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Rosh Hashanah and the New Year

Is Rosh Hashanah Biblical?

Yom Teruah and Jewish Tradition

by John J. Parsons

RECENTLY I WAS ASKED WHY we should bother observing "Rosh Hashanah." After all, the term isn't explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, so isn't it likely that the whole idea of the Jewish "Civil New Year" is nothing but a rabbinical invention? And didn't Yeshua find fault with those rabbis who attempted to "put a fence around" the Torah?

Well, first it should be noted that many Christian theological terms do not appear in the Scriptures themselves. Words such as "Trinity," "Church," "Bible," "Advent," "Easter," "Christmas," and so on are not explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures. However in this case the Torah explicitly states that the start of the 7th month (i.e., Tishri 1) is to be consecrated as a day of rest marked with shofar blowing (Lev. 23:24-25, Num. 29:1-2). But note that the commandment as stated is somewhat "stark" -- that is, no reason is given for this commandment in text of the Torah itself, and therefore we need to consult Jewish tradition for a fuller explanation of the law's meaning and significance (this us not unlike the use of Christian tradition or commentaries to explain theological ideas, after all).  When we look to Jewish tradition, then, we'll discover that the sages and great commentators of the Torah universally regard the number 7 as the number of completeness. Just as the seventh day of the week is considered sacred, so too is the seventh month of the year.  The sages reasoned that since each new moon (rosh chodesh) is regarded as a sacred time (Num. 10:10), it's logical that the seventh new moon (counting from Nisan in the spring) should acquire added sanctity.  This conclusion seems especially justified in this case because God directly commanded Israel to sanctify the seventh month as a solemn day of "remembrance and shofar blowing" (זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה). Therefore while it is clear that the new moon of the seventh month is to be observed as "Yom Teruah," it nevertheless has a somewhat "concealed" significance, suggestive of the absence of the moon on that date itself.


 

But how did the sages derive the idea that the seventh month is the "rosh" (head of) "ha-shanah" (the year), especially when they understood the Torah's description of Nisan 1 as the "beginning of months" (Exod. 12:1-2)? Well, like other Jewish holidays (e.g., Shavuot) Yom Teruah likely had an agricultural basis.  In ancient Israel, fall was the time of planting crops, and the planting season was therefore associated with the "beginning of the year." Prayers were offered so that the harvest would be a good one and that rain would be given from heaven (e.g., the blessing added to the daily prayers traditionally begin with the holiday of Sukkot). The "opening" or start of the economic and agricultural year for Israel would therefore have been in autumn, not in spring... Moreover, some scholars have noted that autumn was popularly celebrated in ancient Israel (and in other Ancient Near East cultures) as a time of "divine coronation," i.e., the beginning of a new cycle of the year.


 

The Mishnah (reflecting the discussions of the 1st century sages known as the Tannaim) discusses four "new years" (rosh hashanahs) of the Jewish calendar: Nisan 1 (for kings and festivals), Elul 1 (for tithing of animals), Tishri 1 (for Sabbatical years, Jubilee years, and for planting), and Shevat 1 (or 15) for trees (Rosh Hashanah 1:1). These four new years have become part of Jewish tradition, though the two most widely recognized are the New Year of spring (i.e., Nisan 1 and the time of Passover) and the new year of fall (i.e., Tishri 1, the time of the High Holidays).

Okay, but is there any "Biblical" evidence to suggest that the first day of the seventh month is the start of the Jewish "new year"? Not explicitly, though
the prophet Ezekiel (6th century BC) appears to refer to the time of Yom Kippur as the "beginning of the year" (Ezek. 40:1). The Psalmist likewise regarded the new moon of the seventh month as especially significant (Psalm 81:3-4). And after the return of the exiles, Ezra the Scribe gathered the Jews at the Water Gate in Jerusalem on the first of Tishri to read the Torah before the people (Neh. 8:1-9). Ezra's action may have been the precedent among the later sages for investing Tishri 1 with its distinctive status. 

