Rosh Hashanah in the Torah

Rosh Hashanah in the Torah - Neot Kedumim Park

By Asher Zeiger

Rosh Hashanah. The Day of Judgement and of Rememberance, The day when, according to Jewish tradition, the world was created. The 10 days referred to as the “The Days of Awe” begin on Rosh Hashana and culminate on the holiest of Holy Days, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Rosh Hashana is on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the year according to the Torah (the first is Nissan, the month of Passover, when the Jewish people left the slavery of Egypt and became a cohesive nation in the desert.).

Yet this day, so enmeshed in inherent holiness, is unlike any other biblical holiday.

For one thing, it is not referred to by name anywhere in the Tanach. Neither do most of the traditions that we connect with the holiday today appear in the Tanach. And third, unlike any other biblical festival, the Torah does not provide any guidance as to how the festival is to be observed.

There are two direct biblical references to the date of Rosh Hashana in the Torah and a third in the book of Nehemiah.

In Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1, the “first day of the seventh month” is simply called “Yom Teru’ah”, the Day of the Blast (of horns, shofars). There is no mention of judgment, nor of the creation of the world, no “New Year” and no connection to Yom Kippur. The mention of “remembrance” is only marginal (the verse in Leviticus calls the day “the remembering of the blast”). The focus of the verses is “Yom Teru’ah”.

Nehemiah chapter 8 relates the story that Ezra the scribe gathered the people together on the first day of the seventh month and read to them the entire Torah. When the people realized how little of the Torah they knew and observed, they began to cry. Nehemiah addressed the nation (8:9-10) by saying “Do not mourn and do not weep…for today is a holy day
unto the Lord.”

A fourth, indirect reference, appears in the book of Psalms, traditionally attributed to King David. There, it refers to blowing the shofar at the new moon, as that is a feast day for the Children of Israel (81:4-5). While this does not mention the date as the first of Tishrei, it does connect the idea of a celebration with the sounding of the shofar.

By the time the Mishna was redacted in the early 3rd century CE, the first day of Tishrei was connected to the beginning of the year. The Mishna teaches that there are four “new years” in the Jewish calendar.
• The first of Nissan is the new year for kings and for festivals;
• The first of Elul is the new year for tithing of animals (some say the first of Tishrei)
• The first of Tishrei is the new year for years, sabbaticals and Jubilee, for planting and vegetables
• The first of Shvat is the new year for trees, according to the House of Shammai, while the House of Hillel says
the 15th of Shvat.

With the only significant biblical attribute of the date being the blasting of the horn/shofar, perhaps there one can find a clue as to how a day with so few details could develop into the beginning of the High Holy Day season so full of religious significance.

It is conceivable that the word “teru’ah” specifically refers to a warning. Even in modern day Hebrew, the word for warning, or an alert is “hatra’ah” – based on the same root as the word “teru’ah.”

Very soon after the phrase “Yom Teru’ah” first appears in Leviticus 23:24, the Torah tells us that on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement of the Jubilee Year (every 50 years) the day is be marked by the “blast of the shofar” – “shofar teru’ah”.

In Numbers chapter 10, special trumpets were made that played several roles involving the blast/teru’ah. When it was time for the Children of Israel to begin moving from one encampment to the next, the blast was sounded – ‘ut’ka’atem teru’ah” (10:5-6) – the words ‘teki’ah” and teru’ah” are used together. According to Numbers 31:10, when it was time to go to war, Pinchas the Cohen accompanied the Israelites into battle with the “holy vessels and the trumpets of warning
(teru’ah) in his hand.”

When the Children of Israel received the Torah at Mount Sinai, “the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder”
(Exodus 19:19).

These verses make a clear connection between the shofar, and the blasts of warning – bringing the nation together to travel as a people, to defend themselves as a people, and to celebrate as a people. Throughout the books of the prophets and the later writings of the Tanach, there are many more examples of the shofar being blown at significant times, and of the teru’ah to warn the Children of Israel of a monumental occurrence.

Given all of that, one can see the link drawn by the Sages between the shofar of warning and the holy convocation of the biblical Day of the Teru’ah. The great medieval Jewish scholar Rambam (Maimonedes) wrote that the sound of the shofar is meant to “Awake all you who are asleep; search your ways and mend them in repentance.”
(Rambam, Laws of Repentance 3:4).

Harder to find is a direct connection between the shofar and the story of the Binding of Yitzchak (Genesis 22), which is read on Rosh Hashana. The Sages teach that the story takes place on Rosh Hashana, hence it is read then, and they draw the connection between the ram’s horn that we blow on Rosh Hashana and the ram that was caught by his horns in the thicket and was sacrificed instead of Yitzchak. But the connection is based on Midrash (homiletic exposition). There biblical text does not use the word “shofar” when referring to binding of Yitzchak, nor does it indicate that Abraham used the ram’s horn in any way.

Originally the Sages did not read the story of the Binding of Yitzchak on Rosh Hashana. According to the Mishna (Tractate Megilla 3:5) the passage read on Rosh Hashana was Leviticus chapter 23. While this is not the venue for a detailed exploration into the historical process in which the holiday and the story became connected, I would offer one possible thematic connection.

Rosh Hashana – as we observe it today is the time when man’s introspection and exploration of his relationship with God is at its deepest and most intense. Perhaps no biblical story exemplifies the depth and the searching of that very relationship more than the Binding of Yitzchak.

Abraham, when preparing to sacrifice his beloved son, was forced to dig to the very core of his faith to fulfill God’s which on the surface appeared to contradict the Lord’s promise to make a great nation from his seed. On Rosh Hashana, each and every Jew, standing before the Lord on the Day of Judgment, should hear the piercing sound of the shofar, the sound that served for millennia as a call to prayer, to community, to fear and to celebrate. And the blast of that shofar should awaken in us that same awe that it once did in our forefathers – the knowledge that God is with us, that God is calling us, and that no matter how things appear to us His will is as He pledged to Abraham immediately after the sparing Yitzchak from sacrifice, “I will bless you a….I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand upon the seashore; and all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your seed, for you have listened to My voice.’;” (Genesis 22:17-18).