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Rosh HaShanah: The Truth About the Real Biblical New Year

"This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you." (Exodus 12.2; see also Exodus 12.18; Joshua 4.19; 2 Chronicles 35.1)

The passage above seems to refer to the day known in the Jewish calendar1 as Rosh HaShanah (i.e., New Year's Day). However, Yahweh actually said it as He was preparing His final judgment upon Egypt, seven months before the date Rosh HaShanah is now celebrated. He even declared the command twice2 to make sure there was no misunderstanding as to when the new year begins. Yet today the Jewish people (and many Gentiles) celebrate the beginning of the new year on the first day of the seventh month. But how did the new year end up being celebrated on the first day of the seventh month? Was the commandment concerning the beginning of the new year later changed by Yahweh to a different date? Or perhaps there something lost in the translation from Hebrew to English?

Although this may seem trivial, Yahweh thought it was important enough to point it out to Moses and Aaron as He was preparing to strike down the first-born of Egypt before delivering His people from bondage. In addition, the timing of the calendar was a part of creation (Genesis 1.14-18) used to serve as signs for His fixed [or set, appointed] times. In order to make sure we properly understand what has happened here we will examine the Scriptures to see if Yahweh did indeed make changes to the Torah at a later date with respect to the fixed times in the biblical calendar.

The Fixed Times of Yahweh

"God said, 'Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years; and they shall serve as lights in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth.' And it was so. God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars. And God set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, to dominate the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that this was good." (Genesis 1.14-18)

These verses show two things, with respect to our present topic:

"Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: 'Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: "These are My fixed times, the fixed times of Yahweh, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions."'" (Leviticus 23.1-2)

The Sabbath, celebrated weekly, is the first of Yahweh's fixed times listed in the Torah (Leviticus 23.3), with the rest of them being celebrated once a year. Passover (Leviticus 23.5) is the first of the yearly fixed times, celebrated at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month of the year, followed immediately by the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Leviticus 23.6-8). Hebrew defines "twilight" as "between the evenings", e.g., at the end of the fourteenth day and at the beginning of the fifteenth day. In the biblical calendar each day begins at sundown the preceding day and ends when the sun sets on the current day (Genesis 1.5). Each month begins at the start of a new moon; the Hebrew word for "new moon" (chodesh) is the same word translated as "month".

The passage in Leviticus 23 goes on to say that "... In the seventh month, on the first day of the month you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts." (Leviticus 23.24). The first day of the seventh month is known in Hebrew as Yom Teruah ("a day of shouting"). It's also known as Trumpets3. Most people, however, know the first day of the seventh month by the name of Rosh HaShanah, which means "head of the year", i.e., the new year: rosh means "head", ha means "the", and shana means "year" — the head of the year.

In order to have a better understanding, let's take a look at the real meaning of a few of the Hebrew words 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." (Exodus 12.2)

beginning; Hebrew: rosh
Head or the beginning, such as of a designated period of time, e.g., the head of the year. Strong's No: 7218; AHLB No: 1458-D(N)4
month; Hebrew: chodesh
Designating the first crescent of the moon as the renewal of the moon; the first day of the month. Strong's No: 2320; AHLB No: 2151(g)
first; Hebrew: rishon
beginning, such as of a designated period of time. Strong's No: 7223; AHLB No: 1458-D(ej)
year; Hebrew: shanah
Year, as in the sense of repeating, as a revolution of time. Strong's No: 8141; AHLB No: 1474-A(N1)

So, as stated in the passage above, that particular month (chodesh) is the beginning (rosh) of the months, making it "the head of the year", i.e., the real Rosh HaShanah. This leaves no doubt that the biblical Rosh HaShanah — the beginning of the year, i.e., New Year's Day — is fourteen days before Passover and not the first day of the seventh month. It's important to note, however, that Yahweh never designated the first day of the year as any type of celebration, even as "Rosh HaShanah" or "New Year's Day". In fact, the literal term Rosh HaShanah does not actually appear in the Tanakh except for in Ezekiel 40:1: "beginning of the year". There it is not used to describe one of the fixed times of Yahweh but rather just the first day of the new year. So how then did the Jewish people end up celebrating a non-biblical holiday (i.e., New Year's Day) on the first day of the seventh month? (Although the first day of the seventh month is one of Yahweh's fixed times, it is not designated as the beginning of the year.)

The Meaning of Yom Teruah

Let's stop for a moment and take a look at the fixed time known as Yom Teruah, the first day of the seventh month. This day has been a puzzlement for many people because it's the only holy day whose real purpose is not revealed in the Torah, which states:

"Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to Yahweh." (Leviticus 23.24-25).

