Rosh Hashanah Wasn't Always the 'New Year.' Here's This Jewish Holiday's History

Much of today's Rosh Hashanah traditions originated with Babylonian worship. Here's how a calf's head morphed into gefilte fish

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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The history of Rosh Hashanah
The history of Rosh HashanahCredit: Moti Milrod
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, the day the Hebrew calendar begins. But that wasn't always the case.

In fact, the ancient Hebrews probably had no concept of when the year started at all. Nor did they give the months names: the Torah merely enumerating them - "the first month", "the seventh month."

Nowadays we celebrate Rosh Hashanah on the first day of the fall month of Tishrei. But in biblical times, that period was explicitly called "the seventh month". During the First Temple period (8th to mid-6th century BCE), the year began in the spring, on the first day of Nisan.

Also, when listing the holidays, the Bible always starts with the spring holiday of Passover, in the seventh month - Nisan.

Just because the ancient Hebraic year started on the first of Nisan doesn’t mean that day was marked in any special way. What was cause for celebration, the Bible tells us, was the new moon each month - that is, the first of the month. By "celebration," we mean that more animals were sacrificed at the Temple than usual. The new moon of Nisan was not marked differently. From what we know about the Israelite’s Canaanite neighbors, they didn’t pay any attention to the "new year" either.

When the Book of Exodus (40:17) tells us that “the tabernacle was reared up” on the “first month in the second year, on the first day of the month", meaning Nisan, it doesn’t say that this was a holiday, which would probably warrant mention if it was. In fact nowhere in the Bible is the first of Nisan mentioned as a holiday (though there may be an exception in the Septuagint, as we will see).

The blood of a bullock

On the other hand, the first of Tishrei, celebrated as Rosh Hashanah nowadays, is mentioned as a holiday - albeit a very minor one. It is in no way a celebration of the "new year." Quite the contrary. Leviticus (23:24) says regarding that first day of Tishrei: “In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a Sabbath [as in "day of rest"], a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation” (23:24).

The Bible does not list any special practices for the holiday beyond blowing trumpets and sacrificing some animals, though fewer than were sacrificed on the two major holidays - Passover and Sukkot. No specific reason is given for the blowing of the trumpets, nor are we told what we are supposed to remember.

It is possible that a deeper significance of the first of Tishrei has been lost in time. Alternatively, it is possible that the day was marked by blowing trumpets and messengers going out to the countryside just to remind the Israelites that Sukkot would be coming in two weeks, and they had that much time to come to Jerusalem with their tithes and sacrifices.

If so, that mean that the 1st of Tishrei, venerated today as the Jewish New Year, was nothing more than a satellite of the main event, Sukkot, as were Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret in ancient times.

The first day of Tishrei does have one other significance we do know of, based on the Book of Ezekiel. That prophet, at the very end of the First Temple period, prescribes that the Temple should be purified (naturally using the blood of a bullock, what else?) on the first of Tishrei.

Elsewhere the Bible says to purify the Temple's purification ahead of Sukkot on Yom Kippur, which is on the 10th day of Tishrei.

Ezekiel doesn’t mention Yom Kippur at all. But he does have a comparable purification rite on the first of Nisan, two weeks before Passover, in the version of his book preserved in the Greek translation called the Septuagint.

Ezekiel is also the first to use the phrase “Rosh Hashanah” (40:1), though for him it clearly does not refer to any holiday, rather just the beginning of the year.

Jewish months? Not exactly

When and how did the months get names?

We don’t know what the religious life of the Jews was like during the Babylonian exile. But we do know that by the time the Jews returned to Israel, and at the beginning of the Second Temple period (516 BCE), Jewish religious practices had profoundly changed compared with the pre-exile era.

For one, the names of the months that we use to this very day are the Babylonian names. Tishrei for example is a Babylonian month whose name derives from the Akkadian word tishritu - “beginning.”

In addition, the Babylonians took their New Year’s Day celebrations very seriously. They called the holiday Akitu (from the Sumerian word for barley) and Resh Shattim, the Akkadian equivalent of the Hebrew Rosh Hashanah. This was celebrated twice a year, at the beginning of Tishrei and the beginning of Nisan, and lasted for 12 days.

We may postulate that Jews absorbed their veneration for the New Year from the Babylonian example. But it was not immediately apparent upon their return – the Jewish rituals developed over centuries.

It isn’t really clear when Rosh Hashanah began to be celebrated as a holiday in its own right, though clearly it was during the time of the Second Temple. All we can say for sure is that books written during this period, such as the Book of Jubilees and the Book of Maccabees, or the Dead Sea Scrolls, don’t mention any "Rosh Hashanah."

