Rosh Hashanah

{rohsh huh - shah' - nah}

General Information

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew for "head of the year") is the Jewish New Year, commemorating the creation of the world. It is celebrated in early fall, Tishri 1 by the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah is a solemn occasion, the Day of Judgment, ushering in the penitential season that culminates ten days later on Yom Kippur.

The distinctive feature of the synagogue service is the blowing of a ram's horn (Shofar). The liturgy of the day stresses the sovereignty of God and the hope that all humans will at last recognize him as Father and King.

The festival is celebrated for two days by the traditionally observant, whereas Reform Jews keep it for one day, in accord with biblical law. On the afternoon of the first day it is customary to go to a river or pond and recite tashlich, scriptural verses on repentance and forgiveness of sin.

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H Schauss, Jewish Festivals (1969).

Rosh Hashanah

General Information

Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew, "beginning of the year") is the Jewish New Year, celebrated on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri (falling in September or October) by Orthodox and Conservative Jews and on the first day alone by Reform Jews. It begins the observance of the Ten Penitential Days, a period ending with Yom Kippur that is the most solemn of the Jewish calendar. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known as the High Holy Days.

In the Bible, Rosh Hashanah is mentioned only as a day of remembrance and of the sounding of the ram's horn. These two characteristics of the day, interwoven with the theme of the proclamation of God's kingship, became the major components of the New Year's observance in later Judaism. They are emphasized in the liturgy by the repetition of "verses of remembrance","verses that mention the ram's horn," and "sovereignty verses." The first of these is important because it represents the sense of continuing creation and development of the world that Judaism emphasizes on this anniversary of creation. Because good and evil actions greatly influence the future, it is emphasized that God "remembers," and mention is made of the meritorious acts of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to urge emulation of their holiness as the path to redemption.

Indeed, the most prominent scriptural passage in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is that of the binding of Isaac (see Genesis 22), which forms the portion from the Torah designated for reading on that day. This passage leads into the theme of the ram's horn; in the service in the synagogue the shofar, a wind instrument made of ram's horn to represent the horn of the animal sacrificed in Isaac's stead, is blown. Early peoples often made noise at the New Year to drive away demons; the Jews transformed this practice into a blowing of the horn to prefigure the moment when God would destroy the evil in the world, "blow the ram's horn, and come with the whirlwinds." At that moment, it is held in the "sovereignty verses," God will be king over all the earth, as he is now king over those who accept him in a renewal of commitment on Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Ha-Shanah

Jewish Viewpoint Information

Eighth treatise of the order Mo'ed; it contains (1) the most important rules concerning the calendar year together with a description of the inauguration of the months by the nasi and ab bet din; (2) laws on the form and use of the shofar and on the service during the Rosh ha-Shanah feast.


The old numerical Mishnah commences with an account of the four beginnings of the religious and the civil year (i. 1); it speaks of the four judgment-days of the pilgrim festivals and Rosh ha-Shanah (i. 2); of the six months in which the messengers of the Sanhedrin announce the month (i. 3); of the two months the beginnings of which witnesses announce to the Sanhedrin even on the Sabbath (i. 4), and even if the moon is visible to every one (i. 5); Gamaliel even sent on the Sabbath for forty pairs of witnesses from a distance (i. 6); when father and son (who as relatives may otherwise not witness together) behold the new moon they must set out for the bet din (i. 7), since they do not absolutely belong to those that are legally unfit for this purpose (i. 8). The weak and sick are borne on litters, and are protected against the attacks of the Sadducees; they must be provided with food, for witnesses are bound to journey even on the Sabbath (i. 9). Others went along to identify the unknown (ii. 1). In olden times bonfire-signals on the mountains announced to all as far as Babylon that the month had been sanctified. The custom of having witnesses and messengers was introduced after the Sadducees had attempted to practise deception (ii. 2, 3, 4).

