When is the “real” Jewish New Year?
As temperatures begin to drop and the Hebrew lunar month of Elūl comes to its end, Rosh Ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year festival, is upon us.
But is Rosh Ha-Shanah, “the Head of the Year” and the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, truly the Jewish New Year?
Nowhere in the Five Books of Moses does it say that it is.
Instead, Rosh Ha-Shanah is described simply as Yōm Terū’åh (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה), a “Day of (Shofar) Blasting”, and as a “holy convocation” (מִקְרָא קֹדֶש) on which Temple sacrifices and offerings take the place of normal work, falling on the first day of the “Seventh Month”, (Bemidbar / Numbers 29:1-6). Yom Kippur and the beginning of Sukkōt are given as the tenth and fifteenth days of the Seventh Month, respectively, with Shemini Atzeret on the day following the seven days of Sukkōt (Bemidbar / Numbers 29: 7,12,35). No further explanation is given for the importance of the Day of Blasting, nor for why one would blast a shofar on that day.
Jewish tradition equates the Torah’s “Seventh Month” with the Hebrew month of Tishrei. If Tishrei is the Seventh Month of the year, this would mean that the “First Month” of the year is the Spring month of Nisan, and the true New Year’s Day would then be two weeks before the Pesach / Passover Seder night, on the 1st of Nisan, which is not at all marked by a Jewish holiday (besides the usual Rosh Hōdesh observances at every New Moon). Although the beginning of the First Month as such is indeed noted immediately before the first Passover sacrifice (Shemot / Exodus 12:2), this is traditionally understood primarily as emphasizing the importance of marking lunar months in general, and no celebration marking the first of Nissan is mentioned anywhere in the Tanakh.
Tishrei, Nisan, and the standard Hebrew month names as we now know them do not appear in the Torah, but only in later books of the Tanakh, having been adopted from Mesopotamian civilization, and the Akkadian language, about 2700-2600 years ago. The month that came to be known as Tishrei, besides being the “Seventh Month” of the Torah, was also called Yérah Ha-Eitanīm (ירח האיתנים), meaning roughly “the Moon of the Forces”, as seen in Melakhim / Kings I 8:2. (The Forces of Nature are called in Hebrew Eitanéi ha-Téva’, and the name Eitan / Ethan means strong and steadfast.)
The name Tishrēi is taken from the Akkadian month name Tashrītu, or the “Beginning” month, which Ernest Klein notes is based on the Akkadian verb shurrū, meaning to begin, open, initiate.[i]
And indeed, Jewish tradition has long considered the Yōm Terū’åh, the Torah’s “First Day of the Seventh Month”, to mark the beginning of the Hebrew lunar year.
Or at least one of several Beginnings of the Year, as the Mishnah described it nearly two millennia ago:
ארבעה ראשי שנים הם.
באחד בניסן ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים.
באחד באלול ראש השנה למעשר בהמה.
רבי אלעזר ורבי שמעון אומרים, באחד בתשרי
באחד בתשרי ראש השנה לשנים ולשמיטין וליובלות, לנטיעה ולירקות.
באחד בשבט, ראש השנה לאילן, כדברי בית שמאי.
בית הלל אומרים, בחמשה עשר בו.
“They are four Heads of the Years.
On the First of Nissan is the Head of the Year for Kings and Pilgrimage Feasts (Regålīm).
On the First of Elul is the Head of the Year for tithing livestock;
Rabbi El‘azar and Rabbi Shim‘on say: On the First of Tishrei.
On the First of Tishrei is the Head of the Year for [counting] the Years, for fallow years (Shmittīn) and jubilees (Yovalōt), for planting and for greens.
On the First of Shevat is the Head of the Year for the Tree, as say the House of Shamai;
the House of Hillel say on its fifteenth day.” (Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1)
In various cultures the existence of parallel and overlapping calendars is not unheard of. This is certainly the case among the Maya in Mesoamerica.
