Rosh HaShanah Explained–the “Day of the Blast”

Cry aloud to God our strength, raise a shout to the God of Jacob.

Last evening at sundown the Jewish holiday popularly known as Rosh HaShanah began. Literally, rosh ha-Shanah means “head of the year.” It is commonly included on our secular calendars today as one of the “Jewish Holidays,” along with Passover and Yom Kippur, and is widely known as the “Jewish New Year.” Surprisingly though, on the Jewish calendar it is the 1st day of the seventh month, not the first day of the first month–so how could it mark a new year?

Rabbi Dennis Jones blows the Shofar
Rabbi Dennis Jones blows the Shofar

 

In biblical times, and on the Jewish calendar today, the “months” are lunar months, marked by the appearance of the “new moon,” 12 or 13 times in a solar year of 365.25 days. Judaism has two ways of marking the beginning of a year. The term “year” in Hebrew, shanah/שׁנה, is related to a verbal root meaning “to change” or “to turn.” Accordingly, one can refer to the “turning” of a year. The seasonal New Year is the first day of the first month, as Exodus 12: 1 puts it:

This Moon/month shall be to you the beginning (rosh, lit. “head”) of months.”

I suppose one could call it the original or primary “Rosh HaShanah,” as it comes with the beginning of the Spring and is therefore tied to the barley harvest and its seasonal ripening. That day is very significant in biblical and Jewish history as many events have taken place on Nisan 1st–the biblical New Year, marking times of “new beginnings” (Exodus 40:2; 2 Chronicles 29:17; Ezra 7:9; 10:17).

The “Jewish New Year” that most are familiar with today falls on the 1st day of the 7th lunar month–in the fall of the year. It marks the beginning or “turning” of different kind of year, one that in ancient times had to do with certain calculations regarding the Jubilee, the redemption of bond-servants, and so forth. It is kind of an “legal” New Year, much like our July and Oct “fiscal years” in our society today. It has to do with “accounting.”

In the Torah itself this holy day is never called Rosh HaShanah. Rather it gets a different name–Yom Teru’ah, that is “day of the blast.” Teru’ah/תרועה in Hebrew refers to raising up a loud noise, whether the shout of a human voice, such as a battle cry, or the piercing sound of a shofar or “trumpet” as a call of assembly or alarm–much like our modern concept of a siren.  Thus some Christian groups that keep this day refer to it as the “feast of Trumpets,” though that phrase never occurs in the Hebrew Bible.

There is, however, an association of this day with a “trumpet,” or more properly, a “shofar,” in Psalm 81, coupled with the word teru’ah or “shout.”

Cry aloud to God our strength, raise a shout to the God of Jacob.
Lift up a song, and give out a timbrel, a pleasant harp with psaltery.
Blow in the month a shofar, in the new moon, at the day of our festival,
For a statute to Israel it is, an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
A testimony on Joseph He hath placed it, in his going forth over the land of Egypt (Psalm 81:2-6).

But what does it mean? The instructions in Leviticus 23, where all the biblical festivals and sabbaths of the Jewish calendar are amazingly sparse give no reason or meaning to the day. There one is simply told:

Speak to the people of Israel, saying, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, memorial of teru’ah, a holy convocation (Leviticus 23:24).

This is quite literally a “commemoration” announced by a blasting sound–whether of shouting or that of a shofar. The best clues to the ancient meaning of this day are found in Psalm 80 & 81. The connection here to the tribe of Joseph is quite interesting. Judaism has connected the sound of the shofar as a call to the Tribes to gather as well as a call to all humanity to awaken. It comes to be associated with judgment and resurrection of the dead. Paul writes that the return of Jesus in the clouds of heaven and the resurrection of the dead will commence with the “sound of the trumpet of God” or “the last trumpet” (1 Thessalonians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 15:52). In the gospel of Matthew the “elect” or chosen ones, which would make up a kind of “true Israel,” are gathered at the end of days by the sound of a “loud trumpet” (Matthew 24:31).

Since this day of Teru’ah comes ten days before Yom Kippur, the solemn day of “covering” or atonement, the blast of the shofar has come to mean a call to introspection and judgment. The “ten days of awe,” between the two festivals are a time when the world stands in judgment and the doors of repentance are open. The rabbis emphasize that whereas Passover, which falls in the first month of the Jewish calendar celebrates the freedom of Israel from slavery in Egypt, this “Day of the memorial Blast,” that falls in the seventh month, is a call to all humankind to stand before God in judgment, and thus is much more universal in scope.

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