How an Obscure Holiday Created by Ezra the Scribe Became Rosh Hashanah

The rabbis had to reinvent Judaic practices after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, and it seems they invented the Jewish New Year out of thin air.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Ezra the Scribe reading the Torah for the first time.
Ezra the Scribe reading the Torah for the first time.Credit: Wikimedia, stylized by Haaretz
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year with its solemn rituals and traditional foods, when humanity is put on trial for its actions in the previous year and its fate is determined for the year to come – did not originate in the Bible as such, as Jews popularly believe. The Bible does have a holiday on the date that is now occupied by Rosh Hashanah, but this was a different holiday – suppressed and supplanted.

Indeed, if there was a Jewish new year in biblical times, it would not have been on the date it occupies today.

The Bible does not usually name the months: it counts them. Nowadays the Hebrew year begins in the autumnal month of Tishrei, which in biblical reckoning, is the seventh month, not the beginning of the year by any account. The first month in the year, according to scripture, is the spring month of Nisan.

How could this be? The explanation seems to be that the rabbis reinvented the Jewish religion to adapt it to a reality without a Temple in Jerusalem, in roughly the 2nd century C.E. Among other things the rabbis evidently did was the expropriation of an obscure holiday originally initiated by Ezra the Scribe 2,500 years ago, and restyle it as the Jewish new year.

A forgotten seminal event

Twice the Bible recounts how during the Israelites’ wanderings in the desert, God relayed a list of holidays to Moses. These lists include a holiday “In the seventh month, in the first day of the month” (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1). Though this is the day we now mark as Rosh Hashanah, it could hardly have been chosen to mark the start of the year, since it took place in “the seventh month.” Also, in neither citation does the bible associate an actual celebration specifically with the start of a new year.

If the holiday in the seventh month wasn’t a new year celebration (like it is today), what was it?

Leviticus 23:24 says: “Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall ye have a sabbath, a memorial of blowing of trumpets, an holy convocation.”

Key here is what the King James Bible aptly translated as “a memorial” (Hebrew: zikaron). This seems to indicate the holiday was established on the anniversary of some important event. What event might that have been?

One way to find out is to check all the events the Bible mentions as taking place on the first day of the seventh month, and see if any fit.

This turns out to be quite easy, since in the entire book, only one event is cited as happening on this date: "And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. And he read therein...and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law” (Nehemiah 8:2-3). (Ezra the priest is the same Ezra as the scribe.)

The first public reading of the Torah, certainly seems to be an important event warranting an annual memorial. Is this the event we are looking for?

'Eat the fat, drink the sweet'

Leviticus describes the mysterious holiday as a “memorial of blowing of trumpets”. That has been interpreted to mean that on this holiday, we blow the shofar, a hollowed out ram’s horn.

That interpretation, that a ram's horn was to be blown, could be a misunderstanding.

The original Hebrew reads teru’ah, which could indeed mean “blowing of trumpets or rams’ horns” - it certainly does elsewhere in the Bible (e.g. Numbers 10:5, Psalms 47:7). But in other places, the word seems to bear the sense of happiness and celebration (e.g. Ezra 3:12, 1 Chronicles 15:28, and Job 33:26). In that context, the sentence would read something like “a day of rest in memory of a joyous holy convocation.”

New life growing out of the ancient stones in Second Temple-era Jerusalem: With the temple gone, the rabbis had to revamp Jewish practices.Credit: Haaretz

Ezra’s first reading of the Torah was definitely that. The prophet instructs the Jerusalemites: ”Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Does that not sound like Ezra is establishing a holiday on that day?

So it seems that the holiday in question was instituted in the beginning of the Second Temple period, as an annual celebration of the first public reading of the Torah. This would explain why when Deuteronomy and Ezekiel list the Jewish holidays (Deuteronomy 16 and Yehezkel 45), there is no mention of Rosh Hashanah at all. It hadn’t been established yet.

Somebody else's word

If that theory is true, it would prove that the verses describing this holiday in Numbers and Leviticus could not be the word of God told to Moses during the desert wanderings: These verses had to have been written after the time of Ezra, which was probably in the second half of the 5th century B.C.E.

If these verses in Numbers and Leviticus originated in the Second Temple period, who is to say that many other part of the Pentateuch were also written then, as many scholars claim. The theory is an affront to the idea of Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, a major tenet of the Jewish religion.

Indeed, the connection between the obscure holiday Ezra founded and the scribe-priest himself seems to have been suppressed in ancient times. The Jewish philosopher Philo and Jewish historian Josephus, both living in the end of the Second Temple period in the first century CE, seem to be unaware of the connection between the two. Then again, they don’t connect it to the new year either. For them, the holiday on the first day of the seventh month was a minor holiday in which more animals were sacrificed in the Temple.

A Jewish man blows a shofar at the Kinneret.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Philo mentions the blowing of trumpets, or perhaps shofars (he wrote in Greek so it could be either) in relation to the holiday, which means that by then, teru’ah in Leviticus 23:24 had been already become interpreted as blowing the ram's horn rather than celebrating a joyous holy convocation. This interpretation is certainly the source of the custom of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.

But when did this obscure and now largely forgotten memorial day turn into the Jewish New Year we know today?

This is actually a difficult question to answer. It is not known exactly when the beginning of the Hebrew calendar was moved from spring to autumn, or indeed why. The first we hear of this date being Rosh Hashanah and the beginning of the year is in the Mishnah and Tosefta, rabbinic writings from the second century CE, specifically, in quotes by Rabbi Akiva, his contemporaries and their students. This seems to indicate that the transformation occurred sometime in the second century CE, and remained set in stone to this day. Only then was the forgotten and ignored celebration initiated by Ezra centuries earlier restyled as a new year celebration, largely modelled after other Near Eastern new years, especially the Babylonian rite of Akitu.

Artifacts found in Second Temple-era Jerusalem, by the Western Wall. Credit: Kobi Gideon

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