The story of the origin of the Rosh Hashana remains incomplete unless we know the history of the Hebrews. We come to know about the early Hebrews mainly from their own writings in the Old Testament, stories from the Bible, and excavations over the past century.
The Hebrews were descended from wandering tribes of Semites in the Near East. They were not at first one people, although their languages were very similar, and they did not all arrive in what was to become their land at the same time. The first tribe had been living in Mesopotamia at the end of the 3rd millennium B.C.
Then at around 1900 B.C. their lifestyle changed as they were led by Abraham, an experienced farmer, to move westwards in search of new land to settle down and start a strife-free living. It is believed that Abraham, a great devotee of Hashem, the lord of God, was even ready to sacrifice his own son when asked to do so. But later Hashem, who was testing his devotion, prevented him. Finally a ram was sacrificed in the place of his son.
After much wandering, the Hebrews under Abraham, settled near Hebron in lower Canaan. Before long other Semitic tribes joined them, or set up separate communities nearby. There these Semites, later called the Hebrews, continued their life.
But with the rough and dry climate Palestine proved to be unfit for living to the descendants of Abraham and his tribesmen. Some of the more enterprising Hebrews left the country and sought a new and more secure living in the fertile Nile Delta. The pharaohs there accepted them for their abilities and special skills.
Then in about 1750 B.C. Egypt was invaded by the Hyksos. These Semitic warriors were kinsmen of the Hebrews. Hebrews enjoyed some prosperity under the Hyksos.
But when Pharoah Ahmose I, finally expelled the Hyksos from Egypt, the Hebrews had to pay the price of their kinship. They were enslaved and had to spend their lives working on the enormous monuments and tombs that the pharaohs had erected for themselves. This bondage lasted some three hundred or more years.
In about 1250 B.C. a new religious leader, named Moses, emerged among the Hebrews in Egypt. This great man, of high intelligence and strong moral principles, determined to win a better life for his people. He organised a resistance campaign against their Egyptian masters. Concerned by this the Pharaoh, Rameses II, allowed Mosses to lead his people out of the country altogether. This movement back towards Canaan is called the Exodus. It was an event of vital significance in Hebrew history. Because it gave them the feeling of national unity for the first time.
Moses turned to the formulation of laws and the establishment of religious principles. The Biblical story of the laws of Moses is a simple one. The great leader presented the Ten Commandments dictated to him by God to the people in the Sinai desert. Over the centuries the Hebrews had developed and after Moses they continued to develop – a whole moral and practical code of living which they called the Torah.
The basis of this is found in the first five books of the Old Testament (i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). The Torah has similarities with the Code of Hamurabi, from which some of it is derived. What Moses did was to organize the compilation of these laws and principles as he found them and provide a background for his successors to improve upon.
As a result, for the next few centuries at all events, few Hebrew leaders of war or government were not also religious leaders. Many of them were prophets, as well, whose careers and sayings are preserved in the books of the Old Testament.
Moses, however, died before the Hebrews actually reached Canaan. When they did get there they split up into tribal communities, each retaining a sort of independence under the accepted laws. But it was not long before the Hebrew settlers ran into trouble with the other peoples who had already been living in Canaan for a long time. Among these were warlike cousins of the Phoenicians, the Philistines, who occupied a series of small towns along the coast Mount Carmel. Gradually they built up a chain of strong and beautiful cities, joined loosely by a sort of federation.
The Philistines ragarded the Hebrews as a dangerous threat to their security and the two peoples often went to war. It was Samson who led the Hebrews to score victory against the Philistines. After Samson’s death it was Saul, an able statesman, under whom the Hebrews set up their first royal dynasty. Though not a good general, he did set the stage for a workable political organization which was successfully continued by his son-in-law David.
David was elected the King of the Hebrews in about 1010 B.C. A soldier, statesman, prophet and law-giver, he is best remembered from the Bible for his exploit in slaying the Philistine giant, Goliath, with a stone hurled from his sling. It has become an allegory for what must have been the real achievement of a defeat of the Philistines by a Hebrew army of much smaller size. He ruled for nearly 30 years and enlarged Hebrew territory. It was under him that a small town of Jerusalem was turned into the capital city of his kingdom. David was succeeded by his son Solomon after his death in 970 B.C. Solomon earned name in history for his rich and wisdom.
After Solomon’s death the political unity of the Hebrews collapsed. And the kingdom was divided into two unequal and independent parts – Israel, the larger, in the north with Samaria as the capital, and Judah, the smaller, in the South, retaining Jerusalem.
Later Israel began to decline as the old habit of tribal quarrelling continued. In 721 B.C. Sargon II, king of Assyria, invaded Israel, captured Samaria, and deported the Israeli’s leaders and most of the people to Mesopotamia, from which they did not return.
Meanwhile the smaller kingdom of Judah did not suffer the severe Assyrian domination. In 586 B.C. the Babylonian king Nebuchadnazzar II, invaded the country and captured Jerussalem. He destroyed much of Solomon’s great temple and many other public buildings. after the destruction of the First Temple and the consequent exile, the glory of Israel was dashed to the ground.
It was during the rule of Cyrus the Great of Persia who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. the Jews regained some powers. Then they rebuilt Solomon’s temple and reconstructed the decaying city of Jerusalem. Thereafter the Jews lived more or less peacefully through self governance for five hundred years. Then in 70 B.C. when the Jews visited the Roman edicts, the emperor Vespasian’s son Titus took Jerusalem. Following this the Jewish people dispersed and left their land to make a living as best they could in different countries throughout the world.
