Rosh Hashana was not the new year in the Torah

I just completed my fourth book called “Mysteries of Judaism,” my 54th book. It is part of a series in which I point out hundreds of facts about Judaism that most people do not know. While most of these facts are surprising to many people, Jews and non-Jews, they should not threaten readers. I am an Orthodox Jew and am in no way bothered by the fact that the rabbis changed many biblical practices. In my first “Mysteries of Judaism,” for example, I pointed out that none of the biblical holidays are practiced today as specified in the Torah. I explain why this is so and why the Torah itself wanted the changes. The following is part of the chapter on Rosh Hashana, a holiday that is not mentioned in the Torah.

Rosh Hashana

Rosh Hashanah is not a biblical holiday, although it replaced a biblical one, and is notably different from the holiday it replaced. The biblical holiday, Yom Teruah, had a totally different purpose than Rosh Hashanah, which focuses on the onset of a new year, repentance, and commitment to live the next year properly. Yom Teruah concentrated on months and the number seven.

The Bible

The only mention of rosh hashanah, new year, in the Bible is in the writing of the sixth century BCE prophet Ezekiel.[1] However, Ezekiel was speaking about the first day of the first month later called Nisan.[2] He was not talking about the first day of the seventh month, later called Tishrei, the date of the current holiday of Rosh Hashanah.[3]

According to the Torah[4] and as recognized by the prophet, the beginning  of the year is the month later called Nisan. This is the month in which the Israelites who were freed from Egyptian slavery became a nation. The new year is celebrated by Passover and Hag Hamatzot,[5] and the year begins, as does nature, in the spring. It was only during the Babylonian exile of 586 BCE that the Judeans accepted the Babylonian concept that the year begins in the fall, and the first day of the seventh month starts the new year.

While there is no need to connect the new year with the date of creation, the Judeans began to believe that the world was created on the first day of Tishrei. The Bible does not state the date when the world was created. In fact, if the six day events of creation are taken as six periods of time, we can understand the Bible saying that creation was a long process with distinct events  happening at different times, so there is no single day of creation.[6] The Talmudic sages knew that we cannot pinpoint a day of creation; they even argued homiletically about whether the world was created in Nisan or Tishrei.[7]

Yom Teruah

The parent holy day that gave birth to Rosh Hashanah, as I previously noted, was Yom Teruah, also called Yom Zichron Teruah, the day of blowing the horn and the day of memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the horn.[8] On the first day of the seventh month Ezra the Scribe[9] gathered the people together and read the Torah, or some of it, to them. Then he said to them:[10] “Go your way, eat rich viands, drink the sweet beverages, and send portions to him who has none prepared: for this day is holy to our Lord; do not be sad; for joy in the Lord is your refuge.” Ezra’s joyous description of how the Judeans should celebrate the first day of Tishrei is in no way similar to the way Rosh Hashanah is celebrated today, nor is it similar to the biblical Yom Teruah.

In Leviticus 23:25, the elements of Yom Teruah “shall be a solemn rest to you, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of horns, a holy convocation. You must do no kind of servile work; and you must bring an offering made by fire to the Lord.” Numbers 29:1–6 supplements this requirement by describing the sacrifices.

Apparently, this day was chosen as a holiday which should be proclaimed to the people by blowing horns because of the number seven. Seven was an important, even magical number, among the pagans. They saw the number everywhere – such as the body parts, two legs, two arms, two parts of the torso, and the head; and they saw seven heavenly bodies among the stars. The Jews also considered seven important, but for a different reason. It reminded them of three significant things: the existence of God, who created the world in six days, rested on the seventh and gave them laws. Among many other uses of seven, they celebrated the Sabbath on the seventh day and Chag Hamatzot and Sukkot for seven days, marked seven weeks by counting them between Chag Hamatzot and Shavuot and celebrated seven years with a Shemitah Year and seven Shemitahs with the Jubilee year. They celebrated the first day of the seventh month as another reminder of the significance of seven.

Summary

The invention of Rosh Hashanah and all of its practices, including the idea that this is a day when Jews should repent was instituted after the period of Ezra the Scribe. It is an important day in the Jewish year and the rabbis instituted many practices for it that enrich our lives.

[1]       In 40:1.

[2]       The names currently assigned to the Jewish months were assigned in the sixth century BCE during the Babylonian exile.

[3]       See Olam Hatanach, Divrei Hayamim, Yechezkeil, page 203.

[4]       Exodus 12:2.

[5]       Two different holidays, as we will discuss in the chapter on Passover.

[6]       Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 57b, yamim (days) can mean years.

[7]       Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 12a, Rosh Hashana 8a, 10b-11a, 27a, Avodah Zarah 8a.

[8]       Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6.

[9]       We do not know the dates of Ezra’s life. He came to Judea some years after some Judeans returned to Judea after the Babylonian exile. He may have come around 450 BCE.

[10]     Nehemiah 8:10.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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