I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in Montreal, Canada where I attended Yiddish and Hebrew day school, participated in Montreal’s Yiddish theater group and also performed in a Yiddish mandolin orchestra. My memories of the High Holidays (Rosh Hashoneh and Yom Kipper is how we pronounced them) included the traditional foods – apples dipped in honey, an unusually large and sweet braided challah loaf, and of course the ubiquitous shofar (or ram’s horn).
My religious teachers communicated to me that these Days of Awe (yomim noroyim) were a sober season when men’s souls were judged. Rabbinic tradition states: “Rabbi Judah says: All are judged on New Year and the separate dooms are sealed each in its time – on Passover in respect of produce, on Pentecost in respect of fruit, on Tabernacles judgment is passed in respect of rain, and man is judged on New Year and his doom is sealed on the Day of Atonement” (Babylonian Talmud [TB], Tractate Rosh Hashana 16a).
Another Rabbi (Yochanan) declared: “Three books are opened (in heaven) on New Year, one for the thoroughly wicked, one for the thoroughly righteous, and one for the intermediate. The thoroughly righteous are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of life. The thoroughly wicked are forthwith inscribed definitively in the book of death. The doom of the intermediate is suspended from New Year till the Day of Atonement. If they deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of life. If they do not deserve well, they are inscribed in the book of death” (TB, Tractate Rosh Hashana 16b). This tradition has led to Rosh Hashoneh being described as Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgment.
A famous Jewish Montrealer, Leonard Cohen, reflected the theology behind these words in his song ‘Who by fire’ – “And who by fire, who by water, who in the sunshine, who in the night time – who by high ordeal, who by common trial, who in your merry merry month of May, who by very slow decay…And who shall I say is calling?” (“Who by fire”, words & music Leonard Cohen, © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC).
- What can Messianic Jews say about the biblical basis or authority of these traditions? Do they help to reflect spiritual truth? Is there something sweet to be found here – some spiritual honey – on the traditional Rosh Hashanah plate?
Man does not live by apples and honey alone
Moses declared, “You shall remember all the way which YHVH your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not… that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of YHVH” (Deuteronomy 8:2-3; quoted by Messiah Yeshua in Matthew 4:4).
Throughout history the God of Israel continues to test Jacob’s heart to see whether or not we will follow every word that proceeds out of His mouth. The choosing of the New Year is one of His words, as the Book of Exodus reveals: “Now YHVH said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, ‘This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you’” (Exodus 12:1-2). “On this day in the month of Aviv, you are about to go forth… Therefore, you shall keep this ordinance at its appointed time from year to year” (Exodus 13:4, 10).
- According to the Hebrew Scriptures the New Year occurs in the Spring, at Passover time, on the first day of the month of Aviv (see Exodus 23:15; 34:18; Deuteronomy 16:1)
By the rivers of Babylon
When the Jewish people lived in Babylon’s exile, they became accustomed to using the legal Babylonian names for the months of the year After the remnant of the Jewish people returned from Exile, within a short time these Babylonian month-names triumphed in daily usage over the ancient Hebrew names of the month. A similar dynamic has occurred in our day, where most Jewish people use Roman names of the month and Norse names for the days of the week – as does the majority of the Western world.
One of the consequences of Babylonian conquest and cultural imperialism was that the first month in the Hebrew calendar Aviv was renamed Nisan (from the Akkadian nisānu, meaning ‘sanctuary’ or ‘sacrifice’, or possibly from Sumerian nisag meaning ‘firstfruits’). The seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, Eitanim (‘the strong ones’), was renamed Tishrei (from the Akkadian word tašrītu or ‘beginning’). This process of replacement is acknowledged in the Jerusalem Talmud: “For Rabbi Hanina said, ‘The names of the months came up with them from Babylonia’” (TJ, Rosh Hashanah, 1:2, 56d).
But the Jewish people in the Exile continued to faithfully celebrate the Hebrew New Year according to Moses’ calendar, during the Spring month of Aviv/Nisan (modern March/April). In the days of Mordecai the Bible notes that the casting of lots began “in the first month, which is the month Nisan” (or Aviv; Esther 3:7; see also Josiah in 2 Chronicles 35:1). In Queen Esther’s day the Jews of the Persian Empire still celebrated the biblical Jewish New Year in the Spring, fourteen days before the Feast of Passover.
Two Babylonian New Years…
Here is an interesting and surprising fact: The Babylonian calendar (and the Assyrian) actually had two ‘festivals of new beginnings’ or ‘new years’ (the Akitu festivals). These were celebrated on two different occasions every year. The first one was celebrated on the 1st of Nisan (called rêš šattim/ resh shattim, meaning ‘head of the year’) and the 2nd one was celebrated on the 1st of Tishrei (see The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient Near East, Mark E. Cohen, CDL Press, 1993; also Origin and Transformation of the Ancient Israelite Festival Calendar, Jan A. Wagenaar; Wiesbaden, Harrossowitz Verlag, 2005). These two Babylonian ‘new years’ reflected the seasonal agricultural changes and weather patterns in the Euphrates Valley.
