Ever since I first began studying Judaism seriously as a young man, I have felt that there is something not quite right about Rosh Hashanah. In particular, there seems to be a complete disconnect between the holiday described in the Torah and the holiday as understood by most Jews. I had been taught that Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish New Year, the anniversary of the creation of the world, and a day of judgment. But the Torah itself mentions none of those three reasons for celebrating the holiday—and does not even call it Rosh Hashanah. Still more perplexing, in contrast to the other seasonal holidays on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah seems to commemorate no important moment in the national history of the Jewish people.
Over the years, I have been able to focus my questions more precisely, and I think I finally have an answer. To get there, let’s first look at how the canonical texts themselves describe the holiday.
The Torah, to begin there, describes Rosh Hashanah in two separate passages, one in Leviticus 23 and the other in Numbers 29. Using a word, teruah, that denotes the blowing of a horn or trumpet, the first passage characterizes the day as “a remembrance of teruah,” the second as “a day of teruah.” Both go on to mandate the ritual blowing of a shofar and to specify the various sacrificial offerings to be brought on the holiday. But there is no reference to creation, to judgment, or to the new year. In fact, according to these passages, the holiday itself falls not on the first day of the first month, as is generally the case with new years, but on the first day of the seventh month. Quite a different month—Nisan, in which Passover falls—is designated by the Torah as “the head [rosh] of the months, the first of the months for you in the months of the year” (Exodus 12:1).
Moving from the Torah to the traditional liturgy of the synagogue, we start to see some signs of the modern holiday, but not many. The oldest parts of the prayer service, common to both Ashkenazim and Sephardim, deviate little from the biblical conception. Here the primary term for Rosh Hashanah is “Day of Remembrance” (yom ha-zikaron), seemingly a variation on the passage in Leviticus 23, we also find the related biblical terms “a day of trumpeting” and “a day of remembrance of trumpeting.” Although the day’s prayers focus on the themes of God’s ruling over the universe, passing judgment on the world, and remembering His creatures and His covenants with them, it is not at all clear how these themes spring from the biblical description of the holiday. As for references to creation, they are few and opaque. And as for the terms “Rosh Hashanah” and “Day of Judgment” (yom ha-din), they appear only in liturgical poems composed much later.
What, then, about the Talmud? There we do find a Rosh Hashanah that resembles the holiday we know today. The term first appears in an eponymous tractate of the Mishnah, the earlier stratum of the Talmud, compiled around 200 C.E. It begins:
There are four new years [literally “heads of the year”]: the first of Nisan is the new year for calculating [Jewish] kings and festivals; the first of Elul is the new year for tithing of animals. . . ; the first of Tishrei [the date of Rosh Hashanah] is the new year for years, the [beginning of the] sabbatical and jubilee years, for planting, and for [tithing] vegetables; and the first of Shvat is the new year for trees.
Cryptic even by the standards of the Mishnah, this passage at least makes clear that what we call Rosh Hashanah is one of four such dates in the course of a year, all of which serve various technical functions connected with legal documents, tithing, and agricultural rituals.
The next paragraph, however, suggests something special about the first of Tishrei, the day we now call Rosh Hashanah. On this day, the Mishnah states, God judges the world and “all people pass before God in single file,” and in the remainder of the tractate this day of judgment alone is referred to simply as Rosh Hashanah. So here lies the source of our own use of “Rosh Hashanah” to refer exclusively to the day of judgment that falls on the first of Tishrei.
And what about the idea that the world was created on Rosh Hashanah? For that we have to consult the Gemara, the later stratum of the Talmud compiled in the 6th century. There a debate is recorded over when God created the world, with Rabbi Yehoshua assigning the honor to Nisan and Rabbi Eliezer to Tishrei. Oddly enough, though, the Talmud seems to rule in the former’s favor.
With these suggestive but hardly conclusive texts in mind, let me now reformulate my main questions:
First: the holidays ordained in the Torah commemorate particular events, with their calendrical order mirroring their place in the unfolding historical narrative. Thus, Passover marks the Exodus, Shavuot the ensuing revelation at Sinai fifty days later, Yom Kippur God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people after the incident of the golden calf, and Sukkot the journey through the wilderness that follows. Where does that leave Rosh Hashanah? Creation, if that is what it commemorates, represents a universal moment apart from and prior to Jewish national experience. At the very least, shouldn’t that put it at the very beginning of the historical cycle, before Passover?
Second: if Rosh Hashanah does commemorate creation, or is supposed to be a day of judgment, why does the Torah not say so? Besides, there’s already a day to remember creation: namely, the weekly Sabbath. The Friday-night blessing over wine explicitly refers to Shabbat as “a remembrance of the act of creation,” while the corresponding blessing for Rosh Hashanah makes no such reference. What need for two such days?
