Rosh Hashanah is not a biblical holiday

                                                     

 

                                                   Rosh Hashanah is not a biblical holiday[1]

 

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 and had totally different practices than Rosh Hashanah.

 

The Bible

The only mention of the words Rosh Hashanah, “new year” or “beginning of the 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. He was not talking about the first day of the seventh month, later called Tishrei, the date of the current holiday of Rosh Hashanah.

Ezekiel was referring to Exodus 12:2 which states “This month shall be for you the first month.” According to the Torah, the beginning of the year is the month later called Nisan. This is the spring month in which the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery and became a nation. The new year is celebrated by Passover on 14 Nisan and Hag Hamatzot beginning 15 Nisan for seven days, and the year begins, as does nature, in the spring.[3] 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 beginning of the calendar 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 depicted in Genesis 1 are taken as six periods of time, we can understand the Bible saying creation was a long process with distinct events happening at different times, so there is no single day of creation.[4] The Talmud sages knew that we cannot pinpoint a day of creation; they even argued homiletically, and only homiletically, whether the world was created in Nisan or Tishrei.[5]

 

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 a horn and the day of memorial proclaimed with the blowing of a horn.[6] On the first day of the seventh month Ezra the Scribe[7] gathered the people together and read the Torah, or some of it, to them. Then he said to them: “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.”[8] Ezra’s joyous description of how the Judeans should celebrate the first day of Tishrei is in no way similar to the way the later created holiday Rosh Hashanah is celebrated today, nor is it similar to the biblical Yom Teruah. Ezra apparently turned this day into a Thanksgiving holiday to be celebrated that year, and perhaps not future years, as thanksgiving to God for allowing the Judeans to return to their land after the Babylonian captivity that began in 586 BCE.

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 special day which should be announced 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 many other uses of seven, Jews celebrate the Sabbath on the seventh day, Chag Hamatzot and Sukkot for seven days, marked seven weeks by counting them between Chag Hamatzot and Shavuot with Shavuot being given the name “weeks,” celebrated seven years with a Shemitah Year when fields were left to rest, and seven Shemitahs with the Jubilee year. Thus the message about God contained in the number seven was recalled in days, weeks, years, and Shemitahs. These left only months, which was accomplished by celebrating 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 who, as we saw, did not observe it.

 

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 concepts of sin and repentance as a religious experience, which became integral parts of Rosh Hashanah, are not in the Bible; they are post-biblical.

 

Sin

“Sin,” a prime element in Christian theology,[9] is chet in Hebrew, and chet means nothing more than “missing the mark.” The Bible speaks of three categories of wrongs that are not synonyms. There is chet, the misstep. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second, pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, and murder. The third avon, cited in 233 instances, is an unintentional act that has harmful consequences. Understood in this way, it should be clear that misdeeds shouldn’t provoke passive feelings of guilt, recitations, and prayers; individuals should ponder what they did wrong, why they did it, take actions that remedy the consequences and assure no repetition. It is like a person shooting an arrow at a target and missing. What does he do? He doesn’t feel “guilt.” He doesn’t seek religious absolution. He doesn’t recite prayers. He realizes his mistake. He shot an arrow but “missed the mark.” He thinks how he can avoid the mistake again, reaches back into his quiver, takes another arrow, and shoots again.

 

Repentance

Seen this way, repentance, teshuvah in Hebrew, is a practical endeavor. Repentance doesn’t magically absolve people of wrongs they committed. It’s not abracadabra. Jewish repentance practices remind people to take practical measures to correct their mistakes.

Most people understand repentance and confessions, as they do sacrifices, as pseudo-magical recitations that remove misdeeds, as if words recited during a synagogue service could somehow change the past, erase the slap a husband gave his wife and restore a loving relationship. “I don’t understand why you’re still angry,” the husband wails. “I did teshuvah in the synagogue!”

This isn’t the way life works. Maimonides put it this way:[10] teshuvah is when a person decides to abandon his or her past misdeeds, resolves not to do them again, thinks how to correct them, and develops habits to assure they are not repeated.

 

What is the Origin of Repentance?

Neither the term teshuvah nor the concept of repentance as we know it today appear in the Torah. The ancients, Israelites and non-Israelites, believed that what one said, especially vows, or what one did cannot be erased.[11] When an egg is broken, its shards cannot be reassembled. Misdeeds, they thought, are remedied only by punishment.[12]

