HomeSeptember 2015The Origins of Rosh Hashanah

The Origins of Rosh Hashanah

0915originsroshhashWhile we celebrate Rosh Hashanah as the Jewish New Year, as the day the Hebrew calendar begins, that wasn’t always the case. Nowadays we celebrate Rosh Hashanah on the first day of the fall month of Tishrei. But in biblical times, that period was explicitly called “the seventh month.” During the First Temple period (8th to mid-6th century BCE), the year began in the spring, on the first day of Nisan.

In fact, the ancient Hebrews probably had no concept of when the year started at all. Nor did they give the months names: the Torah merely enumerating them—”the first month,” “the seventh month.”  And in ancient times, there were four “New Years” in the Jewish calendar—each with a distinct significance: The first of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the New Year of Kings, was the date used to calculate the number of years a given king had reigned; the first of the Hebrew month of Elul was the new year for tithing of cattle, a time when one of every 10th cattle was marked and offered as a sacrifice to God; the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei was the agricultural new year, or the New Year of the Years—when we increase the year number. Sabbatical and Jubilee years begin at this time; and the 15th of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat, known as Tu BiSh’vat, was the New Year of the Trees.  When listing the holidays, the Bible always starts with the spring holiday of Passover, in the seventh month—Nisan.

Though at first, this concept might seem odd, think of it this way: the American “new year” starts in January, but the new “school year” starts in September, and many businesses have “fiscal years” that start at various times of the year.

Just because the ancient Hebraic year started on the first of Nisan doesn’t mean that day was marked in any special way. The bible tells us that it was the new moon each month—that is, the first of the month—that was a cause for celebration. By “celebration,” we mean that more animals were sacrificed at the Temple than usual. The new moon of Nisan was not marked differently. From what we know about the Israelite’s Canaanite neighbors, they didn’t pay any attention to the “new year” either.

Though the first of Tishrei, celebrated as Rosh Hashanah nowadays, is mentioned as a holiday—it is a very minor one. It is in no way a celebration of the “new year.” Quite the contrary; Leviticus (23:24) says regarding that first day of Tishrei: “In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a Sabbath [as in “day of rest”], a memorial of blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation” (23:24).

The Bible does not list any special practices for the holiday beyond blowing trumpets and sacrificing some animals, fewer than sacrificed on the two major holidays—Passover and Sukkot. No specific reason is given for the blowing of the trumpets, nor are we told what we are supposed to remember.

So how did the holiday evolve? Remember the Jews lived among the Babylonians and they marked a “Day of Judgment” each year. They believed that, on that day, a convocation of their deities assembled in the temple of the god Marduk. These gods, they held, renewed the world and judged each human being, inscribing the fate of every individual on the tablet of destiny. Sound familiar? The legend was so powerful that the Jews most likely borrowed elements from it in shaping Rosh Hashanah. The meeting of many deities evolved into a belief that the one G-d judged every Jew on that day, immediately inscribing the completely righteous in the Book of Life and consigning the completely wicked to a sad fate. Those “in between,” however, had ten days, concluding on Yom Kippur, in which to repent before the Book of Life was sealed for the New Year.

In addition to the biblical “holy convocation” and the transformed Babylonian “Day of Judgment,” the first of Tishrei also was associated with the anniversary of the creation of the world, Yom Harat Olam. For these three compelling reasons, the first day of the seventh month ultimately became the “official” Jewish New Year with the emphasis on teshuvah.

The first day of Tishrei does have one other significance, based on the Book of Ezekiel. That prophet, at the very end of the First Temple period, prescribes that the Temple should be purified (naturally using the blood of a bullock, of course) on the first of Tishrei.

Ezekiel is also the first to use the phrase “Rosh Hashanah” (40:1), though for him it clearly does not refer to any holiday, rather just the beginning of the year.

It was not until about the second century C.E. that the holiday acquires the name Rosh Hashanah, which first appears in the Mishnah. “On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before him [God] as sheep before a shepherd” (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 2).   It is in these texts that we first have elaboration on the importance of the holiday and its traditions.

Before then, however, the day had many other designations. The oldest name, found in the Torah (Numbers 29:1) is Yom T’ruah (Day of Sounding the Shofar). Two other names, reflecting Babylonian influence, were Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance) and Yom HaDin (Day of Judgment). While those terms are still preserved in the liturgy and rabbinic literature, Jews all over the world today refer to Rosh Hashanah as THE Jewish New Year. And, regardless of how Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur evolved, it remains the holiest time of the Jewish year and is treasured by Jews around the world.

Florence L. Dann, a fourth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.

Apples Dipped In Honey

Eating honey to start the year sweetly—In Europe, during the High Middle Ages, the consumption of honey evolved into eating challah and fruit, which today has become almost universally apples dipped in honey.

Gefilte Fish

Eating a calf’s head so that we should finish the year ahead began during the time of the Gaonim (500-1500 CE). Later the calf’s head would be replaced with fish heads, and that in turn got replaced among Ashkenazi Jews with gefilte fish. Sephardic Jews elected for other fish dishes such as chraime (a spicy fish stew in tomato sauce).


A new tradition of eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah arose at about the same time, based on the false belief that the number of seeds in a pomegranate is 613, the same as the number of Jewish commandments.


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