Until the 20th century, the Mishnah, with its description of four parallel yearly cycles, each with its own New Year, contained the only explanation for the Jewish tradition’s seeming deviation from the designation of the first month as given in the Torah itself, and enigmatic elevation of the “Day of Shofar Blasting” to the status of New Year’s Day, in the form of the Rosh Ha-Shanah holiday.
Was this perhaps only the result of borrowing from Mesopotamian pagan culture during the Babylonian and Persian Empires, alien to the authentic traditions of the Land of Israel?
Then, in 1908, when the Ottoman Empire still ruled the country, a small clay tablet was found at the archaeological excavations of Tel Gezer, an important biblical city in central Israel, bearing a Hebrew inscription from nearly three millennia ago, dated roughly to the 10th century BCE. Known as the Gezer Calendar, the tablet is on display at the Istanbul Museum of Archaeology to this day, and bears the following poetic inscription:
ירח עצד פשת
ירח קצר שערם
ירח קצר וכל
Following writing conventions of that period most or all vowels are missing, and there are some linguistic phenomena that need explaining[ii], but overall it can be understood and translated as follows:
Moons of gathering (agricultural produce)
Moons of sowing seed
Moons of late rain (sowing)
Moon of harvesting flax
Moon of reaping barley
Moon of reaping (wheat) and measuring (the grain stock)
Moons of the grape harvest
Moon of ripe figs
When we consider each instance that appears to mean “moons of” (ירחו, perhaps pronounced yarhū or yarhéiw) to stand for two months, the inscription describes an agricultural cycle covering a full twelve months. And that cycle does appear to begin with Tishrei, in accordance with Jewish tradition:
The first month in the inscription, “Moons of Gathering (agricultural produce)”, Yarhéiw / Yarhū asīf (ירחו אסִף), would then refer to Tishrei (September-October) and Heshvan (October-November). In fact, the word “asīf” (the act of collecting or gathering agricultural produce) is still associated with Tishrei: The full moon of Tishrei marks the beginning of the weeklong Sukkōt festival, which is also referred to in the Torah as Hag ha-asīf (חג האסיף), or the Holiday of Gathering (agricultural produce), using the same word for “gathering in agricultural produce” immortalized by the Gezer poet millennia ago. The Torah explains precisely what is meant by the word asif, using the related verb, åsáf (אָסַף), meaning to collect, to gather in objects:
- “ […] And the Asīf Holiday […] when you gather in what you have done from the field”, “וְחַג הָאָסִף […] בְּאָסְפְּךָ אֶת מַעֲשֶׂיךָ מִן הַשָּׂדֶה” (Shemot / Exodus 23:16)
- “You shall do the Sukkōt Holiday [for] seven days, when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and from your winepress”, “חַג הַסֻּכֹּת תַּעֲשֶׂה לְךָ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים בְּאָסְפְּךָ מִגָּרְנְךָ וּמִיִּקְבֶךָ” (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:13).
So specifically, Tishrei was the month when primarily grain and wine harvests were brought from industrial facilities located in the fields into storage facilities. (The yéqev (יקב) referred to in the second verse above was specifically the basin collecting the runoff from the winepress. Presumably the freshly pressed grape must would have been left in the basin to ferment before being transferred to storage.)
Harvest collection activities spilled over into the month of Heshvan – most notably the olive harvest – and Heshvan is referred to in the Tanakh as Yérah Būl (ירח בול) – the Moon of Būl, which Ernest Klein links with the more common term yevūl (יבול), meaning the “yield” of agricultural produce[iii].