The only other mention of the celebration appears in Numbers 29.1-6, in reference to the offerings for the day. This fixed time is usually associated with blasts from the trumpet but the Hebrew word teruah means to make a loud noise, as in a great shout of alarm, of war, or of rejoicing (the Hebrew word yom means day). The same word is also used in Joshua 6.5, where it is generally translated as "shout". There is also the loud blast of the ram's horn when the people of Israel gathered at the base of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19.13,16,19; 20.15). So while the word teruah can mean a loud noise such as that made by a trumpet or a shofar, it can also mean a loud noise made by a shouting of a gathering of people. And although Torah does not give a clear meaning of the real purpose of the day, it does tell us what we are to do on that day. We don't need to know Yahweh's reasons for everything. And it's definitely not up to us to assign our own meaning to it. (The concept of attempting to know the meaning of all things comes from a Greek mindset and not from a Hebraic one.)

We then should celebrate the fixed times as Yahweh commanded; in the case of Yom Teruah, as a day of complete rest commemorated with loud shouting — perhaps of praise and worship to Yahweh — or the blowing of trumpets or of ram's horns, or maybe even both.

The Roots of Rosh HaShanah

But that still doesn't answer why the first day of the seventh month became known as New Year's Day. We do know, however, how it became New Year's Day. It seems the rabbis5 living in the Diaspora after the Jewish people went into captivity in Babylon, are the ones who changed the beginning of the year to the day of Yom Teruah. (The literal term Rosh HaShanah shows up for the first time in the Mishna6, a Jewish code of law compiled in 200 ce) Yet several times Yahweh commanded that the Torah never be changed in any way:

"You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of Yahweh your God that I enjoin upon you." (Deuteronomy 4.2)

"My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws: I Yahweh am your God." (Leviticus 18.4; See also Deuteronomy 13.1; Deuteronomy 28.14; Joshua 1:7)

It was also in the Diaspora that other changes to the biblical calendar were made. One such change was identifying the months using names taken from the Babylonian calendar. This took place during the time of Ezra, when some of the Jewish people returned to the Land from the Babylonian exile. The rabbis have made no effort to hide where the calendar names came from: "The names of the months came up with them from Babylonia" (Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanana 1.2 56d). And although the months in the Jewish calendar now have names, Scripture uses numbers to identify the months7: "In the first month" (Genesis 8.13; Leviticus 23.5); "the second month" (1 Chronicles 27:4); "of the fifth month" (2 Kings 25.8); and "In the seventh month" (Numbers 29.1). In the biblical calendar the days do not have names either; they too use numbers: "a first day" (Genesis 1.5), "a fifth day" (Genesis 1.23) and "the seventh day" (Genesis 2.2; Exodus 12.15; Leviticus 13.34).

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman ("Nahmanides","the Ramban"), a thirteenth century Jewish scholar from Spain, wrote a commentary on Exodus 12.2, explaining why they took the names of the months of the Babylonian calendar and added them to the one given by Yahweh. Rabbi Nachman agreed that the reference in the verse in Exodus was to the literal first month, and that all months are to be counted from there. His reasoning was that by doing this they would remember what he calls "the Great Miracle", referring to Yahweh's deliverance of Israel from Egypt. But he then states that the rabbis said the names of the months came back with them from Babylonia so they would remember they had been there (in Babylonia) and that Yahweh took them out and brought them back to the Land, with reference to, he said, the prophecy of Jeremiah 16.14-15:

"Assuredly, a time is coming—declares Yahweh—when it shall no more be said, 'As Yahweh lives who brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt,' but rather, 'As Yahweh lives who brought the Israelites out of the northland, and out of all the lands to which He had banished them.' For I will bring them back to their land, which I gave to their fathers."

Rabbi Nachman's reasoning here is that by changing the names of the months from numbers — as given to them by Yahweh — to the names of pagan deities worshiped in the nations where Yahweh sent them when they turned from Him (Jeremiah 16.11), they would be honoring His delivering them from Babylon, much like when He delivered them from Egypt. But while Yahweh's deliverance of Israel from "the northland, and out of all the lands to which He had banished them" is surely a mighty deed, the reasoning is quite different than of His deliverance from Egypt. In Egypt, the Israelites were slaves through no fault of their own. However, they were in Babylon and other places because Yahweh had "hurled them out of the land" because they deserted Him "and followed other gods and served them and worshiped them" (Jeremiah 16.10-13). And although Yahweh said His redemption of Israel from other lands would be recognized as a greater deed than the exodus, He didn't, at anytime, tell Israel to do anything special to remember it. And why would He? It was a time of shame for Israel. Yahweh repeats the verses above, almost verbatim (Jeremiah 23.7-8), except here the preceding verses express His strong disapproval of Israel's "shepherds":

"... concerning the shepherds who should tend My people: It is you who let My flock scatter and go astray. You gave no thought to them, but I am going to give thought to you, for your wicked acts—declares Yahweh." (Jeremiah 23.1-4)

The act of sending Israel into the Diaspora was a punishment, with a promise of their eventual return. They were to return after seventy years (Jeremiah 29.10-14), but many chose instead to remain in the Diaspora, including many of the "shepherds".

