Rosh HaShanah

Rosh HaShanah as it is observed today has a dual character.  On the one hand, as Rosh HaShanah (literally “head of the year”, or more colloquially, “first of the year”, meaning “New Year’s Day”), it is a festive occasion normally celebrated in the home with feasting and rejoicing.  Perhaps for this reason, it is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated for an extra day in Israel as well as in the Diaspora.  Various theories have been advanced to account for the extra day, none of which I find entirely convincing.  I once asked my Israeli hostess at a Rosh HaShanah dinner why Israelis observe Rosh HaShanah for two days instead of one, and she replied: “Because we like it.”

Yet on the other hand, Rosh HaShanah also marks the start of the ten “days of awe” leading up to Yom Kippur.  According to rabbinical tradition, it is the day on which God created the world, and it is also the day on which God judges the world and everyone in it.  Anyone who receives an unfavorable judgment on Rosh HaShanah has ten days in which to attempt to rectify the situation by repentance, making amends and then atonement on Yom Kippur.  Viewed in this light, Rosh HaShanah is a solemn occasion, one which inaugurates a ten day period of fear and trembling and soul searching.

In the Jewish calendar that is in use today, Rosh HaShanah falls on the first of the month of Tishrei, Yom Kippur on the tenth of Tishrei.  These two days are generally described as the “High Holy days”, the “holiest days in the Jewish year”.  You would think therefore that their observance must be very ancient, but if we turn to Tanach, the Jewish scriptures, we find something very strange.  Yom Kippur is mentioned in several places, but there is no mention of Rosh HaShanah, or for that matter, the month of Tishrei either.  Instead what we find is an injunction to observe a “day of remembrance”, or then again a “day of blowing the shofar”, on “the first day of the seventh month”.

That the day which Tanach calls “the first day of the seventh month” is identical with the day that eventually came to be known as the first of Tishrei is shown by the fact that Tanach goes on to call for the observance of Yom Kippur on “the tenth day of the seventh month” and the start of Succot on “the fifteenth day of the seventh month”.  In the current Jewish calendar, Succot begins on the fifteenth of Tishrei .  But it is hard to see how “the first day of the seventh month” could have been considered New Year’s Day, nor is there the slightest hint in the passages in Tanach enjoining the observance of this day as a holiday that it was ever so considered.  Moreover there is also no mention of this day as a day of judgment or as the day on which God created the world.

The sum total of what Tanach has to say on the subject of the observance of “the first day of the seventh month” as a holiday is contained in two passages, one from Leviticus and one from Numbers.  In Chapter 23, Verse 24 of Leviticus we read:


In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation.  Ye shall do no manner of servile work; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD.


And in Chapter 29, Verse 1 of Numbers begins the following passage:


And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day of blowing the horn unto you.  And ye shall prepare a burnt-offering for a sweet savour unto the LORD: one young bullock, one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year without blemish; and their meal offering, fine flour mingled with oil, three tenth parts for the bullock, two tenth parts for the ram, and one tenth part for every lamb of the seven lambs; and one he-goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you; beside the burnt-offering of the new moon, and the meal offering thereof, and their drink-offerings, according unto their ordinance, for a sweet savour, an offering made by fire unto the LORD.


What is called here “the horn”, meaning the shofar, is still blown on Rosh HaShanah, but otherwise there doesn’t seem to be much resemblance between Rosh HaShanah as it exists today and the holiday which Tanach enjoins for “the first day of the seventh month”.

Just what was the original purpose of the holiday which eventually came to be known as Rosh HaShanah?  A possible clue to its original meaning is contained in the fact that it is only mentioned in Leviticus and Numbers.  The three “pilgrimage festivals” of Pesach, Shvuot and Succot are described in Exodus and Deuteronomy as well as Leviticus and Numbers.  Biblical scholars are generally agreed that various parts of the Torah were written at different times by different people, conventionally designated by the code letters J, E, P and D, and then stitched together by a later editor known as R.  In Who Wrote The Bible?, Richard Elliott Friedman provides an Appendix listing precisely who in his opinion wrote the different parts of the Torah.  He assigns Chapter 23 of Leviticus to P, Chapter 29 of Numbers to R.

