Rosh Hashanah (השנה ראש) is the Jewish New Year which occurs on the 1st of Tishrei (biblically) and continues on the 2nd of Tishrei (rabbinically) even in the land of Israel. This article will focus on the following motifs of this holiday using the pardes method of exposition (i.e. literal meaning, exegesis, allusions, and secrets of the Torah), drawn from the Torah, Talmud, Midrash, and Zohar with associated commentaries:
- Day of Judgment – הדין יום.
- Returning to Hashem – תשובה.
(Note: A companion article will focus on the correct method blowing of the shofar and type of shofar for Rosh Hashanah.)
Literal Meaning – פשט
The written Torah is very brief about this holiday providing only 8 verses about it (i.e. Leviticus 23:24-25 and Numbers 29:1-6), most of which deal with sacrificial offerings in the temple. The written Torah does not specifically address the Day of Judgment or returning to Hashem but tersely mentions the requirement to blow an instrument תרועה.
It is interesting to note that the name of this holiday (השנה ראש) is not mentioned in scripture as referring to the 1st of Tishrei. Although Ezekiel 40:1 mentions the term השנה בראש as a new year, it refers to tenth of Tishri (i.e. Yom Kippur) of the Jubilee year where land is returned to its original owners in Israel and Hebrew servants are set free. Hence it is a new beginning but not the actual New Year. Similarly Deuteronomy 11:12 provides a hint of the Day of Judgment in the phrase, “… the eyes of Hashem are always upon it (land of Israel), from the beginning of the year השנה מרשית to year’s end.”However this verse does not indicate which day is the beginning of the year.
At this point the reader may ask, “Why did the Torah provide such scant details of this holiday?” The answer is that Hashem provides the answers for those that search for them especially by studying and analyzing the oral Torah as the Rabbi Yitzchak says (Megillah 6b), “If a person says that I have labored (in Torah) and found (the truth) believe him.” The following sections will elaborate on this analysis.
Exegesis – דרש
Day of Judgment
Although the written Torah did not explicitly describe Rosh Hashsnah as the annual Day of Judgment, the oral law provides several sources to indicate this fact (e.g. Talmud Rosh Hashanah 8a, 10b, and 27a), albeit with dispute. Rabbi Eliezer (ibid.) stated that the world was created in Tishrei. However this statement is disputed (ibid. 11a) by Rabbi Yehoshua who holds that the world was created in Nissan. Tosafot (ibid.) resolves this dispute, according to Rabbi Yeshohua, by comparing Hashem’s plan (world created on Tishrei) to the actualization of the plan (world created on Nissan). Tosafot add that even according to Rabbi Yehoshua the world is judged on Rosh Hashanah because the judgment is concluded on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur – 10th of Tishrei). The Talmud (ibid. 27a) notes that the mussaf prayers of Rosh Hashanah reflect the view of Rabbi Eliezer, “This day (Rosh Hashanah) is the anniversary of the beginning of Your (divine) handiwork.” Even this statement is disputed in the Talmud but the end of the discussion favours the view of Rabi Eliezer. The Talmudic commentators (e.g. Tosafot on ibid. 8a, Ran on ibid. 16a, Maharsha on ibid. 10b) explain that when Rabbi Eliezer states that the world was created in Tishrei he is referring to creation of man, which is the purpose of the world, meaning man should serve Hashem. In actuality the world was created six (divine) days earlier, on the 25th of Elul.
Although the Talmud leaves the matter somewhat unresolved, Leviticus Rabbah 29:1 clearly follows the view of Rabbi Eliezer and states that the world was created on the 25th of Elul. In addition Adam was created, sinned, judged and pardoned on the 1st of Tishri marking this day as the Day of Judgment and forgiveness for mankind. The Zohar (3:101a) adds that Adam regretted his actions and returned to Hashem. This Midrash also brings a proof from the mussaf prayers of Rosh Hashanah in the blessing of remembrance, “This day (Rosh Hashanah) is the anniversary of the beginning of Your (divine) handiwork. The Midrash continues quoting the following segment of this prayer, ”Upon the nations is it said: which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which for abundance, and creatures are recalled on this day for life or death.” This Midrash concludes that this day was destined from the creation of Adam, both for judgment and pardon, and for the future. The Zohar (ibid.) concludes that this day was also marked for regretting past actions and returning to Hashem.