The rest of the months also match the descriptions of Israel’s traditional agricultural seasons, so that we may interpret the Gezer Calendar as follows:
Yarhū asīf (ירחו אסף) – Moons of gathering (agricultural produce) – Tishrei and Heshvan
Yarhū zarīa‘ (ירחו זרע) – Moons of sowing seed – Kislev and Tevet
Yarhū laqīsh (ירחו לקש) – Moons of late (sowing)[iv] – Shevat and Adar
Yérah ‘atzīd pishta (ירח עצד פשת) – Moon of harvesting[v] flax – Nissan
Yérah qetzīr se‘orīm (ירח קצר שערם) – Moon of harvesting barley – Iyar
Yérah qatzīr ve-khayl (ירח קצר וכל) – Moon of (wheat) harvest and measuring (the grain stock) – Sivan
Yarhū zamīr (ירח זמר) – Moons of the grape harvest[vi] – Tammuz and Av
Yérah qaytz (ירח קץ) – Moon of ripe figs[vii] – Elūl
The cycle described in the Gezer Calendar can still be observed today: The last rains in Israel do indeed occur around April, so January-March would be a good time to sow seed intended to benefit from them. The grain harvests take place in the late spring and early summer. I just spoke with a vintner based near Beit Shemesh who was finishing up the vintage in late Av (late August this year), though in our day this is relatively early and grape harvesting can go on into October. Kids in Jerusalem pluck figs off trees in the parks in the late summer and into Elūl (August-September). …
Nisan (March-April) – identified with Torah’s “First Month” and the Gezer Calendar’s month of the flax harvest – is traditionally known to be when the barley in Israel has reached the stage called avīv, when it is mature in its form and no longer flexible, but still green[viii]. In Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:1 and several other occasions Nisan is called the Month of Avīv. In Shemot / Exodus 9:31-32, hail in the first half of Nisan destroys the barley and flax crops, which were already mature enough to be inflexible: “since the barley was avīv and the flax was stalk” (כִּי הַשְּׂעֹרָה אָבִיב, וְהַפִּשְׁתָּה גִּבְעֹל). Wheat and spelt, on the other hand, were still young and flexible, and could bend to absorb the shock of the hailfall without damage.
Kara’ite Jews still use the wild barley growing in Israel to calibrate the lunar Hebrew calendar with the solar seasons ahead of the Pesah / Passover holiday in Nisan. If by the end of Adar the barley is not mature enough, a second month of Adar is announced, and only the lunar month thereafter can be Nisan and have Pesah begin at its full moon. (Mainstream Rabbinical Jewry instead devised a system in the Middle Ages based on mathematical calculations, to know when to add the extra month of Adar and maintain the calendar’s fidelity to the seasons.)
The importance of Rosh Hodesh Nisan in aligning the lunar and solar cycles, and thus ensuring the proper timing of the holidays, is likely part of what is reflected in the Mishna’s statement that the First of Nisan is the New Year “for kings and pilgrimage feasts” (ראש השנה למלכים ולרגלים).
It may not have been recorded sufficiently in the written Torah itself, but the Jewish oral tradition fills in the gaps regarding the significance of the “Day of (Shofar) Blasting”. In beginning the year on this day, the oral tradition hearkens back millennia to the Gezer Calendar’s poetic description of the Land of Israel’s natural cycle. This primary Jewish New Year – though not the only one – is thus celebrated on the First of Tishrei – the Moon of Gathering, the Moon of Forces. This is the time not only to blast on a shofar, but also to celebrate the results of the past year’s work and blessings, to take stock, to gather resources and collect forces for the year ahead.
[i] Not coincidentally, Arabic and Turkish-speakers in the Middle East will also be aware that the month of Aylūl (أيلول) / Eylül has ended, and Arabic-speakers will know that Tishrīn (تشرين) has begun. Ernest Klein believes that these month names entered Arabic from Syriac/Aramaic, and that Syriac/Aramaic borrowed them from Hebrew. Others posit that these month names entered the Syriac / Aramaic language directly from Akkadian.