The bulk of Friedman’s book is devoted to an exploration of the identity of J, E, P, D and R.  Friedman argues persuasively that P was an Aaronid priest living in Jerusalem in the time of king Hezekiah, who ruled Judah from around 715 to 687 BCE.  According to Friedman, R was probably Ezra, also an Aaronid priest, who lived in the 5th century BCE.  And since the holiday that eventually became Rosh HaShanah is not mentioned in anything written by J or E, who lived before P, it seems very likely that it was actually instituted by P, or by someone close to him,  and then reaffirmed by R, who shared the same outlook as P, the outlook of the Aaronid priesthood.

There are two aspects of that outlook as it existed in the time of P that may be relevant to understanding the origins of the holiday that eventually came to be known as Rosh HaShanah.  One is the assertion that the priests who claimed descent from the family of Aaron had a much higher status than any other priests or Levites.  The other is the doctrine that all acts of worship that involved animal sacrifice should be conducted by the Aaronid priesthood in the temple in Jerusalem and in no other place.  And since animal sacrifice was clearly a major part of the festivities ordained in Leviticus and Numbers for “the first day of the seventh month”, creating this holiday must have had the effect of further bolstering the status and importance of the Aaronid priesthood in Jewish religious life.

That not everyone was happy with this innovation is shown by the absence of this holiday from Deuteronomy.  Deuteronomy was written (by D of course) perhaps 100 years after the time of P.  Friedman shows in great detail that D was familiar with P’s work but disliked his point of view and wrote Deuteronomy as a kind of alternative to it.  But R, the editor who put it all together, had the last word, and he not only retained the holiday but added a long list of exactly how many bullocks, rams, lambs and goats were to be sacrificed on that day.  We can safely conclude from these indications that the festival of “the first day of the seventh month” had become a standard part of the Jewish religious calendar by the Second Temple period, but the precise meaning of this holiday in its original context still remains far from clear.

In the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period there are two passages which do shed some light on the way this holiday was celebrated.  One is from the essay, A Treatise To Show That The Festivals Are Ten in Number, by Philo of Alexandria.  The other is from Jewish Antiquities by Josephus.  Both of these references date from the 1st century CE.

Philo calls this holiday “the festival of the sacred moon”, or again “the true feast of trumpets”, and lists it as the eighth of his ten festivals, to be followed by Yom Kippur and Succot.  According to Philo, the important part of this holiday is the blowing of the shofar (“trumpet”), which he explicates at some length as follows:


     Immediately after comes the festival of the sacred moon; in which it is the custom to play the trumpet in the temple at the same moment that the sacrifices are offered. From which practice this is called the true feast of trumpets, and there are two reasons for it, one peculiar to the nation, and the other common to all mankind. Peculiar to the nation, as being a commemoration of that most marvellous, wonderful, and miraculous event that took place when the holy oracles of the law were given; for then the voice of a trumpet sounded from heaven, which it is natural to suppose reached to the very extremities of the universe, so that so wondrous a sound attracted all who were present, making them consider, as it is probable, that such mighty events were signs betokening some great things to be accomplished. And what more great or more beneficial thing could come to men than laws affecting the whole race?

     And what was common to all mankind was this: the trumpet is the instrument of war, sounding both when commanding the charge and the retreat…

     There is also another kind of war, ordained of God, when nature is at variance with itself, its different parts attacking one another. And by both these kinds of war the things on earth are injured. They are injured by the enemies, by the cutting down of trees, and by conflagrations; and also by natural injuries, such as droughts, heavy rains, lightning from heaven, snow and cold; the usual harmony of the seasons of the year being transformed into a want of all concord.

     On this account it is that the law has given this festival the name of a warlike instrument, in order to show the proper gratitude to God as the giver of peace, who has abolished all seditions in cities, and in all parts of the universe, and has produced plenty and prosperity, not allowing a single spark that could tend to the destruction of the crops to be kindled into flame.