Ultimately the question about Rosh Hashanah has to do with the authority of Jewish tradition itself.  Does the Jewish community have sanction to establish the date of Hebrew calendar?  To establish the start of the month? To determine if a year was shemittah (a sabbatical year)? To sound the shofar and declare a Jubilee? According to Moses, the answer is a qualified "yes." After all, it's clear that Moses established judges and courts to determine such matters and to develop case law based on the precepts of the Torah (Deut. 16:18). This "chain of authority" was later codified by the sages of the Mishnah, who said it was given by God first to Moses, then Joshua, then to the 70 elders, then to the prophets, and then to Ezra and the men of the Great Assembly (Pirke Avot 1:1). And according to "mainstream" Jewish tradition, Tishri 1 has been established as a "rosh hashanah" from at least the time of the return of the exiles (4th century BC). This is further attested by Flavius Josephus (first century AD) who wrote: "Moses ... appointed Nisan ... as the first month for the festivals ... the commencement of the year for everything relating to divine worship, but for selling and buying and other ordinary affairs he preserved the ancient order [i. e. the year beginning with Tishri]" (Antiquities 1.81). Even Yeshua Himself endorsed Ezra's division of the Scriptures into the "Law, Writings, and the Prophets" and said that not a "jot or a tittle" would pass from the Torah until all was fulfilled (Luke 24:44; Matt. 5:18).

That said, there are undoubtedly a lot of Rabbinical "additions" that have accrued to the holiday over the centuries -- especially since the destruction of the Second Temple. For example, according to later Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the destiny of the righteous, the tzaddikim, are written in the Book of Life, and the destiny of the wicked, the resha'im, are written in the Book of Death.  Most people, however, won't be inscribed in either book, but are given ten days -- until Yom Kippur -- to repent before sealing their fate. On Yom Kippur, then, everyone's name will be "sealed" in one of the two books.  The ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are given extra sanctity as Aseret Yemei Teshuvah - the "Ten Days of Repentance" - because personal repentance can affect the divine decree for a good outcome for the new year....

Moreover, the idea that Rosh Hashanah represents the day Adam was created is based on speculative methods. The Mishnah says the sages determined this date by transposing the Hebrew letters of the first word of the Hebrew Scriptures (בראשׁית, bereshit) to form the phrase aleph b'Tishri (א בתשׁרי, "on the 1st of Tishri") in order to associate this date with the anniversary of the creation of humankind.  The sages "decoded" the word bereshit to support the idea that Tishri 1 is the anniversary of God's judgment upon humanity. The same sort of thing can be said about the customs of eating apples and honey, pomeganates, using round challah, performing the tashlikh ceremony, and so on.

Despite all this, let me suggest that many of the traditions of Rosh Hashanah can be genuinely helpful for Christians.  Undergoing self-examination and doing teshuvah are commanded by God and inherently valuable exercises for followers of Yeshua (see Lam. 3:40; Haggai 1:5; Psalm 119:59; Matt. 7:3-5, Gal. 6:3-4, 1 Cor. 11:28, 2 Cor. 13:5, James 5:16, 1 John 1:8-9, etc.). Setting aside 40 days each year to help us turn away from sin is a healing custom, especially if it's done in light of truth of the gospel message. After all, Christians will stand before the Throne of Judgment (kisei ha-din) to give account for their lives to God (see 2 Cor. 5:10). As it is written: "Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is" (1 Cor. 3:13). The foundation of every true work of God comes from trusting in the finished work of Yeshua the Messiah, and the work of our faith will be tested and judged. We have great consolation in our testings, friends: if we are honest with the Lord and appeal to Him for help, He promises to be there for us (Heb. 4:15-16).


 

Nonetheless we are given a certain amount of "liberty" regarding how we choose to honor the LORD God of Israel.  And of course it's our duty to guard against needlessly offending a brother or sister who considers this matter differently (Rom. 14:5). Walking in love is the higher truth we all must follow... Shalom for now, chaverim.


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