A Friend’s Question About Rosh HaShanah

Jewish Pie CalendarI have a friend who lives rather far from our congregation. I hope she doesn’t mind me describing her for a moment. I think her story is an interesting one.

She is intermarried and from a religious Jewish background. In intermarriage she has chosen primarily to be involved in a church. Her Jewish life is calling to her always and is growing, especially through her relationship with her father, an assistant rabbi in Florida.

She comes around for holidays, even though our synagogue is an hour or more from her house. And she stays in touch in other ways, such as on our Facebook group at the synagogue and by emailing me with questions from time to time. As you can imagine, I get a special kind of joy from answering her questions and hearing her stories and point of view. She is uniquely interesting.

The question she asked today is one that I am sure many have, so I thought I would address it.

How can Rosh HaShanah be the new year? Is Rosh HaShanah the first day of the first month or of the seventh? How can it be the new year when the Bible calls it the first day of the seventh month (Lev. 23:24)?

One way you can go with this, and sadly too many people do, though my friend certainly did not, is to assume the rabbis simply wish to change the Bible at every opportunity. There is a strand of thought that goes like this: the Torah gave us a simple and pure system of life and the rabbis came in and made everything complicated. Whoa, slow down. If you read the rabbis much, you should know they are far smarter than that.

You learn, or I should say you ought to learn, as you read Torah, that there are gaps, assumptions, and tensions in the text. It is not as simple to determine how to live Torah as some people think. For them, a quick read of Deuteronomy should make anyone an expert in Torah-living.

But the idea of Rosh HaShanah as the new year is a good example of complexity that is too easily bypassed. You will find that the rabbis quite new what they were doing. It is still possible and even praiseworthy to disagree with certain rulings. If you read rabbinic literature, you will find there is usually room for debate.

On the one hand, we have the statement in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you,” which is about Nisan (Aviv), the month in which Passover falls. This agrees with the calendrical system expressed in Leviticus 23:24 in which Rosh HaShanah is the first of the seventh month.

On the other hand, we have the statement in Leviticus 25:9, “you shall send abroad the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall send abroad the trumpet throughout all your land,” marking the beginning of Jubilee years (and by extension Shabbat or shmittah years).

The false assumption would be that there is only one kind of new year. The correct assumption, reflected in rabbinic writings, is that there are four new years (all with a scriptural basis).

There are four new years: in the first of Nisan is the new year for kings and festivals, on the first of Elul is the new year for tithes on cattle, on the first of Tishri is the new year for the reckoning of years and release for jubilee and planting vegetables, and on the first of Shevat is the new year for trees.
-Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:1

Leaving aside two of these four new years, for now, and looking at the new year for years and the new year for kings and festivals, we find that the Bible speaks of both of them.

For festivals and other purposes, the new year is in the spring, and Passover is the first festival. For years, so that Shabbat and Jubilee years are counted properly, the seventh month (Tishri) is the beginning. Israel of old, Judaism today, and the Bible are able to maintain the complexity of a year marked by more than one kind of new year.

The traditions of Israel are based on a close reading of Torah and a wise application of its complexities. My prayer is that learning the traditions of the sages of Israel will become a joyful occupation for many more people in the Messianic Jewish movement. The study of Torah brings us closer to God and adds to our lives in countless ways.

May your season of repentance (this month, Elul) be meaningful and may the High Holidays bring you into close encounter with the Holy One of Israel, blessed be he.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Bible, Holidays, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to A Friend’s Question About Rosh HaShanah

  1. tnnonline says:

    One of the most frequent misconceptions out there is that the Jewish exiles picked up the practice of “Rosh HaShanah” in Babylon. Quotations are frequently made to literature which speak of the Head of the Year as a pagan Babylonian practice (such as the entry in the Encyclopaedia Judaica).

    The problem with this is really obvious: it often comes from a critical theological tradition that views the Pentateuch as being compiled after the Babylonian exile via the so-called JEDP sources. The Jewish exiles “picking up” Rosh HaShanah in Babylon is the least of one’s worries; what about them picking up the Epic of Gilgamesh, rewriting it into Noah’s Flood?

