How Rosh Hashanah Became New Year's Day

From Nisan To Tishrei .

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Some ancient Semitic peoples considered the year to begin around the autumn harvest and the beginning of the rainy season, which both signified the start of a new agricultural year. Although the Torah never explicitly refers to an autumn new year, some scholars see in the Torah's apparent timing of the fall harvest festival (Sukkot) a small hint of a possible fall new year. According to Exodus 23:26, the Feast of the Harvest, which closely follows Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, occurs, b'tzayt ha-shanah, at the going out of the year, signifying the close of one agricultural year and the beginning of the next. Similarly in Exodus 34:22, the Feast of the Ingathering is said to occur t'kufat hashanah, "at the turn of the year." Further evidence of the fall as the beginning of the agricultural year in Palestine is a calendar from the tenth century BCE found at Tel Gezer, which begins with the two Months of the Ingathering.

Scholars looking for biblical precursors of today's full-blown Rosh Hashanah holiday also look to the text of Nehemiah 8:1-8, although it never refers to a new year celebration. Rather, it describes Ezra reading the book of the law before the people on the first day of the seventh month. Some wonder, given this accumulation of hints about the importance of 1 Tishrei, whether this day was a new year in biblical times and the Torah "covered it up" because the pagan connotations of the day were too strong to acknowledge it as a Jewish new year.

Other scholars, however, believe that the existence of pagan new year celebrations influenced the timing of the Nisan and Tisheri new years, yet the evidence is contradictory. The Akitu festival that celebrated the Babylonian and Sumerian New Years generally occurred in the spring, although there is some evidence of autumnal Akitu festivals. H. Tadmor argued that in the biblical period, Nisan was the New Year in the kingdom of Judea while Tishri was New Year in the northern kingdom of Israel. In the Qumran literature, Nisan is always the New Year.

According to Yehezkel Kaufmann, some scholars claim the autumn festival described in the Torah to be a new year "on the basis of its supposed correspondence to the Babylonian new year, in which the myth of the creation and ancient Babylonian god Marduk's battle with Tiamat play a central part." These scholars envisioned a yearly dramatization of the battle of the Israelite God with Tiamat and his "subsequent enthronement as universal king."

Giving further credence to this view are a series of Psalms that focus on God's kingship (47, 93-100, 149, etc.), which were thought to be part of this new year ritual. Recurring themes in these Psalms reflect ideas important in the rabbinically created holiday of Rosh Hashanah: God as creator, God as King, and God as judge. Several of the Psalms also allude to the sounding of the shofar.

Kaufmann, however, does not accept this explanation, calling it "one of the most remarkable products of the creative imagination of modern biblical scholarship." Kaufmann sees no biblical evidence of a battle between God and any Babylonian deity, and he maintains that the enthronement psalms focus on God's kingship over creation, not a victory over a divine enemy.

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