A Festival of Rabbinic Judaism

Rosh Hashanah is an outstanding example of a rabbinic, as opposed to a biblical, festival.

The Torah (Leviticus 23,24) requires the first day of the seventh month to be a rest day, a ‘memorial of blowing’, whatever that may mean. Elsewhere it is simply described as a ‘day of blowing’ (Numbers 28,1) . The words Rosh Hashanah are not mentioned, and the day is not described as a New Year. Indeed, although it falls on the first day of the month, it is month number seven and not number one, as we would expect for a new year. There is also no mention of prayer, repentance, hours in shul or anything else we associate today with Rosh Hashanah. The only thing the Torah has in common with the festival we celebrate is the idea of blowing; but even the word shofar is absent from the biblical verses.

Yom Kippur does get more attention in the Torah. There is a long description of the sacrifices to be offered, and it is made very clear that their purpose was to effect atonement (‘atonement’ is an unsatisfactory English translation of the Hebrew kapparah).  Jews were  instructed to ‘afflict their souls’. There is no doubt that the Torah takes Yom Kippur very seriously, giving it far more attention than Rosh Hashanah.

But of course Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only ten days apart and today they are inextricably linked. We regard the New Year as the beginning of our preparations for Yom Kippur, an idea beautifully expressed in the concept of the heavenly ledgers. Our fate for the year is written in the heavenly ledger on Rosh Hashanah. But the book is not closed until Yom Kippur. During the intervening period we have a chance to improve our fate, through our thoughts and behaviour, particularly prayer, charity and religious renewal.

Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgement is not in the Bible. So where does it come from?

During the late second Temple period Judaism went through a process of evolution.  The world was changing; Greek civilisation was influencing the way people thought, Rome was building its empire. International trade and exchange of ideas was growing, globalisation was afoot. There were now Jewish diasporas, in Egypt, Syria, Rome, Babylon and Persia. For many people, Jerusalem, its temple and its priests were geographically and culturally remote; the old Judaism was no longer as influential as it had been.

New ideas came into Judaism. Prayer became more central in Jewish lives. The first synagogues were built. People went to these synagogues on Yom Kippur, to pray and ‘afflict their souls.’ Rather than Yom Kippur just being a temple based ritual in which the High Priest sought atonement for everyone, ordinary people began to treat it more personally. They began to prepare for it. And when better to start preparing for Yom Kippur than on the hitherto obscure ‘festival of blowing’ which fell just ten days earlier.

And so the first seeds of Rosh Hashanah as we know it were sown. Over time the festival took on more and more of its own rituals and character. Until one day in the year 70CE, the Temple was destroyed and everything changed.

The destruction of the Temple could have meant the end of Judaism. The only reason it didn’t was that a small group of far sighted rabbis, led by Yohanan ben Zakkai, institutionalised many of the informal practices which had been developing in Jewish homes and synagogues over the past centuries. Things we take for granted today, which the Bible doesn’t mention, like prayer, the various Shabbat prohibitions, laws associated with marriage, divorce, tithes and taxes. Often the rabbis innovated. But just as often they took existing practices, and by applying a sharp legal eye to the text of the Bible, found reasons to enshrine these practices in religious law.

They found a tenuous biblical connection between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Every fifty years we are told to proclaim a Jubilee Year, to ‘cry freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants’ (Leviticus 25,10). All property is to be returned to its original owners, all debts are to be cancelled and all slaves freed. This proclamation was to be made on Yom Kippur, by blowing the shofar. It is the only time that the word shofar appears in the Torah. And the act of blowing is the only biblical connection between Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, even though the Yom Kippur blowing takes place only once every fifty years.

By the year 200 or thereabouts, when the Mishnah was finalised, Rosh Hashanah had become one of the important events in the Jewish calendar. No longer just a ‘memorial of blowing’ it had become a day of judgement, of personal reflection, renewal and prayer. It included the longest and most structured of all synagogue services, it was governed by strict regulations as to which shofars were valid and which were not, and details as to how the shofar was to be blown.

But although nearly everything that we do on Rosh Hashanah was instituted or formalised by the rabbi, it derives its authority from the Bible. And the great creativity of the rabbis, is that a festival which is almost wholly rabbinic in character, has just as much significance and authority as, for example, Pesach and Yom Kippur, which are elaborated in far greater detail in the Torah.

Rosh Hashanah, as we know it, started off as a preparation from Yom Kippur. But it didn’t end there. It kept growing in significance until today, when we even spend a month preparing for Rosh Hashanah itself! We blow the shofar every morning and saying special selichot prayers in the run up to what is now a Day of Awe. It may grow further; Judaism has always evolved, adapting to changing conditions and circumstance. But that’s another story.

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books