Rosh Hashanah: From the Torah to the Temples

The meaning of the holiday changes over time.

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Philo of Alexandria, the first‑century BCE Jewish philosopher, describes the first day of the seventh month as the great "Trumpet Feast" and connects it with the sounding of the horn at Mount Sinai when revelation took place. He also interprets the trumpet as an instrument and symbol of war:

Therefore the law instituted this feast figured by that instrument of war the trumpet, which gives it its name, to be as a thank offering to God the peace‑maker and peace‑keeper, who destroys faction both in cities and in the various parts of the universe and creates plenty and fertility and abundance of other good things... (Philo, Special Laws, 2:188-192, Cambridge, 1962).

If Philo accurately represents the general understanding prevalent in his day, rather than an interpretation particular to him or to the Alexandrian community where he lived, then clearly the first day of the seventh month was not celebrated at that time as the "New Year." If we are to assume that the New Year was popularly celebrated during the First Temple period, we must conclude that this tradition was forgotten during the exile and not renewed until later.

Of greatest import, however, is the information given in the Mishnah about the role of judgment on the first of Tishre, 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" (Psalms 33:13‑15) (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1.2).

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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.