Third, the names of the four other major holidays are biblical in origin. Why would the talmudic rabbis call this holiday “Rosh Hashanah” when the Torah and liturgy do not?
In order to begin dispelling the confusion, we need only go back to the Torah:
The first day of the seventh month shall be a day of rest, a remembrance of trumpeting, a sacred day. You shall not do any laborious work, and you shall bring a fire offering to God. (Leviticus 23:24-25)
The first day of the seventh month shall be sacred for you, no laborious work shall be done; a day of trumpeting shall it be for you. (Numbers 29:1)
One thing is already evident: the key to unlocking the mystery of Rosh Hashanah lies in the blowing of the shofar. This is by all accounts the central ritual of the day, and the common thread linking the biblical holiday to today’s. So what is its significance? And what is meant by “remembrance”? Who is remembering, and what is being remembered?
The word shofar appears in two other places in the Torah. The earlier and more telling of the two appears in Exodus 19 and 20, where the Torah cites the sounding of a shofar three times in connection with the revelation and giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai:
And on the morning of the third day there was thunder [kolot] and lightning and a heavy cloud upon the mountain, and the sound [kol] of the shofar was very strong, and all the people in the encampment trembled. And Moses led the people out of their encampment toward God. . . . And the sound [kol] of the shofar grew very strong, Moses would speak and God would respond with sound [be-kol]. (Exodus 19:16-19)
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And all the people witnessed the thunder [ha-kolot] the flames, and the sound [kol] of the shofar, and the mountain smoking, and the people trembled when they saw it and kept their distance. (Exodus 20:15)
Since Rosh Hashanah is “a remembrance of trumpeting,” and the revelation at Sinai is the only previous reference to a trumpeting of any sort, it stands to reason that this is the historical event that Rosh Hashanah is meant to commemorate.
The shofar in fact symbolizes more than the revelation alone. As we have just seen, Exodus uses the versatile Hebrew word kol not only for the sound of the shofar but also for the thunder and for the voice of God. In the sense of voice, the same word appears just prior to the passages cited above:
If you will listen to my voice [be-koli] and keep my covenant, then you will be my treasure from among all the nations. (Exodus 19:5; see also Deuteronomy 4:12)
Here the word kol refers metaphorically to demands that God places on the Jews. The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is thus a reenactment not only of the revelation but also of the covenant made between God and Israel at Sinai. No wonder the Jewish people “trembled” at the spectacle and at its implications for their destiny, or that Rosh Hashanah, according to tradition a day of fear and trepidation, inaugurates the ten-day period known as yamim nora’im, days of awe.
All of this symbolism is dramatically on evidence in synagogues to this day. The blessing recited prior to blowing the shofar concludes not with “Who has commanded us to blow the shofar” (litko’a be-shofar), or “to hear the shofar” (lishmo’a shofar), but rather “to hear the sound of the shofar” (lishmo’a kol shofar ). The phrasing directly reflects the Bible’s, where the word kol precedes each mention of the word shofar.
That same phrase “the sound of the shofar,” occurs three times in the story of the revelation; the people, for their part, hear three different “sounds” (kolot): the shofar, thunder, and God’s voice. This explains the talmudic requirement to sound a minimum of three teruot (staccato blasts) during the Rosh Hashanah service, with each teruah flanked by a long, unbroken blast before and after, making three sets of three blasts in all. Since, moreover, the shofar is blown during three different parts of the prayer service, and in one of them is blown three separate times, we have a cumulative order of blasts amounting, as the Mishnah succinctly puts it, to “thrice three threes,” the multiple triplets again echoing what was sounded and what was heard at Sinai.
Finally, two individuals take part in the synagogue ritual: the one who calls out the notes to be sounded, and the one who blows the shofar. The two roles correspond to the respective roles of Moses and God at the revelation: “Moses would speak and God would respond with a voice [kol]” (Exodus 19:19).
So much for the particular role of the shofar. The link of Rosh Hashanah with the revelation at Sinai is also unmistakable in the day’s prayer service. The musaf, the supplemental prayer that constitutes the service’s centerpiece, contains three distinct sections, representing the threefold significance of the holiday: malkhuyot (kingship), zikhronot (covenantal memory, literally “remembrances”), and shofarot (divine revelation, literally “shofars”). Each section is structured around ten biblical verses.
