Rosh Hashana is one of our most significant Jewish holidays, but the Torah doesn’t say much about it. It’s only mentioned twice, and briefly at that:
And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial of terua, a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor, and you shall bring near a fire offering to Hashem.” Lev. 23:23-25,
In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any work of labor. A day of terua it shall be to you, and you shall offer a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to Hashem. . . Num 29:1-2,
I’m providing a literal translation for both these passages to highlight the fact that the Torah doesn’t call this day “The Feast of Trumpets” as it’s often termed in Bible studies. (It also doesn’t call it Rosh Hashana, but that’s another discussion.) These two passages actually don’t mention a “trumpet” or a shofar at all, but only the sound that a trumpet or shofar might make, which is called terua. And it’s not a “Feast”. But it is a Shabbaton, or day of solemn rest, and a mikra kodesh, or holy convocation, so we know the day really is significant. But the Torah doesn’t tell us why it’s significant. Or does it?
One clue to the day’s significance is that it’s the first day of the seventh month, and “The number seven, especially when applied to time, always signifies holiness. The first thing declared holy in the Torah is the seventh day, Shabbat (Gen. 2:1–3).” (R. Jonathan Sacks in his introduction to The Koren Rosh Hashana Mahzor.) Rabbi Sacks goes on to explain that the holiness of the seventh day, the seventh year, and the Jubilee at the end of seven cycles of seven years is expressed by the cessation of work, a cessation that characterized the initial seventh day of Creation in Genesis 2:1–3. So, we might say that seven is a holy number because it’s the number of the holy and complete Creation. On the seventh day and year, “we cease creating and remember that we are creations. We stop making and remember that we are made” (R. Sacks).
The two Torah passages I cited both open with reference to the seventh month. Now we can see that it’s not a big stretch to link this reference to Creation, and that’s exactly what our tradition does: “For this day is the opening of all Your works, a remembrance of the very first day (Koren Mahzor, 532). “This day is the birthday of the world” (ibid, 616).
So, Creation and God as Creator are the opening themes of Rosh Hashana as we celebrate it today. In Midrash Rabbah, however, Rabbi Eliezer says that the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul, the sixth month (Lev. Rabbah 29:1). In his view Rosh Hashana actually marks the sixth day of Creation, when Adam, the first human, was formed from the dust of the earth. There’s no point in arguing about the literal pros and cons of this midrash, because that’s not what midrash is about. Instead, let’s consider some deep insights that this imaginative reading unlocks.
Rabbi Eliezer not only says that Adam was created on the sixth day, but he also nails down the time: the seventh hour. And then,
In the eighth [hour] He brought him into the Garden of Eden, in the ninth he was commanded [against eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge], in the tenth he transgressed, in the eleventh he was judged, in the twelfth he was pardoned. ‘This,’ said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Adam, ‘will be a sign to your children. As you stood in judgment before Me this day and came out with a free pardon, so will your children in the future stand in judgment before Me on this day and will come out from My presence with a free pardon.’ When will that be? In the seventh month, in the first day of the month.
The midrash doesn’t say so explicitly, but it’s solving one of the knottiest interpretive issues in the Creation story. When the Lord warns Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he says, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17b). Adam follows the lead of his wife, Eve, eats of the tree and . . . doesn’t die! Some Christian interpreters develop the idea that Adam and Eve died spiritually on that day; they became alienated from God, took on a new, sinful nature, and became spiritually dead. A more Jewish reading would emphasize that Adam and Eve were sent out of the Garden and into exile on that day, since exile is a type of death throughout the Tanakh. But this midrash has a whole different solution: the eleventh-hour death sentence was literal enough, but God removed it through a pardon at the twelfth hour.
Here’s the insight revealed by this imaginative reading: the God of the Bible is Creator and Ruler of all things, but also merciful and ready to forgive. In our day of increasing skepticism and unbelief (at least in the global West), it’s often hard to talk about God at all, let alone about the Bible or the redemptive message of Messiah Yeshua. It’s challenging enough to defend the idea that there’s a Creator, a force or power beyond the visible, material world. But this portrayal of the Creator as merciful and ready to pardon right from the start might help overcome some of the barriers to the God idea. We’re not talking about God as an angry old white man in the sky.
Insightful as the midrash is, however, it lacks the dramatic tension that energizes our observance of Rosh Hashana today. In the words of the iconic prayer, Untaneh Tokef, this is the day when “all who have come into the world pass before You like sheep.”
As a shepherd’s searching gaze meets his flock,
as he passes every sheep beneath his rod,
so You too pass Yours, count and number,
and regard the soul of every living thing;
and You rule off the limit of each creation’s life,
and write down the verdict for each. (Koren Mahzor, 566-568)
According to R. Eliezer, in the eleventh hour Adam was judged and in the twelfth he was pardoned, but apparently pardon is not automatic. God the great Shepherd sorts out his sheep and records a verdict for each. Jewish tradition emphasizes the need for teshuva, return and repentance, between the eleventh hour and the twelfth, between guilt and pardon. The Torah, though, has a different emphasis, which R. Eliezer seems to overlook in his time line. First comes the eleventh-hour judgment:
“By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” Gen. 3:19
And then, a move that opens the way for pardon: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). After this, the pardon. God sends the first humans out of the Garden and into the difficult conditions of life as we know it today—but they live. The death sentence is lifted.
Genesis 3:21 is only a clue, but I’ve been exploring clues and their implications in this whole blog. So this clue suggests that pardon doesn’t depend on our remorse and repentance as much as on God’s gift. And the gift costs Him something. The Creator, who is merciful and ready to pardon, must pay for pardon through sacrifice. Garments of skin come from an animal slain to yield up its covering hide. Pardon is not just a feel-good impulse of a God heeding the 21st century admonition to not be judgmental. Rather, it’s the fruit of deep and costly compassion, sacrificial compassion, which will be pictured most clearly in the deeds of a Messiah to come.