Every year as Rosh Hashanah approaches, I get ready for someone to object to the greeting “L’shana tovah” (“to a good year”), or even to the name of the holiday itself, Rosh Hashanah, which means literally “Head of the Year,” or New Year’s. Why would anyone object to such positive terms? Because, they’ll tell me, Rosh Hashanah isn’t really the New Year, it’s actually the first day of the seventh month (as if I didn’t know that). Then they might quote Exodus 12:1-2. “Adonai spoke to Moshe and Aharon in the land of Egypt; he said, ‘You are to begin your calendar with this month; it will be the first month of the year for you.’” The year begins with the first month, not the seventh. Case closed.
But, of course, there’s more to it than that, and there’s a good lesson here, which might even help us enter the Jewish year of 5776 with some needed optimism and hope.
The first month is the month of the Exodus from Egypt, and therefore is the beginning of the liturgical year, with all the months numbered in reference to the Exodus. The first day of the seventh month is the beginning of the agricultural year, as we’ll see, and therefore the beginning of the calendar year. For those of us who believe in maintaining solidarity with the wider Jewish community that’s a reasonable explanation. We can celebrate the New Year in the fall along with the rest of our Jewish people.
Beyond that, there’s a good biblical case for calling the first day of the seventh month the New Year. When the Torah introduces the festival of Sukkot, which begins on the full moon of the seventh month, it says that it takes place at the “end” or “going out” of the year (b’tset ha-shanah; Ex. 23:16). A little later, Torah says that Sukkot comes at the “turning” of the year (t’qufat ha-shanah; Ex. 34:22). Since years are cyclical, the end of one is the beginning of another, the time when the old year “turns” into a new year. The new year begins in the same month in which the old year ends.
My friends who object to the term “Rosh Hashanah” say that in the Bible it’s actually called the Festival of Trumpets, which is just plain wrong, or if they’re more knowledgeable, Yom Teruah, the Day of the Trumpet-blast, as in Numbers 29:1. But this isn’t quite right either. “Teruah” doesn’t necessarily imply a trumpet—it refers to the sound itself, not to an instrument, so that the first description of the day calls it simply “a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts” (Lev. 23:24, NJPS). Robert Alter translates the phrase as, “a sabbath, a commemoration with horn blast,” although the Hebrew for “horn” doesn’t actually appear in this verse. He comments, “The ‘commemoration’ in question is the act of making God remember, or take note of, Israel through the ritual of horn blasts.” Again, the text doesn’t actually say “horn” here, but whatever the source of the blast, it calls on God to remember his people with kindness and mercy, which is a fitting start for a new year.
Ten days later is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the days when the temple and priesthood still functioned, the conclusion of Yom Kippur on the fiftieth year announced the jubilee:
“You are to count seven Shabbats of years, seven times seven years, that is, forty-nine years. Then, on the tenth day of the seventh month, on Yom-Kippur, you are to sound a blast on the shofar; you are to sound the shofar all through your land; and you are to consecrate the fiftieth year, proclaiming freedom throughout the land to all its inhabitants. (Lev. 25:8-10)
The word teruah in this passage describes, not just any loud alarm or signal, but a trumpet blast—and one not from any trumpet, but from the shofar. Based on this passage, the rabbis decreed that the teruah of the first day of the seventh month should also come from a shofar. This gives further support for calling the day of the shofar-blast the New Year, because the shofar-blast on Yom Kippur announced a new year of jubilee, which began not in the first month, but in the seventh month, as Yom Kippur concluded.
Of course, you might object that the first day of the seventh month (Rosh Hashanah) comes before the conclusion of Yom Kippur, and before the festival of Sukkot, which begins on the fifteenth day of the seventh month. That’s where this little Bible study can lead us into optimism and hope—which we could really use as we enter 5776 with a risky deal with Iran about to be wrapped up, with brutality and devastation mounting in the Middle East, with Israel being increasingly pressured, and with the USA apparently becoming more and more divided and immobilized.
The timing of Rosh Hashanah tells us that renewal overtakes decline. Before the old year winds down, the new has already been announced. And it’s announced with the joyous blast of a shofar that anticipates the freedom and hope of the jubilee to come.
The Prophet Isaiah describes this coming jubilee, echoing the terminology of Leviticus 25:
“The Spirit of Adonai is upon me;
therefore he has anointed me
to announce Good News to the poor;
he has sent me to proclaim freedom for the imprisoned
and renewed sight for the blind,
to release those who have been crushed,
to proclaim a year of the favor of Adonai.”
When Messiah Yeshua visited his home synagogue in Natzeret, he stood up to read these words from the scroll of Isaiah, sat down, and told all his townsfolk who were watching him, “Today, as you heard it read, this passage of the Tanakh was fulfilled!” (Luke 4:18-21). Yeshua proclaimed a new year, a year of jubilee, which he initiated and which will come in its fullness, regardless of appearances to the contrary. It’s this jubilee that we can proclaim as we celebrate the New Year on the first day of the seventh month.
All Scripture references, unless otherwise noted, are from Complete Jewish Bible.