Why not both?
The Biblical name for this holiday is Yom Zichron Tru’a, translated in the NIV as “a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts,” and it occurs on the first day of the seventh month. In the Judaism of today however, the New Year has shifted half a year, making the biblical seventh month the first one, and turning this feast on the first day into a New Years holiday. Therefore called Rosh haShana – the New Year.
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘On the first day of the seventh month you are to have a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts. Do no regular work, but present a food offering to the Lord.’ ”
Some Messianic Jews follow the rabbinic decrees on this and celebrate it as a new year, while others want to be biblical and say that this is indeed a biblical holiday, but it is not the New Year.
Very few passages of the Bible actually mention this holiday. But I thought I’d go through the ones who do, so we can see what it says. I am going to start in Psalm 81:3-4 (sometimes 4-5 in other languages).
“Sound the ram’s horn at the New Moon,
and when the moon is full, on the day of our festival;
this is a decree for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.”
I disagree with this translation. The Hebrew term that is translated as “full moon” really says “kese,” which means “covered.” Is the moon covered by darkness or by light? It can be interpreted both ways, really. But in poetic biblical Hebrew, parallelism is very common, when the same thing is said twice but with other words. If the first row says new moon, there is no reason to interpret the second row as full moon.
It is true though that in other semitic languages the term is sometimes used as covered with light, i.e. full moon. I don’t blame the translators, I just disagree. The Jewish tradition has always interpreted this term as new moon, which only occurs on the 1st of every Jewish month. The moon is covered with darkness, and the passage is therefore about Yom Zichron Tru’a – the only holiday that occurs on the new moon.
If this psalm is indeed about Rosh haShana, what does it teach us? The rest of the Psalm calls for us to atone for our sins and return to the Lord. Before I go on, let’s see what the significance of the shofar horn is in the Bible. We have a few cases:
- Warning sounds of war, or of announcing victory. Joshua and Gideon come to mind.
- The crowning of a king. 2Sam 6:15, 2Sam 15:10, Psalm 150, Matt 24:30-31, 1Thess 4:16, Rev 11:15.
- The establishment of a covenant. Both on mount Sinai in Exodus 19, and at the second coming.
- Reminder of sins and our need for redemption. Isaiah 58:1: ” Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.”
In the Judaism of today, Rosh haShana is a preparation for Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. There is an important element of asking for forgiveness of sins. Psalm 81 and the verse we see in Isaiah shows us that this is not entirely a made up idea from the rabbis. It does have some serious biblical ground.
However, unlike the Day of Atonement that occurs ten days later, this day is supposed to be happy and festive. We can see more about this in Nehemiah 8:1-12. It says it was the first day of the seventh month. Ezra reads from the Torah to the people, they mourn their sins, but they were instructed not to mourn as today was a celebration and a feast day to the Lord.
If we ask ourselves how a day this close to the Day of Atonement can possibly be joyous, as Nehemiah told the people to make it, all we need to do is open Psalm 98. That’s where we can see the joy of the redeemed at God’s righteous judgement of the world. And we also see again – God’s judgement and the shofar horn mentioned in the same passage.
When we are redeemed through the Messiah of Israel and we don’t need to fear condemnation – it makes God’s judgement a joyous festival. A holiday to celebrate.
Why is it a New Year? Well, if this is the time of the year to take stock of our life and prepare for the atonement, it becomes natural to see this as a point of “starting over,” just as we often do new years resultions on the gregorian new year. In biblical times this was indeed the seventh month the way they counted the months, but it seems like they usually decided when a new year would start based on the agriculture. Someone who grew dates or figs might have his new year in the seventh month, while someone who grew wheat or barley would have his new year in the spring. There are a number of passages in the bible that indicate the concept of a new year in the fall. Exodus 23:16, 34:22, 1Kings 8:2 are a few examples. There are also some ancient targums – paraphrases of the Bible in Aramaic written around the time of Jesus or just slightly after – that indicate this.
It is interesting to see that the Jewish tradition has established that we read Genesis 22 on this holiday, about how Abraham almost sacrified Isaac. This is because “we plead with God to forgive our sins based on the merits of our forefather Abraham.” As believers in the atonement of Jesus on the cross we dismiss this reason of course, but it seems like they have chosen the right passage to read, for the wrong reasons. Because this is where we see the ram – of whose horns the shofar is made – become a sacrifice in Isaac’s place. Just like the Messiah became a sacrifice for us.
As if this wasn’t enough, all synagogues will also read Jeremiah 31. This is because Rachel is mentioned, and there is a tradition that says that Rachel died on this day. Again, they read the right passage for the wrong reason. In Jeremiah 31 God speaks specifically about the New Covenant that he will establish which will lead to the forgiveness of sins. This is the solution – the only solution – to how we can be celebrating and happy on the day that is approaching the Day of Atonement.
We have no indication that Jesus ever rebelled against the Phariseic way of determining or establishing the holidays. Indeed, he took the rabbinical tradition of wine and bread on Passover and showed that it was all about him. I therefore have no problem celebrating this as Rosh haShana, the New Year. If Jesus accepted and celebrated this holiday, there are no reasons why I shouldn’t. Ultimately, all holidays are really about him.
We will all hear the sound of the Shofar when Jesus returns. That will be the trumpet blast of victory, of forgiveness of sins, of crowning Jesus as king, and the final establishment of the New Covenant for all of mankind.
The spring holidays in the Torah were all fulfilled by Jesus in his first coming. The fall holidays will all be fulfilled at his second coming. We should always be ready for his second coming – and Rosh haShana is a great opportunity to prepare ourselves for that.
Will Rosh haShana be the time of the year when Jesus returns? The day of his return with trumpet blasts, getting ready for the great day of judgement? I believe so. I could be wrong, but I think so.
A common custom is to dip apples in honey on Rosh haShana and wish each other a sweet new year. So let’s wish each other a sweet new year, and let’s also pray for our dear Jewish brethren. They are hearing about the ram’s atonement and about the New Covenant in their synagogues this holiday, as they do every year. May God open their eyes to see the truth about his salvation. As Psalm 81 says:
“If my people would only listen to me, if Israel would only follow my ways … with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”
Happy and sweet new year! Shana Tova uMetuka!