Rosh Hashanah, translating to "head of the year" or "first of the year," is commonly known as the Jewish New Year, occurring on the first and second days of Tishri. Commencing Yamim Nora’im (the High Holidays), this is a day dedicated to prayer, to joyous proclamations of God’s sovereignty as the King of the Universe, to festive gatherings of friends and family for meals, and to coming closer to God. It is a day of asking the Lord for a sweet new year filled with peace, blessings, mercy, and prosperity.
Similar to the secular new year, this is a time when many Jewish people will focus on making resolutions to do better in the upcoming year, whether that be making amends with fellow men, with God, or seeking to be more observant of the Torah or diligent in study. Much reflection, introspection, and reconciliation unfold during the subsequent Days of Awe in anticipation of the final judgment on Yom Kippur, when one desires their name to be written into the Book of Life.
With a basis in Leviticus 16:24 and Leviticus 23:24–25 (though the term Rosh Hashanah is never explicitly found in scripture; the Bible at best refers to the holiday as Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the Day of Remembrance, though sacred occasions corresponding to the date on the Jewish calendar are found), the holiday has become a time of renewing our relationship with God, praying to God for a sweet new year, celebrating His sovereignty as King of the Universe, and blasting the shofar as part of that celebration as well as a call to repentance…for the day of the Lord is near. The Day of Remembrance terminology reflects God’s remembrance of His creation and the mercy He wishes to extend to all who may confess, repent, and turn from their carnal ways, inscribing His ways on their hearts.
Another name for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hadin, a rabbinic name that means "the day of judgment." The best explanation found for this is that because the Bible specifies blowing the trumpet but does not give a reason for the blowing of the trumpet, the rabbis felt a need to come up with a reason for the blowing of the trumpet. The Talmud expands on the ten reasons the rabbis came up with to justify the need for shofar blowing.
Very few Jewish people refer to Rosh Hashanah by the name "Fest of Trumpets” though that name is found in some circles and literature.
Rosh Hashanah observance was likely integrated into Jewish life by the sixth century, and the term "Rosh Hashanah" is derived from the Mishna. According to the prayerbook, each year on Rosh Hashanah, "all inhabitants of the world pass before God like a flock of sheep," as God reminds His people about the Book of Life and their impending judgment, as He determines "who shall live and who shall die... who shall be impoverished and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise."
The Hebrew calendar begins with Nisan, so sometimes people are confused by Rosh Hashanah being the "head of the year" when it is celebrated in Tishri. This is because Tishri is when Jewish tradition states that God created the Heavens and the earth, and thus the beginning of time on which the calendar is based, in contrast to the Gregorian calendar and secular new year, or a new year beginning in the springtime. Judaism recognizes both a religious and a civil new year. Rosh Hashanah would be the civil new year celebrated by Jews, despite God’s calendar as stated in Exodus 12:2. Some scholars believe that the celebration of Rosh Hashanah in Tishri was more fitting to the agricultural cycles of Israel, whereas celebrating the new year in Nissan in the spring was less favored due to associations with cultic or pagan traditions emerging from ancient Babylon.
Study of the Mishnah reveals four heads of the year, though Rosh Hashanah happens to be the most famous and well-known. The others include 1 Nissan (commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and having implications in calculating the duration that different kings reigned), 15 Shevat (the new year for trees), Elul 1 (implications in the tithing of animals for charity and for sacrifice, and is currently the undercurrent of the modern fiscal year concept), and 19 Kislev (the new year for Chassidism, only celebrated in certain Jewish circles). Rosh Hashanah is the new year by which sabbatical and jubilee years are believed to be calculated.
Other relevant verses to consider in studying this concept include Genesis 21, Genesis 22, Exodus 12:2, Numbers 29:1-6, Numbers 10:2–6, Numbers 10:9–10, 1 Samuel 1:1–2:10, Joel 2:1-2, Zephaniah 1:14–18, Psalm 81:3–4, Ezra 3:1–6, Nehemiah 8:1–12, Matthew 24:31, 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18, 1 Corinthians 15:50–58, Revelation 8:7-8, Psalms 24, 33, 47, and 118:5-9, Jeremiah 31:2–20, Isaiah 11:9, 1 and Rosh Hashanah 16b in the Talmud.
