Rosh Hashanah History

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This question was not really answered until the rabbinic period. The Mishnah, a compilation of rabbinic discussions that was codified around 200 CE, lists a grand total of four new years in each Jewish year (Tractate Rosh Hashana 1:1). The first is the New Year of Kings at the beginning of Nisan. It was as of this date that the regnal years of Jewish rulers were to be reckoned. In addition, this day also serves as the New Year of Festivals. Hence, many books on the Jewish holidays begin their discussions with Passover, the first festival of the year according to this reckoning. The second is the New Year for the tithing of cattle at the beginning of Elul, the sixth month (although, the Mishnah records, Rabbis Elazar and Simeon date this to the beginning of Tishrei). The third is the civil New Year at the beginning of Tishrei, which eventually also became the religiously observed New Year. This New Year also serves as the New Year of Sabbath and Jubilee years, as well as of planting and of vegetables. The fourth is the New Year of Trees at the beginning of Shevat, the eleventh month, although the tradition of the House of Hillel eventually became predominant, which began this new year on the 15th day of the month and gave us the minor holiday of Tu Bishvat (the fifteenth day of Shevat).

The Mishnah continues by referring to Rosh Hashanah as the day upon which all creatures stand in judgment before God (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). This theme is elaborated in the Gemara, a commentary on the Mishnah that dates to around 500 CE (Babylonian Talmud). According to this tradition, God opens three books on Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah 16b). In the first, the righteous are inscribed for life in the coming year. In the second, the wicked are inscribed for death. And in the third, the names of those who are not easily classified--in other words most people--are temporarily inscribed, while their behavior during the coming Ten Days of Repentance culminating on Yom Kippur will decide their fates during the coming year. For this reason, Rosh Hashanah is also referred to as Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment.

Because of the shofar that is sounded on Rosh Hashanah, the holiday is also designated as Yom Teruah, the Day of Sounding the Shofar. It is both a joyous and a solemn occasion. Since Rosh Hashanah had neither an agricultural nor a historical connection, the rabbis dated some previously undated events to this day. The importance of the shofar or ram's horn in the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah gave rise to a connection with the story of the Binding of Isaac, the Akedah, in which a ram caught in a thicket plays an important role. Indeed, this is the story that serves as one of the Torah readings on this holiday. In addition, some rabbis viewed this day as the anniversary of the creation of humanity (Yom Harat Olam) and of other significant events in biblical history (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a).

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