Rosh Hashanah as we know it does not exist in the Bible. The Torah does mention a holiday that occurs on the same date, the first of Tishrei, but nowhere does the Torah describe this date or its festival as a new year.
The term “Rosh Hashanah” appears only once in all of the Bible, in Ezekiel 40:1, and it is unclear whether it means the same thing we mean when using the term.
בְּעֶשְׂרִים וְחָמֵשׁ שָׁנָה לְגָלוּתֵנוּ בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה בֶּעָשׂוֹר לַחֹדֶשׁ בְּאַרְבַּע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה אַחַר אֲשֶׁר הֻכְּתָה הָעִיר בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה הָיְתָה עָלַי יַד-ה’ וַיָּבֵא אֹתִי שָׁמָּה:
In the 25th year of our exile, in the beginning of the year, on the 10th of the month, in the 14th year, after the city was smitten, on this very day the hand of the Lord was upon me, and He brought me there.
Almost all commentators, quoting the Gemara (Erakhin 12a), explain that the prophecy occurred in a jubilee year, on the Yom Kippur of the 25th year of Yehoyakim’s exile, 14 years after the Temple’s destruction. Yom Kippur was called Rosh Hashanah — on the 10th day, no less — because of the shofar blast and the freeing of the slaves that took place on that day. A vision of rebuilding the Temple was appropriate at this time because of the overlapping theme of repentance.
But that is still not the Jewish New Year that “Rosh Hashanah” means in this day and age. Moreover, the phrasing does not help clarify the nature of the day.
Rosh Hashanah as we know it seems relevant twice, in the Torah’s discussions of holidays. First, in Parshat Emor (Lev 23:24-25): “…In the seventh month, on the first of the month, it shall be a sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast a holy occasion. You shall not perform any work of labor, and you shall offer up a fire offering to the Lord.” And then again in Parshat Pinchas (Num. 29:1-2), the day is singled out for the sounding of the shofar – followed by a long series of animal sacrifices (through verse 6): “And in the seventh month, on the first day, there shall be a holy convocation for you; you shall not perform any mundane work. It shall be a day of shofar sounding for you.”
Other holidays, especially the pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, are described in the Torah. They are associated with events, whether historical or agricultural, or both. Yom Kippur also receives an explanation regarding the day’s importance and significance. Yet, as Ramban points out, the Torah does not explain why the shofar is to be blown on the first day of the seventh month. Why do we need to be remembered before the Lord on this day, as compared to all the others? Indeed, what we know about this and its significance is based nearly entirely on oral tradition.
The earliest reference to the first of Tishrei as Rosh Hashanah is in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 1:2), in the list of the four “new years” by which the year is counted. It is the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) that presents the day as one of divine judgement, with the vivid depiction of God opening up three books in which all of humanity will be inscribed: one for the righteous people, one for the wicked people, and one for those who fall in between the extremes of righteous and wicked practices.
In addition, all those other holidays have names, but this one is nameless. It does not even get a reference as a day of judgement or one of remembrance. The only defining characteristic is that it is to be a day of blowing, and even that is oblique in the biblical text. For example: What is the instrument to be blown? And what notes or sound should be made?
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 8a) explains that the first of Tishrei is designated for the counting of years in connection to judgement because it is the day on which God decides the fates of all of His creations for the following year. A verse in Deuteronomy (11:12) is cited as a prooftext: “the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year” – that is, God decrees the events of the entire year.
But that verse does not mention Tishrei. Why, then, is that the time known for when God judges the world? Another prooftext may help, this time from Psalms 81:4-5: “Sound the shofar on the New Moon, on the appointed time for the day of our festival. For it is a statute for Israel, the judgment of the God of Jacob.” The first verse here indicates that the shofar is to be blown at the time when there is a new, unseen, hidden moon. Where all other holidays take place during the middle of the lunar month (some exactly so), this day of sounding the shofar occurs at the very beginning of the month, Rosh Chodesh. And the second verse here acknowledges the element of judgement in the day.
While the Talmud addresses the question of the shofar and the specific sounds of the day, it does not explain why the Torah does not specifically identify Rosh Hashanah as the day of judgement. Later commentators try their respective hands at answering this conundrum.
Rabbenu Bahye (on Lev. 23:24) maintains that the deeper and more spiritually complex an issue is, the less detail the Torah provides. Thus, the more important and significant the concept, the less that is revealed about it. His position, in general, is that the Torah is geared to the multitudes, and therefore refrains from engaging in difficult philosophical ideas that may well be beyond the comprehension of the masses. In this same vein, the Torah does not mention the soul or the World-to-Come. Similarly, Don Yitzchak Abarbanel suggests that most people are not worthy of receiving this information, so it was kept hidden from them.
Rabbi Ephraim Luntschitz tries to make sense of this in his seminal work, Kli Yakar. Too much information would risk leaving humankind behaving without conscience throughout the year, and then act properly only during the run-up to Rosh Hashanah. If people view every day as their judgement day, however, the very awareness of being judged will keep them on the straight and narrow. Each person, therefore, should view every single day as if it were his or her last, in order both to live a life of good behavior and to be prepared to meet his or her Maker at any time.
Rabbi Shmuel Yaffe Ashkenazi has a dramatically different explanation for the lack of information in the Torah with regard to Rosh Hashanah. He maintains that by keeping the details of the day hidden, the day itself is hidden from the nations of the world. As he writes in Yefeh Einayim, it is God’s love for His people that prevents Him from sharing the meaning of the day in writing; rather, only those who members of His Chosen People will be happy to know the blast of the shofar (Psalms 89:16). Indeed, as Vayikra Rabbah (29) recounts, in explicating this verse, those who know the joyful blow of the shofar are happy in that they know how to sway their Creator with the sounds of the shofar. God will then stand up from His throne of judgement and shift to the throne of mercy, in order to relate to those who blow the shofar with His attribute of mercy – and specifically at this time, in the seventh month.
With tacit acknowledgement that the new year and judgement of the world is not entirely hidden from the nations of the world, Abarbanel points out that two judgements take place on Rosh Hashanah; that is, one for the whole world and one specifically for the Jewish people – and, while there may be overlap in the respective outcomes, they are not the same. The nations of the world are judged in accord with the laws of nature, to the extent that the experience of “judgement” is largely negated. But the Jews, he maintains, are removed from the process of the natural world unfolding as it will. Rather, because of the dedication of the Jewish people to Torah, the performance of mitzvot, and its special relationship with the God, the judgement of the Jews is given to Divine Providence.
Put simply, those who dedicate themselves to the fulfillment of mitzvot and the relationship with God will merit the direct involvement of God in their lives. And nothing is too hidden about that.