The large court called "Bet Ya'azeḳ" was the assembly-place for the witnesses (ii. 5); bountiful repasts awaited them, and dispensations from the Law were granted to them (ii. 6); the first pair of witnesses was questioned separately concerning the appearance of the moon, and other witnesses cursorily (ii. 7). Then the ab bet din called out to a large assembly, "Sanctified!" all the people crying out aloud after him (ii. 8). Gamaliel II. had representations of the moon which he showed to the witnesses. Once there arose a dispute between him and Joshua regarding the Tishri moon; the latter, in obedience to the nasi, came on foot to Jamnia on the day which he had calculated to be the Day of Atonement, and the two scholars made peace (iii.). There were various obstacles to the sanctification of the months, as when time was lacking for the ceremony, or when there were no witnesses present before the bet din. In the first case the following day became the new moon; in the second case the bet din alone performed the sanctification.

The Shofar.

The Mishnah treats also of the shofar (iii. 2); the horn of the cow may not be used (iii. 3); the form of the trumpet for Rosh ha-Shanah, the fast-day, and Yobel is determined (iii. 5); injuries to the shofar and the remedies are indicated (iii. 6); in times of danger the people that pray assemble in pits and caves (iii. 7); they pass the house of worship only on the outside while the trumpets sound (iii. 8); they are exhorted to be firm by being reminded of Moses' uplifted hands in the war with the Amalekites. In such times the deaf-mutes, insane, and children are legally unfit for blowing the trumpets.

Even if the festival fell on the Sabbath, Johanan ben Zakkai had the trumpets blown at Jamnia, while at one time this was done only in the Temple and the surrounding places (iv. 1); he also fixed the lulab outside of the Temple for seven days, and forbade the eating of new grain on the second day of Passover (iv. 2); he extended the time for examining witnesses until the evening, and had them come to Jamnia even in the absence of the ab bet din (iv. 3). The Mishnah then treats of the order of the prayers (iv. 4), of the succession of the Malkuyot, Zikronot, and Shoferot, of the Bible sentences concerning the kingdom of God, Providence, and the trumpet-call of the future (iv. 5), and of the leader in prayer and his relation to the teki'ah (iv. 6); descriptions of the festival are given in reference to the shofar (iv. 7); then follows the order of the traditional trumpet-sounds (iv. 8); and remarks on the duties of the leader in prayer and of the congregation close the treatise (iv. 9).

The Tosefta.

Curious as is the order of subjects followed in this treatise, in which several mishnaic sources have been combined, the Tosefta follows it, adding comments that form the basis of the Gemara in both Talmuds. The contents of the Mishnah with the corresponding sections of the Tosefta are as follows: General calendar for the year, i. 1-4 = Tosef. i. 1-13. Regulations concerning the months' witnesses, i. 5-ii. 1 (connecting with i. 4) = Tosef. i. 15-ii. 1 (abbreviated). Historical matter regarding fire-signals and messengers and their reception on the Sabbath, ii. 2-6 = Tosef. ii. 2 (abbreviated). The continuation of the laws of ii. 1 concerning witnesses (ii. 7, 8), and the questioning of witnesses, and the sanctification of the months are entirely lacking in the Tosefta. Historical data concerning Gamaliel and the disputewith Joshua, ii. 8-9 = Tosef. ii. 3 (a mere final sentence). Continuation of the laws of ii. 7 concerning witnesses, iii. 1 = Tosef. iii. 1, 2. Regulations regarding the shofar and its use, iii. 2-5 = Tosef. iii. 3-6a. Haggadic sentence on devotion = Tosef. iii. 6b. Final remarks on the shofar and on its obligations, iii. 6-end = Tosef. iv. 1. Ordinances of Johanan ben Zakkai concerning Rosh ha-Shanah and the Sabbath, and other matters = Tosef. iv. 2. Order of worship, iv. 5-end = Tosef. iv. 4-end. Mishnah ii. 7 seems to have been transposed according to Tosef. iv. 3, but it belongs there according to its contents.

In quoting many of Gamaliel's ordinances the Mishnah emphasizes the authority of the patriarchal house by recounting the dispute between the patriarch and his deputy Joshua and showing how the latter was forced to yield. The Tosefta omits the ordinances of Gamaliel and of Johanan ben Zakhai, and the dispute of the two leaders of the school-house, nor does it mention anything of the power of any tannaitic dignitary; the Tosefta is here a product of the time of the Amoraim. The dignity of the nasi is not emphasized, because acumen and scholarship prevailed in the schoolhouse, and there was no desire to let old precedences (see 'Eduyot) come to the fore again. Even the Mishnah contains some additions from the time of the Amoraim (see, for example, iv. 2, where a gap must be filled from the Tosefta).