And four Jewish New Years…
By the Second Century AD the rabbinical authorities codified the timing of the Jewish New Year, moving it from the biblical Spring date to an Autumn date in order to better fit in with the politically correct Babylonian social trends. Rabbi Judah the Prince (the editor of the Mishnah) made a valiant attempt at justifying an obvious departure from the biblical New Year date, when he proclaimed circa 200 AD that there are actually a whole bunch of New Years. He explained that there are “four New Years – on the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year of the tithe of cattle…; on the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for release and for jubilee years, for plantation and for tithing vegetables; on the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees” (TB, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, Mishna 1, 2a).
A crucial fork in the road had been crossed in 33 AD when Messiah Yeshua was rejected by Israel’s spiritual authorities and handed over to the Romans to be crucified. If Jerusalem’s then spiritual leadership could have made such a horrific decision to reject the Messiah, these same leaders could eventually make errant decisions about a host of other issues – including the nature of the New Covenant, the status of the Mosaic covenant, the way of salvation, the authority of the rabbinic leadership, etc.
The authority of the Scriptures and of Messiah Yeshua is very much connected to the issue of the Jewish New Year. Today our spiritual confusion about something as basic about the Jewish New Year is similar to the situation during the Days of the Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). “For My people have committed two evils. They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).
Shofar show good
The Feast of the seventh month (which today is called Rosh Hashanah or the Jewish New Year) actually has a biblical name – Yom Teru’ah, the day of blowing/trumpeting/sounding of the shofar or ram’s horn (Numbers 29:1). Psalm 81:3 adds that the ram’s horn was sounded on the Feast of Trumpets, on the Feast of Tabernacles, at the other ordained feasts and also every month at the New Moon celebrations.
- The trumpet blast was seen as an intercessory act, reminding YHVH of His promises over the Jewish people (Numbers 10:10)
The word teru’ah (from the root ru’a) has another secondary meaning in Hebrew – a powerful shout-out of rejoicing – as used in the following passages:
- “Shout to God with a voice of joy!” (Psalms 47:1-2)
- “Shout joyfully to God, all the earth!” (Psalms 66:1)
- “Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob!” (Psalms 81:1)
- “Shout joyfully to YHVH, all the earth!” (Psalms 100:1)
The Feast of Trumpets is called zichron teru’ah in Leviticus 23:24. This term can be translated as ‘a memorial of trumpeting’ or ‘a memorial by shouting out.’
- The concept here is a day of shofar blasts as well as a day of gathering in public prayer where the faithful crowd shouts in unison, giving high praise to the name of YHVH (see Joshua 6:20 where shofar and shouting are both described)
The Talmud has a teaching that one of the purposes of the shofar blast on the Feast of Trumpets is to confuse Satan: “R. Isaac further said: If the shofar is not sounded at the beginning of the year, evil will befall at the end of it. Why so? Because the Accuser (ed. Satan) has not been confused” (TB RH 16b).
The Bible however does not connect the Feast of Trumpets to sadness, mourning or incipient danger. Numbers 10:10 instead refers to it as “the day of your gladness in your appointed convocations.” These celebrations were actually happy occasions of great joy. Psalm 81:1-3 refers to singing aloud, making a joyful shout, raising up a song by striking the tambourine, harp and lyre – and all this on the Feast of Trumpets!
Holy Fire on Rosh Hashanah
Here’s an interesting note about the biblical New Year – the one that takes place close to Passover. Moses tells us that YHVH commanded him to get the desert Tent of Meeting operational and dedicated by the 1st of Aviv, the Jewish New Year. On that date the fire of the Holy Spirit took up burning residence in the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
“Then YHVH spoke to Moses, saying, ‘On the first day of the first month you shall set up the tabernacle of the tent of meeting’… Now in the first month of the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was erected… Thus Moses finished the work…Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of YHVH filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of YHVH filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:1-2, 17, 33-35).
- The biblical Rosh Hashanah has the honor of being the day when the Ruach Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit, moved in visible form into the Mosaic Ohel Mo’ed (the Tent of Convocation)
A little bit of joy on the Day of Atonement?
It may surprise some that the Bible mentions blowing a shofar on Yom Kippur in only one verse. It’s found in the Book of Leviticus as part of a discussion about the Year of Jubilee (a joyous occasion) when once every fifty years each individual Israeli gets all his debts forgiven and wiped off the books:
“And you shall sound the blast of a shofar on the tenth of the month of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound a shofar throughout all your land. You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family” (Leviticus 25:9-10).
