Rosh Hashanah: From the Torah to the Temples

The meaning of the holiday changes over time.

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Several of these psalms allude to the one commandment specifically connected to this day, the sounding of the shofar. The teruah, one of the sounds of the shofar, is referred to in Psalms 95:1,2; 98:4, 6; and 100:1 and should be differentiated from another sound mentioned in the Bible in connection to other holy days, the teki'ah, the sound of the trumpet. In these particular psalms, the shofar sound is a joyous proclamation of God's ascendancy to the kingship and has none of the other connotations it received in later Jewish thought. Another scholar, Baruch Levine, offers a different suggestion, that the day was commemorated by blasting the shofar in order to announce that the festival of Sukkot was to commence two weeks later. [The JPS Torah Commentary: Levitucus, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 1989, p. 160.]

Although the Bible had not yet conferred a title on Rosh Hashanah (literally, the beginning or head of the year), and although it had not yet connected that holiday to Yom Kippur, it is nonetheless conceivable that the first of Tishre was thought of, even in early times, as a time of "cosmic judgment. . . when the destiny of the world was fixed."

Why, then, this reticence on the part of the Torah to ascribe all these meanings more explicitly to "the first day of the seventh month"? Perhaps the pagan connotations of this day were still too strong. After all, the Babylonian celebration centered upon struggles between gods and demons for dominance and was characterized by the use of magic and incantations. Nothing of paganism remains, however, in the psalms. Mosaic monotheism had already transformed this day completely into the prototype of Rosh Hashanah as we now know it. If these psalms were indeed intended for recitation on the first of the seventh month, then even at this early date the Israelite new year festival celebrated the Lord as the sole creator of the world, who on this day ascended the throne and ruled over all of creation. The holiday was intended (at least in part) to acknowledge God by the people Israel as the righteous judge who dispenses justice for all humankind.

The first day of the seventh month is mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah as a holy day upon which an important event took place in the year 444 BCE:

When the seventh month arrived--the Israelites being [settled] in their towns--the entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the Lord had charged Israel. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday... (Nehemiah 8:1‑3).

At this impressive gathering, the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God and accepted the Torah as their basic law. The people wept when they realized how far they had strayed from the teachings that were in the Torah. But they were admonished not to mourn because "this day is holy to the Lord your God" (Nehemiah 8:9). The holiness of the first day of the seventh month-‑made plain in this biblical narrative-‑may constitute the reason that it was chosen for this ceremony of reading and accepting the Law. At the same time, the Bible does not describe any specific New Year customs observed on that day.

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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.