Rosh Ha-Shanah: the Jewish ‘New Year’; it sounds so simple and straightforward. But if you are considering comparisons with January 1st – think again: To begin with, Rosh Ha-Shanah falls on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish year, the Hebrew month of Tishri. The New Year for months begins in the spring, with the month of Nissan – a Babylonian name that supplanted the original Hebrew name we find in Torah: Aviv, meaning, ‘Spring’ (Exodus 12:2; 13:4). To be precise, the literal translation of Rosh Ha-Shanah is ‘head’ – Rosh – of ‘the year’ – Ha-Shanah. If you imagine the months ascending from Nissan, the first day of the seventh month is, indeed, the ‘head’ – the high point – of the year: from the first day of Tishri, the year turns downwards, through autumn and into winter.
So, the Jewish New Year begins in the middle of the year… And it is not so much the New Year as the New Year for years: on Rosh Ha-Shanah the year will change from 5773 to 5774. But the date isn’t straightforward. The years are not counted from the first ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, and so, the Jewish New Year does not mark, as one might expect, the beginnings of the Jewish people. Rather, day one of year one is the creation of the world. Now that’s not to say that the world began 5774 years ago – although some Jewish communities believe that it did. The number 5774 represents an accounting of the chronologies we find in the Torah from Genesis onwards. You don’t have to be a creationist to appreciate the notion that the Jewish New Year celebrates ‘the birthday of the world’ – harat ha-olam. This universalistic perspective provides the frame for the core meanings of the day. On Rosh Ha-Shanah, each individual Jew stands before the Eternal One, the Creator of the whole world, as an individual human being.
If we turn to the source texts for the first day of the seventh month in the Torah, not a word is said about a ‘New Year’. We learn, for example, at Leviticus chapter 23, verses 23-25 that this day is a ‘memorial of blasting’ – zichron t’ru’ah – that is its distinguishing feature. In addition, like all the sacred days outlined in the biblical calendar, it is also: Shabbaton – a day of complete rest, when no work may be done, and mikra kodesh – a sacred convocation. As soon as we read on further to the verses about the tenth day of the seventh month, designated as Yom Ha-Kippurim, and described as the day for ‘self-affliction’, it becomes evident that the ‘memorial of blasting’ on the first day serves as a dramatic proclamation, ushering in a period that leads up to the ‘Day of Atonement.’
This is exactly how the first rabbis interpreted what the Torah says about the first day of the seventh month. And so, the day they identified as Rosh Ha-Shanah, the New Year for years, and harat ha-olam, ‘the birthday of the world’, is also Yom Ha-T’ru’ah, ‘the Day of Blasting’ (the Shofar – the Ram’s horn), Yom Ha-Zikaron – ‘the Day of Memorial’, and, most importantly, Yom Ha-Din, ‘the Day of Judgement.’ All these themes are woven into the liturgy the rabbis created for Rosh Ha-Shanah. As the great mediaeval commentator, codify and philosopher, Maimonides, later put it in his code, the Mishneh Torah, the blast of the shofar is like a clarion call urging ‘slumberers’ to wake up, pay attention to their deeds and repent (Hilchot T’shuvah 3:4). On Rosh Ha-Shanah we are exhorted to remember as the Eternal One remembers, and to stand before the Sovereign above all Sovereigns, the Judge, who calls us to account for our actions over the past year. The additional – Musaf – service on Rosh Ha-Shanah, structured around the repeated blasts of the shofar, explores these themes with scriptural passages on Malchuyyot – ‘Sovereignty’, Zichronot – ‘Rememberances’, and Shofarot – ‘Shofar blasts’.
And so, Rosh Ha-Shanah, the first day of Yamim Nora’im, ‘the awed days’ ushers in the ‘ten days of repentance’ – aseret y’mey t’shuvah – that conclude on Yom Kippur. Actually, the word ‘repentance’ is misleading: t’shuvah, based on the Hebrew root Shin Vav Beit, to ‘return’, means ‘returning’. On Rosh Ha-Shanah we are summoned to embark on a journey of t’shuvah, which will involve returning to ourselves, to one another, and to the true path of our lives. This process begins with cheshbon ha-nefesh – making an ‘account of ourselves’ by listing and reflecting on our misdeeds of the past year; how we have hurt and failed others, as well as ourselves. The next step is to act and do all we can to make amends. All this is supposed to happen before Yom Kippur – since, according to the rabbis, for sins between one human being and another, Yom Kippur only affects atonement if one has already taken measures to ‘appease’ those whom we have wronged (Mishnah Yoma 8:9).
The mood of Rosh Ha-Shanah is sombre, judgemental and demanding, revolving around a sharply hierarchical relationship between the supreme Judge on High and the humble, contrite, penitent sinner. And so, we appeal to the Eternal One: ‘Remember us for life, O Sovereign who delights in life, and write us in the Book of Life, for your own sake, God of life.’ Nevertheless, this patriarchal power-play of domination and submission is not meant to render us passive. On the contrary: paradoxically, summoned from on High, each one of us is empowered to act, the task of t’shuvah resting, entirely, in our hands. Ultimately, it is our responsibility to judge ourselves, change our ways, and write ourselves into the Book of Life. The accent is on transformation and renewal. Shanah means ‘year’, but the root meaning is to ‘change’. Rosh Ha-Shanah – ‘the head of the year’ – is the fulcrum point of the annual cycle that turns on our ability to turn and change and renew our lives – l’shanah tovah – ‘for a good year.’
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