Wilhelm Bacher, Ludwig A. Rosenthal
Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901-1906.

Bibliography: M. Rawiez, Rosh Hashana (transl.), Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1886; J. H. Gummin, Rosh Hashana (Theologische Studien), pp. 31-74, 179-200, Utrecht, 1890; Zuckermann, Materialien zum Entwurf der Altjüdischen Zeitrechnung, Breslau, 1882; Rosenthal, Ueber den Zusammenhang der Mischna, i. 26-28, 70-71; Scheinin, Die Schule in Jamnia, Leipsic, 1879.


Jewish Viewpoint Information

-Biblical Data:

In the earliest times the Hebrew year began in autumn with the opening of the economic year. There followed in regular succession the seasons of seed-sowing, growth and ripening of the corn under the influence of the former and the latter rains, harvest and ingathering of the fruits. In harmony with this was the order of the great agricultural festivals, according to the oldest legislation, namely, the feast of unleavened bread at the beginning of the barley harvest, in the month of Abib; the feast of harvest, seven weeks later; and the feast of ingathering at the going out or turn of the year (; see Ex. xxiii. 14-17; xxxiv. 18, 22-23; Deut. xvi. 1-16). This system of dating the New-Year is that which was adopted by the Semites generally, while other peoples, as the Greeks and Persians, began the year in spring, both methods of reckoning being primarily agricultural and based on the seasons of seed-time and harvest.

The Regnal Year.

The regnal year was evidently reckoned in the same way as late as the end of the seventh century B.C. This is evident from the account of the eighteenth year of King Josiah, in which only by such a reckoning can sufficient time be allowed for the events of that year which precede the celebration of the Passover, assuming, of course, that the Passover was celebrated at the usual time in the spring (II Kings xxii. 3, xxiii. 21-23). Only in the same way can the fourth year of Jehoiakim be made to synchronize with the twenty-first year of Nabopolassar, in which the battle of Carchemish was fought, and also with the first year of Nebuchadrezzar, the Babylonian year having been reckoned from the spring (Jer. xxv. 1, xlvi. 2). The second half of the Hebrew year would thus correspond to the first half of the Babylonian year. In Ezek. xl. 1 the prophet has his vision at the beginning of the year, apparently in the month of Tishri. The Levitical law places the beginning of the Sabbatical year in the autumn, on the tenth day of the seventh month, according to the later reckoning (Lev. xxv. 9). It has been pointed out also that the story of the Flood places the beginning of the deluge on the seventeenth day of the second month, which would, on an autumn reckoning, coincide with the beginning of the rainy season (Gen. vii. 11; Josephus, "Ant." i. 3, § 3).

Possibly Two Modes of Reckoning.

There is much difference of opinion as to whether or not there was in preexilic times a second mode of reckoning from the vernal equinox. This inference has been drawn from such passages as II Sam. xi. 1, I Kings xx. 22, 26, and II Chron. xxxvi. 10. The expression used here, "at the return of the year," is, however, sufficiently explained as "the time when kings go out"; that is to say, the usual time for opening a military campaign. Of course if the law of the Passover (Ex. xii. 1; Lev. xxiii. 5; Num. ix. 1-5, xxviii. 16-17) is pre-exilic, the question admits of no further argument. It seems, however, to be now very generally accepted that this law in its present form is not earlier than the sixth century and that it represents post-exilic practise. According to this legislation, which henceforth prevailed, the month Abib, or Nisan (March-April), became the first of the year. It is possible that this change was due, in part at least, to the influence of the Babylonian sacred year, which likewise began with the month Nisan. It appears, however, that the festival of the New-Year continued to be observed in the autumn, perhaps originally on the tenth, and later on the first day of the seventh month, Tishri. Josephus asserts (l.c. i. 3, § 3) that while Moses appointed Nisan to be the first month for the sacred festivals and other solemnities, he preserved the original order of the months for buying and selling and for the transaction of other business. The Seleucidan calendar, from 312 B.C., placed the beginning of the year in the autumn; but it appears that the Palestinian Jews still reckoned from the spring and dated the Seleucidan era according to that reckoning (see Schürer, "The Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ," 2d ed., Eng. transl., I. i 36-46, on the dates in the Books of Maccabees; comp. Esth. iii. 7).