Rosh Hashanah Observance
No work is permitted on Rosh Hashanah; Jewish people will flock to the synagogue for services, which include the regular liturgy plus some special liturgy added from a special prayerbook called the Machzor, which is not used for the remainder of the year. The Machzor will contain all the Torah readings plus the special Rosh Hashanah prayers needed for the duration of the holiday. Morning services may last longer than usual, with the reading of the Torah on both mornings of Rosh Hashanah, whereas the evening services are pretty much the same length as any other holiday.
Traditionally, the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah focuses on Isaac’s birth and the stories of Hagar and Ishmael, and the haftarah section focuses on the birth of Samuel. This is because both births took place on Rosh Hashanah according to the rabbis. On the second morning of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah portion focuses on Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the haftarah reading focuses on God’s love for His children.
The Amidah prayer during Rosh Hashanah services includes piyyutim, which is a prayer written in a more poetic form expressing the congregation’s yearning for a sweet and prosperous new year ahead, and in some cases, but not all, the Ark may be opened at this time.
Due to the fact there are three additional blessings inserted into the middle of the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah that are not there the rest of the year, the Musaf prayer on Rosh Hashanah takes longer than usual. One focuses on God’s glorious sovereignty as King of the Universe; one focuses on the wish that He have a favorable impression on us and our good works such that we may be inscribed into the Book of Life; and the final blessing is over the shofar. Each blessing is elaborated on with various relevant scriptures, and the shofars sound after each individual blessing is read.
Shofars or the ram’s horn, an ancient instrument blown during temple worship and during such battles (e.g., the Battle of Jericho, Joshua 6), are symbolic of a ram taking Isaac’s place in an offering to God that occurred on Rosh Hashanah and symbolic today of our obedience to God’s commandments. Rabbi Saddia Gaon commented in ancient writings that the sound of the shofar is to stir excitement within us, remind us of the glorious Kingship of God, and awaken those souls who have grown complacent in their spiritual journeys, for the God of Israel never slumbers or sleeps.
The 100+ note sounding of the shofar is the highlight of the Rosh Hashanah service, with the exception that if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, then the shofar blowing ceremony may occur the following day. There is no specific Biblical reason provided for why the shofar blowing ceremony is included in Rosh Hashanah, though many believe it is a call to repentance, symbolic of the final trumpet sounded before the return of the Messiah.
After the morning Torah readings, the shofar will blast 30 times, and then there will be another 70+ shofar blasts during and after the Musaf service. Some congregations may blow the shofar another 30+ times after services. There are four different types of notes that a shofar can blast: tekiah (a 3-second sustained note, symbolic of joy and contentment); shevarim (three 1-second notes, each of increasing volume, symbolic of weeping); teruah (at least nine staccato notes lasting over approximately 3 seconds, symbolic of sorrow or crying); and tekiah gedolah ("big tekiah" or a final trumpet blast that may last upwards of 10-15 seconds, symbolic of hope of redemption).
Because of the association of the shofar blowing ceremony with Rosh Hashanah, the occasion has also come to be known as Yom Teruah, or the day of the sounding of the shofar.
There are some other traditions that are common in Rosh Hashanah services, though none of which are directly derived from scriptural teachings.
One is the tradition of eating apples (or sometimes bread, but more commonly apples) dipped in honey, symbolizing our prayer to God to grant us a sweet new year. Some ancient Jews believed apples may have had some healing properties. One generally says the ha’eitz blessing prior to consuming the apples and honey and follows it up with, "May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year." Other sweets may be served as well, based on the concept of having a sweet new year.
A second common tradition is Tashlikh, where one casts bread crumbs from one’s pocket into a body of flowing water, such as a local stream, pond, ocean, or river. Unless the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, then Tashlikh will often occur the following day. This is based on the writings of the Prophet Micah, "And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea,"(Micah 7:18-20) and followed by a special prayer is included in the Machzor. As the bread crumbs are carried away by the natural current of the water, it is symbolic of our sins being taken away and blotted out when the mercy of God’s forgiveness flows from Heaven and is bestowed upon us.
As Christians, we can use the Tashlikh ceremony as a reminder that our sins have been fully atoned for and removed from our records by the Blood of the Lamb as we confess our sins, and through faith and Yeshua’s death on the Cross, He atones on our behalf. It doesn’t matter how much one has sinned or deviated from God in their lives. We can at any time choose to correct our course, and He is faithful to respond to that change in course and wash our records from sin if we genuinely seek His face and His ways, accepting Yeshua as our Messiah and atonement.
