Rosh Hashanah, which means “head of the year” in Hebrew, is the Jewish New Year festival celebrated in the fall. It is one of the High Holidays in Judaism, marking the beginning of the High Holy Days season which culminates 10 days later on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world and marks the beginning of the Days of Awe, a 10-day period of introspection and repentance culminating in Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.
The Bible does not explicitly mention Rosh Hashanah by name. However, it refers to a day of shofar blasts and sacrifice taking place on the first day of the seventh month, which later came to be known as Rosh Hashanah. The Torah calls this day Yom Teruah, meaning “day of blasting” (Leviticus 23:23-25). It was to be a Sabbath day of complete rest, commemorated with trumpet blasts, sacred assemblies, and sacrifices.
Over time, Jewish sages came to understand Yom Teruah as more than just a day of trumpet blasts. They began to see it as a day of judgment, when God opens the books of life and death and inscribes the fate of every person for the coming year. The blasts of the shofar came to be understood as a call to repentance and introspection in preparation for the solemn day of judgment.
Thus, Rosh Hashanah emerged as a day to recognize God’s sovereignty over the world, reflect on one’s actions from the past year, and resolve to improve in the new year. While the Bible does not explicitly call it the “New Year”, the idea of Rosh Hashanah marking the beginning of a new annual cycle became a core part of its meaning and observance.
Here are some key biblical themes and passages related to the themes of Rosh Hashanah:
God’s Sovereignty Over the World
The Bible connects Rosh Hashanah with recognizing God’s rule over the universe. In the Torah, it was a day of rest and remembrance, just as God rested after creating the world (Exodus 20:8-11). The blast of the shofar was meant to evoke God’s power as Creator and King.
Psalm 47 captures this theme of praising God as King over all the earth: “God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth” (Psalm 47:5-7). The psalm expresses joy at God’s reign over the world which is marked by the trumpet blast.
Call to Repentance
Rosh Hashanah is also understood as a day of introspection and repentance, as we recognize our shortcomings and seek to return to God. The ten days starting with Rosh Hashanah and leading up to Yom Kippur are known as the Days of Awe or Days of Repentance.
The sound of the shofar came to signify a spiritual wake-up call, stirring Jews to repent and change their ways. The prophets spoke of the trumpet blasts warning the people to repent and return to God or face judgment (Isaiah 58:1, Joel 2:1). Passages like Zephaniah 2:1-3 encourage seeking God sincerely during this period.
Day of Judgment
Over time, Rosh Hashanah became associated with the idea of God’s annual judgment of humanity. It came to be seen as a day when God reviews each person’s deeds from the past year and decides their fate for the coming year.
References like Psalm 75:2-3 contributed to this understanding of Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment: “At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity. When the earth totters, and all its inhabitants, it is I who keep steady its pillars.” This passage portrays God judging the world at His appointed time.
Certain food traditions emerged to symbolize the sweetness and blessings hoped for in the new year. These include apples dipped in honey and round raisin challah bread. The apples represent wishes for a sweet new year, while the circular challah loaves signify hopes for an annual renewal.
These customs are not mentioned directly in the Bible but became part of the Rosh Hashanah tradition based on general biblical imagery associating sweetness with blessing (Psalm 119:103, Proverbs 24:13). The circular shape of the challah loaves evokes themes of cyclical renewal found in passages like Ecclesiastes 1:5-7 and Lamentations 3:22-23.
The sounding of the shofar remains central to Rosh Hashanah observances to this day. The ram’s horn calls Jews to repent and reminds them of important biblical events and covenants.
In the Torah, the shofar blast was associated with God’s appearance on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19:16-19). It came to symbolize the revelatory moment when God spoke the Ten Commandments and entered into covenant with Israel. The shofar thus serves as a reminder of this defining moment in Israel’s history and their ongoing covenant relationship with God.
The Bible also associates shofar blasts with battle, such as when Israel marched around Jericho (Joshua 6). The cries of the shofar evoke a sense of spiritual warfare as each person is called to repent and confront their inner flaws sincerely during the Days of Awe.
Lastly, the shofar is integrally tied with the Messianic Age to come. The prophets spoke of the shofar sounding when God would gather exiled Jews back to Israel and the Messiah would come (Isaiah 27:13, Zechariah 9:14). The shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah anticipate this future redemption.
Rosh Hashanah synagogue services incorporate key rituals and liturgy that developed in the post-biblical era:
– Reciting blessings over apples and honey
– Eating circular raisin challah
– Blowing the shofar
– Reading the Torah and Haftarah portions that mention themes like the birth of a child (ex. Genesis 21, 1 Samuel 1:1-2:10)
– Reciting poems like Un’tane Tokef which summarize Rosh Hashanah themes and were added to the liturgy in medieval times
– Tashlich – ceremonial casting off of sins into a natural body of water
These rituals enrich the community’s celebration of Rosh Hashanah and connection with its core spiritual themes, even if they are not mandated in Scripture.
Rosh Hashanah is deeply significant in terms of Jewish theology:
– It celebrates God’s sovereignty as Creator and King over the universe.
– It calls Jews to return to right relationship with God through repentance.
– It affirms God’s justice in evaluating and judging humanity.
– It points toward the age of redemption and the coming of the Messiah.
– It commemorates the divine-human covenant sealed at Sinai.
– It fosters humility and worry over one’s sins during the Days of Awe.
– It cultivates hope and anticipation for God’s blessing in the new year.
– It emphasizes the importance of shofar blasts and their various symbolic meanings.
– It encourages festive celebration and community solidarity through symbols like apples and honey and challah.
In summary, Rosh Hashanah emerged from the biblical holy day of Yom Teruah into a more developed celebration of renewal, repentance, and anticipation centered around the majesty and judgment of God. Bible verses mentioning trumpet blasts, judgment, repentance, and God’s sovereignty helped shape an understanding of Rosh Hashanah that has endured through Jewish history. Though not mandated in Scripture, the holiday’s core themes remain deeply rooted in the biblical text. For Jews worldwide, Rosh Hashanah continues to mark a pivotal moment of spiritual awakening and rededication to God each fall.