Shana Tova, or Happy Feast of Trumpets?

A Jewish man blows a shofar at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on September 16, 2017, prior to the upcoming Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. 'Selichot" the prayer for forgiveness, is a prayer usually recited before dawn in the lead-up to the Rosh Hashana (New Years) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) high holidays. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

All over the country, family, friends and strangers alike are exchanging the cheerful greeting Hag Sameach (happy holidays). From neighbors to teachers, bus drivers, cashiers and street sweepers, no one is excluded from a happy new year greeting.

As Rosh Hashanah approaches, sales of honey and apples soar while stores offer discounts on clothing, kitchenware and appliances. This is the time, in Judaism, to eat sweet food symbolic for a successful new year, give gifts and make things new in general. It is known worldwide as the Jewish New Year.

This Wednesday as the sun sets, homes across Israel will be full to capacity as friends and family gather, recite blessings and wish for a new year full of sweetness. The blessing in Deuteronomy 28, be “the head and not the tail,” is ingrained and repeated. Until sundown on Thursday, this will be a time to feast on annual culinary delights while celebrating in style.

Traditional Ashkenazi fare includes dipping apples in honey and eating gefilte fish. Leeks, pomegranates, green beans, dates, beetroot leaves and pumpkin hold deep symbolism in Sephardic and Mizrachi Judaism. Recipes are shared, compared and cherished as they are passed down from generation to generation.

Around the country, especially in neighborhoods with synagogues, the blasting of trumpets and rams’ horns is heard in the days leading up to and on the day of the holiday. Of all the commands for this day, this one has remained through the centuries.

Today’s Rosh Hashanah, with all of the customs and traditions mentioned above, is a modern extrapolation of one of God’s appointed times and bears little resemblance to its correlating scriptures. Even the name is not the same.

God originally called the day Zicharon Teruah, a memorial of trumpeting. Trumpeting was not only to be carried out, it was also commanded to be heard. Scripturally, no particular musical arrangement was dictated as is traditional in Judaism, but the sound must be heard.

With the focus on blowing the shofar, it is not surprising that in Talmudic times the feast became known as Yom Teruah, the Day of Trumpets. Under Babylonian influence, the nomenclature and identity of the holiday was markedly different.

It has been proposed that a Mesopotamian feast practiced in Babylon influenced the Jewish culture. As the pagan holiday was dictated by the Babylonian New Year festival, the month also announced by the sighting of the moon, the Jews in exile started calling their seventh month by the Babylonian name Tishrei. With the change in the name of the month, it was easy to incorporate the other elements of the holiday and culture, Judaize it and transform Yom Teruah into Rosh Hashanah.

Even though that is just a theory, the fact remains that it was in Babylon that the holiday became known as Rosh Hashanah, the head of the year and the month changed from Eitanim to Tishrei. The evidence for this is in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 1:2 56d where it is written: “The names of the months came up with them from Babylonia.”

So today we will leave the year 5777 behind us and begin 5778. This is in direct contradiction of Exodus 12:2 which says that the month Aviv that falls between March and April is when God’s calendar year begins. “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it is first of the months of the year.”

It brings with it an added conundrum as the Feast of Sukkot, Tabernacles, which takes place exactly two weeks after Yom Teruah. It is referred to in Exodus 23:16 as “the going out of the year.”

Many people justify calling Yom Teruah the New Year, saying the seventh month is the beginning of the agricultural cycle. In the Torah the middle of the seventh month is actually the end of the agriculture cycle, specifically of the grain cycle. In the land of Israel, grains are planted in autumn and harvested in spring. The new agricultural cycle does not actually begin until the ploughing of the fields.

This would not take place until the rains had moistened the ground enough to be broken by iron and wooden ploughs. In this region, this could be as early as the middle of the seventh month but it usually happened in the eighth month or later. By the above logic, it should be the eighth month that should be considered the beginning of the agricultural year and not the seventh month.

In the Bible, only four months are given names, Aviv being the first and Eitanim the seventh. It is in this month, Eitanim that it is commanded to commemorate Zicharon Teruah or Yom Teruah.

The meaning of teruah comes from the root word “alert” or “alarm” or “to raise awareness,” but God gave no further explanations for this day, only specific instructions to rest, blow the shofar and present an offering by fire — understood to mean eating a meal with meat cooked on a fire.

Compared with all the other appointed times of the Lord, Yom Teruah is the only one that begins at the sighting of the new moon. Therefore, it involves waiting, watching and being alert. Generally, the Bible seems to indicate that blowing a shofar is almost always a summons, a war-cry, an alert warning to prepare for something, to hail an arrival, or a wake-up call if one has been slumbering, whether spiritually or physically.

Yom Teruah begins a 10-day period leading up to the next appointed time of the Lord — the most solemn and holy day of the biblical calendar which is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Some people believe that the sounding of the shofar on Yom Teruah may be a wake-up blast, a reminder that the time is near for the Day of Atonement and this is possibly a time for repentance.

Whether this is true or not, the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are known in Judaism as the days of awe or the days of repentance. Because of the upcoming day of atonement, at this time of the year, Israelis try to behave more pleasantly than usual. If it is not from all the extra readings of Psalms and reciting of blessings from the liturgy, the more pleasant behavior could also be from the intake of apples and honey.

Yom Teruah Sameah! Happy Feast of Trumpets!

“‘In the seventh month on the first of the month you shall have a rest, a reminder by blowing of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any laborious work, but you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord.’”
Leviticus 23:24

“Blow a shofar in Zion, and sound an alarm on My holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, For the day of the LORD is coming; Surely it is near.”
Joel 2:1