The Inspirational History of Rosh Hashanah
If sanctity be measured by synagogue attendance, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur win hands down. But that perception was not always fact. The Days of Awe as we know them are rabbinic and not biblical in origin. Their function and meaning are embedded in their emergence, and that story is contained for us in a single paragraph of the Mishnah. The passage (Rosh Hashanah 1:2) reads as follows:
The world is judged four times a year: at Passover for grain (the beginning of the barley harvest in Israel); on Shavuot for the fruits of the tree (the beginning of the wheat harvest and the season for bringing first fruits to the Temple); on Rosh Hashanah all humans on earth pass before Him as a troop of legionnaires, as it says in Scripture (Psalm 34:15), “He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings”; and at Sukkot they are judged in regard to water (how much rain will fall in the coming winter). (trans. mine)
This is the first appearance of the name of Rosh Hashanah. Indeed, the entire tractate of the Mishnah bears that name. By the time of the Mishnah (about 200 CE), the lineaments of the festival are fully drawn; it marks the start of a new year and a period of divine judgment. In the synagogue, the shofar is sounded and the Musaf Amidah is punctuated by prayers declaring God’s sovereignty, pleading for divine remembrance, and making reference to the shofar, with each to be accompanied by ten verses from Scripture.
What is astonishing is that neither the name, nor the ritual, nor the purpose of the festival appear anywhere in the Tanakh. From the passing references in Leviticus 23:23 and Numbers 29:1-6, we know only that the first day of the seventh month was a “sacred occasion” commemorated by cessation of work, the blowing of an instrument and the offering of sacrifices. When the exiled inhabitants of Judah returned from the Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem in the final decades of the sixth century BCE, they began sacrificing on their newly built altar on the first day of the seventh month, yet the book of Ezra makes no mention of that day being a “sacred occasion” (3:6). Similarly, a half-century later, Ezra, the priest and Torah scholar (7:12), convened an assembly of returnees in Jerusalem on the first day of the seventh month to instruct them in God’s revelation to Moses, and again the day is bereft of any special designation, choreography, or sanctity (Nehemiah 8:2; the holiness of the day derives from the public reading, 8:11-12). In both these narratives, the festival singled out for immediate observance is Sukkot.
The novelty of our particular mishnah actually extends beyond Rosh Hashanah. There is no scriptural basis for associating any of the three pilgrimage festivals with a divine assize. To be sure, they are closely linked to the fertility of the soil in the Tanakh, but the angst of our mishnah is missing. Its thrust is rather to reaffirm the biblical principle of reward and punishment by concretizing it into four annual judicial reviews. Perhaps it was felt necessary after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE to assert again that God still governs the world by a moral calculus. The recent calamities of Jewish history should not bring one to embrace the view of the Epicureans that we inhabit a world careening without providence.
But there is still more to our compact mishnah. A discrepancy mars the balance between the three pilgrimage festivals and Rosh Hashanah. The judgment meted out on the former is collective. The fate of the crops and the amount of rainfall are calculated in reference to the standards of the group. The righteousness or depravity of the individual is submerged in the average. Here too the reinterpretation of the pilgrimage festivals as fateful moments is in the spirit of the Tanakh, with its overwhelming emphasis on collective responsibility.
In contrast, Rosh Hashanah for the first time holds out the prospect of divine recompense to the individual. For a brief moment each year, you and I merit God’s undivided attention. The idea is so new that it requires a biblical prooftext. None was felt necessary for the extension of the pilgrimage festivals. The stretch in meaning seemed unforced. The prooftext itself was well chosen. In context, the psalmist pictures a remote God bridging the vast distance between heaven and earth with love. Transcendence does not mean disengagement.
Equally indicative is the presence in our mishnah of the Latin word numerus (i.e., the counting of legionnaires). The Mishnah does not abound with Latin loan words. The occurrence and image suggest the formulation of the idea at a time when Roman rule was firmly ensconced in Judea. By then the need to decouple the fate of the individual from that of the group could no longer be denied. Pressure from within and without compelled rabbinic leadership to make salvation accessible to individuals entirely on their own. Already in the third and second centuries BCE, according to Elias J. Bickerman:
The mysteries (i.e., mystery cults) compensated for a horrifying deficiency that was common to the official worship of both Greece and Israel. The ultimate purpose of all Greek mysteries was to secure for the initiate a chosen lot in the world to come, to give him the hope of individual survival.. The achievement of the Pharisees was to channel this current into the mainstream of Jewish tradition. (The Jews in the Greek Age, 254)
Our mishnah is evidence of that struggle. Rosh Hashanah emerged in the few centuries between the closing of the canon and the publication of the Mishnah. The response, however, triggered by external factors, bore a distinctively biblical hue. The religion of the Tanakh is thoroughly this-worldly and so is the comfort afforded the individual by Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah did not go the whole nine yards. The hope held out by Rosh Hashanah is not for life eternal but only the promise of one more year. The rewards for each one of the hearings in our mishnah are proximate. The power of Rosh Hashanah derives not from the lure of salvation but from the confrontation with our mortality. In the end, the day was designed to improve the lot of humanity by motivating each of us to do our utmost in the year to come. Private virtue is the fundament of good public policy. Strikingly, an enormous expenditure of spiritual energy culminates in the most modest of requests: “Just one more year, O Lord.” In assuming our individual responsibility to the fullest, though, we together might just enhance the welfare of everyone.
The history of Rosh Hashanah, then, illuminates not only the meaning of the day, but also the nature of authentic reform: a change in circumstances elicits an innovation decidedly Jewish in spirit.