    I hold to a conservative view of the Torah’s composition, going back to the time of Moses, and don’t think that Noah’s Flood is really some rewritten pagan mythology. It really grieves me to see people falling for liberal treif, thinking that they are being more “Scriptural.” Perhaps we could use the terms Yom Teruah or Feast of Trumpets as well, but it is perfectly valid to remember Rosh HaShanah.

    I think an even bigger debate is over how frequently the shofar is blown, considering that a whole cottage industry has been created over selling shofars and teaching people how to play them, but I digress….

    • judahgabriel says:

      JK,

      That adherents of JEDP subscribe to the idea that Rosh HaShana holiday came from Babylon does not make it any less true or less false.

      John, you subscribe to the idea that the earth is many thousands, if not millions, of years old, right? I could dirty that belief by saying, “It’s the atheists and liberal theologians who subscribe to that belief!” But doing so doesn’t make your belief any less true or less false.

      Your arguments will be more effective by addressing the question of the origins of Rosh HaShana directly, rather than using guilt-by-association arguments.

      All that said, you and I would agree there is nothing evil about celebrating Rosh HaShana. The paganoids have given it a bad name. Rosh HaShana is probably a tradition picked up while in exile, and it certainly isn’t in the Torah, but it isn’t evil.

      • tnnonline says:

        I appreciate that you are not a paganoid, so please take a look at my FAQ entry on Rosh HaShanah. The statement in EJ that connects Rosh HaShanah to being picked up in Babylon is the kind of thing that I see misquoted by people trying to make it into being “pagan.” It needs to be read within the overall context of what is being said.

        The debate over the age of humanity and the universe will be an interesting one in the future. As I have said before, simply because I am a Rabbinical calendar advocate for the dates of the appointed times by no means is an indication that I think we will be really be entering into the year 5770.

        I really cannot be accused of being a “heretic” as an Old Earth Creationist, because so many prominent conservative evangelicals (Pat Robertson, Jack Hayford, Franklin Graham, Walter Kaiser) hold to it as well. We deny the theory of evolution for human origins, but are much more honest with the cosmological and geological data that point to an ancient universe created over 6 long periods of time.

      • judahgabriel says:

        JK,

        Thanks for the answer. I did read your FAQ. I saw how Messianics quote from the Encyclopedia Judaica to support the idea that Rosh Hashana was a tradition picked up in the exile. I understand now that the quote itself comes from a critical, liberal, JEDP view of Torah composition.

        Surely an Encyclopedia Judaica blurb isn’t the only evidence in support of Rosh HaShana being a tradition picked up in the exile?

        p.s. I didn’t mean to pick on you for Old Earth beliefs; just wanted to give an analogy.

  2. judahgabriel says:

    Derek,

    Leviticus 25 isn’t conclusively saying, “new years begins on Yom Kippur”. I hope you would agree it is not conclusive. If anything, it contains special instructions for the Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year.

    One other question: if this is the Scriptural proof text for celebrating multiple years, why don’t we have 5 new years to celebrate?

    -Yom Kippur
    -Rosh HaShana/Yom Teruah
    -Aviv
    -Elul
    -Shevat

    • Judaism DOES celebrate these new years, as should we. Many of us already do. You may be familiar with Tu B’Shvat, which is the designation for the time to begin counting the year for trees in order to know when tithes may be taken and when the fruits may be eaten. Each of these “new years” are biblically based, if not explicit in the text.

      • judahgabriel says:

        Judaism celebrates a new year on Yom Kippur? That was Derek’s Scriptural proof text that there are multiple new years to celebrate.

    • sorry- i missed that. No. Judaism celebrates only 4 new years. Yom Kippur is tied to Rosh Hashanah.

  3. Derek – good post. Something you didn’t include, however, is the actual texts that designate a new year beginning in the Fall with Tishrei, the seventh month. Here are two passages, but there are a few others:

    Celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the firstfruits of the crops you sow in your field. Celebrate the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in your crops from the field. (Exodus 23:16)

    At the end of every seven years, in the year for canceling debts, during the Feast of Tabernacles, when all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose, you shall read this law before them in their hearing. (Deuteronomy 31:10-11)

    Hope that helps clarify that this isn’t a rabbinic invention, but actual Scriptural designation. Blessings!

