The Significance of Rosh HaShana
By: Dr. Mojmir Kallus, ICEJ Vice President for International Affair
Let us look at the meaning of the Jewish holiday known as Rosh HaShana, or the Jewish New Year. Where is it in the Bible? What is its spiritual meaning? And what can we learn from it as Christians?
First, Rosh HaShana is a special case of a recurring monthly holiday called Rosh Chodesh or the beginning of each lunar month. In Genesis 1:14, God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs (otot) and seasons (moadim), and for days and years.” One of these lights is the moon, and indeed the most important Jewish holidays are determined by the moon. This is why we call them “movable feasts,” because they fall each year on a different date according to our solar calendar.
The moon serves not only as a sign (ot) but also a moed – a Hebrew word best translated as “appointed time”. This is the time God himself determined 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 when the new moon appears. Without it we could not determine the date of the full moon, which marks the beginning of Passover and Succot.
Every month, Rosh Chodesh is a time of drawing near to God, of blowing the trumpet, a time of gladness and joy. The Scripture says in Numbers 10:10 that it shall be a memorial (zikaron) for you. It means remembering the past so as to learn a lesson for today. At Rosh HaShana, this theme comes out prominently: the day is also called Yom ha Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance, and biblically the Day of Trumpets, or more precisely, the Day of Blowing on the Shofar (Yom Teruah).
It is a celebration with mixed feelings: the joy of the Feast of the new moon, the eating and drinking, mingled with the blowing of the shofar. The blowing of the shofar adds solemn tones to the joy of celebration. The Lord is remembered as the Judge, and the books of life are opening. In the case of Rosh HaShana, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tishri, 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, the most joyful of all Jewish festivals starts – Succot or 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 in 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 understand the idea that Tishri marks the beginning of the year, we must imagine the agricultural cycle in ancient Israel. Every holiday has both a spiritual element and an agricultural one: Pessach (Passover) marks the liberation from the slavery of Egypt through the blood of the lamb but also the first fruits of barley; Shavuot (Feast of Weeks or Pentecost) 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 months.
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 their limited resources. And not only in ancient times: drought is an occurrence even in our time of technology. We do not have control over climate.
All this underlines our complete dependency on God and His full sovereignty. We have no control over the future, but God has. 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 our belief 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. We put our trust in God who decides how the rainy season will unfold.
Modern technology has somewhat diminished our dependency upon the early winter rains, but as you know, this topic is still followed in Israel with great care. The level of the Kinneret serves as a symbolic indicator of the status of the rainy season and it is often featured as an important news item in the media. Here in Israel, the message does not escape our attention.
So, it is in the month of Tishri when you start praying about the coming rainy season and, therefore, you become acutely aware that you are dependent on God. He appears as Judge and this idea sets the tone for the whole month, which is the most intense month in the Jewish calendar. It is about life and death. The idea of dependency on God and trust in Him permeates the whole holiday season: the main theme of Succot is to remember how God protected the Israelites on their way from Egypt. During Succot, 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 Shofar Blasts
Let us turn now to the holiday known as Rosh HaShana, and see what we can learn from the Scriptures. First of all, surprisingly, the Bible doesn’t call it the New Year, rather just the first day of the seventh month. The only commandment is 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 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 (the word teruah implies the sound of the shofar). You remember that the shofar is sounded already on every new moon, and 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 the Rambam, writes in his Laws of Repentance, 3:4: “Although the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana 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, in writing to Ephesians, uses a very similar exhortation: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Let us read the whole paragraph for context:
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret. But all things that are exposed are made manifest by the light, for whatever makes manifest is light. Therefore He says: “Awake, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:8-14)
You see, the context is repentance. And it is the sound of the shofar which is saying: Awake from your slumber, cast away darkness, and walk in 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 this context, the phrase we often hear in worship songs takes on a deeper meaning:
“Blessed are the people who know the joyful sound! They walk, O Lord, in the light of Your countenance.” (Psalm 89:15)
“… 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. We were once darkness, but now we are light and should walk as children of light. Use this opportunity and ask God to show us if there are areas in which we still walk in darkness and need to repent. Repentance in Hebrew is t’shuva, and it literally means “return, come back”. Change the direction of your walk, turn around.
