By Israel Drazin


Rosh Hashanah is not a biblical holiday, although it supplanted a biblical one, and is not similar to the holiday it displaced. The biblical holiday, Yom Teruah, had a totally different purpose than Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hashana focuses on the onset of a new year, repentance, and making decisions to live the next year properly. Yom Teruah concentrates on months and the number seven. Despite this, Jews should observe Rosh Hashana and all of its practices.


The Bible

The only mention of rosh hashana, new year, in the Bible is in the writing of the sixth century BCE prophet Ezekiel.[1] However, Ezekiel was speaking about the first day of the first month later called Nisan.[2] He was not talking about the first day of the seventh month, later called Tishrei, the date of the current holiday Rosh Hashana.[3]


According to the Torah[4] and as recognized by the prophet, the first month 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,[5] 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 became new year day.


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 different things happening at different times, so there is no single day of creation.[6] The Talmudic sages knew that we cannot pinpoint a day of creation; the even argued homiletically whether the world was created in Nisan or Tishrei.[7]


Yom Teruah

The parent holy day that gave birth to Rosh Hashana, as I said, was Yom Teruah, also called Yom Zichron Teruah, the day of blowing the horn and the day of memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the horn.[8] On the first day of the seventh month Ezra the Scribe[9] gathered the people together and read the Torah, or some of it, to them. Then he said to them:[10] “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 Hashana is celebrated today nor is it similar to the biblical Yom Teruah.


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 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 besides the stars. The Jews also considered seven important because it reminded them of the existence of God who God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh  and who gave them laws. Among many other uses of seven, they celebrated the Sabbath on the seventh day and Chag Hamatzot and Sukkot for seven days, marked seven weeks by counting them between Chag Hamatzot and Shavuot, and celebrated seven years with a Shemita Year and seven Shemitas with the Jubilee year. The only item missing was months; so they celebrated the first day of the seventh month as another reminder of the significance of seven.


The invention of Rosh Hashana 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.

[1] In 40:1.

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

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

[4] Exodus 12:2.

[5] Two different holidays, as we will discuss in the chapter on Passover.

[6] Babylonian Talmud, Kethuboth 57b, yamim (days) can mean years.

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

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

[9] 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.

[10] Nehemiah 8:10.