Strange but true. Though “Rosh Hashanah” heralds the beginning of the pious 10-day period of ‘High Holy Days’ it is not found in the Torah’s discussion. Torah is a compilation of moral and practical code of living the Hebrews had developed over the centuries and its development continued even after Moses. The basis of the Torah is laid in the first five books of the Old Testament (i.e. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
If Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Ha-Zikkaron (the day of remembrance) or Yom Teruah (a day of Shofar blowing), it appears twice in the Torah.
One time it is mentioned in Vayikra 23:24 – “…In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall you have a sabbath, a remembrance of blowing of horns (“zikhron teru’ah”), a holy gathering…”.
Again it is found in Bamidbar 29:1 – “…It is a day of blowing the horn (“yom teru’ah”) to you”.
Now, the Torah gives no specific reason why the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashana. Rosh Hodesh in biblical times was celebrated in a far more festive fashion than it is today and the blowing on Rosh Hodesh is defined as “a statute for Israel, an ordinance of the God of Yaakov”.
Thus, blowing horns is not particular to Rosh Hashana, but rather is a characteristic to every Rosh Hodesh (new month) – in the form of the blowing of the trumpets. It is blown as an act of remembrance. Why then Rosh is exclusively called a festival of Shofar? It is also possible that blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana has special significance beyond that of every Rosh Hodesh.
The meaning of remembrance here is special attention. Zikaron implies that special attention is paid to the object of remembrance as the attention of God is sought for Noah [Bereishit 8:1] as well as Avraham [ibid. 19:28] and Rachel [ibid. 30:22]. The Torah is teaching us that from that moment onwards special providence and close guidance (‘hashgaha’) was provided for those individuals.
|Food laid out for an evening feast|
Following the period of Bnei Yisrael’s servitude in Egypt, the time comes for their salvation – “And God remembered his covenant… and God knew” [Shmot 2:24-25]. From that moment, Bnei Yisrael were under Hashem’s special ‘hashgaha’. See the
History of Hebrews
According to the great Jewish scholar, Rambam (Maimondies), the Shofar is blown on Rosh Hashana to say, “Wake up! Wake up, everyone who is asleep! Remember your Creator! Instead of going around doing things that are not important or worthwhile, take some time to think about what you can do to make yourself into a better person. Give up doing bad things!”
Rav Saadia Gaon gave many reasons for blowing the Shofar, here are some:
“…Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. The Shofar reminds us of Akeidas Yitzchak, (the Binding of Isaac) where Abraham sacrificed a ram in the place of his son. The shofar reminds us that Hashem will redeem the Jewish people. The shofar is the call of redemption.
The shofar is not blown if Rosh Hashana falls on a Shabbat…”
As a result, “all the practical individuality – of keeping Torah and mitzvot in their individual detail and conceptual individuality the beliefs concerning the individual’s personal connection with eternal life and the individual striving towards it – which had formerly revealed itself and existed as the manifestation of the Divine Idea…
now, with the disappearance of the great light of the nation during the time of the Second Temple, was confined and manifest in its special individual character.” Israel lost its nationhood, and now each individual stood on his own merit.
From then on, G_d did not “remember” Am Israel as a whole, but rather “remembered” each individual separately.
|Taking time to worship|
And when each person is judged individually, the Day of Remembrance obviously takes on a much more profound aspect of judgement, and fear replaces joy. The individual is no longer able to hide himself among the many – he stands alone before the King of Judgment.
Customs and Traditions
The Feast of Trumpets
Food and festivals are intertwined together. The Rosh Hashana is no exception to this.
The rituals used as a part of this ‘feast of trumpets’, or the feast of shofar, is a festive feast.
It is a Minhag (custom) during the New Year season featuring sweet foods as a symbol of our desire for a sweet year.
According to the Talmud, the Jewish scripture, symbolic acts are performed as a good omen, and also as an expression of prayer that the New Year brings good for all.
The challahs are dipped in honey; and afterwards, on the first night, a piece of apple dipped in honey is also eaten. Honey is also a main ingredient in many holiday recipes.
After the appropriate blessing on the apple, it is added: “May it be Your will to renew for us a good and sweet year.” Other customs include eating the head of a fish, pomegranates and carrots. These foods are eaten as “simanim,” “good omens,” of success and happiness for the coming year.
|Taking in some of the festivities|
It is also customary to refrain from sleep during the day of Rosh Hashana, and rather to engage in Torah study or other spiritually productive activity. If one is idle, it is as if he slept. The Talmud Yerushalmi writes, “If one sleeps at the year’s beginning, his good fortune likewise sleeps.”
And remember no nuts please on Rosh Hashanah, mainly because the gematria (numeric value) of the Hebrew word for “nut,” “egoz” is the same as that for the Hebrew word for “sin,” “chet.”.
Finally please keep anger at bay on Rosh Hashana. Always remember that G-d judges us in the same manner as we judge other people. If we get angry easily, so will be He.
Whatever is done remember:
Y’hee ratzon Hashem sheh-tichadesh alainu shana tovah oomtookah.
“May it be your will Hashem that you renew for us a good and sweet year.”
|Prayer at the Western Wall in Jerusalem|
This is a popular Minhagim of Rosh Hashana. Tashlich is “casting off” of sins. It is performed after the Mincha prayers, on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashana. However, if Rosh Hashana falls on a Shabbat, then Tashlich is performed on the second day. We walk to a body of flowing water, preferably one containing live fish, say a special prayer, and symbolically empty our pockets into the river, casting off our sins.
The Tashlich service is a Minhag based on the verse from Micah (7:9) “and cast into the depths of the sea all their sins”.
In fact, a great deal of time is spent in the synagogue on Yomim Nora’im, praying to Hashem that our sins be forgiven and that we be inscribed in the “Book” of Life.