The Jewish sages say that many of the laws concerning blowing of 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. So, we see that the call of the shofar is connected to the shofar blast of the Jubilee, which 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 referenced the Jubilee when He introduced His ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, when He quoted Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me, to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Then He closed the book and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21).
So, when you hear the shofar, remember that it is calling you to the freedom in Jesus
The Propehetic Angle
The shofar blast is also related to God’s judgment, as it will be revealed in the last days, and also to the restoration and regathering of Israel.
Zechariah 9:9, 14 says: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey… Then the Lord will be seen over them, and His arrow will go forth like lightning. The Lord God will blow the shofar and go with whirlwinds from the south.”
The blowing of the shofar is clearly connected with the salvation of Israel, and the coming of their King.
Isaiah 27:12-13 adds: And it shall come to pass in that day that the Lord will thresh, from the channel of the River to the Brook of Egypt; and you will be gathered one by one, o you children of Israel.So it shall be in that day: the great shofar will be blown; they will come, who are about to perish in the land of Assyria, and they who are outcasts in the land of Egypt and shall worship the Lord in the holy mount at Jerusalem.
This passage is strikingly similar to the vision many of us know from Isaiah 19. That revelation culminates in verses 23 to 25: In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will serve with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria—a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”
Here in chapter 27 of Isaiah, we find a confirmation: They will come from Assyria and from Egypt and worship the Lord at Jerusalem. (It is interesting that some translations interpret those who come from Assyria and Egypt as Jews who had been banned there; However, we can also understand them as people of those nations who are perishing or were dismissed, cast out from society.) These two regions are again specifically mentioned with a promise of salvation in the midst of judgment. And it will happen at the time of the regathering of the children of Israel. The restoration of Israel, judgment over the nations, and the coming of the King are intertwined. And the sound of the shofar will be heard.
The blowing of the trumpet is echoed in the New Testament:
1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 tells us: 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.
Revelation 11:15 adds: Then the seventh angel sounded (takah be 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!”
As we blow the shofar in these days, let us do it intentionally, as a prophetic sign of things to come.
A Time to Rejoice in our Salvation
Finally, I want to mention another aspect of Rosh HaShana. In light of what has been said so far, it might seem that somber atmosphere would prevail when marking that great day and thinking about judgment. In fact, though, Jewish celebrations are rather joyful. Why? It is an expression of faith.
The Talmud comments in Tractate Rosh HaShana that normally, if you are summoned to appear at the court, you are somber, not knowing the outcome. However, it is different with Israel: We dress in white, eat and drink and are joyful because we know that God is going to do miracles. On the one hand, it is terrible to be judged by God – yet on the other hand, we know that He is merciful. Therefore, we can rejoice even in the midst of judgment.
That reminds us of Jesus’ words in Luke 21:28: “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”
We have assurance when the day of judgment comes. Jesus said in John 5:22-24: “For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. Amen, amen, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”
So, let us embrace the day of trumpets with assurance and joy because it is a sign that we trust Him. There is also a biblical precedent. In the days of Nehemiah, people assembled on Rosh HaShana to hear the word of God. Listen how they responded when they heard the call for repentance, and how Nehemiah answered. Nehemiah 8:1-3, 9-10 records:
Now all the people gathered together as one man in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate; and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month. Then he read from it in the open square that was in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn nor weep.” For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
I am sure you have heard the phrase before: The joy of the Lord is your strength. Why? Because it springs from repentance. Blessed are the people who know the sound of teruah. Let us walk in light, embrace the freedom Jesus bought for us, and abide in Him with confidence and joy.