Rosh Hashanah History

In light of the centrality that Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year festival, has assumed in Jewish life, it is surprising to note that this holiday is not named as such in the Hebrew Bible. The only reference in the Bible to a “Rosh Hashanah” appears in the sixth century BCE book of Ezekiel in a context that refers not to a specific holiday, but to a season of the year, the beginning of the year, which could also be a reference to the first month of the year, Nisan (Ezekiel 40:1). One of the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar is that the official celebration of the Jewish New Year takes place not in the first month of the year (Nisan), but in the seventh (Tishrei).Rosh Hashanah quiz

Nonetheless, the Bible speaks of a major festival on the first day of Tishrei, although this does not appear to have been a celebration of the New Year. The Torah mandates a day of complete rest (shabbaton) to be celebrated on the first day of Tishrei, ten days before the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This was a day of remembrance characterized by a cessation from labor and by the sounding of trumpet (shofar) blasts (Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6). The day seems to have assumed additional importance following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. After the first group of exiles had arrived in Jerusalem following the Edict of King Cyrus of Persia, who allowed the exiled Jews to return to their homeland, the returnees celebrated Sukkot (the Festival of Booths), seemingly beginning on the first day of the seventh month (Ezra 3:4-6). Close to a century later, in one of the more dramatic moments in Jewish history, it was on the first of Tishrei that Ezra the Scribe gathered the people at the Water Gate in Jerusalem and read the Torah to them. Although he declared the day to be one of rejoicing and feasting, once again the narrative leads into the subsequent celebration of Sukkot, which actually begins two weeks after Rosh Hashanah.

In spite of the return from exile, a large number of Jews remained in Babylon. And it may have been under Babylonian influence that the beginning of the seventh month eventually became the beginning of the New Year, although there are some indications that there were competing traditions in ancient Israel regarding the inception of the year. The Gezer Calendar, a tenth century BCE agricultural calendar, begins the year with the month of ingathering in the autumn, the season of our Rosh Hashanah. Although most biblical festivals such as Passover (Pesach), the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot), and Sukkot are linked to the agricultural year of Israel, there is no such linkage between the celebration of the first day of Tishrei and the agricultural year, in spite of the evidence of the Gezer Calendar. Indeed, each new moon was an occasion to be observed. Why, however, was the observance of the seventh new moon of the year special?

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