Rosh Hashanah: Why the Torah Suppresses God's Kingship
Skepticism about Monarchy
The Torah takes a skeptical perspective on the institution of the monarchy. The collections of laws that precede the Book of Deuteronomy make no mention of future kings, preferring to speak of the נשיא, “chieftain,” i.e., the leader of a tribe. Thus, in Exodus’ Covenant Collection, the law cautions that one must not “put a curse upon a chieftain among your people” (וְנָשִׂיא בְעַמְּךָ לֹא תָאֹר; Exod 22:27). Similarly, in the Priestly laws of Leviticus, the law of the sin offering does not discuss the sin of a king, but instead says, “in case it is a chieftain who incurs guilt” (אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא; Lev 4:22).
Deuteronomy, in contrast, does dedicate a law to the king, but the central aim of this law is to derogate from the authority of the king and to constrain him in terms of his economic resources and military power. In contrast to ancient Near Eastern monarchs, nowhere does Deuteronomy hint that the king is involved in judicial affairs. Instead, the most difficult decisions are brought “before the levitical priests, or the magistrate in charge at the time” (אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם; Deut 17:9). Deuteronomy also gives no indication that the king would have any role in the Temple cult.
God Imagery in the Torah
The Torah’s reservations about monarchy are not only about human kingship, but even divine kingship. The Torah uses parent-child imagery to describe YHWH’s relationship with Israel:
דברים יד:א בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַי-הוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם…
Deut 14:1 You are children of YHWH your God…
דברים לב:ו …הֲלוֹא הוּא אָבִיךָ קָּנֶךָ הוּא עָשְׂךָ וַיְכֹנְנֶךָ.
Deut 32:6 Is not He the Father who created you, fashioned you and made you endure!
God disciplines Israel as a father disciplines his son:
דברים ח:ה וְיָדַעְתָּ עִם לְבָבֶךָ כִּי כַּאֲשֶׁר יְיַסֵּר אִישׁ אֶת בְּנוֹ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְיַסְּרֶךָּ.
Deut 8:5 Bear in mind that YHWH your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son.
God is also described as a lover who desires the Israelites:
דברים ז:ז לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל הָעַמִּים חָשַׁק יְ-הוָה בָּכֶם וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם כִּי אַתֶּם הַמְעַט מִכָּל הָעַמִּים. ז:ח כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת יְ-הוָה אֶתְכֶם וּמִשָּׁמְרוֹ אֶת הַשְּׁבֻעָה אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם…
Deut 7:7 It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that YHWH set His heart on you and chose you — indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; 7:8 but it was because YHWH favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers…
דברים י:טו רַק בַּאֲבֹתֶיךָ חָשַׁק יְ-הוָה לְאַהֲבָה אוֹתָם וַיִּבְחַר בְּזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם בָּכֶם מִכָּל הָעַמִּים כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
Deut 10:15 Yet it was to your fathers that YHWH was drawn in His love for them, so that He chose you, their lineal descendants, from among all peoples as is now the case.
Moreover, YHWH is a jealous lover when Israel betrays Him and worships other gods (Deut 4:24; 6:14-15).
In no part of the prose or laws of the Torah, however, is God called a king. This is particularly surprising because it is commonly accepted that the model of the scriptural covenant is drawn from the political reality of the ancient East, where the sovereign party to a covenant was the king.
Ambiguity About Rosh Hashanah in the Torah
The reservations of the Torah toward the institution of the monarchy, and within it the idea of enthroning God, is what apparently lies at the root of the ambiguity in the Torah’s description of Rosh Hashanah (not the Torah’s name for the holiday). The day is described as “a day when the horn is sounded” (יוֹם תְּרוּעָה; Num 29:1) or one “commemorated with loud blasts” (זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה; Lev 23:24), but the nature of these blasts, surprisingly, goes unexplained.
Mowinckel: God’s Coronation
As early as talmudic literature, the blasts of Rosh Hashanah were associated with the coronation of God. For example, the Talmud envisions God explaining the Rosh Hashanah mussaf service liturgy by saying (b. Rosh Hashanah 16a):
ואמרו לפני בראש השנה מלכיות… כדי שתמליכוני עליכם
Say before me on Rosh Hashanah the malchuyot service… so that you can make me king over you.
This connection between kingship and Rosh Hashanah was confirmed in modern scholarship, when the great Norwegian scholar of the Book of Psalms, Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965) showed that the ancient Israelite Rosh Hashanah was likely celebrated as the day when YHWH is enthroned.
Mowinckel brought together the ambiguous verses in the Torah about the blasts sounded on the first day of the seventh month (i.e., Rosh Hashanah) with the psalms about the coronation of God, in which the sounding of the horn is a common element, arguing that the blasts imply a coronation ritual, which he called “YHWH’s Enthronement Festival” (Thronbesteigungsfest Jahwäs).
