Israel’s missing milestone or, whatever happened to the real “Rosh Hashana”?

Photo by Beth Woodrum/Wikimedia Commons

The Biblical New Year, Rosh Ha-Hodashim, fell this year on April 6 (beginning sundown April 5).
And as it rolled past again, the Jewish community made no attempt to honor or keep it.
Learn why the followers of Yeshua can and should restore this neglected commandment.

Nearly everyone who knows anything about Jewish tradition has learned that the Talmudic sages fixed the first of the Seventh Month, or Tishrei 1, as the primary New Year observance for the Jewish people, based on a non-Biblical teaching that “on this day the world was created.” Those 1st and 2nd -century rabbis are also credited with agreeing to ignore the Biblically commanded New Year (the first of the First Month, or Nisan 1) – not quite cancelling it, but downgrading it to an insignificant status where it was soon forgotten.

Oddly, the Talmud itself says otherwise.

The tractate Rosh Hashana 10b-11a documents such strong rabbinic challenges to the Tishrei narrative that the controversy was left unresolved: Does the Jewish calendar properly begin on Tishrei 1, or on Nisan 1? The dispute was settled among later sages by trying to accommodate both sides: The world was created in an “embryonic state” on Tishrei 1, but it could not be “birthed” until Nisan 1. Or alternately, the world was fully created by God on Nisan 1, but it didn’t physically appear until Tishrei 1. Either way, they implied that the creation in Nisan was stronger.

Their favoritism was justified by the wall-to-wall rabbinic agreement concerning which New Year has more importance for the Jewish people. It’s Nisan – past and future: “On New Year the bondage of our ancestors in Egypt ceased; in Nisan they were redeemed and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come.” (Rosh Hashana 11a)

In addition, God’s Torah is explicit about where the year begins for the sons of Israel: “This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” – Exod. 12:2 (JPS, the English version used by the Jewish community) The Divine command gave rise to the Talmudic admonition about counting the years (RH 2b):

“But how do we know that the years from the Exodus from Egypt itself are reckoned as commencing with Nisan? Perhaps we reckon them from Tishri? — Do not imagine such a thing!” On this issue no controversy existed. While the Seventh Month might serve to log the years for the world and its kings, the First Month (starting from that first national obligation in Year One) would always be used to mark Israel’s history and the reign of YHVH as Israel’s King.

And so it was… until an era came when both Torah and Jewish history were gradually repackaged, and the unimaginable became the norm. The Talmudic sages themselves set the pattern; by rejecting the Divine Voice in favor of clever human interpretations of Torah, they provided later sages with the justification to reject their voice as well in favor of other clever interpretations. Jewish authorities today not only reckon the Jewish years from Tishrei without question, they long ago stopped counting “the years from the Exodus from Egypt” at all. Instead, they record the Exodus as occurring in “the Jewish [sic] year 2448.”

Meanwhile, what became of that God-given milestone in Nisan called the “beginning of months”? All rabbis acknowledge that it’s still in the Bible, but its only importance is to help us date Passover. Many have asked: But if it’s “the first month of the year,” why doesn’t it date the beginning of the year, and the beginning of all years? “We don’t need it,” they explain; “the year-marker for the world, the new year of Tishrei, has become ours.” When and why did we replace our Jewish marker with the Gentile one? “Well… it’s complicated… the answer is lost in history.”

Indeed. The theory that the Jews adopted it from Babylon while in exile (597–539 BC) cannot be documented. On the contrary, post-exile Jewish texts (like Jubilees and Maccabees) don’t mention a “Rosh Hashana” at any time of year. The mention of one in Tishrei doesn’t appear anywhere until 70 AD, after the second Temple was destroyed. Yet even in 94 AD, when the Jewish historian Josephus wrote his epic work Antiquities of the Jews, his detailed descriptions did not include any new-year customs added to the Feast of Trumpets on Tishrei 1. And as we saw above, the Talmud (compiled 200-500 AD) made a strong case for the Nisan New Year, which is disregarded by today’s Talmudic community.

When (and more importantly, why) did later rabbis decide to rewrite their teachers’ legacy and reduce Nisan 1 to merely the rosh hodesh (new moon) before Passover? Why have they instituted a range of traditions honoring the “new year for trees” (Tu B’Shvat), but none at all to honor the “new year” that God Himself instituted?

If you have been redeemed by Yeshua the Messiah, the answers have a lot to do with the Torah foundations of your faith, and with our early history as a community of Jewish believers in Israel who were “all zealous for the Law.” (Acts 21:20)

This begins a series of articles showing how that history, those Torah foundations, and Jewish teaching about Nisan as “the Month of Redemption” all intersect. Like so many other Jewish traditions that harmonize with the Scriptures, these carry rich Messianic messages that unintentionally but unmistakably point to Yeshua. As you might imagine, the resulting dilemma for the rabbinic community helps to explain the mystery of Israel’s Missing Milestone and other riddles surrounding Nisan.

