Rosh Hashanah: Between The Past And The Future

Biblical Background

Rosh Hashanah is a two-day celebration, which begins on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei (usually falling in September). “Rosh” is the Hebrew word for “head,” “ha” is the definite article (“the”), and “shanah” means year. Thus Rosh HaShanah (רֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה‎,), means Head [of] the Year, referring to the Jewish new year (by the way, one of four “new years” in Israel).

However, the term “Rosh Hashanah” in its current meaning does not appear in the Torah. The biblical Hebrew name for this holiday is Yom Teruah (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה‎‎), literally “day [of] shouting/blasting,” translated as the Feast of Trumpets. In the Biblical Sacred Calendar, the 1st of Tishrei, the Feast of Trumpets, ends the prolonged period of silence after the Feast of the Weeks, Shavuot.  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 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.

The “blowing of trumpets” was a great institution in Israel, and was used for:

  1. Calling of special solemn assemblies;
  2. The breaking up and journeys of the camp;
  3. Sound of alarm in time of danger;
  4. On new moons and great festivals the trumpets were to be blown “over your burnt-offerings, and over your sacrifices of peace offerings … for a memorial before your God.”[1]

As I mentioned, Leviticus 23:24 refers to this festival as Zikhron Teru’ah ([a] memorial [of] blowing [of Trumpets]). The word “memorial” – “Zikhron” – seems to be especially meaningful here. Let us ponder its significance together.  First, undoubtedly, there was a certain retrospective and commemorative significance in this blowing of the shofar, reminding Israel of the covenant relationship on which God had entered with them at Sinai:  maybe, not all of my readers are aware of the fact, that the first mention of the trumpet in the Torah is connected to the events of Sinai: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long and waxed louder and louder Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice”[2].

However, the important point not to be missed is that the term “memorial” refers not only to the past. In Leviticus, the term ‘memorial‘ … should be rendered ‘a reminding‘ of something present, or of something just at hand, rather than ‘memorial’, which suggests the past … The word may in other connections call attention to the past, but … its very usual sense is calling attention to things coming on and not yet actually arrived”[3]. The Feast of the Trumpets is not only a commemoration, but is also a prophetic Feast, calling attention to things coming, but not yet actually arrived.

Rosh HaShanah in Judaism

We find the same double meaning—referring both to the past and the future—in Judaism. Here, the first of Tishrei is considered the anniversary of Creation, or to be more specific, 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’s only when man was created that the whole of creation became meaningful. “Everything was created earlier, but none of it was worthy of being called even the beginning of God’s handiwork until man opened his eyes to see it, his mind to comprehend it, his heart to guide it.”[4] According to Rabbinic tradition, the birth of humanity added to the universe the possibility for God to be proclaimed King.

Thus, the Feast of Trumpets is turned also to the future: 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. 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: God’s sovereignty and God’s Kingship are the main themes, not only of Rosh Hashanah, but also of the ten days of Judgment it opens. The “Avinu Malkeinu” (Our Father, our King) prayer is recited daily during these 10 days, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.

Therefore, to us all, 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!

The Customs

Rosh Hashanah customs include attending synagogue services, sounding the shofar, 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   טובה  ומתוקה – May you have a good and sweet New Year!

One of the symbolic foods (hardly the most appealing one) that it is customary to eat on Rosh HaShanah is the head of a fish. Before eating the head, the following blessing: is recited: May it be Your will, our God and the God of our forefathers, that we be as the head and not the tail.

What does that mean? Why do we say it? This blessing comes from Deuteronomy 28:13 And the Lord will make you the head and not the tail; you shall be above only, and not be beneath, if you heed the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you today, and are careful to observe them.

There are different interpretations of the meaning of this blessing. According to Ramban, for instance, the blessing refers to the external political status of the nation of Israel: they “will always be at the top and never at the bottom” of the other nations. On the other hand, there were rabbis who thought that the blessing had to refer to the leadership within the people of Israel.

The bottom line, however, is that this blessing refers to everyone. God wants us to transform reality, to shape it, instead of conforming to it and letting it shape us. The concept of ‘head’ indicates excellence and courage: the head walks ahead and leads, while the tail just follows behind others.

So as the New Year dawns, may we be the head and not the tail!

[1] David Baron, Types, Psalms and Prophecies, Keren Ahvah Meshihit, 2000, p.49

[2] Ex. 19:19

[3] Dr. Andrew Bonar, Commentary on Leviticus.

[4] Rosh Hashanah, ArtScroll Mesorah Series, Mesora,Publications, 1983 – p.16

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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  1. tapani annila

    Thanks you Julia. I have written Bible 60 years, and again I understand better Old testament backgrounds. Sometimes preachers speak from their own heads and human doctrines. Truth comes after really working.

  2. Nick

    Amen Julia! “Transform reality”; may what is unseen become just as real as what is seen. Choose the finite and the infinite for that seemingly contradictory wholeness.
    Thank you for this Rosh Hashanah blessing-same to you!