The story of Rosh Hashanah chronicles the development of Rosh Hashanah throughout the ages and shows the many themes that were assimilated and interwoven into the story of Rosh Hashanah over the centuries.
The story of Rosh Hashanah is chronicled according to the following facts:
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #1: Rosh Hashanah is first mentioned in the Tanakh ("Hebrew Bible" in Hebrew), in the biblical Book of Vayikra 23:23-25 or Book of Leviticus 23:23-25 . In these verses, G-d states: "Speak to B'nei Yisrael ("the House of Israel" in Hebrew, a name that refers to the Hebrew people), saying, 'In the seventh month, on the first of the month, shall be for you a (day of) rest, a remembrance of the sounding (of the shofar), a holy convocation'" (Vayikra 23:23-25 or Leviticus 23:23-25). As a result, Rosh Hashanah was originally observed as a one-day holiday.
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #2: By Hebrew/Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah originally occurred on 1st day of the Hebrew/Jewish month of Tishri or Tishrei. The Hebrew/Jewish month of Tishri or Tishrei is the seventh month in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar. The source for this date as being the day of Rosh Hashanah is from the biblical book of Vayikra 23:23-25 or transliterated from Hebrew into English, Leviticus 23:23-25, where it states: "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month (1st day of Tishri or Tishrei), there shall be a rest day for you, a remembrance proclaimed with the blast of horns (the shofar, or Ram's Horn), a holy convocation. You shall not do any labour and you shall offer a fire-offering to the Eternal (G-d)" (Leviticus 23:23-25). In addition, the great biblical and Talmudic commentator Rashi (acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki or Rabbi Shlomo Yarchi, 1040 - 1105, born in Troyes, northern France), states that in the biblical Book of Nehemiah, the reference of Ezra to the day as one "holy to the L-rd" (Nehemiah 8:9) seems to point to the 1st day of Tishri or Tishrei as being the day of Rosh Hashanah.
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #3: In the 1st century C.E., Rosh Hashanah became a two-day holiday because the Sages of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish "Supreme Court" and legislative body that was based in Jerusalem, used lunar observations of the first crescent of the new moon from two reliable and independent witnesses in conjunction with mathematical calculations used for determining when a new month occurred, and they could not be certain if they would receive the reports from the witnesses by the end of the month, or if they did, they were not entirely sure whether or not the reports were reliable. The system of determining the new moon and hence the start of the new month resulted in the new month beginning either on the final day of the previous month (the 30th day), in which that day was immediately converted to the first day of the new month, or the day after the 30th day of the previous month (if no reports were received or were confirmed by the end of the 30th day of the previous month). This meant that Rosh Hashanah could begin either on the 30th day of the previous month (in the case of Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew/Jewish month of Elul) and extend to and include the 1st day of the new month (in the case of Rosh Hashanah, the Hebrew/Jewish month of Tishri or Tishrei), or begin on the 1st day of Tishri or Tishrei and extend to and include the 2nd day of Tishri or Tishrei. Jewish custom eventually settled on Rosh Hashanah beginning on the 1st day of Tishri or Tishrei and ending at the end of the second day of Tishri or Tishrei.
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #4: Although Rosh Hashanah is a two-day holiday, it is considered to be a "Yoma Arichtah" or "Yoma Arichta" ["one long (single) day" in Aramaic, of 48 hours]. This is because the rabbis wanted to have all Jews worldwide celebrate Rosh Hashanah together as a united people and nation. If Rosh Hashanah were only celebrated for 24 hours, then Jews who lived just to the east of the international date line would be ending their Rosh Hashanah celebrations while Jews who lived just to the west of the international date line would be starting their Rosh Hashanah celebrations. An example would be Jews who lived in New Zealand ending their Rosh Hashanah celebrations while Jews in Hawaii would be starting their Rosh Hashanah celebrations. By making Rosh Hashanah a "48-hour day", the rabbis wanted to have Jews worldwide unite to celebrate Rosh Hashanah together as one. In a sense, on Rosh Hashanah, we unite the Jewish world.
