We move into the summer months of Tammuz and Av. It’s holiday time, the sun’s out (in the northern hemisphere) and, certainly in the Land of Israel, it’s hot, hot, hot.
In terms of agriculture, Bible history and the prophetic, it’s a time of silence, waiting, inactivity. It’s a time of lazing on the beach, reading a pulp novel, resting before the recommencing of the busyness. Rabbis use the summer months to recharge their spiritual batteries. It’s the time of Moses and the Children of Israel, moaning and wandering around in circles in the desert. No real progress is made, but, although the days are not significant, the clock is still ticking. All is quiet on the Western Front and, then …
Returning to the Children of Israel, waiting for Moses at the foot of Sinai, for them it is hotter, hotter, hotter. You see, Moses was still up the mountain with God. He may have climbed the mountain at Shavuot, but remember he was to be in God’s presence for forty days and nights receiving the Ten Commandments and finer points of the Law. Eventually he came down and … oh dear!
Now Jews are not known for their patience and the people waiting all those days at the foot of the mountain distract themselves by building a golden calf and offering sacrifices to it. God is most displeased and offers to blot them out and start building up a new people from Moses’ family. Moses does not take up this offer and reminds God of the great investment He has made in these people, urging Him to continue with the line of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These are verses worth re-reading for those who believe that prayer can’t change situations!
Having broken the stone tablets of the Law in disgust at this behaviour, Moses was to schlep up Mount Sinai for another forty days and nights. Meanwhile, back to the future (or our present) …
The silence of the summer months is shattered by a loud trumpet sound. It’s not a shiny engineered brass trumpet, but rather a twisty, ungainly and whiffy ram’s horn, the shofar. It’s still hot, the end of summer, but the mood has changed. Paperbacks are discarded, beaches are deserted and navels are examined. It’s the beginning of the time of introspection, a forty day period, a kind of Jewish Lent, the first thirty days taking over the whole month of Elul. These forty days, according to tradition, coincide with Moses’ second trip up Mount Sinai, for the second set of stone tablets.
Not a happy month, the shofar is blown every morning and the theme is repent! Repent! Repent, before it is too late! This is the season of repentance, or return to the Lord, teshuvah. You’ve got thirty days to get right with the Lord. The Jewish sage, Maimonides, gives four steps to achieving this – Stop what you’re doing if it’s a wrong action, have regret for doing it, verbalise this regret to God, then make a plan, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So, that’s the theme for the month and it is paramount that a good job is made of it because a day is coming …
On the first day of the next month, Tishrei, that day arrives. It is the Feast of Trumpets (Yom Teruah), also known as the Head of the Year (Rosh Hashanah), also known as the Day of Judgement (Yom HaDin). It is the Day of the Awakening Blast. The shofar blows extra hard this day, at least a hundred times during a typical synagogue service, so if that doesn’t wake you up, you are already dead! Leviticus talks about this day.
The LORD said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present an offering made to the LORD by fire.’ ” (Leviticus 23:23)
Two things are suggested, both surprising. Firstly, God tells the Jewish people to rest, gather together, blow the shofar and offer sacrifices. So this they do, a couple of million Israelites milling around in the desert, shofars being blown throughout the camp and the great plumes of smoke rising to the sky with the smell of charred flesh. The shofar stops, then silence as all look to Moses and a single voice asks, “what’s the deal here, Moses?” You see, the Bible never actually says why we have the Feast of Trumpets! Everything that is associated with this feast, apart from the blowing of the shofar, comes to us from Jewish tradition. Which brings me to the second point.
No. Rosh Hashanah is not the New Year, Biblically speaking. As already said, the name means “head of the year”, it is also called the “birthday of the world”. Tradition tells us that God created the world on this day, hence you can see how it came to be known as New Year’s day. In fact it’s known as the civic, or secular, New Year and Jewish calendars mark this fact but, as the verse above shows, it is the first day of the seventh month, Tishrei.
New Years Day in our calendar is a time of celebration, starting in the pubs and clubs on the night before and usually completed by a long lie-in or invigorating walk in the countryside. Rosh Hashanah, by way of contrast, offers nothing to celebrate. For a start, we are still in the period of navel – gazing, teshuvah, and decision time has been reached – not by any human beings but by God Himself. If you are a righteous Jew He writes your name in the Book of Life and if you’re a wicked Jew, your name goes into the Book of Death. As it is unclear who these people are, at least to the people themselves (the wicked being in denial and the righteous being too modest to call themselves so), most (in fact all of them, if you think about it) go into neither book. This is because God, according to tradition, gives folk one last chance, over the next ten days, the Days of Awe, to repent before it is too late! Synagogues go into overdrive during this period to remind their (hopefully) trembling flock to sort themselves out before it is too late.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book ‘Jesus Man of Many Names’)
What is the significance of the festival Rosh Hashanah?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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