Rosh Hashanah Between Tanach and Mishna
“Rosh Hashanah” (not?) in the Bible
Rosh Hashanah as we know it does not exist in the Bible. The Torah does reference a holiday that occurs on this date (the first of Tishrei), but nowhere does the Bible describe this festival as a new year.
Although the holiday is not part of the pilgrimage festival calendars in Exodus 23, Exodus 34, or Deuteronomy 16, it does appear as part of the festival calendar of the Holiness Collection (H) in Lev 23:23-25 and in the related sacrificial calendar in Numbers 29:1-11. Both texts note a festival on the first day of the seventh month (our Tishrei), which clearly cannot be described as a “Rosh Hashanah”, i.e. a new year. Instead, the Torah assumes a spring new year, beginning in Nissan, as in Exodus 12:2.
This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
The term Rosh Hashanah does appear once in the Bible, in Ezekiel 40:1, but there it does not mean Rosh Hashanah, for it refers to an event on the tenth of the month. It is probably a reference to the month of Nissan, the first month of the year in the Torah’s counting.
Stated differently, what we call Rosh Hashanah was celebrated according to a minority of festival calendars in the Torah (i.e. not in J, E, or D but only in P’s festival calendar), and there it is commemorated with loud blasts or shouts (זכרון תרועה) and abstinence from work. It is not a new year.
What is the Nature of the Celebration in Nehemiah?
Remarkably, the book of Nehemiah (chs. 7 – 8) describes a communal Torah reading ceremony that begins on the first of the seventh month. The exact significance of the day is unclear but nothing in the text suggests that it is our Rosh Hashanah. At the end of the day’s reading Nehemiah makes an announcement about the holiday:
9 Nehemiah the Tirshatha, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were explaining to the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God: you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Teaching. 10 He further said to them, “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.” 11 The Levites were quieting the people, saying, “Hush, for the day is holy; do not be sad.” 12 Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told.
On one hand, it seems clear that this day is a holiday and the people are supposed to eat, drink and be merry. On the other hand, no one in the audience seems to know that this holiday existed. It is possible that this just reflects ignorance on their part or their being distracted by the intensity of the event (the verse says they were crying). Alternatively, Nehemiah’s announcement could be understood not as announcing or reminding them of the holiday but of declaring the day a holiday, in honor of the public Torah reading. If this latter interpretation is correct, it would mean that the holiday of “Rosh Hashanah” was unknown to this author. Either way, none of the distinct features of our new year holiday including blowing the shofar are mentioned in this passage.
Rosh Hashanah in the Mishna
By the time of the rabbis, however, Rosh Hashanah is a full-blown, important festival. Although only a small part of the short Mishnah Rosh Hashanah deals with Rosh Hashanah itself, the first of Tishrei there has many of the features that we associate with the festival: a day of judgment (1:2), the blowing of the shofar (ch. 4), and special blessings, malchiyot, zichronot, and shofarat in the mussaf service (4:5-6). These features are nowhere even hinted at in any biblical text in association with that day. This raises an obvious question: Are these features the creation of the rabbis? When did this holiday of the first of the seventh month become the holiday of the new year?
The 350 Year Gap Between the Bible and the Mishna
Most scholars believe that the latest biblical text is the book of Daniel—at least the latter half of it—since it refers to events after 167 BCE (the persecutions of Antiochus IV) but not to events after 164 BCE (the defeat for the Syrian Greeks by the Maccabees and the cleansing of the Temple, eventually commemorated as Hannukah). Tradition suggests that the Mishnah was codified by R. Judah the Prince a bit after 200 CE, and it may incorporate earlier versions of Mishnah, and contains tradition attributed to early rabbinic sages.
In any case, the period of the Mishnah and that of the Bible are not continuous; to use an inelegant phrase that parallels the Christian term “intertestamental,” namely the period between the Old Testament (we are intentionally using this term here) and the New Testament, the Jewish post-biblical pre-rabbinic period is approximately three and half centuries long.