It is hard to tell how much of all this reflected Jewish tradition and how much Philo’s own concern with presenting that tradition in a form that would appear attractive to a non-Jewish Greek audience.  One thing is for sure: if Philo had regarded this festival as the start of a new year, he would have said so.

Josephus refers to this festival in Chapter 10 of Jewish Antiquities in the context of an exposition entitled, “Concerning the festivals; and how each day of such festival is to be observed.”  He begins his exposition as follows:


The law requires that out of the public expense a lamb of the first year be killed every day at the beginning and at the ending of the day, but on the seventh day, which is called the Sabbath, they kill two, and sacrifice them in the same manner.  At the new moon, they both perform the daily sacrifices, and slay two bulls, with seven lambs of the first year, and a kid of the goats also, for the atonement of sins, that is, if they have sinned through ignorance.


Immediately following this description of the daily, weekly and monthly sacrifices required by Jewish law, Josephus goes on to say:


But on the seventh month, which the Macedonians call Hyperberetaeus, they make an addition to those already mentioned, and sacrifice a bull, a ram, and seven lambs, and a kid of the goats, for sins.


That Josephus had the first day of the seventh month in mind when he wrote this is shown by the fact that he then went on to describe the sacrifices required “on the tenth day of the same lunar month”, which he identified as a fast day.  Moreover, the list of the additional sacrifices which Josephus says were required “on the seventh month” is identical to the list of the sacrifices required for “the first day” of  “the seventh month” in Numbers.

For Josephus, it would seem that the holiday that eventually became Rosh HaShanah was just an augmented version of the monthly festival of the new moon.  This same perception could also be attributed to Philo who called it “the festival of the sacred moon”.  But why did Philo call the moon “sacred”?  Worship of the sun, moon and planets was a pagan practice which was forbidden to Jews, as Philo well knew.  There was only one thing that was sacred about the moon in Jewish tradition, and that is that it was the basis of the Jewish lunar calendar.  Somewhere in the history of this calendar is contained the key to the secret of Rosh HaShanah.


 The Jewish Calendar


As many scholars have already pointed out, the Jewish lunar calendar in use today was not the original Jewish lunar calendar.  This is shown by the fact that apart from the Book of Esther, which probably dates from the 1st century BCE, the current names of the months are nowhere mentioned in Tanach, while other, different names for four of the months do appear.  As it so happens, among the months which are mentioned by name in Tanach is the seventh month, which is identified as follows in Chapter 8, Verse 2 of the First Book of Kings:


And all the men of Israel assembled themselves unto king Solomon at the feast, in the month Ethanim, which is the seventh month.

The feast in question was Succot.  The name “Ethanim” is derived from the Hebrew word “eitan”, which means steadfast.

The first, second and eighth months are also identified by name in Tanach.  The first month is repeatedly called “Aviv”, meaning spring, and in Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus, instructions on how to celebrate Pesach in this month are preceded, in Verse 2,  by the following statement: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.”  But apart from the fact that it utilized different names for the months and began in the spring rather than the fall, the original Jewish calendar probably did not differ greatly from the later one.  All lunar calendars are much the same in that the month begins with the new moon and ends 29 or 30 days later with the temporary disappearance of the moon.

Why and when did the names change?  Almost everyone who has written on this subject has assumed that it was as a result of the Babylonian captivity.  This assumption seems justified by the fact that the new names, with the possible exception of Heshvan, were all of Babylonian derivation.  Tishrei comes from the Babylonian month name Tashritu and occupies the same place in the sequence of the months as Tashritu.  The Jews who were exiled to Babylon in the early 6th century BCE presumably began using the Babylonian month names during their captivity, and when some returned to the land of Israel after the overthrow of the Babylonian empire they continued using the month names which had become familiar to them.

