Rosh HaShana: The Day of Trumpets
The biblical holiday of Rosh HaShana, also known as the Jewish New Year, begins this coming Monday evening, September 6, at sunset. It opens the fall High Holy Days, which also include Yom Kippur and the Feast of Tabernacles. So, what is the meaning of Rosh HaShana, where does it appear in the Bible, and what can we learn as Christians about its spiritual and prophetic significance.
First of all, Rosh HaShana is a special version of the monthly holiday called Rosh Chodesh, or beginning of the new lunar month. In Genesis 1:14, God said the sun and moon are for “signs and seasons”, and indeed the most important Jewish holiday seasons are determined by the moon. The moon also serves as a moed – a Hebrew word best translated as “appointed time.” This is the time God Himself set for an appointment with mankind. And what powerful appointments they are! Just think of it – the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, and Jesus dying on the cross – all of these seminal events happened exactly on the days appointed by God.
Now the significance of every Rosh Chodesh is mainly to determine the beginning of the month, which falls on the day of the new moon, and this also sets the dates for other important festivals in that month.
Every month, Rosh Chodesh is a time of drawing near to God, of blowing the trumpet, and a time of gladness and joy. Numbers 10:10 says this shall be a memorial (zikaron) for you. There also are many somber events which happened in many months in the Bible, as catastrophes befell the Jewish people due to their sins – reminding us of the righteousness and judgement of God.
At Rosh HaShana, this theme certainly comes out prominently. It is the biggest Rosh Chodesh, also called Yom ha Zikaron, and biblically the “Day of Trumpets”, or more precisely, the Day of Blowing on the Shofar (Yom Teruah).
The Special Month of Tishri
The Day of Trumpets is a celebration with mixed feelings: the joy of the Feast, the eating and drinking, mingled with the blowing of the shofar, but it also carries solemn tones. The Lord is remembered as the Judge, and the books of life are opened. It marks the beginning of the ten “Days of Awe,” (Yamim Noraim), which lead up to Yom Kippur. We celebrate the Lord as the Creator of the universe and at the same time ask for forgiveness and try to learn the lessons from the past. And we cry out for mercy. And then, on the full moon, on the 15th of Tishri, comes the most joyful of all Jewish festivals: Sukkot – the Feast of Tabernacles.
So why is it that this month is so packed with spiritually significant moadim, times of appointment? And does this month mark the beginning of the year or not? Rosh Chodesh Tishri is considered the beginning of the year, Rosh HaShana, but at the same time Tishri is called the seventh month. How should we understand this?
To grasp this concept, first know that Tishri marks the beginning of the year and imagine the agricultural cycle in ancient Israel. Every holiday has both a spiritual element and an agricultural one: Passover marks the liberation from the slavery of Egypt through the blood of the lamb but also the first fruits of barley; Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah and also the first harvest; and at the Feast of Tabernacles the Jews remember how they wandered in booths in the desert but they also celebrate the final harvest, the ingathering of everything that grew and ripened during the long summer.
According to this agricultural calendar, the Biblical year indeed begins in Tishri because this is the month when the winter rainy season is about to begin. It is the period that determines the fate of the entire region for the rest of the year. If the early rains fail to come, the nation faces drought. In ancient times, wars would break out as nations struggled over the limited resources. And not only in ancient times: some people say that one of the reasons for the outbreak of the recent civil war which devastated Syria was a prolonged drought which forced the farmers to leave their fields and go to cities where the unrest started.
In this light, we can better understand the full impact of the three-and-a-half years (James 5:17) of drought under Elijah. For four years, each year at this time, they expected rain, but it did not come. It caused a nationwide crisis, and a great famine in Samaria. King Ahab blamed Elijah, but he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and have followed the Baals” (1 Kings 18:17-18).
The drought in Elijah’s time was linked to sin of the people. Instead of finding fault with Elijah, Ahab should have repented. And Elijah then calls on the people to repent, to take a stand (1 Kings 18:21).
We have selected “The Days of Elijah” as the theme for this year’s Feast of Tabernacles. We sense that developments over the past year show similarity to those days of drought under Elijah. The global pandemic has changed the way we live in many aspects and it is not yet over. All this underlines our complete dependency on God and His full sovereignty. We have no control over the future, but God does. Therefore, the call to repentance, to return to the Lord with all our hearts and minds is in order.
