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From Torah to Temple

The meaning of the holiday changes over time

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Many scholars have suggested that the first day of the seventh month was popularly celebrated in ancient Israel as a divine coronation day, the time of God’s assumption of the kingship and the beginning of a new cycle of the year.

There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), “the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2), and another in the fall at “the turn of the year” (Exodus 23:16; 34:22). The spring celebration was more cultic in nature, being connected to the cycle of sacred festivals and the reign of kings, while that of the fall emphasized the agricultural cycle.

The suggestion that a new year’s festival was held in ancient Israel on the first day of the seventh month is based upon an analogy to Babylonian rites (two separate new year celebrations were held in Babylonia as well) and upon allusions to such a commemoration found in the psalms.

Although the Bible had not yet conferred a title on Rosh Hashana (literally, the beginning or head of the year), and although it had not yet connected that holiday to Yom Kippur, it is nonetheless conceivable that the first of Tishre was thought of, even in early times, as a time of “cosmic judgment…when the destiny of the world was fixed.”

The first day of the seventh month is mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah as a holy day upon which an important event took place in the year 444 BCE:

“When the seventh month arrived — the Israelites being [settled] in their towns — the entire people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate, and they asked Ezra the scribe to bring the scroll of the Teaching of Moses with which the Lord had charged Israel. On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teaching before the congregation, men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it, facing the square before the Water Gate, from the first light until midday…” (Nehemiah 8:1-3).

At this impressive gathering, the people of Israel renewed their covenant with God and accepted the Torah as their basic law. The people wept when they realized how far they had strayed from the teachings that were in the Torah. But they were admonished not to mourn because “this day is holy to the Lord your God” (Nehemiah 8:9).

The holiness of the first day of the seventh month — made plain in this biblical narrative — may constitute the reason that it was chosen for this ceremony of reading and accepting the law. At the same time, the Bible does not describe any specific New Year customs observed on that day.

Philo of Alexandria, the first-century BCE Jewish philosopher, describes the first day of the seventh month as the great “Trumpet Feast” and connects it with the sounding of the horn at Mount Sinai when revelation took place. He also interprets the trumpet as an instrument and symbol of war.

If Philo accurately represents the general understanding prevalent in his day, rather than an interpretation particular to him or to the Alexandrian community where he lived, then clearly the first day of the seventh month was not celebrated at that time as the “New Year.” If we are to assume that the New Year was popularly celebrated during the First Temple period, we must conclude that this tradition was forgotten during the exile and not renewed until later.

Of greatest import, however, is the information given in the Mishna about the role of judgment on the first of Tishre, now designated simply “Rosh Hashana”:

“On Rosh Hashana all human beings pass before Him as troops, as it is said, ‘the Lord looks down from heaven, He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings’” (Psalms 33:13-15; Mishna Rosh Hashana 1.2).

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