Guest blog by Jeffrey R. Chadwick, Jerusalem Center professor of Archaeology and Near Eastern studies, and associate professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.
Rosh Hashannah is the annual festival holiday marking the Jewish New Year. The Hebrew term actually means “head of the year.” The festival falls on the first day of the first lunar month of the autumn season. In 2009, Rosh Hashannah will begin on Friday night, September 18, and will be celebrated all day Saturday, September 19. In many Jewish communities, a second day of Rosh Hashannah will be celebrated on Sunday, September 20.
One of the most festive of all Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashannah is one of the two High Holy Days in Judaism, the other being the solemn fasting day known as Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which falls ten days afterward. The period between these two High Holy Days is known as “the Days of Awe,” a period when the Jewish faithful consider their trespasses, personal and national, reflect upon the need for repentance, and consider the future. It is significant that such a period is commenced with a festival as joyful and full of hope and anticipation for the future as Rosh Hashannah.
On Rosh Hashannah there are different ways to celebrate. Of course, many Jews will attend the special service for the new year held in their local synagogue. A significant act, stated as a command in Leviticus 23:24, is to blow the shofar (Hebrew for “ram’s horn,” translated “trumpet” in the King James Bible) on the festival day. Combinations of short, medium, and long blasts are blown on the shofar up to one hundred times during the day of Rosh Hashannah. Another practice is to enjoy fall fruits, such as pomegranates, grapes, and apples slices dipped in honey, and to give gifts of apples and honey to family and friends. Apples and honey have become an iconic symbol of Rosh Hashannah, recognized by Jews everywhere as an emblem of the festival.
Jews greet their families and friends and wish them Shannah Tovah (“a good year”) and Ktivah Vehatimah Tovah (“may you be inscribed and sealed for good”), referring to being well inscribed in the metaphoric books of life. The Talmud teaches that “three books are opened (in heaven) on Rosh Hashannah: the book of life of the wicked, the book of life of the righteous, and the book of life of those in between” (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashannah 16.b). This passage is interesting in light of New Testament references to the books from which we are judged (see Revelation 20:12) and resurrections to different glories (see John 5:28-29). The Talmud, in its own way, seems to be referring to three degrees of judgment and postmortal reward.
In the Jewish scripture called the Hebrew Bible (Christians call it the Old Testament), the day of this festival is noted as falling on the first day of “the seventh month” (Leviticus 23:24), and is not given a name. The commandment to observe the festival simply directs that day be regarded as a Sabbath and a holy convocation and instructs that the “blowing of trumpets” take place. In early Old Testament times before the Babylonian captivity, the festival was not regarded as the first day of the new year. So how did that designation come about?
While in Babylon, ancient Jews were exposed to an annual count that began with an autumnal new year, and it became expedient for them to adopt that cycle for their practical yearly reckoning. So counting the year from the first autumn month became something of a second, secular calendar for them. Though the biblical spring new year was not forgotten, over time the autumnal new year became more widely observed. And because that day fell on the same autumn day as the festival of trumpeting mentioned in Leviticus 23, the practice of calling it the “head of the year” (Rosh Hashannah) came into being—all before the time of Jesus. And one more interesting fact: it is quite likely that the “feast of the Jews” mentioned in John 5:1 was not Passover (as mentioned in some footnotes) but actually Rosh Hashannah!
So Shannah Tova to all!