The kingship section, proclaiming the kingship of God, recalls the words spoken by God at Mount Sinai just before the giving of Ten Commandments:
If you listen to My voice [be–koli] and you keep My covenant, then you will be to Me a kingdom of priests. (Exodus 19:5-6)
If the Jewish people are a kingdom, it follows that God is their sovereign king, His coronation announced in the blasts of the shofar. The 11th-century French exegete Rashi, citing an earlier commentary, makes this explicit in his reading of the first of the Ten Commandments (“I took you out of the land of Egypt”), which he parses as follows: “I took you out of the land of Egypt and I have earned My right to be your king and your ruler.”
The second section of musaf, devoted to remembering divine covenants, culminates with the covenant at Sinai:
Fulfill for us, God, that which You promised in the Torah through Moses Your servant, straight from the mouth of Your glory, as it says: “And I will remember for them the covenant with the first generation whom I took out of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, to be their God, I, the Lord.”
The third section, shofarot, likewise begins with a description of the revelation at Mount Sinai:
You revealed Yourself in the clouds of glory to speak to Your holy people. From the heavens You made them hear Your voice [kolekha] . . . and they heard Your majestic voice [kolekha], and Your holy words in flashes of fire. Amid thunder [kolot] and lightning did You reveal yourself to them, and with the sound [kol] of the shofar did You appear to them.
In this one paragraph, variants of the word kol appear ten times. Like the ten verses in each of the three sections of the musaf prayer, the ten words hint at the Ten Commandments uttered by the divine voice at Sinai.
In addition to these and similar features of the liturgy, two customs acquire additional valence when Rosh Hashanah is understood as the reenactment of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai. A rabbinic tradition states that the Jews underwent ritual immersion prior to the revelation, which would explain why some Jews visit a mikvah (ritual bath) on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. And then there is the well-known custom of dipping bread in honey. The revelation at Sinai took place in the desert only 21 days after the manna began to fall. The Torah describes this heavenly bread as tasting like “wafers dipped in honey” (Exodus 16:31). Much like eating matzah on Passover, eating bread and honey is another gastronomic reenactment of the journey out of Egypt toward Sinai.
Also relevant in this connection is the dramatic account, in the biblical book of Nehemiah, of a ceremony whereby the Jews returning from Babylonian exile in the 5th century B.C.E. renewed their covenant with God. Men, women, and children gathered as one and responded “amen” in fear and trembling as the prophet Ezra, standing on a raised platform (read: an artificial mountain) revealed the Torah that they had forgotten. Pointedly, this “second revelation” took place on “the first day of the seventh month,” i.e., on Rosh Hashanah.
Connecting Rosh Hashanah to the revelation solves two of my three questions. First, Rosh Hashanah resembles the other holidays in commemorating an aspect of the narrative in the book of Exodus, and it occurs in proper chronological sequence, that is, after the holiday of Passover commemorating the Exodus but before the holiday of Yom Kippur commemorating God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people for their worship of the golden calf. Second, the holiday is called “a remembrance of trumpeting”—and not a remembrance of creation—since it serves as a reminder of the sounding of the shofar at Mount Sinai.
But we are left with the third question: why was the day renamed? And another, more vexing puzzle: why does rabbinic literature make no mention of the holiday’s original meaning? And still another, this one raised by my explanation itself: traditionally, the holiday that commemorates the revelation at Sinai is Shavuot; why two holidays dedicated to the same event?
Let me begin with the last puzzle. One response would be to ask: why shouldn’t two holidays commemorate the same event? After all, every biblical holiday is referred to in the liturgy as “a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt.” From this perspective, there’s nothing unusual in having both Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah commemorate the revelation at Sinai.
But that is too easy. A fuller and more satisfying response is that the two holidays represent two different events, or two different aspects of the same event: Shavuot the divine revelation, and Rosh Hashanah the people’s acceptance of the covenant. Here once again the liturgy comes to our aid. It characterizes Shavuot as “the day of the giving of our Torah”—that is, it places the Jews in a passive role. Rosh Hashanah, by contrast, places them in an active role, liturgically crowning God as their king in accordance with the terms of the covenant.
Bear in mind as well that the Jews received the Ten Commandments twice. First, God proclaimed them on or about the day of Shavuot. Then, 40 days later, when Moses descended from Sinai carrying the two tablets, he found the Jews worshipping the golden calf and shattered them before conveying them. Eighty days later, on Yom Kippur, he brought a second set of tablets, which he did convey to the people.
In this scheme, too, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah and Rosh Hashanah the acceptance of the Torah, now as a prelude to the physical reception of the tablets on Yom Kippur. (This would also help explain why Rosh Hashanah is celebrated ten days earlier than Yom Kippur. As those ten days were a period of contrition and repentance for the sin of the golden calf, so the period from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur is a period of repentance today.)