There is one difficulty with this theory and that is that the new month names do not appear in the Book of Ezekiel, which was written during the Babylonian captivity, nor do they appear in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which were written at least 50 years or more after the return to the land of Israel.  Nor is there any evidence of their use in any Jewish text prior to the First and Second Books of Maccabees, which date from perhaps 100 BCE.  There can be no doubt that the new names did reflect Babylonian influence, but this influence was not necessarily confined to the Babylonian captivity.  There was another area in which the Babylonians had an enduring influence on the Jewish calendar, and this was in the computation of the sequence of lunar years.

All lunar calendars must deal with two difficulties.  In the first place, due to cloud cover and other factors, it is not always clear when the old month ends and the new month begins.  And in the second place, the solar year of 365 days does not contain a round number of lunar months.  Twelve lunar months add up to approximately 354 days, which is too short, and thirteen lunar months add up to approximately 384 days, which is too long.  So if you want the sequence of the lunar months to approximate the sequence of the seasons of the year, you must find a way of periodically changing the number of lunar months in the year.  The most common method, adopted independently in different parts of the world, is to follow a calendar of twelve lunar months but add a thirteenth month to the year whenever the sequence of months seems to be drifting too far out of line with the sequence of the seasons.

Because of these two difficulties, lunar calendars more or less automatically require that there be some person or group in the society that follows such a calendar that is empowered to decide precisely when the new month begins and when it is necessary to intercalate an extra month.  And in most if not all of the societies that traditionally followed a lunar calendar, that person or group was associated with the performance of religious ceremonies.  There are many reasons for this, the most obvious being that one of the main functions of all calendars, whether lunar or solar, is to schedule such ceremonies.  So although direct evidence is lacking, no one doubts that in the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel, it was the priests who decided when the lunar month began and when to intercalate an extra month.

The question is: which priests?  No one really knows, but it is likely that there was a certain degree of competition in this area as there was in many other areas of priestly authority.  In any case, it seems clear that one of the effects of the proclamation of a new holiday on “the first day of the seventh month” by P and R was to enhance the authority of the Aaronid priesthood over the calendar.  It does not appear plausible that the Aaronid priesthood should have been expected to preside over elaborate ceremonies in the Temple on the first day of this particular month yet did not have the authority to determine just when that first day began.  Unlike holidays scheduled for later in the month, here the determination of the start of a new month and the performance of the ritual had to be virtually simultaneous.  Most likely the Aaronid priesthood already claimed authority over determining the time for the ceremonies ordained for the start of every new month, but by placing a special emphasis on celebrating this particular new month, P and R acted to reaffirm and strengthen that authority.

If it is true, as Friedman argues and many others have suggested, that R was Ezra, then additional evidence of R’s attachmernt to “the first day of the seventh month” may be found in the Book of Nehemiah.  Chapter 8 begins as follows:


And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in their cities, all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the broad place that was before the water gate; and they spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel.  And Ezra the priest brought the Law before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.


After reading from the Law all day long, Ezra concluded, in Verse 10, with the following remarks:


Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.


Both priest and scribe, the probable author of the Torah in its standard form, Ezra was singularly well placed to establish “the first day of the seventh month” as a day of celebration of priestly authority, and it seems that this was the core meaning of this holiday throughout the Second Temple period.

But during this same period, an alternative source of authority over the Jewish calendar was developing in an unlikely place.  That place was Babylon.  Like the Jews, the Babylonians followed a lunar calendar of twelve months with a thirteenth month intercalated every few years; but unlike the Jews, the Babylonians were not content to decide when to intercalate based on the degree to which the progression of the months had fallen out of line with the progression of the seasons.  They wanted a more reliable method, and they found it.  Starting in the 5th century BCE, the Babylonians ceased to intercalate based on the direct observation of the seasons and instead adopted a fixed calendar based on a cycle of nineteen years during which they intercalated seven times at predetermined intervals.  This cycle came to be known as the Metonic cycle, after the name of the Greek astronomer Meton, but it was originally discovered in Babylon.  After the Greek conquest of Babylon in the 4th century BCE, the Babylonian astronomical tables were translated into Greek, and the so-called Metonic cycle eventually became standard throughout the Greek-speaking world.