How Celebrated.

It is altogether probable that the beginning of the year was celebrated from ancient times in some special way, like the New Moon festival. The earliest reference, however, to such a custom is, probably, in the account of the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek. xl. 1) which, as stated above, took place at the beginning of the year, on the tenth day of the month (Tishri ?). On the same day the beginning of the year of jubilee was to be proclaimed by the blowing of trumpets (Lev. xxv. 9). According to the Septuagint rendering of Ezek. xlv. 20, special sacrifices were to be offered on the first day of the seventh month as well as on the first day of the first month. This first day of the seventh month was appointed by the Law to be "a day of blowing of trumpets" (). There was to be a holy convocation; no servile work was to be done; and special sacrifices were to be offered (Lev. xxiii. 23-25; Num. xxix. 1-6; comp. ib. x. 1-10). This day was not expressly called New-Year's Day, but it was evidently so regarded by the Jews at a very early period (see R. H. i. 1).

Bibliography: Hastings, Dict. Bibl. s.v. Time; Cheyne and Black, Encyc. Bibl. s.v. Year and New Year; Benzinger, Arch.; Dillmann, Monatsberichte, Societas Regia Scientiarum, Berlin, 1881.S. J. F. McL.

-In Rabbinical Literature:

The Rabbis recognize four beginnings of the year from different standpoints: (1) the 1st of Nisan for regnal dating; it was based on the Exodus (comp. I Kings vi. 1); (2) the 1st of Tishri, as, agricultural New-Year the beginning of the harvest (Ex. xxiii. 16, xxxiv. 22); (3) the 1st of Elul for reckoning tithes of cattle (R. Eleazer, however, would reckon these from the 1st of Tishri); and (4) the 1st, or, according to Bet Hillel, the 15th of Shebaṭ, the New-Year for Trees.

According to the Talmud, servants were formally freed on the 1st of Tishri, but were allowed to remain on the homesteads of their former masters and to enjoy themselves for ten days, until Yom Kippur, when the trumpet was blown (Lev. xxv. 9) as a signal for their departure, and for the restoration of the fields to their original owners (R. H. 8b). This is cited to explain the passage in Ezek. xl. 1; "the beginning of the year in the tenth day of the month," which refers to the jubilee year that occurred on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Exile ('Ar. 12a).

Rosh ha-Shanah.

The observance of the 1st of Tishri as Rosh ha-Shanah, the most solemn day next to Yom Kippur, is based principally on the traditional law to which the mention of "Zikkaron" (= "memorial day"; Lev. xxiii. 24) and the reference of Ezra to the day as one "holy to the Lord" (Neh. viii. 9) seem to point. The passage in Psalms (lxxxi. 5) referring to the solemn feast which is held on New Moon Day, when the shofar is sounded, as a day of "mishpaṭ" (judgment) of "the God of Jacob" is taken to indicate the character of Rosh ha-Shanah. Rosh ha-Shanah is the most important judgment-day, on which all the inhabitants of the world pass for judgment before the Creator, as sheep pass for examination before the shepherd (R. H. i. 2; See Day of Judgment). Three books of account are opened on Rosh ha-Shanah wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate class (not utterly wicked) are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed, and they are sealed "to live." The middle class are allowed a respite of ten days till Yom Kippur, to repent and become righteous (R. H. 16b); the wicked are "blotted out of the book of the living" (Ps. lxix. 28).