Let's take a look at a few of the names of the months that "came up with them from Babylonia" with which they chose to rename the months of the biblical calendar:

Conclusion

Let's take a last look at our original questions:

Did Yahweh later changed the date of the new year?
No, it's quite clear these changes were made by men and not Yahweh.

Was something lost when the Hebrew was translated to English?
No, the Hebrew to English translation, at least with respect to Exodus 12.2, was just fine.

In conclusion, biblically there is no special day known as Rosh HaShanah, especially on the first day of the seventh month. The first day of the biblical year, as given to Israel by Yahweh, is in the first month, fourteen days before the fixed time of Passover (Pesach). While technically that day is "New Year's Day", it was never designated as such by Yahweh.

Hebrew and Jewish Calendar Links

Listing of the links shown here are for reference only. Their inclusion does not constitute any agreement or disagreement with the sites listed.

Hebcal Jewish Calendar
Create your own Jewish calendar; download a holiday calendar to Microsoft Outlook, Apple iCal, iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Palm, or Android; convert dates between Hebrew and Gregorian dates; and more.
Kaluach.net
An online Jewish calendar. Store your own personal events such as birthdays and memorial dates, all according to the Jewish calendar and the civil calendar. The site also sends you reminders of holidays and your personal events by e-mail.
Hebrew Calendar Add-on for Firefox
Show the Hebrew date in your browser's status.
Encyclopaedia Judaica
Published originally in 1971, Encyclopedia Judaica has been a leading source for information on the Jewish people, the Jewish faith, and the state of Israel. It is listed on the Library Journal's "50 Best Reference Sources of the past millennium."
Judaism 101: Jewish Calendar
Learn about the biblical calendar (and the Jewish calendar, as well), its background and history, the numbering of Jewish years, the months of the Jewish year, and the days of the Jewish week.
Hebrew Calendar Science and Myths
An interesting site showing the arithmetic rules of the biblical calendar and demonstrating some of the more intriguing calculation results. The site also dispells many long held assumptions related to the biblical calendar. Note that some of the information can get somewhat complex at times.

Footnotes

1 For the sake of clarity I will use the term biblical calendar when referring to the one given to Israel by Yahweh and Jewish calendar for the one created by the rabbis (sages, and teachers of Torah at the time—see Note 5 below).

2 This was done using a technique called synonymous parallelism which restates the first part of the verse in a different way in the second part in order to give emphasis to the statement.

3 It's also known as Zikkaron Teruah ("remembering the loud noise") and Yom Ha-Zikkaron ("day of the remembrance").

4 Strong's = The New Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible; AHLB = Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible

5 Although it was not until the second century that the term "rabbi" became an official title, it's used here to describe the Jewish teachers of the time, sometimes known as sages. Basically, a rabbi is a teacher of Judaism qualified to render decisions in Jewish law. The title rabbi is derived from the noun rav, which in biblical Hebrew means "great", but it does not occur in the Tanakh. (Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Encyclopaedia Judaica, Chabad)

6The Mishna is an extra-biblical source ("pertaining to information or content outside the Bible") compiled in 200 ce (Source: Jewish Virtual Library.) The reference in the Mishna is the portion titled, appropriately, "Rosh Hashanah", PDF format .

7 Scriptural references to the biblical calendar include ten months identified by numbers rather than by name. It was not until later editions of the Tanakh, after the Babylonian exile, that a few Babylonian month names were added, and then they always appeared next to the number of the month. Three of them are Ziv (1 Kings 6.1), Bul (1 Kings 6.38), and Ethanim (1 Kings 8.2). In Exodus 13.4 the month is named Aviv (or Abib); this, however, is an incorrect translation. The Hebrew word Aviv (Strong's No: 24; AHLB No: 1002-B(b)) literally means "green grain", i.e., the new green ears of growing grain. So the passage is correctly translated as "You go free this day, in the month [or "on the new moon"] of the green grain". In other words, in this case, the translators used the Hebrew word as the name of the month instead of translating it along with the other Hebrew words around it.

» Written by Lee Underwood



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