Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Biblical Origins: Rosh Hashanah

The following passages in the Torah concern the first day of the seventh month:
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 the Lord. (Lev. 23:24-25)

In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded. You shall present a burnt offering of pleasing odor to the Lord. (Num. 29:1-2)
The Torah prescribes complete rest, loud blasts of the horn, and burnt offerings . . . yet it doesn't seem to provide an explanation of why. So where did we get all the central themes of Rosh Hashanah--the New Year, the proclamation of God's kingship, examining ourselves in anticipation of divine judgment, peoples' names being inscribed in the Book of Life?

Here's what I found:

First: Rosh Hashanah is the only holiday in the Jewish calendar to fall on a new moon. Reuven Hammer points out that the number seven seems to be of particular importance here:
Just as the seventh day of the week is holy, so the seventh month of the year has special significance. Since each new moon is a sacred time, it is logical that the seventh new moon--counting from Nisan, in the spring--should also acquire a special aura of holiness. (Entering the High Holy Days, p.4)
many scholars have suggested that the first day of the seventh month was popularly celebrated in ancient Israel as a divine coronation day, the time of God's assumption of the kingship and the beginning of a new cycle of the year.* (Ibid)
Scholars find allusions to such a "divine coronation day" in Psalms 93-100**, liturgical songs which focus on God as creator, king, and judge:
The LORD is king, He is robed in grandeur. (Ps. 93:1)

Rise up, judge of the earth! (Ps. 94:2)

For the LORD is a great God, the great king of all divine beings. In His hand are the depths of the earth; the peaks of the mountains are His. His is the sea, He made it; and the land, which His hands fashioned. (Ps. 95:3-5)

Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of the LORD, for He is coming to rule the earth; He will rule the world justly, and its peoples with equity. (Ps. 98:7)

The Lord, enthroned on cherubim, is king. . . Mighty king who loves justice, it was You who established equity, You who worked righteous judgment in Jacob. (Ps. 99:1,4)

Acknowledge that the LORD is God; He made us and we are His; His people, the flock He tends. (Ps. 100:2)
Specific references are also made to one of the sounds of the shofar--the teru'ah--in Psalms 95:1, 2; 98:4, 6; and 100:1. This sound is connected to the proclamation of God's kingship.

So where did the holiday get the name Rosh Hashanah? More tomorrow...

* "There were two celebrations of a new annual cycle in ancient Israel, one in the spring month of Aviv (later called Nisan), 'the first of the months of the year'
(Exod. 12:2), and another in the fall at 'the turn of the year' (Exod. 23:16, 34:22)." (Hammer, p. 4)

** According to tradition, Psalms 90-100 were composed by Moses (see Ps. 90:1).

No comments: