How Rosh Hashanah Became New Year's Day

From Nisan To Tishrei .

Print this page Print this page

The effort to strike a balance between a particularistic loyalty to Jewish religion and nationhood and a more universalistic commitment to the human community played itself out in the struggle to set a date for the beginning of the Jewish calendar year. The two possibilities were Nisan, the month of Passover, and Tishrei, the month of what is now known as the festival of Rosh Hashanah.

In the Torah, the beginning of the year was clearly set at 1 Nisan, in the context of a description of the first Passover. "The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you" (Exodus 12:1-2). This new year celebrated the creation of the Jewish nation through the redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. Nisan, as the first of the months, coincided with the beginning of Jewish national history.

But it is surprising that the Torah made no mention of a new year at 1 Tishrei, which today is so central to the Jewish religious experience. The Torah's reference to 1 Tishrei is sparse altogether, describing a holiday characterized primarily by the blowing of a shofar. "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." The name "Rosh Hashanah" is not mentioned, nor is there a reference to its function as a day of judgment and anniversary of the world's creation.

Yet by the period of the Mishnah at the beginning of the second century, the outlines of today's Rosh Hashanah holiday are clear; and discussions about the prayers of Rosh Hashanah appear as early as the teachings of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, which date to the first century CE.

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1 specifically defines Rosh Hashanah's "new year" status. "The first of Tishrei is the beginning of the year [rosh hashanah] for years, sabbatical cycles, and the jubilee." Although the functions of this new year relate primarily to the agricultural cycle and the beginning of a new harvest year, the Mishnah also begins to assign to it conceptual and theological meaning. "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) (M. Rosh Hashanah 1.2).

Sometime between the Torah and the codification of the Mishnah, the autumn new year gained ascendance, now transformed into a major celebration, and the Nisan new year was left as a marker of the months and festivals in the calendar year. Although theories abound about the causes of this transition, the mechanics are lost in the web of historical change. The talmudic rabbis analyze the text of the Bible as they argue about when the New Year should began, yet different sets of verses yield different answers. Historians cite evidence from the ancient Near East, looking at the new years celebrated by neighboring peoples, but nothing is conclusive. Others look to archeology for support. But the truth remains murky.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.