Reflections of Redemption in Nisan, Part 1
Rosh Ha-Hodashim: New Month, New Things

The Biblical command that identifies the first month of the year (Exod.12:2) reads this way in English translations:

“This month shall be the beginning of months for you; it is to be the first month of the year to you.” (NASB)

“This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year.” (NIV)

“This month shall be unto you the beginning of months: it shall be the first month of the year to you.” (KJV)

“This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” (JPS, the English version used by the Jewish community)

But there are some interesting problems with these renderings which Hebrew readers will understand best. Here is the original (unpointed) Hebrew of the verse, as it appears in a Torah scroll (emphasis added):

החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם לחדשי השנה

First, there is no vav in any of the three repeating words (the bold type) that would make this word חדש – “hadash/new” – into חודש – “hodesh/month”. The vav was inserted centuries later by using nikud (the Masoretic pointing that inserted vowels around 800 AD). And even then, only the first occurrence was made into “hodesh”; see the vowel-enhanced Hebrew below (found in all printed Jewish Bibles).

הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם, רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים:  רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם, לְחָדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה

The two words “hadash” and “hodesh” are of course related, coming from the same root. This gave rise to the concept of the “new” moon marking the first of the “month”. In fact, the word spelled without a vav is assumed to mean “new moon / new month” elsewhere in Tanach. But we know from Yeshua’s teaching that every letter in the Torah and Prophets is important enough to stand unchanged until the end of this creation (Matt. 5:18). So, there is a reason why the Holy Spirit guided Moses to leave out the vav three times in this verse in Exodus. We will explore that reason in a minute.

More interesting problems: There is no future-tense of “to be” anywhere in the Hebrew verse; yet all the translations make it future. And there are some definite articles inserted into all the translations, in places where the Hebrew lacks them. Both kinds of changes are identified by the italicized words in the English (see above). What might we see if we peel away those ‘helpful’ interpretations?

A straightforward translation from the unpointed Hebrew, and without changing its given word order, could be:

“This new thing [or, month] is for you a Head [or, uppermost / a leader] of new things; it is first [or, a beginning] for you for new things of the year.”

The verse can be read several ways, especially since “rosh” can have additional meanings (beginning, chief, most important). Like Yeshua and His apostles, we accept the Jewish approach that the words of God can say several different things simultaneously, all of which enrich our understanding rather than force us to choose “one best answer.” (For more details, see our article at the Restorers of Zion site, “How to Read Hebrew Scriptures through Jewish Eyes”.)

Therefore, each “new month” – but especially “this” one – can be assumed to symbolize, demonstrate and/or bring Israel to experience a new thing, a supremely important thing, and/or a groundbreaking thing that God is establishing, in a continual, timeless and personal sense, “for you.”

And since every letter of every word is important, why are “you” (plural) mentioned twice? The New International Version blurs the second occurrence, but the New American Standard preserves them both:

“This month shall be the beginning of months [new things] for you; it is to be the first month [first of new things] of the year to you.” (NASB)

On one level, we see that the Covenant-obedient people of Israel should be celebrating the “head” or beginning of “the year” (Hebrew: Rosh Ha-Shana) in the first month, and not in the seventh month which begins with a very different observance commanded by God. But there’s more to learn, for you are being addressed twice. This is not only the beginning of “the year to you”, but also of His “new things for you”.

Because Messiah taught that “heaven and earth will pass away” before one word of Torah fails (Matt. 5:18), we must understand this not only as something that “was” new at the time God first spoke it, or “will be” new at the end when all is fulfilled, but is new continually. As the words of Torah present it, this declaration by the living God is like Himself: unlimited by time, and an active reality wherever and in whatever condition “all the congregation of Israel” (Exod. 12:3) may be found.

Moreover, we see our verse twice emphasizing something that is initiating this year of God’s new things:

“This new thing is for you a Head [or, uppermost / a leader] of new things; it is first [or, a beginning] for you for new things of the year.”

God doesn’t keep us guessing about “this new thing” which is the first priority for Israel and brings other “new things” in its train. Starting from the very next verse, it is revealed and described:

“Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb….”

The Heavenly Lamb symbolized by that earthly Passover lamb is truly the “Head of new things”. Without the reality of His Headship being established “uppermost for you” as the “beginning for you,” God implies here that none of His other “new things of the year” will make sense – or maybe that none of them will even be possible.

To be continued….