Jews wrote in this period—though none of this writing became canonical for the rabbis and the later Jewish community. The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria lived then (c. 25 B.C.E. – c. 50 C.E.), and much of his extensive writing has been preserved by the Church; the Jewish historian Josephus was his younger contemporary (37-c. 100 C.E.). Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls date from this period. These all offer important middle points between the Bible and the rabbis, allowing us to see in many cases how laws, customs and institutions reflected in rabbinic literature developed.
In addition, numerous Jewish works in a many genres were penned in this period. Many tried to gain acceptance to a broad audience by claiming that they were lost works form antiquity and thus are called by scholars Pseudepigrapha, “false writings.” Collections of these works were printed in English translation by Robert Henry Charles and then by James Charlesworth. Recently, Professors Louis Feldman, James Kugel and Lawrence Schiffman have brought together a new collection of such works in a magnificent three volume set called called Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture. Published by the Jewish Publication Society, the set contains a large selection of Pseudepigrapha and related works, where each work is introduced, translated into English, and provided with a commentary.
These texts help fill in this post-biblical pre-rabbinic period in remarkable detail. In the case of Rosh Hashanah, we see that some of the rabbinic “developments” are not developments at all, but reflect customs and understandings that postdate the Torah, but are not original to the rabbis. In this essay, we will survey some of these texts to get a feeling for the early transformation of the holiday of the first of the seventh month into Rosh Hashanah.
The Book of Jubilees is a 2nd century B.C.E. rewriting of the beginning of the Torah, covering the period from creation to the Sinai theophany. It is named Jubilees by modern scholars since it divides time into periods of fifty or jubilee years, as seen in the quotation below. A main feature of the book is its attempt to connect biblical law with the patriarchs by adding legal pieces into their stories, thereby claiming that such laws are even more ancient than the Sinai revelation! This includes connecting biblical holidays with actions taken by the patriarchs. The date of Rosh Hashanah, the 1st of the 7th month, appears in connection with Abraham.
“Lech Lecha” on Rosh Hashanah Night
12:16 And in the sixth week, in its fifth year, Abram sat up during the night on the first of the seventh month, so that he might observe the stars from evening until daybreak so that he might see what the nature of the year would be with respect to rain. And he was sitting alone and making observations (Jubilees 12.16, from Outside the Bible, p. 338).
In this passage, Abraham has an epiphany on the night of Rosh Hashanah, that he need not leave his fate to the stars but should trust only in God. In response to this, God sends Abraham the message that kicks off the Abraham cycle in the Torah, “Go from your land… (12.22)”
Similarly, this same date is associated with the account of Jacob’s building an altar in Bethel and the removal of the foreign gods from his camp, the account that appears in (Gen 35:1-7).
And he went up on the first of the seventh month into Bethel. And he built an altar in the place where he had slept and had erected a pillar (Jubilees 31.3 = p. 399).
Thus, for Jubilees, the holiday celebrated on the first of the seventh (Rosh Hashanah) is also associated with the night Abraham was told to leave Haran and go to the Promised Land and the day Jacob built an altar at Bethel.
Philo - Special Laws 188
The Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 25 B.C.E. – c. 50 C.E.) lived in Alexandria and wrote in Greek. His writings include commentaries on the Laws of the Torah, allegorical explanations of Torah stories, and other reflections on Jewish philosophy. It is likely that he hardly knew Hebrew, and his Bible was the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation. In his The Special Laws, he describes Rosh Hashanah, or, in his parlance, the “Trumpet Feast” (probably a translation of the Hebrew יום תרועה).
188 Next comes the opening of the sacred month, when it is customary to sound the trumpet in the temple at the same time that the sacrifices are brought there, and its name of “trumpet feast” is derived from this. (Outside the Bible, pp. 1081-1082).
Philo nowhere calls this festival a new-year holiday but, like the rabbis, Philo believes that the holiday refers to the blowing of an instrument.