The Midrash quotes Psalms 119:89, “Forever, Hashem, Your word stands in the heavens”, implying that the selection of Rosh Hashanah as a permanent day of judgment. The ensuing verses (ibid. 90 and 91) add to this theme, “You established the earth (through justice) and it endures. For your judgments apply today (on Rosh Hashanah) for all your servants.”
The Talmud (ibid. 10b-11a) states that Joseph was released from his imprisonment of Potiphar (Genesis 39:20) on Rosh Hashanah to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh which occurred on the previous night (ibid. 41:1-7 and 14), which was also Rosh Hashanah. The commentator Iyun Yaakov observed that his dreams about the 7 years of prosperity in Egypt and the following 7 years of famine correspond to the divine decree on this day for abundance and hunger as discussed above. The Talmud (ibid.) finds an indication of this event in Psalms 81:4-5, “Blow the shofar at the new moon, when (the moon is) covered on our festive day. It is a statue for Israel and a judgment (day) unto the Lord (i.e. Rosh Hashanah).” The next verse adds, “Hashem made (this day) a testimony for Joseph when he (Joseph) went out (to rule) over the land of Egypt.” The linking of these two verses indicates that Joseph was freed from prison on Rosh Hashanah.
The Talmud (ibid. 11b) shows that the intense slavery of the Israelites in Egypt ended on this day through the following word association. In Exodus 6:6 Hashem promises that I will free you from the burdens (סבלות) of Egypt. In Psalms 81:7, regarding Joseph, the verse states that Hashem removed the burden (imprisonment) (מסבל) from his shoulder. Since both verses use the word burden (albeit in different forms), the Talmud proves that just as Joseph was freed from prison on Rosh Hashanah so too the Israelites were freed from their burdens on this day many years later. The rabbis of the Talmud knew these dates through tradition but found a source in scripture to facilitate the proof. In any event, we see that Rosh Hashanah is a day of physical freedom and redemption. This connotation of freedom on Rosh Hashanah provides a philosophical link between the Jubilee year where the Hebrew servants go free and Rosh Hashanah which has bearing on the laws of blowing of the shofar which will are explained in a companion article on the shofar.
Aftermath of Golden Calf
Moses spent a total of 120 days on Mount Sinai in three 40 days units. The first unit was to receive the Torah, the second to appease Hashem after the sin of the golden calf, and the third to obtain forgiveness and receive the second tablets on Yom Kippur (Rashi on Deuteronomy 9:18 in turn based on Seder Olam Chapter 6). The last 40 days includes Rosh Hashanah and establishes an historical precedent for forgiveness culminating on Yom Kippur.
Hints and Allusions – רמז
Time of Rosh Hashanah
The Midrash in Leviticus Rabbah Chapter 29 provides numerous insights and allusions to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The following table lists the holidays of Leviticus 23:4-44 with names in English and Hebrew, showing the day and month on which they occur, and the related verse in this chapter.
(Note: The Torah does not specify a particular date for Shavuot. Rather this holiday occurs 50 days after the start of Passover, by counting seven weeks from the day after Passover. At the time of the Torah, the calendar was not fixed and therefore Shavuot could occur on the 5th, 6th, or 7th of Sivan, the 3rd month. Now the calendar is fixed and Shavuot always occurs on the 6th of Sivan.)
From the above table the following points emerge and are discussed by the Midrash:
- Rosh Hashanah is only the holiday that occurs at the 1st of a month (Leviticus Rabbah 29:6).
- Most of the holidays (including Rosh Hashanah occur in the 7th month (ibid 29:11).
First of month
The significance of Rosh Hashanah occurring on the 1st of a month relates to the Hebrew word for month חדש which may also mean renew. Hence the Midrash concludes that Rosh Hashanah in addition to a Day of Judgment is also a day for renewing one’s connection to Torah and mitzvoth in the vernacular, “Turning over a new leaf”.
The Midrash (ibid. 29:11) notes that the number seven is precious to Hashem and provides several examples:
- Seven heavens.
- Seven generations – Abraham to Moses.
- Seventh son of Jesse – David.
- Seventh day of week – Sabbath (Genesis 2:3).
- Seventh month – Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succoth, and Shemini Atzeret).
- Seventh year – Sabbatical Year (Exodus 23:11).
- Seven cycles of seven – Jubilee Year (50th year) (Leviticus 25:10).
Although not mentioned in the Midrash, the author would like to add:
- Seven weeks – Shavuot (Leviticus 23:16).
