In the Torah, which consists of the first five books of the Bible, God prescribes the way He expects Israel to observe the major religious festivals and holy days. If you have had the opportunity to carefully read through these sections in the Torah, you may have noticed some curious differences between how God prescribes the holidays and how the Jewish community celebrates the festivals today. This does not mean the rabbis do not take the Torah seriously, because the opposite is true; they have been meticulous in helping the Jewish people remain faithful to the Torah.
One notable example occurs with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, which literally means “head of the year.” Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the seventh month, Tishrei, in the Jewish calendar. The term Tishrei reflects Israel’s exile in Babylon and originates from an Akkadian word meaning “beginning.” When God delivered Israel from Egypt, during Passover, He told the nation to establish the month of Nisan as the first month of the year (Ex. 12:2).
Nonetheless, the rabbis decided to make Rosh Hashanah the “head” of the civil year. There are some debates as to why the rabbis did this. One explanation is they wanted to mark the anniversary of the creation of the world, adopting the tradition from the Babylonians. A second theory posits that the significance of the seventh month is that it is the seventh month, hence “the Sabbath” of the year. In addition, Rosh Hashanah’s position prior to Yom Kippur leads the people to contemplate forgiveness and new beginnings. This imagery reinforces why the Jewish community considers Rosh Hashanah as the start of the year.
A Flexible Tradition and An Unswerving Faith
There are two contributing factors to the change in the Jewish festivals. First, traditions naturally change over time to reflect the additional meanings and significance attached to historical events. By the first century, when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem, Israel’s holidays already looked different from the rather methodical presentation we find in the Torah. Second, without a Temple, a change was necessary. The celebration of Israel’s festivals revolved around the temple, because observation of the holidays required the offering of sacrifices. When the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis sought to adapt the holidays to the changing environment. Following their exile to Babylon and subsequent provincial status under Roman rule, the Jewish community celebrated the holidays not only as reminders of past events, but also as promises of God’s future deliverance through the Messiah.
Rosh Hashanah and the High Holy Days
As you read the Torah, you will discover it does not use the term Rosh Hashanah to refer to the new year. The list of the major feasts in Leviticus 23 describes the day as zikron teruah, “a memorial of the blowing of trumpets” (v. 24). Elsewhere, it uses the designation yom teruah, “day of the blowing of trumpets” (Num. 29:1). Later, Jewish tradition refers to it in various ways, as the day of “remembrance,” “judgment,” and the “forgiveness” of sins. While the Torah does not clarify why the nation sounds the shofar, Jewish tradition views it as a means of calling the nation to repentance.
Rosh Hashanah precedes Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, by ten days (Lev. 16). The sounding of the shofar signifies the beginning of the “Days of Awe,” yamim noraim, which are ten days of repentance and introspection as the nation prepares for Yom Kippur.
Blowing the shofar remains one of the most anticipated features of the holiday. Its piercing blast awakens the nation from slumber, reminds the people of God’s reign over Israel and beckons them toward repentance (Micah 7:18-20). The purpose of Rosh Hashanah, then, is understood through its three main themes: God’s kingship (malchiyot), remembrances (zichronot), and the sounding of the shofar (shofarot). The final theme invites the community to look toward the future, to the time of the ultimate redemption with the Messiah—upon hearing the blast, hope for the arrival of the Messiah arises (Zech. 9:14).
Rosh Hashanah in Jewish Tradition
According to tradition, “All things are judged on Rosh HaShanah, and their fate is sealed on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement).”
Jewish tradition also teaches that repentance before the God of the universe is central to Jewish faith. This is why rabbis added various other names to the holiday: Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance), Yom HaDin (Day of Judgment), and Yom HaKeseh (Day of Concealment for Sins).
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204 AD) taught that the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah call out to human souls, “Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep! Arise, you slumberers, from your slumber! Repent with contrition! Remember your Creator!” (Hil. Teshuvah 3:4). The importance of “remembering your Creator” is tied to another tradition that states Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world, or more specifically, the creation of man on the sixth day of creation.
Finally, the tradition of Tashlich, (“you will cast”) is one of the most significant observances of Rosh Hashanah. During Tashlich, Jewish communities gather along bodies of running water to say prayers and toss bits of bread into the flowing water. This symbolizes the casting of one’s sins into the depths of the sea, as the prophet Micah states, “He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19).
Sharing the Gospel on Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah is a Jewish holiday that even non-religious Jewish people recognize. For that reason, it provides a great opportunity for believers to share the Gospel. Rosh Hashanah is a perfect opportunity to share the Jewish Messiah with your Jewish friends and neighbors!
From the early chapters of Genesis through the rest of Scriptures, God has always been a God of relationships—with mankind in general and with the Jewish people in particular. God expressed His deep desire for relationship by teaching Israel how to relate to Him through many ways, including the Fall Feasts, as yearly reminders to bring Jewish people back to focusing on Him. The series of covenants culminates in the New Covenant made with Israel (Jer. 31:31-34) and are fulfilled in Messiah.
Rosh Hashanah teaches Jewish people to be concerned for their eternal destiny. This emphasis, developed from the Talmud, states, “three books are opened in heaven on Rosh Hashanah, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are inscribed in the Book of Life, the thoroughly wicked in the Book of Death, while the fate of the intermediate is suspended until the Day of Atonement” (Rosh HaShanah 16b).
You can point out to your Jewish friend that the Apostle John, one of the early Jewish followers of Jesus, reflects the Jewish language of God’s judgment when he repeatedly mentions the “Book of Life” throughout the Book of Revelation. John writes,
I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books…. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:12, 15).
As believers in Yeshua (Jesus), you can show your Jewish friend that the death and resurrection of the Messiah provided atonement for us. No amount of prayer or good deeds will make up for the sin that separates an individual from God. The Bible makes it clear that we cannot merit our way to the Lord. This is clearly stated in the book of Hebrews where the writer tells us that,
God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they (Heb. 1:1-4).
Rosh Hashanah represents a juncture for the Jewish community. It is both a time to remember the covenant God has made with Israel in the past and a time for hope, anticipating God’s renewal of all things.
Ultimately it points us toward the Alpha and Omega of all things, Jesus the Messiah.