[ii] Above all, the precise nature of the vav tacked on to the end of several instances of the word “moon” (yarēah ירח) in the inscription remains a subject of debate. Is the vav itself a forgotten dual marker? That would seem unlikely: The classical Hebrew dual marker for nouns is –ayim and the basic Arabic dual noun marker is –ayn.
A final vav (-ū) is however used to distinguish plurals in verbal conjugations in both languages: He wrote is kåtáv (כָּתַב) in Hebrew and kátaba (كَتَبَ) in classical Arabic; they wrote is kåtǝvū (כָּתְבוּ) in Hebrew and kátabū (كَتَبُوا) in Arabic. In classical Hebrew this extended into poetic renderings of plural adjectives, as in “Mah gådǝlū ma’aséikhå […], me’ōd ‘åmǝqū mahshevōtéikhå”, “How great are Your deeds … Your designs are very deep” (Tehilim / Psalms 92:6), or “Mah-tōvū ōhaléikhå […]”, “How good are your tents […]” (Bemidbar / Numbers 24:5).
In classical Arabic, there is still a final waw (-ū) suffix for plural nouns, but only when the plural noun is “of” something (in construct form, called idāfah, which is like semīkhūt in Hebrew), and in the nominative case. Most famously, the names of Arabian tribes, listed here, often begin with “Banū – ” (بَنُو), meaning “Sons of” in Arabic. This is sometimes rendered as “Banī – ” (بَنِي), which actually means something closer to “[of] the Sons of – ” or “[to] the Sons of – ” (being in genitive or dative construct form). Similarly, the Children of Israel are called Banū Isra’īl (بنو إسرائيل) or Banī Isra’īl (بني إسرائيل) in Arabic, as in the Hebrew phrase Benéi Yisrå’ēl (בְּנֵי יִשׂרָאֵל). Hebrew has only vestiges of the ancient Semitic noun case system (with nominative, genitive and dative forms), still preserved in classical Arabic and detailed here.
Nonetheless, just as modern spoken Arabic only kept the -īn plural form in daily speech, with the –ī suffix meaning plural “of”, it is plausible that Hebrew once had yarhū (ירחו) as a nominative form of the word “moons of” still then, in addition to yarhéi (ירחי), the only form that both classical and modern Hebrew currently have for “moons of”. This archaic nominative plural construct form would then possibly be what the poet set down in the Gezer Calendar some three millennia ago.
The source for the inscription and the bulk of this interpretation of it is Shmuel Ahituv’s book on Hebrew inscriptions (אסופת כתובות עבריות), Bialik Institute, Jerusalem 1992. Ahituv, however, assuming that there are more vowels in the text that were not written, considers the vav to be a possessive male suffix tacked onto a dual form, pronounced then “yarheiw”, and meaning “his two months”. Furthermore he surmises that when just ירח is written, it actually should be read yarho, “his month”.
[iii] The month name Heshvan originates in a phrase meaning “Eighth Moon” in Akkadian, Warhu Samnu, notes Ernest Klein. This would be Yarēah Shemīnī (ירח שמיני) in Hebrew, as the languages are closely related, but the w and m were switched, as happens in Akkadian and between Akkadian and Hebrew, and as a result the Hebrew name for Warhu Samnu became Mar Heshwan, often shortened to Heshwan. (This was perhaps done to avoid finding out if the month would be “noble” or “bitter”, the two possible meanings of mar in Hebrew and Aramaic.) If Heshvan is the eighth month, that would mean that by this count as well Tishrei is the seventh month, despite the meaning of its name, and Nisan the first.
[iv] The l.q.sh root (לקש) for “to be late”, occurring here in the Gezer inscription, is rare in Hebrew, but known with the same meaning from Aramaic/Syriac, and is familiar nonetheless for Hebrew-speakers as the basis of the word for late rains or the last rain, malqōsh (מלקוש).
