genesis 21 during our New Year. Genesis 21 comes before Genesis 22, and so on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, before Isaac’s story is read, we read the preceding chapter: Genesis 21, the story of Ishmael’s banishment. The Rosh Hashanah holiday consists of two days, as some of my readers may know, and these two chapters are read side by side every year. As a matter of fact, this is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated for two days both in Israel and outside of Israel, as if it was cut out precisely for this reason: one day for each chapter! Today, in retrospect, I would reword the sentences I just quoted from my book: “It is highly significant that at each Rosh Hashanah, each New Year these portions… are read.” Every year, our people look anew at those stories with renewed feelings of fear and wonder, “understanding that they somehow bear significance to their fate.”

We cannot compare these sacrifices: the two sons of Abraham were chosen for two completely different destinies, and therefore these two chapters—Genesis 21 and 22—are very different. Still, both chapters speak about sacrifice, and we will see that clearly next time, when we will speak about Yom Kippur and Leviticus 16.




Rosh Hashanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎, “The Head [of] the Year”), the Jewish New Year, is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei (usually falling in September). It is the first of the Jewish High Holy Days (יָמִים נוֹרָאִים‎ Yamim Nora’im, literally “Days [of] Awe”) specified by Leviticus 23:23-32. The biblical name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting”, since Torah prescribes sounding the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.

In Judaism, the day we celebrate as Rosh Hashana – the first of Tishrei – is not actually considered the anniversary of Creation, 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; however, according to Jewish understanding, it is only when man was created that the whole of creation became meaningful. The birth of humanity added to the universe the possibility for God to be proclaimed King. Therefore, God’s sovereignty and God’s Kingship are the main themes of Rosh Hashanah and the ten days of Judgment it opens. “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, our King) prayer is recited daily from Rosh Hashanah to 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!

Rosh Hashanah presents a special opportunity to celebrate with our King and to grow in our efforts to remain close to Him throughout the coming year. I know this is the desire of your hearts, and I thank the Lord for each one of you. It has been a joy and a privilege to have such appreciative readers. So, as the people of Israel are about to be steeped in apples and honey and festive meals, in synagogues, prayers and shofars, I would like to wish you all a very blessed and sweet New Year – שנה מתוקה!

[1] If You Be the Son of God, Come Down From the Cross, . p. 27

[2] If You Be the Son of God, Come Down From the Cross, p.31


Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons” are included in this article,  so if you like this   article,  you might also enjoy the  book. Click here to get  free sample:   

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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Join the conversation (16 comments)

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  1. Darilyne Tingle

    I just discovered you today. What a blessing it is to read and gain new insights and the deeper meaning of Scripture! Thank you SO much. The Lord bless you far above your wildest imagination for your obedience in service to Him!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much Darilyne for your kind words! I am so glad you “discovered” this blog!

  2. Victor O Olear

    Julia, you a blessing to me and all who read your commentary.
    Every article is awesome! You “peal my eye”s open every time i read your commentary.
    God bless you.

  3. Armsndo V Gonzales

    Shana Metuka!

  4. Michele Thompson

    Thank you Julia for the insight re: the sacrifice of Ishmael – how much more devastating for Abraham, obeying G-d to now sacrifice the second and long promised son. We believe and pray for the redemption of all of Abraham’s seed and celebrate the faith of G-d’s servant, who was willing to trust G-d with their lives. LaShana Tova!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Michele!

  5. Mike

    I’d like to read the “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, our King) prayer. Can anyone direct me to a copy of it (in english)? Thx.

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Mike, you can find it on different sites, here, for instance, they have a full English text along with Hebrew text and transliteration: Hope it helps.

      1. Mike

        Thank you.

  6. Yvonne Kavanagh

    Nissan is the first month off the year so why do they celebrate New year September .
    If Yah says its march should we not say this is New year .

    1. Julia Blum

      Of course you are right Yvonne, in the Bible, Nissan is the first month of the year. How did the Jewish sages get to the Rosh Hashanah, then? Well, as you probably know, number 7 has been always regarded by the commentators as the number of completeness, therefore the seventh month of the year should be special (like the seventh day of the week) – and it is indeed a very important month in God’s sacred calendar. Since each new moon and new month has been observed and celebrated , would not it be logical to suppose that the new moon and the beginning of the seventh month should be specially and especially sacred? If you add here the explicit God’s command to sanctify this day as a day of “remembrance” and “shofar blowing”, you will definitely see why this day has been so special in the eyes of the Jewish people.

  7. Sharon Wells

    Beautiful insight!

  8. Scott J Much

    I find your thoughts on the possibilities of Ishmael’s feelings interesting…
    My comments here will be about the new year.. I find that Yom Teruah is more defined by these spots in the Torah.. Deut 4:2, Exodus 12:2, Exodus 13:4, Deut 16:1<, Deut 23:15 and once again Deut 4:2… Yehovah's calendar is the one to follow.. the Prushim/Pharisaic one of Hillel and company is a construct and has become a tradition of men, not a commandment of Yehovah. this puts a different view as to the importance of Yom Teruah and Yom Kippur which is greater than a 'new year' party..
    No disrespect to your knowledge and learning.. I just feel the Torah and the Renewed Covenant of the Gospels and Letters hold a truer place on the "Seat of Moshe".. As the Shem Tov copy of Mathew corrected the Greek of Matthew 23:3 from "they" to the correct "he" of Moshe thereby putting the whole set of verses into a coherent form.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment, Scott, there is no doubt that Rosh HaShanah is not a biblical New Year. Maybe, you will be interested to read my reply to Yvonne here, it basically answers the question how the sages came with this Rosh Hashanah observance. As for the importance of Yom Truah and Yom Kippur, of course, it’s much greater than a “new year ” party, and many people understand it, – however, the Jewish people also need some parties, and not only the solemn and fasting days, and I suppose, the sages saw this need. Maybe, this was the hidden reason for adding the second day to Rosh HaShanah ( this is the only 2-days holiday in the year).

  9. Nick Edwards

    Thank you Julia.

  10. John Ashcraft

    This Yom Teruah is Biblical Elul 1 of Matt 12 (Sign of Jonas) which is 40 day prior to marriage of the Groom and bride and Armageddon (Psalms 118:10-13) which ends the Ezekiel 38-39 War. Asteroid 2018 RC or RC 2018 passes by on the first day of the week and Green Comet passes by on Yom Teruah. Hopi Blue Star shows up possibly on Elul 27/Av 27 (Day 6) but with 2018 RC showing up, it may or will be on the first day of the week.
    Number 2, I saw the 2 goats: Lev_16:5  And he shall take of the congregation of the children of Israel two kids of the goats for a sin offering, and one ram for a burnt offering.
    Lev_16:7  And he shall take the two goats, and present them before the LORD at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation.
    Lev_16:8  And Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats; one lot for the LORD, and the other lot for the scapegoat.