Rosh Hashanah: Rabbinic Development

The first day of the year becomes the day of judgment.


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This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days and is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society.

The further [post-biblical] development of the High Holy Days may be traced through sources compiled in the period following the destruction of the Second Temple (in the year 70 CE)and later recorded in the Mishnah (edited in 200 CEby Rabbi Judah the Prince). How much of the material was created only after the destruction and how much may have been produced earlier is a matter for conjecture. One should note, however, that discussions about the prayers of Rosh Hashanah are already recorded in the teachings of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, which would date these materials to the first century CE.

More significant is the specific designation in these sources of the first day of the seventh month, Tishrei, as Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the year, and a definition of what this title means: “The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year [Rosh Hashanah] for years, sabbatical cycles, and the jubilee?” (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1.1). That is, the first of the seventh month was the time to begin the numbering of the year and the counting of the years for the seven‑year cycle (the sabbatical) and the 50‑year cycle (the jubilee).

Of greatest import, however, is the information given in the Mishnah about the role of judgment on the first of Tishrei, now designated simply “Rosh Hashanah”:

“On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before Him as troops, as it is said, “the Lord looks down from heaven, He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings” (Ps. 33:13‑15) (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1.2).

The Mishnah also describes the basic prayers and shofar‑blowing practices for Rosh Hashanah, which form the heart of the synagogue service today (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4.5‑6; 4.9). The three major themes of the day‑-kingship, remembrance, and shofarot–arealso established in the Mishnah, as are specific regulations concerning the sounding of the shofar during the prayers (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4.5).

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.

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