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #5: Rosh Hashanah is the new year for many reasons: (1) Rosh Hashanah is the New Year For Years, it is the anniversary of the Creation of the World and of Adam and as a result, it is the day when the year number increases in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar; (2) Rosh Hashanah is the New Year For Sabbatical Years, in the biblical Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah, there was a 49-year cycle of which every 7th year was known as a Shemittah year ["(Year of) Remission" in Hebrew] or Sabbatical year (the 7th, 14th, 21st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, and 49th years in the 49-year cycle). The Sabbatical year was a year in which farmland had to remain uncultivated (but all members of the community, including strangers and servants and even domestic and wild animals, were permitted to share in the natural or spontaneous yield of the soil), and debts were "remitted" or "forgiven"; (3) Rosh Hashanah is the New Year For Jubilee Years ("Yovel" in Hebrew), that is, the Jubilee year is the 50th year after the seven cycles of Sabbatical years which totalled 49 years. The Jubilee year was the year in which the land regulations of the Sabbatical year continued to be observed, as is the Torah commandment from Vayikra or Levicus 25:10 which states: "You shall return every man unto his possession". From Genesis 18:6, this meant that it was mandatory for hereditary properties (except houses of laymen located in walled cities) to be returned to the original owners or their legal heirs, as well as emancipating all Hebrew indentured servants whose term of six years was unexpired or who refused to leave their masters when such term of service had expired. However, the Jubilee year did not include the "forgiving" or "remitting" of debts owed as did the Sabbatical year; (4) Rosh Hashanah is the New Year For Planting Trees, as the rainy season in Israel was approaching at this time of year, and finally, (5) Rosh Hashanah is the New Year For Tithing Vegetables, that is, in biblical Israel each Hebrew family tithed or donated a portion of vegetables to the priests ("Kohanim" in Hebrew) and Levites (in this context, the "assistants to the priests" in Hebrew), since the priests and Levites did not own any land as did the other Hebrew tribes and were instead consecrated to serve in the service of G-d.
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #6: Rosh Hashanah is known by four different names: (1) The Day of Judgement, as G-d examines our deeds and motivations during the past year and judges and decides our fate on this day for the upcoming year, which is sealed 8 days later on Yom Kippur [for those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah for two days, Yom Kippur is 8 days after Rosh Hashanah; for those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah for 1 day (Reform Jews and Reconstructionist Jews), Yom Kippur is 9 days after Rosh Hashanah]. However, sincere and wholehearted repentance for past transgressions made during the past year may change a negative decision by G-d that is made on Rosh Hashanah. This process of repentance, or returning to G-d, known as Teshuvah or Teshuva ("return" in Hebrew), is a 40-day period that begins exactly one month prior to Rosh Hashanah on the 1st day of the sixth Hebrew/Jewish month of Elul and lasts up to and including the day of Yom Kippur. It is a 40-day process because the rabbis knew that one could not wholeheartedly change one's feelings regarding one's past transgressions made during the past year in a short period of time, and so a 40-day period was decreed; (2) The Day of Remembrance, that is of the sovereignty and kingship of G-d; (3) The Day of Sounding the Shofar or Ram's Horn, as a wake-up call to all people for undergoing repentance for past transgressions during the past year and seeking ways to mend these wrongs between oneself and G-d and between oneself and others through prayers for guidance, as well as the Day of Remembering the Sounding of the Shofar [if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, or the Sabbath, then the Hebrew words "Yom Teruah" (Day of Sounding the Shofar or Ram's Horn) that are found in the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah are replaced by the Hebrew words "Zikaron Teruah" or "Zikkaron Teruah" (Day of Remembering the Sounding of the Shofar or Ram's Horn) since according to Jewish tradition, we are not permitted to sound the Shofar if Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, or the Sabbath]; and (4) The Day of the Creation of the World and hence, increasing the year number. While most of these reasons can appear to make Rosh Hashanah sound like a solemn occasion, it is also a holiday and festive occasion, and so it is also an occasion for nice clothes, special meals and good spirits, as stated in the biblical Book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8:9-12).