Numerology of 7
The following discussion will focus on the numerology of 7 related to time. The divine selection, of the number 7 for time, starts from the creation of the world as the verse states (Exodus 20:11), “For in six days Hashem made the heavens and the earth … and rested on the seventh day.” It is interesting to note that the day, lunar month, and solar year have a direct connection with the natural world in terms of the cycles of the earth, moon, and sun. However there is not a direct natural indication for the seven day week. There is a tenuous linkage between the four phases of the moon and the lunar cycle of 29½ days. However this linkage is approximate because the lunar month is more than 28 days. Counting from the new moon, the Babylonians celebrated the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th of each lunar month. However they were forced to add days at the end of the month to follow the lunar cycle, losing the sense of a fixed week. This unit of time, now universally accepted, is by divine decree from the bible.
The reader may ponder, “While it is clear that the number 7 is beloved in the eyes of Hashem, especially in view of the biblical holidays, what is the reason for this choice of number?” The Maharal of Prague, based upon the creation of the world (Exodus ibid.), suggests that the number 6 represents the physical nature of the world and the number 7 represents the spiritual nature of the world.
Meaning of 7 – שבע
The Midrash adds another perspective, based upon the Hebrew word for 7 (שבע), by comparing this word to other words in Hebrew scripture that have the same spelling but different meaning as follows:
- Plenty or abundance (physical and spiritual), also spelled שבע (Leviticus Rabbah 29:8). In Modern Hebrew the letter ש with a dot on the left is called “sin” and is pronounced with the “s” sound. With a dot on the right the letter is called “shin” and is pronounced with the “sh” sound. The Torah is written without these dots and the pronunciation of these letters is known by tradition. However for exegesis purposes, especially when seeking hints and allusions in the Torah, these letters may be substituted one for the other.
- Oath also spelled שבע with a “shin”, hence identical spelling (Leviticus Rabbah 29:9).
(Note: this technique of word comparison only works in Hebrew or Aramaic since only these languages use the divine alphabet of Hebrew.)
The former Midrash explains that the seventh month is a time of plenty or abundance both in terms of the physical, the harvest time in Israel, and spiritual (i.e. connect to Torah and mitzvoth). The end of the harvest in biblical Israel, grain and fruits, occurs in the 7th month allowing the Israelites to enjoy the holidays with their recently gained bounty, help the needy, and engage in spirituality. In addition the end of a harvest is an ideal time to reflect on one’s actions of the past year and contemplate on improvements, between people and towards Hashem, for the coming year. Admittedly in our technological age this aspect of the 7th month is not as evident in a physical sense. In our secular society the calendar year starting in January, has become the reference point for planning and taking stock (e.g. taxation, employee reviews, and corporate planning) in place of the biblical 7th month.
As explained above, Hashem has invested the 7th month with an abundance of spirituality leading to an easier connection to Hashem, as evidenced by the number of holidays in this month. The Talmud Rosh Hashanah 18a expounds on the verse in Isaiah 55:6, “Seek Hashem when He (divine) can be found; call Him (divine) when He (divine) is near” which implies that there are times when Hashem is not near and does not easily answer. Clearly Hashem is always available and therefore the Talmud asks, “When is Hashem near?” The Talmud answers, “The 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (inclusive).” The Talmud also remarks that this time limitation applies to an individual, however with regard to a community Hashem is always near as the verse says (Deuteronomy 4:7), “For which is a great nation (i.e. Israel) that has Hashem close to it; whenever we call to Him (divine)?” The commentators to the Talmud note that this time distinction is nuanced. Certainly prayer is beneficial year round; otherwise why pray with requests every day (e.g. health, livelihood, forgiveness of sins)?
Maimonides in the Laws of Teshuvah – Retuning to Hashem 2:6 writes, ” Even though repentance and calling out (to Hashem) are desirable at all times, during the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they are even more desirable and will be accepted immediately” (based upon Isaiah 55:6 and Rosh Hashanah 18a). In addition prayers of a community have more impact during these 10 days as Maimonides writes (ibid. 3:4), “During these ten days, the custom is for everyone to rise (while it is still) night and pray in the synagogues with heart-rending words of supplication, called selichot, until daybreak.” Since rising early may interfere with a person’s work or Torah study schedule, some congregations say these prayers after sunrise about ½ hour earlier than the regular morning prayers or even in the afternoon. According to Chabad custom, selichot are said only on the 3rd and 10th of Tishrei during the 10 days of repentance. If the 3rd day occurs on the Sabbath then the selichot are said on the following day.
