Rosh Hashanah, literally “the head (or beginning) of the year,” is the postbiblical name for the fall Jewish new year festival. This festival became especially important in the rabbinic period, when it was closely connected to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, a week and a half later.
When was the new year celebrated in ancient Israel?
We mark different beginnings of the year: the school year begins in the late summer, the calendar year begins on January 1, and some businesses that have a fiscal year begin on some other date. Ancient Israel as well celebrated different new years. The agricultural year ended in the early fall, when the final crops (the olives) ripened, right before the start of the six-month rainy season; this is illustrated by the tenth century Gezer Calendar. Some biblical texts recognize this fall beginning of the year; Exod 23:16, for example, mandates “You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year.” The biblical calendar of Lev 23, however, assumes that the new year begins in the spring. This is made explicit in Exod 12:2, which says of the spring month “shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.” Thus, in this festival calendar, what would be called in later Jewish tradition Rosh Hashanah falls on “the seventh month, on the first day of the month” (Lev 23:24)—in other words, Rosh Hashanah is clearly not a new year festival in the Bible!
This spring new year matches the religious calendar of the Babylonians who began the religious year in the spring, although they too also celebrated an agricultural new year in the fall. Rabbinic Judaism had even more new years: one for kings and festivals (in the spring), another for tithing cattle (in the late summer), a third—what we call Rosh Hashanah—“for the reckoning of years, for Sabbatical years, and for Jubilees, for planting [trees] and for vegetables,” and a fourth, in the spring, for trees (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:1). In later Judaism, Rosh Hashanah was celebrated for two days, a custom that continues in many Jewish communities.
How and why was the biblical Rosh Hashanah celebrated?
Rosh Hashanah was not a major biblical festival—it is not mentioned in several of the biblical festival calendars; its disregard in Ezra 3:1, which describes events that transpired on the first day of the seventh month, is especially instructive. It is described in most detail in the late biblical festival calendar in Lev 23:24-25: “Speak to the people of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of complete rest, a holy convocation commemorated with trumpet blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall present the LORD’S offering by fire.” The function of these trumpet, or more likely, shofar (ram’s horn) blasts, is not explained; perhaps they were meant to remind God to be compassionate toward Israel. In later Judaism, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur became connected in a period called “the ten days of repentance.” The blowing of the shofar remained the central ritual of the day, which became connected to Yom Kippur and interpreted in terms of calling Israel to repent. This motif is lacking in the biblical period, where Rosh Hashanah may have its origin in an ancient festival commemorating the kingship of God.