The zodiac sign of the balance for Tishri is claimed to indicate the scales of judgment, balancing the meritorious against the wicked acts of the person judged. The taking of an annual inventory of accounts on Rosh ha-Shanah is adduced by R. Naḥman b. Isaac from the passage in Deut. xi. 12, which says that the care of God is directed from "the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year" (R. H. 8a). The 1st of Tishri was considered by the best authorities as the beginning of Creation; e.g., by R. Eliezer, against the opinion of R. Joshua, however, who held the 1st of Nisan as the first day of Creation (R. H. 11a; Targ. Jonathan on Gen. vii. 11, counts the second month as Marḥeshwan). On Rosh ha-Shanah the means of sustenance of every person are apportioned for the ensuing year (B. B. 10a); so also are his destined losses. The indications of the weather prognostications, according to R. Zebid, may likewise be ascertained on Rosh ha-Shanah: If the day be warm, it indicates a warm year; if cold, it foretells generally a cold year (ib. 147a).

Omens of Good Luck.

As an omen of good luck for the New-Year, Abaye said one should eat on Rosh ha-Shanah pumpkins, fenugreeks, leeks, beets, and dates (Hor. 12a), because they all grow quickly and because, it is declared, their names in Aramaic mean "plentiful" or "forgiveness." Ezra told the people on Rosh ha-Shanah (the first of the seventh month) to "eat the fat, and drink the sweet" (Neh. viii. 10). The prevailing custom was to partake of some specially palatable meal on New-Year's eve. "In France in the twelfth century the custom was to supply the table with red apples; in Provence, with grapes, figs, and a calf's head, or anything new, easily digested, and tasty, as an omen of good luck to all Israel" (Maḥzor Vitry, p. 362). R. Jacob Mölln (14th cent.) in his "Maharil" mentions the custom of eating apples with honey and a deer's head in remembrance of the 'Aḳedah incident. Another reason for eating an animal's head is to presage that the consumer will be "ahead" and not backward in his undertakings during the ensuing year. But one may not eat nuts on Rosh ha-Shanah, as the numerical value of the letters in the Hebrew term for nut, , is equivalent to that of the letters = "sin" ("ḥet, minus the vowel = 17), and also for the more plausible reason that nuts stimulate saliva and consequently distract one's mind from his prayers on the solemn day.

In modern times the table is served with grapes, other fruits, and honey. After the benediction of "Ha-Moẓeh" the bread is dipped in the honey, when the following benediction is recited: "May it please the Lord our God and God of our fathers to renew for us a good and sweet year." The feasting is in anticipation that the prayers will be acceptable, and in reliance on the goodness of God. In ancient times the Jews on Rosh ha-Shanah were dressed in white. "Unlike the accused who is dressed in black before the tribunal, the Jews are dressed in white on the Day of Judgment" (Yer. R. H. i. 3). The idea of a good omen probably introduced the custom in the Middle Ages of greeting one another on New-Year's eve with "Le shanah ṭobah tikkateb" = "Mayest thou be inscribed for a good year," with reference to the book of life of the righteous.

The Second Day.

Only the 1st of Tishri was celebrated as New-Year's Day in Palestine prior to the time of R. Johanan b. Zakkai; but ever since, Palestine, like other countries, observes Rosh ha-Shanah for two days (see Palestine, Laws Relating to). The Zohar lays stress on the universal observance of two days, and claims that the two passages in Job (i. 6 and ii. 1), "when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord," refer to the first and second days of Rosh ha-Shanah, observed by the Heavenly Court before the Almighty (Zohar, Pineḥas, p. 231a).

For the services on Rosh ha-Shanah, see Prayer; for the ceremony and significance of the shofar-calls, see Shofar; and for the ceremony of "tashlik" on the first day of Rosh ha-Shanah, see Tashlik; see, also, Day of Judgment; Greeting, Forms of; Month; Seliḥot.

Isidore Singer, J. F. McLaughlin, Wilhelm Bacher, Judah David Eisenstein
Jewish Encyclopedia, published between 1901-1906.

Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 581-603; Carl Rehfuss, Sermon for Rosh ha-Shanah, 1839, in Kayserling, Bibliothek Jüdischer Kanzelredner, pp. 359-368, Addresses to Young Children, xxii. 202-212, London, 1858; Schwab, Contribution to the History of Reform of the Jewish Ritual, i., St. Joseph, Mo., 1904; idem, in Jewish Messenger, Oct. 3, 10, 1902; Some New Year's Cards, in Jew. Chron. Sept. 18, 1903.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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