Jewish Blues – afflicting one’s soul is part of reason for the season
YHVH spoke to Moses about the Day of Atonement which comes ten days after the Feast of Trumpets. “You shall afflict your souls…For any person who does not afflict his soul on that same day shall be cut off from his people” (Numbers 23:26-29).
Here is a serious commandment which also carries a serious punishment for its violation. These few verses in the Book of Numbers are the main source for the Jewish people’s somber and subdued approach to the shofar and to these two holy convocations. The Feast of Trumpets kicks off a ten-day corridor to the Day of Atonement, when it was hoped that Israel’s national sins would be forgiven. Though there was much joy in the celebration of the Feast of Trumpets, there was an awareness that the Fast of Yom Kippur was on its way.
Every fifty years the Day of Atonement ended with a shofar blast, declaring the wiping away of a nation’s fiscal debt. This was an economic picture of something spiritual – how YHVH had only moments before this, covered, made atonement for and ‘wiped away’ the sin of the Jewish people (see Zechariah 3:1-5). The national response was a sober heart filled with humble thanks to God. After the shofar blast, that heart would now blossom with overflowing joy. The gates of praise swung open as the entire Jewish nation began preparations for the pilgrim feast of Sukkot, the Harvest Feast better known as Tabernacles.
The Bible connects trumpets and shofars to some powerful contexts – past, present and future:
- The fear-inspiring voice of the God of Israel sounded like a shofar – “So it came about on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunder and lightning flashes and a thick cloud upon the mountain and a very loud trumpet sound, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. And Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke because YHVH descended upon it in fire. And its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace and the whole mountain quaked violently. When the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him with thunder. YHVH came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, and YHVH called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. Then YHVH spoke to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people, so that they do not break through to YHVH to gaze, and many of them perish’” (Exodus 19:16-21)
- God’s shofar-like voice was unbearable in power – “The blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which sound was such that those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them” (Hebrews 12:19)
- The destructive power of the trumpets at the walls of Jericho – “So the people shouted, and priests blew the trumpets; and when the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted with a great shout and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight ahead, and they took the city” (Joshua 6:20)
- The earth-shaking power of praise and worship when trumpets, shofars and shout-outs blend – “Thus all Israel brought up the ark of the covenant of YHVH with shouting, and with sound of the horn, with trumpets, with loud-sounding cymbals, with harps and lyres” (1 Chronicles 15:28)
- The terrible Day of YHVH to be announced with a divine shofar – “Blow a shofar in Zion, And sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of YHVH is coming. Surely it is near” (Joel 2:1)
- The appearance of YHVH the warrior with shofar blast – “God has ascended with a shout, YHVH with the sound of a trumpet” (Psalm 47:5-6)
- YHVH will Himself blow a shofar as He destroys Israel’s enemies – “Then YHVH will appear over them and His arrow will go forth like lightning. And YHVH God will blow the shofar and will march in the storm winds of the south” (Zechariah 9:14)
- The prophetic End of the Jewish Exile will be accompanied by a shofar blast – “It will come about also in that day that a great shofar will be blown, and those who were perishing in the land of Assyria and who were scattered in the land of Egypt will come and worship YHVH in the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13)
- Messiah Yeshua will send out angels with a great shofar to gather together Israel’s scattered flock – “And He will send forth His angels with a great shofar and they will gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of the sky to the other” (Matthew 24:31)
- The resurrection of the dead will be accompanied by the sound of the shofar – “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:52)
- The return of Messiah Yeshua to Israel will be signaled by a shofar blast – “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Messiah will rise first” (1 Thessalonians 4:16)
As the High Holiday season draws near, it encourages our souls to remember all these shofar-related events. The shofar gives voice to our praise and our intercession. It accompanies our request for God to remember Israel in times of war (Numbers 10:9) and to visit our spiritual gatherings (Numbers 10:7). It is His clarion call to the Jewish people, emphasizing that YHVH never forgets a promise.
How should we then pray?
- Pray for the nation of Israel to receive a revelation of their God who both hears our prayers (mingled with the call of the shofar) and answers us (accompanied by His divine shofar blast)
- Pray for the Jewish people to reach out to their God during this season of heightened spiritual focus
- Pray for those who have given their lives to communicating the message of Messiah Yeshua’s atonement to His own precious people – that they might be encouraged, receive needed provision, and experience God’s enabling presence
- Pray for Messiah’s body to become even more attuned to how the God of Jacob is using His calendar as a catalyst and a holy milestone in bringing forth the salvation of Israel as well as life from the dead for the world
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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