We can take this line of thinking a step farther by incorporating into it the holiday of Sukkot, which falls five days after Yom Kippur. The sukkah represents God’s home, the tabernacle, built by the Jewish people to house His presence immediately after Moses came down from the mountain with the second set of tablets. To use a classic metaphor: if the tablets are a marriage contract between God and the Jewish people, the sukkah is the huppah under which a groom symbolically brings his bride into his home.
This brings us, finally, to why the talmudic rabbis suppressed Rosh Hashanah’s link to revelation in favor of Shavuot and forged a different link between Rosh Hashanah and creation. I offer two theses, both speculative.
The first is that the rabbis’ motive was to save the holiday of Shavuot from oblivion. The destruction of the Temple and the exile had so demoralized the Jews that the celebration of a joyous thanksgiving festival associated with the wheat harvest and the bringing of the first fruits would evoke only deeper psychological pain. With this in mind, the rabbis undertook to emphasize instead the association of Shavuot with the revelation at Sinai: an event that itself had taken place outside the land, in a wilderness not unlike where the Jewish people found themselves again. The product of that revelation, the covenant, was something Jews now needed to embrace wholeheartedly if they were to survive as a distinct people in the Diaspora.
Then (this thesis continues), having recast Shavuot—a task made easier by the fact that, although the Torah’s chronology makes clear that the revelation took place on or near the harvest festival, it nowhere explicitly connects the two—the rabbis sought a new meaning for the first of Tishrei, basing themselves on an ancient tradition linking the day to the creation of the world. In other words, the need to reframe Shavuot led to the reframing of Rosh Hashanah.
The second thesis is this: because of the grave threat posed to rabbinic Judaism by early Christianity, the rabbis emptied Shavuot of its association with bread and with the manna that had begun to fall shortly before the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai. Instead, they began to refer to bread and manna as metaphors for Torah. They did this for two reasons: first, to counteract the Christian interpretation of manna as a symbol of the founder of their religion and the ritual of the Eucharist; second, to reinterpret Shavuot, which (as I argue in a forthcoming book on the holidays) originally celebrated God’s physical nurturance of His people through the manna, as instead a celebration of God’s spiritual nurturance of His people through the bestowing of the Torah and its study. This would undermine the Pauline contrast of Judaism’s alleged stress on “works” alone with Christianity’s stress on “faith.”
Similarly aimed at countering Christianity, in this second thesis, was the rabbis’ linking of Rosh Hashanah to creation and to God’s judgment of all humanity. Concealing the holiday’s connection to the particular national story of the Jewish people and its unique covenant with God, they instead associated it with the Torah’s most universal narrative. To drive the shift home, they renamed it “Rosh Hashanah,” implying that the day commemorates the birthday of the world.
Regardless of which (if either) of these theories is correct, the rabbinic reinterpretation took hold over time, and Jews forgot the two holidays’ original biblical associations.
But here we are today, thousands of years later. The Jews have returned to their land, and the struggle with Christianity has largely abated. Is it not time to rediscover the original meaning of Rosh Hashanah, not in order to supplant its rabbinic reinterpretations but to deepen its significance, its resonance, and its peculiar pertinence to the religious practice of most Jews, affiliated or not, today?
To my mind, the nearly ubiquitous synagogue attendance of world Jewry on Rosh Hashanah reflects a sort of unconscious collective memory of the holiday’s core purpose: a symbolic reenactment of the revelation at Sinai. Like the biblical Jews at Mount Sinai who, without fully knowing what they were getting themselves into, stood together as (in Rashi’s words) “one nation with one heart” and responded to God’s voice with the declaration “we will obey and listen,” contemporary Jews come to synagogue en masse on Rosh Hashanah to listen to the shofar without quite fully understanding why they are there.
This unconscious memory—of standing as a single, united, nation before God at Sinai—is why they are there. The term yom ha-zikaron, the day of remembrance, is usually understood as referring to God’s remembering us. But God does not have memory problems; it is human beings who are prone to forget, and whom the Torah therefore admonishes to remember always the day of revelation:
Only take heed, and be very careful to guard the memory of the day you stood before God in Horeb all the days of your life, and teach about it to your children and your children’s children. Do not forget the things which your eyes saw and do not remove the memory from your heart . . . when God spoke to you out of the fire and you heard the sound of words but saw no image, only a sound. (Deuteronomy 4: 9-10,12)
Nathan Laufer, who received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University, is director of Israel programs for the Tikvah Fund and president emeritus of the Wexner Heritage Foundation. He is the author of Leading the Passover Journey (2005) and The Genesis of Leadership (2006). An earlier version of the present essay appeared in the Jewish Spectator (Summer 1999).