How Rosh Hashanah Became New Year’s Day

In the Torah, the beginning of the year was clearly set in the spring. So what happened?

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The effort to strike a balance between a particularistic loyalty to Jewish religion and nationhood and a more universalistic commitment to the human community played itself out in the struggle to set a date for the beginning of the Jewish calendar year. The two possibilities were Nisan, the month of Passover, and Tishrei, the month of what is now known as the festival of Rosh Hashanah.

In the Torah, the beginning of the year was clearly set at 1 Nisan, in the context of a description of the first Passover. “The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (Exodus 12:1-2). This new year celebrated the creation of the Jewish nation through the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. Nisan, as the first of the months, coincided with the beginning of Jewish national history.

calendarBut it is surprising that the Torah made no mention of a new year at 1 Tishrei, which today is so central to the Jewish religious experience. The Torah’s reference to 1 Tishrei is sparse altogether, describing a holiday characterized primarily by the blowing of a shofar. “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations, and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.” The name “Rosh Hashanah” is not mentioned, nor is there a reference to its function as a day of judgment and anniversary of the world’s creation.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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