Yemenite Jews observe Tashlich in Tel Aviv, 1926. (Shimon Korbman/Wikimedia)

How Rosh Hashanah Became New Year’s Day

In the Torah, the beginning of the year was clearly set in the spring. So what happened?

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 the first of 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.

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 10th 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 Tishrei 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 Tishrei 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.

Moving from the theories of Bible scholars to the interpretations of Jewish commentators, we see an acknowledgement of the existence of the two new years, Nisan and Tishrei, along with attempts to derive meaning from this doubling. Because Rosh Hashanah occurs at the beginning of the seventh month, counting from Nisan, Nachmanides (Ramban), a 13th-century commentator, tied the two together by positing that the very process of counting tied Rosh Hashanah to the redemption from Egypt. This, suggests Ramban, is similar to the tie between the weekday and Shabbat that is also accomplished by counting:

Just as we remember the Sabbath day by counting according to the first day of the Shabbat cycle, the second day of the Shabbat cycle [in Hebrew, the weekdays do not have names, they are numbered in relation to the coming Shabbat], as I will explain below, so we remember the Exodus from Egypt by counting the first month, and the second and third month from our redemption. For this is not the enumeration that we apply to the year, for the beginning of our years is in Tishrei, as it is written (Exodus 34:22), “the Festival of gathering, at the year-season,” and it is written (Exodus 23:16), “at the going-out/changing of the year.” Therefore, when the month of Nisan is called “first” and Tishrei “seventh,” the meaning is: the first from the redemption and the seventh therefrom. And this is the meaning of “the beginning-one let it be for you.” For it is not the beginning of the year, but the beginning for you, for it is thus-called in memory of our redemption.

Modern interpreters of Judaism also look for meaning in the existence of two new year festivals. Ismar Schorsch and others focus on the roles of the two new years as exemplars of the particularist/universalist balance in Judaism — the relative weight Judaism gives to an inward focus on the Jewish people vs. an outward focus on all of humanity.

Schorsch points out that although R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua argued in the Babylonian Talmud’s tractate Rosh Hashanah about whether Nisan or Tishri was more significant, they both accepted the existence of a calendar with more than a single new year. Both cite verses purporting to prove that a series of critical events took place in their favored month: the creation of the world, Israel’s future redemption from exile, the birth and death of the patriarchs, conception of a child by the matriarchs, and Joseph’s release from prison.

The reason, maintains Schorsch, was to give greater weight to either the nationalist or the universalist trend in Judaism. Because R. Yeshoshua saw national redemption as the fulcrum of Jewish history, he held with the Torah that Nisan was the first month. Nisan’s role as the new year for Jewish kings as well as the anniversary of Jewish nationhood reflects Yeshoshua’s national focus. With his more universal thrust, R. Eliezer supported Tishrei as the anniversary of the creation of Adam and hence of all humanity. Within the universalist compass of Tishrei, issues of sin and renewal applicable to all human beings were emphasized. The fact that Tishrei is the new year for counting of the reigns of gentile kings also reflects this worldly perspective.

By attributing different yet complementary roles to the new years of Nisan and Tishrei, teachers of Torah have helped integrate perspectives of world, nation, and individual within the Jewish religion.

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