What Rosh Hashanah Really Means
The Torah tells us in BaMidbar 29:1,
"The first day of the seventh month shall be a sacred holiday to you when
you may not do any work. It shall be a day of sounding the horn.” In VaYikra
23-24 we read: “The
first day of the seventh month shall be a day of rest for you. It is a holy
holiday for remembrance (and) sounding (the shofar). You shall not do any work
and you shall bring a fire offering to G’d.”
Note that neither the sentence from Numbers nor the two sentences from Leviticus mention the New Year or call the holy day Rosh Hashanah. The reason for this is that the Jewish calendar was not in use when this commandment was given. In fact, the present Jewish calendar was not fixed until 358 C.E. by the patriarch Hillel II in the name of the Bet Din. Prior to that time the Jewish calendar was imprecise and related to agricultural pursuits, not to religious observance.
We find then that the first day of the Jewish civil year is the first day of Nisan, a month corresponding to the end of March and the beginning of April. Rosh Hashana, however, begins on the first of Tishri, seven months later. Therefore, Rosh Hashanah is not the beginning of a New Year as in the American civil calendar and has nothing in common with January 1. It should be noted, however, that the reason for fixing the civil New Year on January 1 is that that date occurs eight days after the 25th of December because Jewish boys are circumcised eight days after birth.
The meaning of Rosh Hashana is best understood if we consider this phrase from the Talmud: “And G’d will say to Israel, even to all mankind: "My children, today on Rosh Hashanah I look upon all of you as if you had been created for the first time.” This then means that we have an opportunity on Rosh Hashanah for self-renewal. It is believed that Rosh Hashanah is the first day of a ten day period of repentance ending on Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment. Such a period of reflection and judgment is not unique to Judaism. The ancient Babylonians believed that once a year all their numerous deities met at the Temple of Marduk, the chief Babylonian god. Then, these gods renewed the world and passed judgment on their human followers. Similar belief were held by other Semitic peoples.
The name Rosh Hashanah was first introduced in the Mishnah, our code of oral traditions, in the second century C.E. Prior to that time the Holy Day was called Yom Hazikoron or Day of Remembrance and/or Yom HaDin, i.e. Day of Judgment. It was believed and is still believed that on that day G’d remembers the deeds of each person and judges him accordingly.
In view of our usual poor performance we remind G’d of the merits of our forefathers and point to the binding of Isaac as the best example of the faith which Abraham displayed when commanded to sacrifice his son.
BaMidbar 29:1 calls this day Yom Teruah or the Day of Sounding the Shofar. Anthropologists and the Talmud agree that the Shofar was at one time thought to drive away the devil, Soton, who tried to influence G’d’s judgment against sinners. Later, Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204) the greatest of Jewish medieval thinkers, interpreted the blowing of the shofar to indicate the urgency of the moment when repentance is still possible. We may say that the sound of the shofar is a “wake-up” call.
Rosh Hashanah is also viewed as the anniversary of the creation of the world. Look at Tehillim, Psalm 98:6, which interprets the sounding of the shofar as a means of accepting the kingship of G’d. Furthermore the shofar was thought to have been present when the Torah was revealed at Mt. Sinai. Look at Shemos, 19:16. This verse tells us that the “voice of the Shofar was extremely loud” on that occasion so that “the people…….trembled.”
Rosh Hashanah is also the day on which we eat symbolic foods such as an apple dipped in honey, symbolizing the hope for a good year to come. We eat a pomegranate to symbolize our hope that our good deeds will increase like the seeds of that fruit; we eat a fish head to symbolize that we hope to be the head and not the tail and we eat the whole fish in the hope that we multiply like fish.
On the first afternoon of Rosh Hashanah we go to a body of water and throw some bread into the flowing stream, thus casting our sins into the water. We say the Tashlich prayer. The word Tashlich means “to cast off.” The origin of that custom may be derived from Micah 7:10 “….and You (G’d) will cast all their sins into the depth of the sea.”
It is my opinion that there is one
more meaning associated with Rosh Hashanah. I believe it is a day on which we
have an opportunity to meet many Jews at the “shul” whom we have not seen
for some time. This gives us a chance to reaffirm our relationship and our
membership in the people of Israel, the Jewish people. Such connection and
reaffirmation can take place in the synagogue sanctuary itself but it can also
take place when we talk to other Jews in the hall or in the corridors of the “shul”.
The reason for this is that Rosh Hashanah, like Yom Kippur, is a purely
religious Holy Day. Those who participate in the celebration of these Days of
Awe have come only because they are Jews and are motivated by their association
with the Jewish tradition. Therefore we may say that Rosh Hashana is also the
Day of Our Tradition which has made us unique among the peoples of the earth and
“a light onto the nations.” May you be inscribed for a good year.