As mentioned above, the word oath spelled שבע has the identical spelling of the number 7 שבע. Although these words are spelled the same, they are pronounced differently because the Hebrew language uses letters as consonants and adds vowels either above or below the letters. The original scripture scrolls were purposely written without vowels allowing for this type of exegesis. Leviticus Rabbah 29:9 notes the oath that Hashem promised to Abraham that there would be no additional tests following the binding of Isaac based upon Genesis 22:16. The literal meaning of verses 16 and 17 relate to the blessing that Hashem conferred on Abraham, “By Myself (divine) I swear… I will surely bless you and greatly increase offspring”. This Midrash is consistent with the view that the binding of Isaac occurred on Rosh Hashanah.
The author would like to expand the concept of oath to imply that the blessings of Hashem, physical and spiritual are particularly directed at those who are bound by the oath at Sinai. As the Talmud notes (Nazir 4a) that the Israelites are bound by the oath from the Torah, “sworn (מושבע) and obligated about it (mitzvoth) from Mount Sinai”.
(Note: The degree and method of divine justice on Rosh Hashanah is discussed in a companion article on this web site called “The Three Books”.)
Multiples of 7
It is interesting to note that the gematria of the expressions used for Shabbat, both in the creation narrative and the Ten Commandments are in fact multiples of seven. The following table shows these expressions in English and Hebrew, gematria (numerical value) of these expressions, multiple of seven, and the first verse in the Torah citing this expression.
|In the Seventh day
By contrast the expressions for the seventh month as they appear in Leviticus Chapter 23 are not multiples of seven as shown in the table below.
|In the Seventh month
|Not a multiple
|To the Seventh Month
|Not a multiple
Even though the number seven is precious to Hashem perhaps the difference between the seventh day (expression is a multiple of seven) and seventh month (expression not a multiple of seven) is related to the fact that seventh day is ordained by Hashem from creation. By contrast, the Sanhedrin determines the beginning of the months based upon witnesses seeing the new moon hence this determination is manmade.
Month – Tishrei
In addition to the numerology of 7, the Midrash (ibid. 29:8) identifies the following characteristics of the 7th month:
- Sign of the zodiac (i.e. Libra scales of justice).
- Babylonian name of the month (i.e. Tishrei – meaning forgiveness in Aramaic).
Zodiac – Astrology
The sign of the zodiac is an indication that the 7th month is a time of divine judgment. The reader may question the astrological connection between the 7th month and divine justice because Rabbi Yohanan says (Shabbat 156a) that the Israelites are above astrological influence because by studying Torah and performing mitzvoth Hashem can change the destiny of a person. However this statement is disputed by Rabbi Hanina. The Talmudic commentators resolve this dispute by reasoning that, in principle, a great merit may overcome destiny but not everyone has such merit. Hence the sign of the zodiac is an indication but not conclusive for all people.
Name of the Month – Tishrei
The word “Tishrei’ means forgiveness in Aramaic, implying that Hashem is favourably disposed to forgive sins in this month. In general scripture does not assign names to the months. Rather the months are enumerated starting from the month in which Passover occurs. After leaving the exile of Babylon, the Israelites adopted Babylonian names for the months as a sign of their redemption from Babylon (Ramban on Exodus 12:2).
Merit of Forefathers
As discussed in the next section the Zohar identifies the patriarchs as seeking mercy from Hashem in describing the workings in heaven on this Day of Judgment through the different sefirot. Leviticus Rabbah 29:7 also links the patriarchs to Rosh Hashanah in terms of our prayers invoking the memory of the merit of the patriarchs. By contrast the Midrash does not describe the workings in heaven but rather it focuses on word and concept associations based upon Leviticus 23:24 as shown in the following table. This verse states, “Speak to the children of Israel saying: In the seventh month, on the first (באחד) of the month, there shall be a rest day for you, a remembrance (זכרון) with shofar blasts, and a holy convocation (מקרא).”
Each of the above verses connects the patriarchs to a theme of Rosh Hashanah in terms of divine service. We evoke their merit in our prayers with the expectation that we will follow in their footsteps, according to our abilities. The details of this comparison are explained in appendix 1.
