Rosh Hashanah is not a biblical holiday

 

Have you ever wondered why Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not highlighted in the Torah as pilgrimage holidays, as Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are? This is because neither Rosh Hashanah nor Yom Kippur are biblical holidays. Both replaced biblical holidays, and are notably different from the holidays they replaced.[1] The biblical holiday Yom Teruah, which was replaced by Rosh Hashanah, had a totally different purpose than Rosh Hashanah whch 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.[2] However, Ezekiel was speaking about the first day of the first month later called Nisan.[3] He was not talking about the first day of the seventh month, later called Tishrei, the date of the current holiday of Rosh Hashanah.[4]

According to the Torah[5] 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,[6] 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 begins 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.[7] 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.[8]

Yom Teruah

The parent holy day that gave birth to Rosh Hashanah was Yom Teruah, also called Yom Zichron Teruah, the day of blowing a horn and the day of memorial proclaimed with the blowing of a horn.[9] On the first day of the seventh month Ezra the Scribe[10] gathered the people together and read the Torah, or some of it, to them. Then he said to them:[11] “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.

Leviticus 23:25 describes the elements of Yom Teruah. It “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 because it reminded them of the existence of God, who created the world in six days, rested on the seventh and  gave them laws. Among more than a hundred appearances of seven in Judaism are: celebrating the Sabbath on the seventh day and Chag Hamatzot and Sukkot for seven days, counting seven weeks between Chag Hamatzot and Shavuot and celebrating seven years with a Shemitah Year and seven Shemitahs with the Jubilee year. The celebration of the first day of the seventh month as another reminder of the significance of seven.

The invention of Rosh Hashanah and all of its practices, including the idea that this was a day when Jews should repent was instituted after the period of Ezra the Scribe.

Repentance

None of the practices associated today with Rosh Hashanah are biblical. The ten days  from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, New Year and the Day of Atonement, were instituted by rabbis as ten days during which Jews should recall and examine their past deeds and thoughts, think why mistakes were made, decide not to repeat errors, and consider ways to improve. People should, of course, think about their mistakes at all times and remedy them immediately. However, many cultures, like that of the Jews, recognize that most of us fail to do so and therefore remind people to check their behavior at the onset of a new year and resolve to improve. It is well known that many people go on diets and promise themselves to study more during new year holidays. The Jewish practice, stimulated and enhanced by many ceremonies and prayers, is a strong inspiration to “return” to the teachings of Judaism.

The fact that Rosh hashanah is not biblical should not prompt Jews not to observe it.

 

[1]    Yom Kippur replaced Yom Hakippurim, a day when the high priest offered certain sacrifices. I will discuss this in the future.

[2]       In 40:1.

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

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

[5]       Exodus 12:2.

[6]       Two different holidays, as discussed in my book “Mysteries of Judaism.”

[7]       Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 57b, yamim (days) can mean years.

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

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

[10]     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 in the fifth century BCE.

[11]     Nehemiah 8:10.

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