[v] The term used in the Gezer Calendar for harvesting flax, ‘atzīd (עצד), did not survive in other Hebrew sources, but Ahituv suggests it means harvesting by means of uprooting, and relates it to the general Aramaic word for harvest, hetzada (חְצָדָא). It is also related to a less common Arabic word for harvest or reaping, hasād (حصاد). The latter term appears as חצאד in Sa’adia Ga’on’s classic Arabic translation of the Torah, the Tafsīr, in one of the verses noted above (Shemot / Exodus 23:16).
[vi] The term used by the Gezer Calendar for the grape harvest, zmr (זמר), likely vocalized as zåmīr, is quite surprising. The grape harvest is generally known in Hebrew as the båtzīr (בציר), alongside related verbs, such as in Devarim / Deuteronomy 24:21: “When you harvest your vineyard […]”, kī tivtzōr kármǝkhå (כּי תִבְצוֹר כַּרְמְךָ). Zåmīr and related words are known in the Tanakh and associated with vineyards, but are used instead for pruning the grapevines in the early spring, as seen in the Shir ha-Shirim / Song of Songs: “For, behold, the winter has past, the rain has gone by and moved on. The blossoms are seen in the Land, the time of pruning [זמיר, zåmīr] has arrived, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our country.” (2:10-11) It also seems to be related to other Semitic words for pruning and trimming, such as zbr (זבר) in Ugaritic.
As it immediately followed the rainy season, the Biblical zåmīr could not have been the grape harvest. The z.m.r (ז’מ’ר) root is unmistakably associated with tending grapevines in the Tanakh, and specifically pruning them, or doing another preparatory task comparable with sowing a field with seed. For instance Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:3-4: “Six years you shall sow your field and six years you shall prune your vineyard (תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ, tizmōr karmékhå); And in the seventh year […] you shall not sow your field and you shall not prune your vineyard (וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר, ve-kharmekhå lo tizmōr).”
Both the timing, following the grain harvests, and the importance of the activity over two full months, together with the biblical association of the zmr root with tending grapevines, indicate that the Gezer Calendar poet is using the word zåmīr for harvesting the grapes, removing the fruit from the grapevine … not removing superfluous leaves and twigs.
[vii] While the use of the word qaytz or qayitz (קַיִץ) for ripe figs is less well known in modern Hebrew, it does appear in the standard Even Shoshan dictionary (הַמִּלוֹן הָעִבְרִי הַמְּרֻכָּז), right after the explanation for “summer” which is the more common meaning of the word, as being a term for fruit that have finished ripening, “especially figs”, and a qayyåtz (קַיָּץ) is specifically someone who gathers ripe figs and prepares them for drying.
Dried or ripe figs are also what is meant by the word qayitz in several instances in the Tanakh.
As Ahituv notes, the absence of the letter yud in the word qayitz in the inscription likely indicates that the Gezer Calendar’s author spoke the Hebrew dialect of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and would have pronounced it as qētz (קֵץ), just as wine was pronounced yēn instead of Judaean Hebrew’s yayin and the word for house bēt instead of bayit, hence the cautious transliteration as qaytz.
As Hebrew-speakers will have noted, this results in something of a pun: qētz (קֵץ) also means “end”, so the last month is also the Moon of the End (ירח קֵץ), and the last word in the poem is “the end”.
There is additional evidence that the wordplay in the Northern dialect would likely have not been lost on the Gezer Calendar poet, and may have been intentional: Ahituv notes that in the prophet Amos’ 8th c. BCE vision of the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom (8:2), he saw a “basket of figs” (kluv qaytz; כלוב קיץ) as a symbol that “the end has come” (bå ha-qētz; בָּא הַקֵּץ).
[viii] As the barley harvest is described in the Tanakh as starting in mid-/late Nisan, and was inaugurated with the Waving of the ‘Omer ceremony in the Jerusalem Temple in the second half of the month (precisely when is a subject of disagreement), it is not surprising that the following month, Iyar (April-May) is when the Gezer Calendar would place the bulk of barley harvesting.