When do Jewish people celebrate the New Year? Three times a year! How can that be? Well, first, according Exodus 12:1-2, Passover is to mark “the beginning of months” and “the first month of the year.” Second, since everyone else seems to celebrate on January 1, Jewish people do as well—that’s a secular New Year. And third, on Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew words meaning New Year or literally, the Head of the Year. Beginning tomorrow night, Jewish people will celebrate our spiritual New Year. Three new years may sound strange, but when we think about it, most Americans celebrate a new school year in the Fall, a new year on January 1, and many companies also observe a fiscal new year on July 1. So, as the old saying goes, Jewish people are just like everyone else, only more so. Today, I want to focus on Rosh Hashanah by understanding its biblical roots, current observance, and practical significance.
The festival is found in the Bible in Leviticus 23:24-25 which has a holy day on the first day of the 7th month. It is to be a complete rest (in Hebrew, a Shabbaton) along with trumpet blowing. Since biblical days, this Holy Day includes the blowing of a ram’s horn, a shofar, which has a serious and haunting sound. Since the festival begins the Hebrew calendar’s penitential season, these trumpet blasts were designed as a call to repentance, to prepare people for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later. Numbers 29:1-6 repeats the Shabbaton and trumpet blowing requirements and adds various sacrifices, which, of course, are not carried out any longer, since the Jewish people no longer have a tabernacle or temple.
Current observance of the Feast of Trumpets dates back to the Babylonian exile. Apparently, the Babylonians observed their New Year in September. While the Jewish people went into exile there, they attached the New Year’s significance to the feast of Trumpets, the holy day they were already observing. That’s how the name Rosh Hashanah (New Year) was attached to Feast of Trumpets with an emphasis on renewal, particularly spiritual renewal with the beginning of the season of atonement.
This leads to a second aspect of current Rosh Hashanah observance— repentance. With Yom Kippur coming 10 days later, the shofar is blown to call people to repentance. Special penitential prayers are said, acknowledging our guilt before God. Beginning with this festival, for 10 days, known as the Days of Awe, people make amends with their family, friends, neighbors and anyone else they may have wronged. All this is good but has led to an unfortunate reliance on good deeds in order to find forgiveness with God. According to traditional teaching, “repentance, prayer and deeds of righteousness” cancel God’s judgment for sin. However, according to Scripture, we are forgiven by God’s grace through faith, just as “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Righteous deeds are good as an expression of our forgiveness, not as a source of it.
A third emphasis of Rosh Hashanah is remembrance. According to rabbinic teaching, every year, God takes out three books. One for those who are totally wicked, one for those who are completely righteous (that’s a small book—only one person ever made it into that one), and one book with those who have done both good and bad. God then remembers their deeds and weighs their future.
Finally, there is an emphasis on royalty, emphasizing God as King and therefore our judge. Again, according to rabbinic teaching, God judges our fate on Rosh Hashanah and inscribes whether we’re to live or die in the upcoming year. It’s taught about God’s judgment, that “on Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.” That’s why Jewish people give the New Year’s greeting, “May you be inscribed for a good year.” Also, why we eat sweet treats on Rosh Hashanah, like apples dipped in honey, or honey cake, or pastries slathered in honey. It is all about our longing for a sweet year.
So is there any practical significance to celebrating Rosh Hashanah? I suggest this is a season of introspection. This would be good time to obey 2 Cor 13:5 which exhorts us to examine yourselves “to see if you are in the faith.” All our good works and penitential prayers are unable to achieve forgiveness with God, whether we are Jewish or Gentile. We need to trust that Jesus died as our sacrificial atonement and was raised to life, in order to experience God’s forever forgiveness. This is a good season to examine ourselves and make sure we have put our trust in the Messiah Jesus.
Another personal examination I suggest is, if I know I’ve trusted in Jesus, ask myself, am I living my life in a way that is worthy of Him? Paul exhorts us to “walk in a manner worthy of our calling” as followers of Messiah Jesus (Eph 4:1).
Another area of self reflection is to consider whether we are serving the Lord Jesus to the best of our ability? He has given us spiritual gifts and talents with which to serve Him. Are we using them to bring honor to the Lord Jesus? One day, we’ll all stand before Him and we should want to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
I’m frequently asked about my observance of Jewish Holy Days. Do you observe Rosh Hashanah? Absolutely. I love the sweets and other special foods. But what’s most meaningful to me is the blowing of the shofar and its piercing cry, calling me, and you, to draw closer to the Lord in the coming year. And with that thought, let me say to you, shana tovah umitukah—May you have a good and sweet year!