From Day of the Trumpet to Rosh Hashanah

There is some debate over whether this holiday really is the “head of the year.” The Bible holds some clues

By Tsvi Sadan | | Topics: Bible, Jewish Holidays
Sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

In this series, we highlight the upcoming Jewish Holidays, their prophetic and practical significance for today.

The beautiful melancholic song, written by Astar Shamir and popularized by singer Galli Atari, opens with “the year begins at mid-September by increasing fury and anger, storm winds are fighting all around, winter kills and harvests.” This song, written in an entirely different context, still alludes to Rosh Hashanah and captures so well the holiday’s mood. 

On this mid-September day, the first day of the month of Tishrei, according to Jewish tradition, God leaves His Mercy Seat for his Judgement Seat, an idea taken from Psalm 47:6, where it states that “God has gone up with a shout [trump blast], the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.” From the eve of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, so it goes, God is judging the people of Israel, which is why during these Ten Days of Awe, Jews who care are preoccupied with special prayers of repentance, called selichot.

But the Bible itself says nothing about any of this. It only marks the first day of the seventh month as a special day in which the sound of the trumpet (shofar) should be heard. It leaves out any explanation for this day, which, in turn, actually begs an explanation. This is a well-established idea in Judaism, which has long understood that on its own, the Bible is at best inexplicable. Working from the assumption that the Torah was handed down from heaven to the hands of the people of Israel, as it says “for this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven,” it was incumbent upon Israel’s sages to fill in the information left out by the Bible. The missing information, in turn, isn’t really missing. Though left out from the sacred text itself, it nevertheless can be found in Israel’s sacred Oral Tradition.

With this in mind, then, the idea that Israel has to work out the meaning of the Trumpet Day also means that whatever conclusion is reached, it is Israel’s responsibility to act upon it. This means that repentance, a key theme of this day, is not God’s initiative, but Israel’s. This is a whole different thing from Passover, where God takes full responsibility for Israel’s redemption, always the consequence of repentance.

This matches the significance of the trumpet itself. Many times does the Bible record that Israel’s kings were recognized as such only when they were properly coronated with the sound of the trumpet, which made the people tremble either in excitement or fear, or both. When David called his trusted men to coronate Solomon, he had instructed Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet to anoint him king over Israel along with the blowing of the trumpet and shouts of ‘Long live King Solomon.’ From this we come to realize that the trumpet blasts heard when God descended from heaven to give the Law to Moses announced to Israel that God Himself was king over them.

The annual coronation of God as king over Israel with the sounding of the trumpet at Rosh Hashanah, therefore, is, again, a voluntary act on the part of the people of Israel, as oppose to the Mount Sinai event, where divine coercion left Israel with no choice but to accept God as their king. This, in turn, changes God’s attitude toward the penitents, who, of their own free will are asking Him to be their king and forgive their sins. This is why, even when perceived as sitting upon his Judgment Seat, the worshipers rehearse time and again the 13 attributes of God, as if to remind Him of who He really is. Without explaining, these attributes are:  “(1) The Lord, (2) the Lord (3) God, (4) merciful (5) and gracious, (6) longsuffering, (7) and abundant in goodness (8) and truth, (9) keeping mercy for thousands, (10) forgiving iniquity (11) and transgression (12) and sin, (13) and acquitting the guilty” (Exodus 34:6-7, according to the Hebrew text and the division of Maimonides).

And lastly, the Trumpet Day was always the “civil” New Year, while Passover remains the “religious” new year, and for the same reason that any divine explanation of this holiday was left out for Israel to determine its meaning. Passover is God’s work. The first day of the month of Tishrei, the first month of the Jewish calendar, is, according to Jewish tradition, the day on which Adam was created, and given freedom to choose between good and evil. 

Likewise, on Rosh Hashanah, we too are set free to choose afresh good over evil, hence becoming a new creation on New Year’s Day.

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