Trumpet or Horn
The term Philo uses for the instrument, salpinks (σάλπιγξ), is not the term for “ram’s horn (κερατίνη/keratinei),” which would reflect the Hebrew שופר, but “trumpet,” reflecting the Hebrew, חצוצרות. Thus, some scholars argue that it is likely that Philo’s “Rosh Hashanah” celebration (in Alexandria) would have contained trumpet blowing instead of shofar blowing (if it contained any blowing at all—see further on.)
Nevertheless, Naomi Cohen, in her commentary on Philo (Outside the Bible ad loc.), points out that this assumption is far from certain, since in Greek, salpinks is also a general term for blowing instruments, i.e., horns and trumpets. In fact, as she points out, the Septuagint translates every instance of either שופר or חצוצרות in the Torah (though not in the entire Tanach—different books of the Bible had different translators) with this same word. Thus, it is impossible to tell whether Philo meant a trumpet or a ram’s horn just by his use of the term salpinks. More significantly, the fact that in Philo’s Torah, the Septuagint, the same word was used for שופר and חצוצרות allowed him to offer his dual interpretation of the symbolism of this mitzvah.
The Connection to Sinai
Philo ties the blowing of the salpinks into the story of the Sinai theophany.
188-189 It is a reminder of a mighty and marvelous event which came to pass when the oracles of the law were given from above. For then the sound of the trumpet pealed from heaven and reached, we may suppose, the ends of the universe, so that the event might strike terror even into those who were far from the spot and dwelling well nigh at the extremities of the earth, who would come to the natural conclusion that such mighty signs portended mighty consequences (ibid).
Philo sees the blowing of the shofar as a reminder of the Sinai revelation, where God reveals God’s laws to the Israelites. Although to us this may seem like an odd conflation of Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah, this also prefigures the imagery of the mussaf prayer of Shofarot, which highlights the connection between the shofar of Rosh Hashanah and that of Sinai.
The Connection to War
Philo also connects the blowing of the salpinks to the law of blowing trumpets at wartime.
190-192 The trumpet is the instrument used in war, both to sound the advance against the enemy when the moment comes for engaging battle and also for recalling the troops when they have to separate and return to their respective camps. And there is another war not of human agency when nature is at strife in herself, when her parts make onslaught one on another and her law-abiding sense of equality is vanquished by the greed for inequality… And therefore the law instituted this feast figured by that instrument of war the trumpet, which gives it its name, to be as a thank offering to God the peacemaker and peacekeeper, Who destroys faction both in cities and in the various parts of the universe and creates plenty and fertility and abundance of other good things… (ibid)
Philo is thinking of Numbers 10:9, which discusses the function of trumpets at wartime.
When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies (NJPS).
For Philo, the war imagery is designed to make people thankful by contrasting the frightening realities of war with the peaceful reality of the Temple service.
In short, for Philo, the blowing of the salpinks was meant to make Jews in particular thankful to God for the giving of the Torah, and humanity in general thankful for peace and the abundance that comes with it. Such an interpretation was only possible for a Greek-speaking Jew, for whom the Septuagint translation was the Torah, and for whom there was no distinction between the trumpet and the horn.
Blowing only in the Temple
When Philo discusses blowing the salpinks, he says explicitly that it was blown in the Temple, i.e. only in the Temple, not in Alexandria where Philo would have worshiped or any similar place. This is quite different from rabbinic tradition which requires every Jew to blow or hear the shofar, whether they are in the Temple or not.
Assuming Philo’s belief reflected the practice in Alexandria—as is likely, but not certain—Philo may never have heard the instrument blown and may only have a vague notion as to what it was. Thus, he may have had either a trumpet or a shofar or both in mind.
This possibility is buttressed by the Mishnah’s account of Temple practice, since it claims that both the trumpets and the shofar were blown in the Temple on Rosh Hashanah:
The shofar of Rosh Hashanah – is of an ibex, straight. Its mouth is coated in gold, and there are two trumpets alongside. The shofar should be long while the trumpet blast should be short, since the mitzvah of the day is with a shofar (m. Rosh Hashanah 3:3).