  4. Judah:

    You always ask good questions and keep me on my toes. Such discussion of Torah is beneficial for everyone and I am thankful you think for yourself. I may give the impression that I simply want everyone to agree with me, but that kind of world would be scary, actually.

    Consider the assumption behind your comment about Yom Kippur and Jubilee years. If I understand, you assume either:

    (1) That the new year for Jubilees (and Shabbat years) is Yom Kippur and not Rosh HaShanah or

    (2) That the new year for Jubilees is the first of Nisan (just before Passover) though the shofar is not blown until Yom Kippur.

    The festivals of Israel run on at least two tracks: agricultural and redemptive.

    They are agricultural:
    Passover – Barley.
    Shavuot – Wheat.
    Sukkot – After completion of grape, fig, olive, date, almond, and all harvests.

    They are redemptive commemorations:
    Passover – Exodus
    Shavuot – Mt. Sinai
    Sukkot – Wilderness

    As redemptive commemorations, Rosh HaShanah along with Yom Kippur and Sukkot are the seventh (or sacred) month.

    The assumption in Leviticus 25:8-9 is that the Jubilee year is proclaimed on the tenth of the seventh month. You are perhaps reacting to the fact that Jubilee is not proclaimed on the first of the month (at Rosh HaShanah).

    What you are wanting, and what Torah will not provide, is a specific scripture for every institution which explains its origin and meaning. Torah does not work this way about many things. The most common example is what, exactly, is prohibited on Shabbat.

    I am affirming a different way of reading Torah. It is a way one learns from the rabbis. It is about observing and learning from what we find in Torah. It does not demand that all information in the Torah should have a clear definition. It submits to Torah in the best way possible in light of what is discovered.

    In Leviticus 25 we discover that Jubilee years begin in the seventh month (and Shabbat years, apparently). We modern readers are surprised that the Jubilee shofar is not blown in the spring. Ancient readers were less surprised, since the fall was the beginning of years in another way: celebrating after the harvest.

    When you absorb and seek to understand Torah as it is presented (sometimes with ideas that seem inconsistent to us at first glance), you can often, after the fact, understand something of the rationale.

    Jubilee years are heavily affected by the cycle of agriculture, since land reverts to original owners and so forth. It only makes sense for Jubilee years to begin after the crop and not before.

    Why then is the shofar not blown for Jubilee on Rosh HaShanah? Two reasons: one, it is blown for another reason which supersedes Jubilee (repentance) and, two, it is fitting that all Israel be together in prayer and repentance until Yom Kippur.

    Why is Rosh HaShanah the most celebrated of new years, a fact which you find inconsistent in Jewish life? Because Rosh HaShanah is both a new year and a momentous day in the redemptive cycle. It is the most important of new years, the only holiday to fall on a Rosh Chodesh (new moon). None of the other new years could possibly be as important in the life of Israel.

  5. herbertus says:

    This posting was such an eye opener and informative for me. Firstly, it helped bring a clarity I’ve wanted in understanding why there was more than one new year. Secondly, it further illuminated the rabbi/disciple relationship for me. I recently watched “Ushpizin,” a movie appropriate for the upcoming Sukkot, a fact which I did not realize until after watching it (I love how He works). I bring the movie up not only because it’s relevant for the time we are in, but also in order to emphasize the relationship between Moshe (and his wife) and their rabbi. For the first time, I saw how imtimate and tender such a relationship can be. How personal and how necessary. The need for a rabbi in our days was something I’ve long viewed as unnecessary, or even contrary (in the last days you won’t need a teacher for the HS will be your teacher) but I’ve been rethinking this view over the last months. The more I learn about these rabbi/disciple relationships, the more the relationship between Yeshua and his disciples makes sense to me. (Side note question: but what do I do with the verse about “call no man ‘rabbi’ for you have one teacher and are all brethren”?) I say all of that to simply share that, Derek (and the commenting parties here) help make the role of the rabbis throughout time more relevant for me and are giving me a new respect for thier contributions. If anything, I’m finding out over and over how much of a toddler I am in all of this. :)

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