Leviticus Rabbah 29:12 notes a difference in the wording for the festival offerings in chapters 28 and 29 of Numbers. For each holiday, except for Rosh Hashanah the verses state, “You shall offer (והקרבתם)” (Numbers 28:19 and 27, 29:8, 13, and 36). For Rosh Hashanah, the verse states (ibid. 29:2), that you shall make (ועשיתם). The Midrash interprets the clause “you shall make”, which literally refers to an animal offering, in a homiletic manner as “you shall make yourself anew” through returning to Hashem and following his commandments. In a similar vein Leviticus Rabbah 35:6 comments on Leviticus 26:3, “If you will follow my decrees and observe My (divine) commandments and perform them אתם ועשיתם.” The word אתם can mean “them (i.e. the commandments)” or “you” because the Torah scroll does not contain vowels. The Midrash interprets the verse as saying that through observing thee commandment the Israelites can make themselves as new people (i.e. spiritual beings connected to Hashem).
Secrets of Torah – סוד
In terms of secrets of the Torah, the Zohar analyzes mitzvoth from a divine perspective and how man relates to this perspective. For example, the Zohar (2:184a and 3:98b) notes that Rosh Hashanah is observed on the 1st of the seventh month, when the new moon is barely visible. This lack of light is a hint that the divine light of mercy is somewhat constrained and the attribute of strict judgment is in force. Certainly the lack of light from the moon is not the cause of this strict judgment, only an indication. The Zohar then mentions that returning to Hashem and blowing of the shofar mitigates this judgment, based on Psalms 81:4-5 “Blow the shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the appointed time (בכסה) for our festive day. For it is a decree to Israel, a judgment day for the G-d of Jacob.” The word בכסה can mean appointed time or when the things are covered (i.e. moon or divine mercy). The phrase “our festive day” means that the Israelites must take action at this time to mitigate the severe judgment (i.e. judgment day). It is interesting to note that Rosh Hashanah is the only biblical holiday observed at the new moon, implying that a major judgment occurs only once a year.
This article examined Rosh Hashanah from different perspectives, from the literal meaning to the secrets of the Torah, to highlight the depths of Torah and man’s special relationship with Hashem, especially in terms of man changing his actions and becoming a better person. As mentioned above, the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 29:12) interpreted the verse in Numbers 29:2, “You shall make yourself anew” on the New Year (Rosh Hashsnah).
Appendix 1 – Connection with Forefathers
The following exposition provides some insights regarding the forefathers and Rosh Hashanah.
For example in Ezekiel 33:24, the Israelites contended with Hashem by saying that Abraham was only one and yet he was given the land of Israel. For sure the land should be given to the Israelites, even if they are not observant, because they are many more than one. In the following verses, Hashem answers them through the prophet Ezekiel that they should not confuse quantity with quality, Abraham was unique in his generation in terms of his kindness (Micah 7:20), withstanding 10 tests (Avot 5:4), and outreach (Sanhedrin 99b on Genesis 12:5). As a result Abraham received the reward of 10 generations that angered Hashem with their idolatry from Shem the son of Noah to Abraham (Avot 5:3). (Others provide the sources as Avot 5:3 and 5:2 respectively.) By contrast Ezekiel was addressing a generation that had fallen into the sins of idolatry, immortality, and murder (Ezekiel 33:25-26). The implication from this allusion is that there is great reward for following the path of Abraham and therefore we should not be complacent on this Day of Judgment.
In the case of Isaac, the Midrash links the concept of remembrance to the binding of Isaac without a word association. Leviticus Rabbah 29:10 elaborates on this theme. The implication from this allusion is that the merit of Isaac’s self-sacrifice persists throughout the generations and Hashem expects that we follow this path and sacrifice for the sake of Torah and mitzvoth.
In this case the word and concept associations are more obscure and require explanation. The verse reads (Isaiah 48:12), “Hearken to Me (divine), O Jacob, and Israel, who was called (מקראי) by Me, I am He, I am first and even I am last.” The word association is based upon the similar spelling of the words מקרא (convocation) and מקראי (called). However the literal contexts are different. In the former case the verse refers to the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, in the latter case the verse refers to the end of the Babylonian exile. By linking these two verses the Midrash emphasizes the role of Rosh Hashanah for the Israelites in exile. The verse in Isaiah states that Hashem transcends time and verse 20 predicts the end of the Babylonian exile. By extension the Midrash teaches that Hashem will end the current exile with the advent of the messiah. It is interesting to note that verse 12 mentions both Jacob and Israel, implying a connection to the struggle between the angel of Esau and Jacob (Genesis 32:29). In fact this angel speaking in the name of Hashem said that the name of Jacob would be supplanted by the new name Israel, hence the verse in Isaiah says that Israel was named by Hashem. Therefore the Midrash also teaches, that like Jacob, we must struggle against the forces of Esau in our current exile of Esau, especially in terms of assimilation and intermarriage.