Rosh Hashanah – New Year or Renewal of the Year?
By Jonathan Berkowitz
Is Rosh Hashanah really the Jewish New Year? How can that be so, since it occurs at the midpoint of the Jewish calendar—the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish year. Judging by the liturgy, it appears to serve as a renewal of the year. Rosh Hashanah marks a “new year” only in the sense of counting years from creation. There are, in fact, four starts to four definitions of a new year—in Nisan, Tishrei, Elul, and Shevat.
Neither the Torah nor any texts before the Second Temple use the term Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reads, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, there shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with a blast of horns, a holy convocation.” That’s all it says. Nothing about creation, nothing about a new year. Rosh actually means “head”, not he “first” or “new.” The occasion is called “a day of remembrance” or “a day of sounding the shofar.”
The Torah uses the phrase zikhron terua, commemoration with loud blasts. It doesn’t explain why the shofar is the key ritual symbol of the holiday, nor how it is connected with “remembering the terua.” We don’t know when it was first blown.
Incidentally, the term High Holydays has no Hebrew equivalent, and the Hebrew term Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) was first used in the 1300s.
Except for Rosh Hashanah, biblical holidays relate to specific historical events in the Torah: Passover, the Exodus from Egypt; Shavuot, the revelation at Sinai; Yom Kippur, God’s forgiveness after the sin of the Golden Calf; Sukkot, our time in the wilderness. Rabbi Nathan Laufer asks the question of what revelatory event this holy day is meant to recall and relive. He opines that creation is not the primary theme; Rosh Hashanah commemorates God’s revelation at Mount Sinai. When you see it that way, the rituals, liturgy, and customs all make sense. But that’s the theme of Shavuot. How can we reconcile this? While Passover and Shabbat both celebrate the Exodus, Passover corresponds to the actual time of year of the Exodus. Similarly, Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah can both commemorate the revelation—once when it occurred, and once as a reminder as we begin a new year.
Another explanation given by Rabbi Laufer, is that Moses shattered the first set of tablets when he came down the mountain and saw the Golden Calf. So, although the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments orally in Sivan, they didn’t take possession until the second set of tablets, which, according to rabbinic tradition, happened on the tenth day of Tishrei. Rosh Hashanah sets the stage for accepting the physical commandments on Yom Kippur.
How did Rosh Hashanah evolve into counting years since creation? Before the Babylonian exile, there was a single festival of the ingathering of the fruits and grapes; that was Sukkot. After the exile, the festival split into three parts, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The ancient Babylonians had a creation myth—Enuma Elish, the birth of the world—which was observed close to the first of Tishrei. Perhaps that is why the rabbis assigned as the day to celebrate creation.
According to the Torah, Shabbat commemorates creation, but it silent about that for Rosh Hashanah. The Rosh Hashanah kiddush says zehker liyetziat Mitzrayim, a commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. The Shabbat kiddush has zikaron lemaaseh bereshit AND zehker liyetziat Mitzrayim, a commemoration of creation AND of the Exodus. Somehow, Rosh Hashanah was linked to the post-Exodus cycle, instead of the Genesis story.
The Rosh Hashanah liturgy underwent great development by the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. In fact, we don’t know much about the liturgy before that time. The core was, and still is, the Musaf Amidah, with its three special sections of Kingship, Remembrance, and Redemption, each marked by the sound of the shofar.
Yet another aspect of Rosh Hashanah is that it begins a ten-day period of judgment when books of account are opened to record the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those in-between. Perhaps that’s why the mood of the day is both solemn and festive.
Our years seem to start twice, once at Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year, and once at Pesach, during the head of the months. Thus, Rosh Hashanah is a sort of “do-over.” It is an opportunity for renewal, for the Jewish people to gather to reaffirm God’s kingship, covenant, and revelation at Mount Sinai. Now you know what Rosh Hashanah is and you can go to the “head” of the class!
To learn more, read Rabbi Laufer’s book Rendezvous with God: Revealing the Meaning of the Jewish Holidays and Their Mysterious Rituals.