The very first Greeks, or more precisely Macedonians, to adopt this cycle were the Seleucids, who gained control of the greater part of the territory of the former Babylonian empire, including Babylon itself, following the death of Alexander of Macedon.  They established a lunar calendar utilizing the Metonic cycle in which the years were counted starting with 311 BCE, the date of the triumphant entry of Seleucus Nicator, the founder of the dynasty, into Babylon.  As for the months, among themselves the Seleucids and their friends continued to use the month names of the Macedonian lunar calendar, which began in the fall.  But throughout their empire the Macedonians and Greeks were thin on the ground, and so the Seleucids adopted the Babylonian month names for all official purposes and continued the Babylonian system of starting the year in the spring.  And around 200 BCE a Seleucid army wrested control of the land of Israel from the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt and added it to their empire.

Over the course of the next 100 years, there evolved two factions in Jewish life, both of which were hostile to Seleucid rule but not necessarily to the Seleucid calendar.  One was the faction of the Maccabees, the other the faction of the Pharisees.  In the face of the efforts of the Seleucid ruler Antioches Epiphanes to forcibly Hellenize the Jews, the Maccabees and Pharisees united to overthrow Seleucid rule, but once the Maccabees claimed the office of High Priest in 140 BCE, their paths increasingly diverged.  For the Maccabees the supreme value was national independence, but for the Pharisees it was strict observance of the laws of the Torah.  The Maccabees came from a priestly family, the Hasmoneans, but they were not Aaronids and their claim to the position of High Priest was therefore considered suspect.  When the Maccabean High Priests also began to claim the title of king starting around 100 BCE, relations between the Maccabees and the Pharisees degenerated to the point of open hostility.

Eventually the Pharisees came to be known as rabbis, and after the devastation of the land of Israel by the Romans in the so-called “Jewish Wars”, it was the rabbis who took responsibility for the perpetuation of Jewish culture and tradition.  Among the duties which they assumed was the management of the calendar, which was entrusted to a rabbinical council called the Sanhedrin.  But around the middle of the 4th century CE, in the face of Byzantine interference with the meetings of the Sanhedrin, the head of the Sanhedrin, Hillel II, decided to make public the system which the Sanhedrin used to manage the calendar so that henceforth Jews everywhere would be able to intercalate on their own.  For this reason Hillel II is remembered in rabbinical tradition as the man who revealed the “sod haIbbur”, the “secret of intercalation”.


                                               The Secret of Intercalation


The system which Hillel revealed was identical to that of the Seleucid calendar in most respects.  It used the same Babylonian month names and followed the same Metonic cycle, intercalating seven times every nineteen years.  However, it differed on two points.  It began the calendar year in the fall rather than in the spring, and it counted the years from the purported date of the creation of the universe rather than from the date of the entry of Seleucus Nicator into Babylon.  This modified version of the Seleucid calendar is the calendar still in use by Jews everywhere today.

Just when did the Sanhedrin adopt the Metonic cycle for the purpose of intercalating an extra month every two or three years?  No one really knows the answer to this question, for the “secret of intercalation” was, after all, a secret.  It was kept a secret in order to perpetuate the traditional method of intercalation based on the observed relationship between the sequence of the months and the sequence of the seasons.  Calculations would be made on the basis of the traditional method, and then they would be checked for accuracy against the secret system.  This system could have been adopted at any point during the span of over 500 years between the Seleucid conquest of the land of Israel and the publication of the secret system by Hillel II.  Whatever the precise date of its adoption, there are indications that already by the 1st century BCE, the calendar had become a subject of controversy between the Maccabees and the forerunners of the rabbis, the Pharisees.