And this is very much the message of the month of Tishri and the fall holidays. The Bible commands a special month of appointed times before the onset of the new agricultural year. It is to reaffirm the faith that the Lord is the sole force behind the fate of the coming season. We do not look to Nature, we do not worship Mother Earth, nor do we let the perceived changes of climate control us – instead, we put our trust in God who decides how the rainy season will unfold.
The idea of dependency on God and trust in Him permeates the whole fall holiday season: the main theme of Sukkot is to remember how God protected the Israelites on their way from Egypt. During Sukkot, people are commanded to get out of their comfortable dwellings, be exposed to the elements and trust in God rather than man-made protection. We cannot rely on our real estate, our money, even on our skills or health. We are fully dependent on God.
The Wake-Up Blast
What else can we learn from Scripture concerning Rosh HaShana? First of all, surprisingly the Bible does not call it the NEW YEAR, but rather just the first day of the SEVENTH month. The only commandments are to refrain from work and blow the trumpet.
The defining passage is found in Numbers 29:1-2: “And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work. For you it is a day of blowing the shofar (Yom Teruah). You shall offer a burnt offering as a sweet aroma to the Lord: one young bull, one ram, and seven lambs in their first year, without blemish.”
Another relevant passage is found in Leviticus 23:23-25: “Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath-rest, a memorial of blowing of shofar (Zichron Teruah), a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work on it; and you shall offer an offering made by fire to the Lord.”’”
So, the main commandment is to blow the trumpet, or shofar, which also is sounded on every new moon, as the aspect of zikaron, or memorial, is also present every month. But in the seventh month, everything is more intense. The sound of the shofar serves as a wake-up call.
The medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides, or Rambam, writes in his Laws of Repentance, 3:4: “Although the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a chok [a law issued without an accompanying reason], there is also a remez [a hint of meaning] within it, as if it were saying, ‘awake, sleeping ones, from your slumber, and those napping arise from your naps, examine your actions and return sincerely to God, and remember your Creator.’”
We can find an interesting parallel in the New Testament. Paul writing to the Ephesians uses a very similar exhortation: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” The verse comes from Ephesians 5:14, and the context for this passage is one of repentance and walking in the light, and the sound of the shofar says: ‘Awake from your slumber, cast away darkness, and walk in the light.’
Indeed, light seems to be an important theme at this season. According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashana new light enters the world. It is a day in which we can evaluate who we are, where we are going, and to what degree our lives are truly lived in accordance with God’s will.
In Psalm 89:15, the original Hebrew actually says, “blessed are the people who know the sound of teruah”, or the sound of the shofar. In other words, there is blessing in heeding the call for repentance. These are the people who walk in the light of His countenance. This is exactly the message of 1 John 1:5-8: “… God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”
The sound of teruah is a wake-up call, inviting us to leave darkness and walk in His light. Repentance in Hebrew is teshuva, and it literally means “return, come back”. Change your direction and turn around.
The rabbis also say that many of the laws concerning blowing the shofar are derived from the laws of the Jubilee Year. It is based on the text from Leviticus 25:8-9: “And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and the time of the seven sabbaths of years shall be to you forty-nine years. Then you shall cause the shofar of the Jubilee to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the shofar to sound throughout all your land.”
In the 50th year, all land returned to the family that originally inherited it, and slaves went free. The blast of the shofar to mark the Jubilee signified freedom. What is the connection between repentance and the Jubilee, regaining freedom? When we repent, the power of sin is broken and we enter into true freedom. Jesus said in John 8:32, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”
This is a very Jewish concept. The whole history of the Jewish people can be seen as struggle for freedom. God freed them from slavery in Egypt and brought them to Mt. Sinai, where He gave them His word, which has the power to set free. And ultimately, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus did what we could never do in our own strength. Now we can experience his liberating power. “When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed” (John 8:36). Jesus also referenced the Jubilee when he launched his public ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-21).
So, when you hear the shofar, remember that it is calling you to freedom in Jesus.
Trumpeting His Return
The shofar blast also is connected to God’s judgement, as it will be revealed in the last days, and also to the restoration and regathering of Israel. Both Zechariah 9:9-14 and Isaiah 27:12-13 link the blowing of the shofar with the salvation of Israel, the Ingathering of the exiles, and the coming of their King.
The blowing of the trumpet also is given important prophetic significance in the New Testament. For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, we read that it will signify the return of Jesus: “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God (teruah). And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.”
In addition, Revelation 11:15 says: “Then the seventh angel sounded (the shofar): And there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever!”
So, as we blow the shofar these days, let us do it intentionally, as a prophetic sign of the wonderful things to come.