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #7: Rosh Hashanah is an important time to exchange greetings with other Jewish people, as part of the process of helping to unite the Jewish people in addition to aiding the process of making amends to other Jewish people for past misdeeds during the year. There are many variations of Rosh Hashanah greetings, but all these variations are based on the basic Rosh Hashanah greeting known to all Jews in Hebrew as: "Shanah Tovah" or "Shana Tova", meaning "for a good year".
- Rosh Hashanah Story Fact #8: In the Mishanah of the Talmud, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 1:1, it describes Rosh Hashanah as being but one of four Jewish "New Years". The others are known as: (1) The New Year For Kings, Festivals, and Months (the kings of Israel counted the years of their reign from this date, this date is also the beginning of the year for the religious calendar described in the Mishnah of the Talmud as the "Regalim" ["pilgrimage festivals" in Hebrew), since the year's cycle of festivals begins with the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Pesach/Passover, and the months in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar were counted beginning with the Hebrew/Jewish month of Nissan or Nisan because the very first mitzvah ("commandment" in Hebrew, as in a commandment from G-d) the Hebrews/Jews received, while they were still in Egypt, was: "This month shall be to you the head of the months" (Exodus 12:2).]. The New Year For Kings, Festivals, and Months occurred on the 1st day of the Hebrew/Jewish month of Nissan or Nisan, the first month in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar; (2) The New Year For Animal Tithing [specifically, tithing or donating one-tenth of one's flock and herd I.E. cattle to the Kohanim and Levites or in other words, the priests ("Kohanim" in Hebrew) and assistants to the priests ("Levites" in Hebrew), both of whom originally belonged to the Hebrew Tribe of Levi, who were consecrated to work in the service of G-d, rather than owning land as did the other Hebrew tribes]. The New Year For Animal Tithing occurred on the 1st day of Hebrew/Jewish month of Elul, the sixth month in the Hebrew/Jewish calendar; and (3) The New Year For Trees, known in Hebrew as either Tu Bi Shevat, Tu Be Shevat, or Tu B'Shevat, literally meaning "15 Shevat" or in other words, the fifteenth day of the Hebrew/Jewish month of Shevat. The New Year For Trees was the date when the tithing or donating of fruit from fruit trees took place, to be given to the priests and assistants to the priests. In Judaism, it was determined that fruit from trees may not be eaten during the first three years of its life, the fourth year's fruit is for G-d, and after that, the fruit can be eaten. The date for Tu B'Shevat, the 15th day of Shevat, was therefore the cutoff date for determining when the fruit from the fruit trees was to be tithed. Originally, two schools of thought emerged in the region of Judea/Israel at the beginning of the Common Era as to when to celebrate the New Year For Trees: the School or House of Rabbi Shammai stated that the 1st day of Shevat was the appropriate date, and the School or House of Rabbi Hillel stated that the 15th day of Shevat was the appropriate date. Eventually, the School or House of Hillel's opinion won out and became the established date for celebrating the New Year For Trees. Tu B'Shevat is the date when the tithing of fruits from fruit trees were performed in Israel and was also the date when one calculated the age of trees for tithing. Tu B'Shevat also marked the date when the trees were no longer being nourished by the rains of the previous year and instead were being noursihed by the rains of the new year. From this tradition, a legend began that on the 15th of Shevat a heavenly court judges the trees and pronounces their fate. Tu B'Shevat was also the date used to determine whether a tree was mature enough for its fruit to be harvested.
As you can see, the Rosh Hashanah story contains many themes interwoven into one holiday. The themes of creation (of the world), judgement (of the deeds and motivations of all people during the past year by G-d), the call to repentance (by sounding the shofar), unity (of the Jewish people), kingship (of G-d), and remembrance (of the sovereignty of G-d) made Rosh Hashanah more than simply being the Jewish New Year. The story of Rosh Hashanah is the story of a holiday that is rich in symbolisms which serve to reinforce not only the meanings and themes of the holiday, but the awareness of how these themes are interconnected and play a part in the life of each Jewish person.
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