Control of the calendar had traditionally been in the hands of the Aaronid priests, but at some point following the Greek conquest of the land of Israel, it was vested in the hands of the Sanhedrin.  The word, “Sanhedrin”, is derived from the Greek word “synedrion”, meaning “sitting together”.  The fact that this institution had a Greek name strongly suggests that it was formed under Greek influence, but whether during the Ptolemaic or Seleucid periods is not known.  In any case, its formation had the effect of weakening priestly control over the calendar.  It was supposed to be composed of seventy “elders of Israel” and seems to have had both legislative and judicial functions.  The Pharisees were not initially considered eligible for membership, but following the death in 76 BCE of Alexander Yannai, a Maccabean king who was bitterly hostile to the Pharisees, his widow, Salome Alexandra, permitted them to join.  This gave them, for the first time, a voice in the management of the calendar.

By this time, use of the Babylonian month names in Jewish literature was becoming widespread, but there was one group that resisted this trend.  This was the sect that composed most of the Dead Sea scrolls.  One of the least noticed yet most significant features of the texts written by this sect is that with one possible exception they all used the traditional system of identifying the months by number rather than using the Babylonian month names.  We are talking about a large number of scrolls here, for the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls were obsessed with the subject of the calendar.  They seem to have been inspired by a pseudepigraphal work called the Book of Jubilees, which is thought to date from the late 2nd century BCE.  The author of the Book of Jubilees condemned the lunar calendar as inaccurate and called for the adoption of a solar calendar based on a solar year of 364 days.  The sect that wrote the Dead Sea scrolls adopted this calendar, adherence to which was its most distinctive feature.

When the Dead Sea scrolls were first discovered, most scholars thought they were composed by the Essenes, but in recent years, as more scrolls have been published, this view has come into question.  Some of the scrolls contain scathing attacks on the Pharisees and appear to date from the period immediately following the death of Alexander Yannai in 76 BCE, the period in which the Pharisees were allowed to join the Sanhedrin by Salome Alexandra.  It now appears that the scrolls were the work of a Maccabean splinter group, one which was headed by priests and hostile to the alliance which Salome Alexandra had formed with the Pharisees.  Resentment over the loss of priestly control of the calendar seems to have led the members of this group to adopt the 364 day solar calendar of the Book of Jubilees despite the fact that if used for any great length of time this calendar would have drifted out of line with the actual solar year of 365 and a quarter days and proved completely unworkable.

A revealing detail in this context is that the only book contained in Tanach that was not also found among the Dead Sea scrolls is the Book of Esther.  This book, on which the festival of Purim is based, purports to describe events in Persia of the 5th century BCE, but many commentators have already noted its fictional quality.  It seems very likely that the Book of Esther is in fact a political satire, probably written by a Pharisee author, in which Ahasuerus stands for Alexander Yannai and Esther for Salome Alexandra.  The clearest proof of this is that in Maccabean times there was a Jewish festival called Nicanor Day which celebrated the defeat of Nicanor, a Seleucid general who had vowed to kill all the Jews but was instead killed and beheaded by the forces of Judah the Maccabee.  It was celebrated on the 13th of Adar, one day before Purim is now celebrated, and on the same day as the Fast of Esther is now held.  Haman in the Purim story obviously stands for Nicanor, but instead of attributing his death to Maccabean prowess, it is attributed to the courage of Queen Esther and the sagacity of her guardian Mordechai.

Both the Book of Esther and also the First and Second Books of Maccabees use the same system for specifying dates, identifying them both by number and by name.  The numbers are the traditional ones, starting in the spring, and the names are the Babylonian ones.  Putting all these indications together, a plausible hypothesis would be that the Jews adopted the Seleucid calendar very soon after the Seleucid conquest of the land of Israel around 200 BCE.  Since the Seleucid version of the Babylonian calendar also began in the spring, the sequence of the Babylonian month names was identical to the traditional sequence of the numbered months of the Jewish calendar.  The names changed, but the numbers remained the same.  Those who disliked the names, such as the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls, could use only the numbers and still be understood.  But is it likely that the Jews adopted the Seleucid calendar for all practical purposes yet remained in ignorance of the Metonic cycle?  And since it was the rabbis who eventually revealed the “secret of intercalation”, an additional plausible hypothesis would be that it was their secret all along.