Dead Sea Scrolls - Festival Prayers
The Dead Sea Scrolls, which began to be published in 1947, and are now fully available, are one of the most important sources that we have for the post-biblical and pre-rabbinic period. They must be used with caution, however. Some of them reflect more mainstream practices of the time, while others reflect more sectarian, likely Essene practices.
Some scrolls have ancient names associated with them, while more have been given names by modern scholars based on their theme or content. All were given names bases on the cave where they were found—thus the prosaically named 4Q509 was found in the Cave Four, the most prolific of the caves; some scholars have named it 4QFestival Prayersc.
The section quoted below, although very fragmentary, immediately precedes laws concerning Yom Kippur, so it almost certainly pertains to Rosh Hashanah.
4Q509 Fragments 1+2
3[. . . m]ud of the streets [. . .]
4[. . . before y]ou we pour out [our] lam[ent . . .]
5[. . .] us at the time of [. . .]
. . .
8[. . .] Moses, and you spoke to [him . . .]
10[. . . wh]ich you commanded to [. . .]
11[. . .] your people [. . .]
4Q509 Fragment 3 (|| 1Q34 Fragments 2+1 1–4)
1[. . .] and her sorrow [. . .]
2[. . .] the appointed time of our peace [. . .],
3[for you made] us [rejoice] from our grief. You will gather [our banished ones for the appointed time of . . .],
4[. . .] and our scattered on[es you] will ass[emble for the turning of . . .]
5[. . .] your [me]rcies on our congregation like ra[in drops on the earth at seed-time]
6[and like showers on the gr]ass at sprouting time. [. . .]
7[We will tell of] your [w]on[d]ers for generation after generat[ion . . .]
8[. . . Bless]ed is the Lord who gladdens [us . . .]
(Outside the Bible, pp. 1942-1944)
Obscure and broken, this text shows that Rosh Hashanah was celebrated through special prayers, although these are not the same as those recorded in the later Mishnah. It was associated with peace and was a time of joy, and national restoration, and (like Jubilees) associated with the hope for good rains in the following season—a motif later connected to Shemini Atzeret, immediately following Sukkot.
The association of Rosh Hashanah with joy is also found in the Temple Scroll (25:9; תשמחו ביום הזה), the longest scroll found at Qumran. It deviates remarkably from the rabbinic emphasis of repentance and fear, though some late rabbinic sources do view Rosh Hashanah as a joyous time, prohibiting fasting on these days.
The Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo
Biblical Antiquities (Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum), also known as Pseudo-Philo (since it was at one time [incorrectly] attributed to Philo of Alexandria) , retells biblical history from creation to the death of Saul. The author is unknown and its original language uncertain, though most believe it was written in Hebrew, though now it is preserved in Latin. The work most probably dates from shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple. In chapter 13, it notes:
6 On the festival of trumpets there will be an offering on behalf of your watchmen. Because on it I review creation, so as to take note of the entire world. At the beginning of the year, when you present yourselves, I will decide the number of those who are to die and who are to be born (Outside the Bible, p. 502).
Biblical Antiquities is the ultimate proto-rabbinic text. It refers to this holiday as the Festival of Trumpets, like Philo, and thus pictures blowing an instrument (possibly the shofar). It describes the festival as coming at the beginning of the year, i.e. it is Rosh Hashanah. Furthermore, it contains the theme of later rabbinic texts and the High Holiday liturgy, that God decides who will live and who will die on this day.
In short, Biblical Antiquities is the earliest text to describe what is essentially rabbinic Rosh Hashanah.
These texts, which chronologically bridge the biblical and the rabbinic period, are only a small remnant of the many texts that must have been produced. They provide some missing links—connection to blowing a trumpet/shofar on the holiday, the theme of judgment, the Sinai imagery, and the idea that this holiday is the beginning of the year—none of which appears explicitly in the Bible.
Perhaps future discoveries will bring to light additional texts that will help us better understand how and when the elements associated with the rabbinic festival first developed. But the texts that we do have offer some intriguing evidence that we may ponder in thinking about the nature of Rosh Hashanah and how it became the holiday that it is today in rabbinic Judaism.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 24, 2014
May 16, 2022
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Essays on Related Topics: