Rosh Hashanah: a history



Rosh Hashanah, which translates to “head of the year,” is the Jewish New Year, which falls on the first of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar. We will discuss why the Jewish new year falls on the seventh month rather than the first Hebrew month in an upcoming slide. 

Rosh Hashanah is one of the two “High Holidays,” the other being Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Together, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most important holidays in Judaism (no, believe it or not, Hanukkah is actually not the most important holiday!). 

Some Rosh Hashanah traditions include special prayer services, the blasting of the shofar, and eating round challah (which symbolizes the cycle of life), sweet foods (which symbolize the wish for a sweet new year), and a fish head (which symbolize the “head of the year”), among other traditions. 

The shofar is meant to symbolize the eternal covenant between God and Am Israel (the People/Nation of Israel). The period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is known as the “Ten Days of Repentance,” when we ask God for forgiveness for our wrongdoings over the past year. 

According to the Talmud, God opens three books of destiny during Rosh Hashanah: the Book of Life, the Book of Death, and a third book, which is reserved for those who have done both good and bad deeds. During the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we ask for forgiveness from God and from those we have wronged. On Yom Kippur, the books are sealed, and God has made His final judgement. 



Jewish holidays and the Hebrew calendar follow the Israelite agricultural cycle. This is because the ethnogenesis of the Jewish People took place in the Land of Israel, over 3000 years ago, and Israelite society was a highly agrarian society. In other words, life largely revolved around the agricultural season. 

The Jewish People actually technically have four new years: (1) Rosh Hashanah (first of the month of Tishrei) is the new year for calculating the calendar year, Sabbatical years, the Jubilee year, the creation of man, and dates inscribed in legal contracts and deeds; (2) the first of Nisan, which marks the new year for the beginning of the three Jewish festivals in which a pilgrimage is made to Jerusalem; (3) the first of Elul, which is the new year for animals; and (4) finally, Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees. 

Three thousand years ago, the first of Tishrei was a minor holiday, marked by the blowing of the shofar and animal sacrifice. What was truly significant about it, however, is that it marked the new moon. Additionally, in ancient Middle Eastern cultures of Semitic origin, the fall marked the beginning of the economic year. 

In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah and exiled 25 percent of its citizens, mainly the more educated citizens in the upper classes. This exile had a tremendous impact on the Jewish population, and Babylonian influence seeped into Jewish tradition. The Babylonians placed enormous importance on their new year, which they celebrated in the fall, which is likely how Rosh Hashanah shifted from a minor holiday to a major one, and why the Jewish new year is celebrated on the seventh month, rather than the first. Another reason is that the number seven is sacred in Judaism. 



The shofar is an ancient Israelite instrument made out of a horn, generally a ram’s horn, with a history dating at least 3000 years. The shofar is blown in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah, during Rosh Hashanah, and at the end of the Yom Kippur service, to mark the sealing of the Book of Life. 

The shofar is first mentioned in the Book of Exodus in the Torah. According to the narrative, the shofar blasts through a thick cloud atop Mount Sinai, which causes the Israelites below to tremble in awe. 

In antiquity, shofars were used for a number of reasons: to mark the new moon, to mark the first of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah), to announce war, and during processions. Additionally, the shofar was used in the Temple orchestra and to signify victory. This tradition has continued well into the modern era: for example, after the Nazis surrendered, Jewish elders reportedly blew the shofar. Under various Arab rulers and during the Ottoman and British occupations of the Land of Israel, Jews were not permitted to access Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism. After Israel liberated East Jerusalem (or captured, depending on who is talking) during the Six Day War, Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren blew the shofar. 

Hearing the shofar is considered a mitzvah (commandment, though often translated as “good deed”). 



Rosh Hashanah is now celebrated over the course of two days, but it was not always a two-day holiday. 

In ancient times, the new Hebrew month was determined by the new moon. Two certify that it was the new moon, two witnesses had to come before the authorities in Jerusalem to testify that they had seen it. After the new moon was confirmed, the news had to reach Israelites in far-flung communities, which, in ancient times, took a lot longer. As such, it was determined that the holiday would be observed over the course of two days, so that those far away would not miss it. 



As soon as Hitler rose to power in 1933, the Nazis began passing antisemitic legislation. Among the earliest laws were the ban on Kosher slaughter and the burnings of Jewish books, which made observing Jewish holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, difficult.

Jewish observance became more and more restricted with the outbreak of World War II. In some Nazi-occupied territories, Jewish culture was heavily controlled or banned altogether. In other areas, while Jewish observance wasn’t explicitly banned, Jews still found it near impossible to keep the holidays. Of course, observing the holidays in ghettos and concentration camps was a near impossibility simply due to lack of resources, but even so, Jews found ingenious ways to commemorate festivals such as Rosh Hashanah. 

An extraordinary example of this ingenuity took place on Rosh Hashanah of 1944 (during the Hebrew year 5705) at the Wolfsberg concentration camp, when Rabbi Naftali Stern wrote the entire Rosh Hashanah prayer book, known as the Mahzor, by hand and from memory, with a pencil stub and scraps torn from bags of cement. He finished writing it right as the holiday began. He kept the Mahzor even after the end of the war, eventually donating it to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial museum. 

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