His reconstruction is based on a comparison with the rituals of the Akitu festival of the Babylonian new year on one hand, and on Rabbinic literature and the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, on the other.
Kaufmann’s Response and Retraction
Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963), in his initial response to Mowinckel’s thesis in the first volume of Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit, (pp. 580-584) utterly rejected Mowinckel’s argument. Instead, Kaufmann proposed that the blasts of Rosh Hashanah were intended to stave off evil spirits, reminiscent of the reading “one who sounds a blast on account of a demon” (התוקע לשד) familiar from rabbinic literature, which apparently refers to a ritual done to protect one from harm. In the second volume (pp. 497-498), however, Kaufmann reversed himself and adopted Mowinckel’s approach (with no indication whatsoever that he had reconsidered what he had written in the previous volume).
If Mowinckel’s view is correct, and Rosh Hashanah was once a divine enthronement festival, the only hint the Torah gives to this is the overly subtle reference to blasts. Thus, it seems that the Torah hesitates to acknowledge the idea of YHWH as king. Instead, the Torah ignores and even suppresses this imagery, and only the shofar blowing ritual, dutifully recorded by the Priestly authors, allows us to make this connection.
Remnants of the God is King Motif
Rituals are conservative in nature, and thus hard to suppress entirely. The same can be said for ancient poems, which are often recorded as is. Thus, despite eschewing in the Torah the motif of YHWH as king, three poetic units in the Pentateuch reflect this conception of the divine. Notably, the three verses in question are the very three verses that the sages incorporated into the malchuyot prayer. (In fact, even though the rabbis needed a fourth quote from the Torah to end the section, they could not find another one that said YHWH was king, so they had to go with the Shema.)
1. Song of the Sea – Perhaps the best-known example of God as king in the Pentateuch is in the Song of the Sea, which concludes with the declaration:
שמות טו:יח יְ-הוָה יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד.
Exod 15:18 YHWH will reign for ever and ever!
2. Balaam’s Blessing – One of Balaam’s poems uses this imagery in its parallelism,
במדבר כג:כא יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהָיו עִמּוֹ וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ.
Num 23:21 YHWH their God is with them, and their King’s acclaim in their midst.
In fact, the term here translated as “acclaim” (teruah) can also be translated as “blasts,” and is the same term used to describe Rosh Hashanah.
3. Moses’ Final Blessing – The third use of divine kingship imagery appears in the Moses’ final blessing of the tribes, immediately before his death. The poem begins with a description of the appearance of God from the south. It then states,
דברים לג:ה וַיְהִי בִישֻׁרוּן מֶלֶךְ בְּהִתְאַסֵּף רָאשֵׁי עָם יַחַד שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Deut 33:5 Then He became King in Jeshurun, when the heads of the people assembled, the tribes of Israel together.
This verse provides the song’s original background: The tribes, or at least their representatives, assemble together, and in this assemblage, they accept YHWH as king over them.
A Historical Event or a Yearly Celebration?
Is this assembling of the tribes to accept YHWH as king a onetime gathering, or an event celebrated yearly? This question was the subject of a debate between two great Bible scholars of the previous century, both from the Hebrew University. Isaac Leo Seeligmann (1907-1982) felt that the convocation was a unique event conducted once, and he dated this to the early days of the time of the Judges.
Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951), however, proposed that the song describes a ceremony held annually on Rosh Hashanah, partially agreeing with Mowinckel. YHWH was declared king by an assemblage of the tribes conducted on this day, and the tribes or their representatives were blessed by the priests with the blessing designated for each tribe. If this is correct, then the blessing of the tribes now found in Deuteronomy 33 were once an integral part of the new year enthronement ritual, which we still commemorate with the blasts of the shofar.
In either case, the idea of divine kingship, which is so prominent elsewhere in the Bible, was actively suppressed by the Torah’s authors, and only appears here and there in hints found in ancient poems.
The End of the High Holiday Season
The holiday season that begins with Rosh Hashanah ends with Shemini Atzeret, the day on which Parashat Ve-Zot ha-Beracha is read. This holiday is given a special status in the priestly tradition as a day when the nation assembles together (עצרת; Lev 23:36, Num 29:35).
The nature and purpose of the assemblage are not explained in the Torah. As early as the Aramaic targums, we find echoes of the notion that the object of the gathering was to pray for rain, as we too customarily recite the Prayer for Rain on that day. Yet without attenuating this aspect of it, perhaps the gathering with which Sukkot concludes also has within it an echo of that ancient assemblage where the leaders of the nation and the tribes of Israel came together to declare God king over the children of Jeshurun.
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September 6, 2018
March 11, 2020
Professor Israel Knohl is the Yehezkel Kaufmann Professor of Bible at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a senior research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in Bible from Hebrew University. Knohl’s numerous publications include: The Sanctuary of Silence, which won the Z. Shkopp Prize for Biblical Studies and The Messiah before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
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