Third, another common tradition involves women or younger girls lighting candles on each evening of Rosh Hashanah, praying, and reciting the Shehechiyanu blessing. Regardless of which traditions may or may not be included in a particular congregation, it is customary to greet one another with L'shanah tovah ("for a good year"), which is a condensed version of "L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem" (or "L'shanah tovah tikatevi v'taihatemi" if directed to a woman), which translates to "may you be inscribed and sealed for a good year."
Challah bread is often served on Rosh Hashanah as well, formed into a round load, symbolic of the changing of the seasons and cycles of our lives. Sometimes raisins will be added to the challah bread to add some sweetness in light of the theme of sweetness in Rosh Hashanah. Like other Jewish holidays, it is customary on Rosh Hashanah to recite kiddush over the wine and bless the bread, though the challah bread may be dipped into honey instead of salt for this particular occasion, symbolic of the desire for a sweet year ahead. Honey instead of salt on the challah bread may also be implemented on Shabbat Shuvah (the Shabbat immediately preceding Yom Kippur), the final meal before the Yom Kippur fast, and during Sukkot.
Others may choose to eat the head of a fish or ram, based on the desire that "we be a head and not a tail," or pomegranates, based on the desire that "our merits be many like the [seeds of the] pomegranate." Tzimmes or merren, a dish based on carrots and sweet potatoes, may also be prepared for Rosh Hashanah festivities. It is customary to avoid eating nuts, vinegar-based foods, or such foods as horseradish, as one desires a sweet year ahead, not a bitter year ahead. Kiddush is still recited before the Rosh Hashanah meal, as are the traditional blessings spoken on behalf of the bread and wine.
These themes and messages are manifested in the traditional holiday prayers, songs, and liturgy, Avinu Malkeinu. Ha-hem Melekh, and HaShem Yimlokh L'Olam Va’ed, which also have a place in the standard Yom Kippur liturgy.
On Rosh Hashanah, "the Lord looks down from heaven; He sees all mankind. From His dwelling place He gazes on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings" (Psalms 33:13–15 and Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1.2).
As Christians, indeed, God is King of the Universe and His sovereignty reigns supreme. He created us, redeemed us, and indeed has discerned all of our doings and knows the inward crevices of our souls. He wishes to extend mercy to all so that none may perish. He is indeed the Melech Gadol al-kol-ha’aretz, "a great King over all the earth," as is described in Psalm 47:2.
God indeed has His books in Heaven, and the scriptures, namely Revelation, make it clear in no uncertain terms about the fate of those whose names are not found written in the Book of Life. Unlike the Jewish calendar, there is no set time during the year that one must be ready for introspection, making amends, cleansing our records of sin, and standing before God in holy judgment.
The symbolic blowing of the trumpet in Zion that occurs at Rosh Hashanah can serve as a reminder to even Christians of the soon-coming Second Coming of Yeshua. "Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Messiah will shine on you," Paul writes in Ephesians 5:14, "for the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first" (1 Thessalonians 4:16).
Christians recognize that the day and hour that Yeshua, our Lord, will come back to this earth to take us home are unknown. Whenever that time comes, it will be like a thief in the night. Thus, we must watch and be ready for His soon coming, and that requires a constant state of teshuvah, not merely an annual teshuvah, as we seek to cleanse our hearts and walk humbly before our Lord each and every day. For us, the shofars may be symbolic of a coming judgment, but we know that judgment could come like a thief in the night and we want to always be ready.
As right is wrong and wrong is right, as the world we know is descending into chaos, hearts are turning cold, and nations are increasingly and flagrantly turning away from God’s ways, thumbing their noses at their Creator yet seemingly confused when the blessings of the Lord are withdrawn from our land, many believe the evidence is increasingly abundant that we are in the Last Days.
That said, whether or not this is indeed the Last Days, whether or not Yeshua’s Second Coming truly coincides with Rosh Hashanah as some believe, may we remain at peace and lift up our heads as our redemption draws near (Luke 21:28). May we each seek each day to examine our hearts, bring whatever sin may be on our records to the Lord in repentance, and seek His forgiveness. May we make right with others whom we may have offended throughout the year, making amends with our brother before we try to take our gift to the altar, and make peace with all men insofar as our abilities allow, permitting God to ultimately repair any rifts. May we remain busy with His kingdom work until He comes (Luke 19:11–26), steadfastly faithful in whatever work to which we may be called.