Three of the major feasts of the Jewish calendar occur in September and October. Embracing these feasts, and the principles upon which they are built, reminds Christians of their heritage and ultimately point squarely to the gospel. If you’re interested in learning more about the links between Judaism and Christianity, and finding Christ sitting at the table of tradition, check out Feast, a Bible study from Threads by Derek Leman.
Rosh Hashanah, like many Jewish traditions, can be confusing. The name Rosh Hashanah is not in the Bible. It means “head of the year” or “new year.” Yet nothing in the Bible says it’s the new year. It is, in fact, the first day of the seventh month in the Bible.
To begin to understand this confusing day, we need to go back to the beginning, to the Torah and what it says. What we find there seems rather unspectacular. Yet in modern Judaism this is one of the greatest days of all. So how did something so humble become so great?
Sometimes great things seem small. Sometimes the holy breaks through the insignificant. Sometimes a little thing is so profound it becomes a big thing:
“The LORD spoke to Moses: ‘Tell the Israelites: in the seventh month, on the first [day] of the month, you are to have a day of complete rest, commemoration and jubilation—a sacred assembly. You must not do any daily work, but you must present a fire offering to the LORD’” (Leviticus 23:23-25).
It’s a day of solemn rest—a Shabbaton. But every Sabbath is a solemn rest, according to Exodus 31:15. Every week from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown is a day of rest for Israel and the Jewish people. There is nothing unusual about Rosh Hashanah being a solemn rest. It’s also a sacred proclamation, a memorial. But again, other days are sacred proclamations and memorials.
The uniqueness is found in the trumpet blasts. It is a sacred proclamation with trumpet blasts. It is a day of blowing. No other day in the Jewish calendar is designated this way.
Was the first day of the seventh month a sort of Israelite jazz festival? Did horn players come from all over the Near East to play for shekels in the streets? No, this was a religious blowing. The trumpet in question was not a metal trumpet, though these also existed and were used in the Bible. The trumpet used for Rosh Hashanah is very different.
The trumpet used is called a shofar (sounds like “SO far”), or a ram’s horn. They can also be made from the horns of other animals. These were common trumpets. Every family could afford to have one. There were enough shofars in Israel to be able to fill the land with the sound on the first day of the seventh month.
The shofar was used in various ways in ancient Israel:
The trumpet was heard in God’s appearance at Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:16).
The trumpet was used to gather armies to battle (Judg. 3:27).
The trumpet marked the special Jubilee year in which debts were remitted and slaves set free (Lev. 25:9).
The trumpet was used at the coronation of kings (1 Kings 1:34).
The sound of the shofar gets your attention. It calls on you to hear. It may sound the alarm, announcing armies approaching or calling soldiers to battle. It may sound release, announcing the year of freedom, the Jubilee. But the sound of a trumpet always meant changing the status quo. The sharp sound called for attention and change.
The rabbis derived a command from Leviticus 23:24. They decided that God would not command the shofars to be blown unless the people were supposed to hear. Thus, it is a command in Judaism that every Jew who can hear must listen to a shofar on Rosh Hashanah. In ancient Israel, shofars were blown from every town, village, and hilltop throughout the land.
Imagine it: Across the semi-arid hills a wavering note issues. It is joined by another and another, miles apart yet joining in a chorus. Long blasts of one mighty note, wavering blasts of three mournful notes, and punctuated blasts of nine triumphant notes issue in succession. This music of the hills is calling to the land. It’s speaking to everyone who has ears to hear.
But what is it saying? Are there armies approaching? Must the men, women, and children of Israel’s many towns and villages prepare for war? Huddled in their courtyards the people listen. But on Rosh Hashanah, it’s a blessing to hear the sound. It’s also a commandment to hear the sound.