Rosh Hashanah: From the Torah to the Temples

The meaning of the holiday changes over time.

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

In Leviticus, the first day of the seventh month is described as follows:

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 (Leviticus 23:24-25).
In Numbers, we read:

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations…. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded. You shall present a burnt offering of pleasing odor to the Lord (Numbers 29:1-2).

The sacred number seven seems critical here. Just as the seventh day of the week is holy, so the seventh month of the year has special significance. Since each new moon is a sacred time, it is logical that the seventh new moon--counting from Nisan, in the spring--should also acquire a special aura of holiness. That special sacredness is commemorated by the sounding of the shofar, the ram's horn. Aside from sacrifice, this is the only specific action mandated for this day in the Torah. Sounding the shofar is mentioned in both sets of verses, although no explanation or reason is offered. Taken together, the three elements of these verses--the lack of a name for the holiday, of a reason for the celebration, and of an explanation for sounding the shofar--pose a puzzle for us: why doesn't the Torah describe or emphasize this holy day any further?

Many scholars have suggested that the first day of the seventh month was popularly celebrated in ancient Israel as a divine coronation day, the time of God's assumption of the kingship and the beginning of a new cycle of the year. There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), "the first of the months of the year" (Exodus 12:2), and another in the fall at "the turn of the year" (Exodus 23:16; 34:22). The spring celebration was more cultic in nature, being connected to the cycle of sacred festivals and the reign of kings, while that of the fall emphasized the agricultural cycle.

The suggestion that a new year's festival was held in ancient Israel on the first day of the seventh month is based upon an analogy to Babylonian rites (two separate new year celebrations were held in Babylonia as well) and upon allusions to such a commemoration found in the psalms. As Moshe Segal points out:

[T]hree principles, the creation of the world on the New Year, the manifestation of God's kingship over the world on the New Year, and the judgment of the world by God on the New Year. . . are already proclaimed together in a series of liturgical psalms that form a distinct group marked by a close affinity of tone, of language, and of thought. These are the joyous and triumphant songs contained in Psalms 95-100, to which belong also Psalm 93 and the first part of Psalm 94. The constantly recurring thoughts in these beautiful songs are God as creator, God as King, God as judge. ["The Religion of Israel Before Sinai", Jewish Quarterly Review 52, 1963, p. 52]

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

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.