We first hear about it in the early rabbinic literature in the Mishnah and the Tosefta, both redacted at about 200 CE, and both having a tractate called Rosh Hashanah, dealing with the holiday and issues related to the calendar. It is in these texts that we first have elaboration on the importance of the holiday and its traditions.

For example, in the Mishnah we learn that the world was created on the first of Tishrei, though there is a minority opinion that it was on the first of Nisan.

It is in the Mishnah that we are first introduced to the main theme of the holiday, that of judgment: “On Rosh Hashanah all human beings pass before him [God] as sheep before a shepherd” (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 2).

This theme is elaborated upon in the Talmud, where we find Rabbi Kruspedai of 3rd century Palestine quoting his teacher Rabbi Johanan as saying: “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: One for the utterly wicked, one for the wholly good, and one for the average class of people. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed, and life is decreed for them; the entirely wicked are at once inscribed, and destruction destined for them; the average class is held in the balance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they prove themselves worthy they are inscribed for life, if not they are inscribed for destruction.” (15b)

The days in which the fate of the intermediate class stands in the balance have been known since the mid-14th century as “The Days of Awe.”

The shofar

The liturgy of the holiday, that is the prayers added to the regular daily prayer, prescribed during this rabbinic age, deals with three main themes: The kingship of God, which is borrowed from the Babylonian Akidu where kingship (of the king) was a major theme; recital of God’s great deeds; and blowing a musical instrument. At least the latter two were taken from the bible, as we discussed above.

Regarding that musical instrument, technically, the Bible doesn’t say what exactly is to be blown. It is the Mishnah that first tells us this should be a shofar, a horn, usually of a ram, though it could alternatively come from an antelope or other horned beast.

Well before the Talmud was redacted in 500 CE, a variety of traditions regarding exactly how and when the Shofar was to be blown arose in the different Jewish communities. Not knowing which was correct, the rabbis decided that all the different traditions should be incorporated.

Thus on Rosh Hashanah we have the T'qiah (a long blow), the sh'varim (three consecutive blows), and the teruah (nine fast blasts separated into three groups of three), all blown in different sequences at different stages of the day. These added up to 90 blasts, which were rounded up to the 100 blown today.

How Rosh Hashanah became a two-day celebration

Originally, Rosh Hashanah was a one-day celebration. How it came to be celebrated over two days is because of a communication problem.

The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle. A new month began when the new moon rose. The rise of each new moon was determined by a rabbinic council in Jerusalem and later in Yavne, based on witness accounts. Messengers would then be sent through the land, delivering the news to the populace that the new month had begun.

But regarding Rosh Hashanah, celebration would have to begin immediately. By the time the news reached the farther-flung parts of Palestine, let alone elsewhere, the land, the day would be long over.

Holidays such as Sukkot and Passover didn't present a problem – they take place about two weeks after the start of the new month.

Later, when the calendar was no longer determined by council and the two-day holiday was no longer needed, (not to mention that people could look into the sky themselves), the rabbis decided to leave the custom anyway.

How now brown gefilte fish

All other well known Rosh Hashanah traditions are later embellishments. The tradition of eating honey (to start the year sweetly) and a calf's head (so that we should finish the year ahead) began during the time of the Gaonim. Later the calf’s head would be replaced with fish heads, and that in turn got replaced among Ashkenazi Jews with gefilte fish. Sephardic Jews elected for other fish dishes such as chraime (a spicy fish stew in tomato sauce).

In Europe, during the High Middle Ages, the consumption of honey evolved into eating challah and fruit, which today has become almost universally apples dipped in honey. A new tradition of eating pomegranates on Rosh Hashanah arose at about the same time, based on the false belief that the number of seeds in a pomegranate is 613, the same as the number of Jewish commandments.

Tashlikh, emptying one’s pockets into the sea or river (or, when these aren’t accessible, a well) on Rosh Hashanah is first mentioned in the 15th century and is now a common tradition among observant Jews. This is supposed to symbolize the clearing of oneself of sin.

Sending greeting cards to family and friends began only in the 19th century, though now practice has all but disappeared. Today people send emails and (annoyingly) text messages instead. The traditional wishes are “Shana tova,” which simply means “good year” and for the more religious crowd, “Gemar chatima tova” - a wish that God find you virtuous and inscribe your name in the Book of Life.

Have a great (Jewish) year!

This story was originally published in September 2017

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