Scholars suppose that the current idea that people can nullify misdeeds by doing teshuvah developed in three stages.[13] It began around 722 BCE, centuries after King Solomon’s death when his kingdom split in two with Israel in the north and Judea in the south.[14] In that year, the Assyrians conquered Israel and exiled most Israelites from their land.[15] The Judeans who saw the cyclopean catastrophe were convinced that the disaster occurred because of the misdeeds of the northern tribes, especially that many abandoned God and worshiped idols. They knew that they did the same and searched for a way to save themselves, to nullify their wrongs without punishment. It was then that teshuvah began to develop as an idea that repentance can erase prior misdeeds. It was further entrenched after 586 BCE when Judea itself was destroyed by the Babylonians and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. The final stage began in 70 CE when the second temple was destroyed by Rome, when Jews felt again that their misdeeds caused the destruction and rabbis developed practices which they hoped would rid Jews of wrongs.[16]

 

Divine Reward and Punishment

Another central idea of the high holidays is belief in divine reward and punishment. Like most notions held today by many Jews, as well as by Christians and Muslims, this idea is a relatively recent accretion into Judaism: thoughts that are not in the Bible but taken from pagan cultures, such as the belief that people have souls, the need to have faith, and concepts that have become central to the synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, such as divine punishment in heaven or hell for good or bad deeds here on earth.

In his excellent very informative book, “The Sages,” Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau makes this clear.

According to the Bible, the reward for doing mitzvot is granted in this world: ‘that you may fare well and live long.’[17] The Mishnah likewise states ‘Whoever performs one mitzvah is rewarded, and his days are prolonged, and he inherits the land.’[18] The idea of reward and punishment in another world appears as early as the time of Hillel, a hundred years before the destruction of the Temple.[19] ‘If he has acquired words of Torah, he has acquired the World to Come.’”[20]

In a footnote, Rabbi Lau adds that Rabbi Abraham Heschel argues[21] “the World to Come was developed in the beit midrash (school) of Rabbi Akiva[22] and does not appear in the sources associated with (his colleague) Rabbi Ishmael.”[23]

However we date the origin, what is certain is that the teaching of otherworldly punishment and reward is a late accretion and its source is most likely Greek culture, for the early years of the first millennium was a period when many Romans who taught Greek thought lived in Israel.[24]

 

God Keeping Books and Weighing Deeds on a Scale

The concept that God records human deeds in books and that he weighs human deeds on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on scales to see whether the good or bad deeds outweigh the other, notions recorded in holiday prayers, are taken from Mesopotamian pagans. Close consideration of these concepts will reveal that they demean God. They depict God anthropomorphically, as a forgetful being who needs to aid memory by recordings in books, and is not smart enough to tell at a glance whether a person is essentially good or bad. However, like most ideas in the prayer book, if these notions are understood metaphorically, they teach us to take note of our acts and measure our behaviors and resolve to live a proper life.

 

Summary

In short, Rosh Hashanah, one of the most important holidays of Judaism is not biblical. It and its practices developed only several centuries before the common era because the Jews needed to believe the new non-biblical ideas that it taught.

 

[1] This is part of a chapter from my recent book “Mysteries of Judaism” where I point out that every biblical holiday was changed by the rabbis.

[2] In 40:1.

[3] As I detail in another chapter, Passover of 14 Nisan ceased to exist, and its name was transferred to Hag Hamatzot which began on 15 Nisan. The prayer book (Siddur) continues to call Hag Hamatzot by its biblical name, but most people know it as Passover.

[4] Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 57b. The term yamim (days) is also used in the Bible to denote years.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 12a, Rosh Hashanah 8a, 10b-11a, 27a, Avodah Zarah 8a.

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

[7] 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.

[8] Nehemiah 8:10.

[9] “Sin” became an important in Christianity because it gives a reason for Jesus’ mission: although not mentioned in the New Testament, Christians began to believe that he came to remove the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. Original sin is not a Jewish concept.

[10] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance.

[11] One of several examples is the story of Judge Jephthah who vowed that whatever came to meet him after his war would be sacrificed to God. When his daughter was the first, he had to sacrifice her.

[12] This concept is still reflected in the Talmudic view that death atones. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 32a, Yoma 86a, Sanhedrin 43b, 47a-47b.

[13] Olam Hatanach, Devarim, 221-223.

[14] Ten tribes in northern Israel revolted and formed their own nation after Solomon’s son Rehoboam refused to reduce their taxes.

[15] Some escaped to the south, to Judea, but the rest disappeared from history and are known today as “the ten lost tribes.”

[16] There were many practices suggested by many rabbis over the following generations, such as the somewhat mystical approach of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) in his Mesilat Yesharim (Path of the Just) and the rational view of Maimonides (1138-1204) in Guide of the Perplexed.

[17] Deuteronomy 33:7.

[18] Mishnah Kiddushin 1:10.

[19] About 30 BCE.

[20] Mishnah Avot 2:7.

[21] In Heavenly Torah.

[22] Who died in 135 CE,

[23] Akiva felt that every word, even every letter of the Torah text must be mined to discover teachings that are not explicit in the Torah text, while Ishmael insisted that we read Torah as we read other books because “the Torah speaks in human language.”

[24] They came in the mid-first century BCE when Pompey entered Judea.

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