Meanwhile, what of the holiday enjoined for “the first day of the seventh month”?  In addition to the passages already cited from Philo and Josephus, there appears to be only one other passage in the whole of the Jewish literature of the Second Temple period that refers to this holiday in any detail.  It comes from a pseudepigraphal work commonly known as “Pseudo-Philo”.  It was originally entitled “Biblical Antiquities” and is a history of the Jewish people from Adam to David supposedly written by Philo of Alexandria.  At one point Pseudo-Philo has God list the holidays which Israel is expected to observe, and God says:


Now the feast of trumpets will be an offering for your watchers.  In as much as I watched over creation, may you also be mindful of all the earth.  At the beginning of those days, when you present yourselves, I will declare the number of those who are to die and who are to be born.


Although there is still no explicit reference to a New Year, this passage introduces themes which had not previously appeared in Jewish literature relating to this holiday and which are now integral parts of the culture of Rosh HaShanah.  In particular there is the reference to “creation” and also the assertion that “the beginning of those days”, presumably the first of the ten days leading up to Yom Kippur, is a day of judgment.  Unfortunately, scholars have not been able to assign a precise date to Pseudo-Philo, but it is generally thought to have been written late in the Second Temple Period, perhaps not long before the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

But who were “your watchers”?  According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, in ancient days there were 24 watches of priests who served in rotation for one week each in the Temple making observations in connection with the regulation of the calendar.  It’s far from clear if this practice was still continued in the 1st century CE, but it seems reasonable to assume that the “watchers” whom Pseudo-Philo had in mind were in some way connected with the functioning of the calendar.  This would imply that “the feast of trumpets” had some kind of special significance in relation to the calendar so far as Pseudo-Philo was concerned.  In short, Pseudo-Philo seems to have been inching towards a new conception of the holiday, one much more similar to the Rosh HaShanah of today than any previous conception.  However, it was not until the beginning of the 3rd century CE that this new conception emerged full blown from what is probably the most authoritative single statement of the rabbinic point of view, the Mishnah.

The Mishnah devotes a whole tractate to the subject of the calendar.  The tractate is called “Rosh HaShanah” and marks the first appearance of this term in Jewish literature as a name for the first of Tishrei.  It begins as follows:


There are four New Year days, viz.: The first of Nissan is New Year for (the ascension of) Kings and for (the regular rotation of) festivals; the first of Elul is New Year for the cattle-tithe, but according to R. Eliezer and R. Simeon, it is on the first of Tishri.  The first of Tishri is New Year’s day, for ordinary years, and for sabbatic years and jubilees; and also for the planting of trees  and for herbs.  On the first day of Shebhat is the New Year for trees, according to the school of Shammai; but the school of Hillel says it is on the fifteenth of the same month.


The rest of the tractate is devoted to a lengthy discussion of the alleged scriptural basis for each of the four “New Year days” and an exposition of various rabbinic opinions as to their observance and meaning.  However, whenever the Mishnah says “Rosh HaShanah” without any further elaboration, it is always the first of Tishrei which it has in mind.

All of the characteristic themes that came to be associated with Rosh HaShanah in Jewish tradition are clearly elaborated in the Mishnah.  The first of Tishrei is the day on which God created the universe, and it is the day on which God judges the universe.  Those judged have ten days in which to modify the verdict, and then the judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur.  The Mishnah puts it this way:


R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Johanan: Three books are opened on New Year’s Day: 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 are held in the balance from New Year’s Day till the Day of Atonement; if they prove themselves worthy they are inscribed for life, if not they are inscribed for destruction.


This theme was already present in Pseudo-Philo, as was the reference to creation, but the Mishnah was the first Jewish document of any kind to link these themes to the start of a new year.  By presenting this innovation within the context of a lengthy discussion of no less than four “New Year days”, it created the impression that it was merely elucidating a well established tradition, when in fact it was actually replacing the first of Nisan with the first of Tishrei as the start of the Jewish year.  Most Jews today are not even aware that the Jewish calendar originally began in the spring, nor is the doctrine of the “four New Year days” of much interest to anyone except rabbis and scholars.  There is every reason to believe that this doctrine was the creation of the Mishnah and that its original intent was to obfuscate the novelty of describing the first of Tishrei as “Rosh HaShanah”.

Why did the rabbis who wrote the Mishnah adopt the first of Tishrei as Rosh HaShanah at this particular point in time?  The Mishnah dates from the early 3rd century CE, a time when the prestige of the rabbinical Sanhedrin was at its height.  About 50 years earlier there had appeared a work known as the Seder Olam Rabbah which clearly had a strong influence on the authors of the Mishnah.  It is thought to have been written by rabbi Jose ben Halafta, a student of rabbi Akiba and the teacher of rabbi Judah haNasi, the head of the Sanhedrin at the time of the composition of the Mishnah.  The goal of the Seder Olam Rabbah was to establish a complete chronology of Jewish history starting with the creation of Adam and continuing up to the time of the Bar Kochba revolt in the 2nd century CE.  It was this work that provided the basis for the system still in use in the Jewish calendar according to which the years are numbered starting with the alleged date of creation less than 6000 years ago.  The Mishnah based itself on this system, merely adding that the actual day of creation was Rosh HaShanah.

In so doing, the Mishnah helped to create a rival to the Seleucid system of counting the years from the date of the triumphant entry of Seleucus Nicator into Babylon.  This system was still in use in a large part of the Middle East at the time of the composition of the Mishnah, including by many Jews.  The Seder Olam Rabbah had invented an alternate method of counting the years, but there is nothing like a holiday to turn an opinion into a custom.  And since the first of Tishrei was already an established holiday, treating it as Rosh HaShanah could easily be presented as merely making explicit a tradition which had been there all along.  This was all the more attractive an option in that the Aaronid priesthood, which had been the driving force behind the establishment of the first of Tishrei as a holiday to begin with, had lost most of its prestige and authority as a result of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans.  Proclamation of the first of Tishrei as Rosh HaShanah had the effect of reaffirming the replacement of the priests by the rabbis as the chief arbiters of Jewish law and hence of the Jewish calendar.

It also enabled the rabbis to separate themselves from the Seleucid calendar on which their own authority over the Jewish calendar had hitherto been based.  Although direct evidence is lacking, it would appear that subservience to the Seleucid calendar was one of the accusations which were directed against the Pharisees by the Maccabean sect that wrote the Dead Sea scrolls.  It was probably rabbinical sensitivity on this point which led the Sanhedrin to keep secret its use of the Metonic cycle for purposes of intercalation for such a long time.  Now, by counting the years from the date of creation, the rabbis were also setting up God as a rival to Seleucus Nicator, and by implication, to all earthly kings.  Proclaiming the first of Tishrei as Rosh HaShanah was the perfect vehicle for this approach, for had not Philo of Alexandria declared that the first of Tishrei was the time “to show the proper gratitude to God as the giver of peace, who has abolished all seditions in cities, and in all parts of the universe, and has produced plenty and prosperity, not allowing a single spark that could tend to the destruction of the crops to be kindled into flame.”  Could Seleucus Nicator have done better?  And since there was no longer a Temple in which to sacrifice bullocks, rams, lambs and goats, injecting a new meaning into an old holiday could legitimately be seen as a way of preserving it as well.

Indeed, it could even be argued that the festive meal which inaugurates Rosh HaShanah today is a modern way of following Ezra’s advice to “eat the fat and drink the sweet” on the first of Tishrei.  But what does appear to be a rabbinical innovation is the theme of Rosh HaShanah as a day of judgment.  This theme predates the Mishnah, as shown by its presence in Pseudo-Philo, but it does not seem to have been a feature of the original conception of the first of Tishrei.  No doubt it reflects the enhanced sense of fragility which found its way into Jewish culture following the destruction of the Temple and the atrocities committed by the Romans.  This sense of fragility persists today, for the threats to Jewish continuity and survival have not abated.  Whether there is a God who judges the Jewish people is open to question, but that we are constantly being judged no one can deny.

Robert Wolfe.

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