The Seventh Month, Tishrei and its Festivals Part One

The Seventh Month, Tishrei and its Festivals Part One – 

Reflections on Rosh Hashanah, Its Background, Origins and Customs

And the Relationship to Yom Teruah

As we come to the close of the month of Elul…the month known as one of teshuvah, a month of deep introspection and soul searching with its heartfelt plea to return, “shuv,” to HaShem our G-D and Creator, to YHVH (Yud Hey Vav Hey in Hebrew), we welcome another Rosh Chodesh with its beautiful new moon marking not only the beginning of the month of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar, but also the beginning of the New Year.

On the first day of this month comes the Jewish Festival of Rosh Hashanah. This festival has long been a favorite, yet a somber time for Jewish families all over the world replete with the symbols of apples and honey representing sweetness, round challot representing the world and creation of mankind, decorative white covers on the bema and the Torah scrolls in the synagogues plus white kittels (prayer robes) worn by the leaders of the prayer services and many of the congregants. 

There is no denying that all these symbols represent beautiful analogies designed to teach and draw us closer to HaShem, yet curiously the name Tishrei is not to be found anywhere in the Torah…nor is Rosh Hashanah.

This brings up some questions. Why is neither Tishrei nor Rosh Hashanah mentioned in the Torah? What is the connection to the 40 days of teshuvah and the blowing of the shofar leading up to this festival and beyond…and what is the central meaning behind it?

For the answer to these questions we will first go to Biblical sources and then examine how they may relate to the Jewish traditions that have developed over the centuries. Countless volumes have been written on this subject. The purpose of this article is to give a brief overview of the festival and its origin… and to focus on its major themes of Creation, T’shuvah, Kingship, Judgment and the Blowing of the Shofar and to examine how they relate to all mankind and can enable each of us in our individual journeys to become closer to the people we were created to be…and in that process, perhaps discover more of those “hidden sparks beneath the surface.” Let us first examine the blowing of the shofar and its connection to these themes.

The Call of the Shofar 

When we think of the 7th month known as Tishrei on the Jewish calendar, the term “High Holy Days,” comes to mind for this month like no other, has three major festivals…namely, Rosh Hashanah on the first day, Yom Kippur on the tenth day and Sukkot beginning on the 15th day.

In thinking of Rosh Hashanah, the first thought that comes to mind for those familiar with the festival is the image and the sound that comes forth from the blowing of the shofar…for its blast is a sound like no other. It is an eerie plaintive call that invokes an indescribable emotion, an emotion that surpasses anything that words could ever express…it goes straight to the core of the inner soul of the hearer. It is first mentioned in the book of Exodus chapter 19 when HaShem descended upon Mount Sinai amidst the fire and smoke and the lightning and thunder to address His people and bring them into covenant relationship with Him by giving them the Ten Commandments, more actually translated from the Hebrew as the Ten Words or Ten Matters or Sayings.  

The riveting text reads, “It came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the sound of a shofar exceeding loud; so that all the people trembled. And Moshe brought the people out of the camp to meet with YHVH; and they stood at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai smoked in every part, because YHVH descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And then the voice of the shofar sounded louder and louder; Moshe speaks and G-D answers by a voice” (Exodus 19:19-19)…so awesome was that event with the tumultuous call of the shofar and the Voice of YHVH speaking that if we really listen we can still hear it today as it  reverberates around the world!

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (known as Maimonides or RaMBaM) was one of the greatest of all the post-Talmudic rabbis. He states that there is a Hidden Message in the call of the shofar, “Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep! And slumberers arise from your slumber! Search your ways and return in Teshuvah. Remember your Creator!”(Mishneh Torah, Hilkot Teshuvah III.4).

Yaakov Astor states that The shofar arouses the divine voice within, calling us back to our Sourceit has an aura of awe and holiness about it. Its blast can shatter hearts of stone and wash away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves impenetrable by any other means. The shofar – it has an aura of awe and holiness about it. Its blast can shatter hearts of stone and wash away layers of complacency. Its call is capable of bringing us back to places inside ourselves impenetrable by any other means.” (Hearing the Shofar’s Call,

Hearing the shofar is meant to help us remember and to return to the pure souls we were created to be…b’tzelem Elohim, in the very image of G-D! As creatures of dust, we were at first but nothing but dust, but then G-D breathed His breath into us and gave us life!

The shofar, made from a ram’s horn is hollowed out, bent into shape and held in an upward position as it is blown towards the heavens. In and of itself it is nothing special…it needs a human breath, that G-D given breath to fulfill its purpose. When that breath of life, given to us by our loving Creator is blown through it, the shofar is almost magically transformed into an instrument that has the ability to break through and express the emotions from the deepest recesses of the human heart as if it is crying out to its Creator…from our lips to G-D’s ears! 

 Author Moshe A. Braun, who writes concerning the Jewish holy days and brings in spiritual and practical explanations and parables based on the teachings of Hasidic masters, writes these words on the power of the shofar as it penetrates the hearts of its listeners and calls out to HaShem, “On Rosh Hashanah, as soon as we make our voice heard through the sound of the shofar, God had already listened” (The Jewish Holy Days: Their Spiritual Significance).

As we let the blast of the shofar penetrate our hearts and turn to HaShem in teshuvah, we are breaking through and shedding all the outer layers we have built around ourselves as we attempt to return to who we really are…to the pure souls He created us to be!

The sounding of the shofar is a call to stand up and take notice…in Biblical times it was a call for the people to assemble themselves as it was at Sinai, for something important was about to occur. It was sounded for alarms for the camp of Israel, (Numbers 10:5-6, Ezekiel 33:3), to announce the establishment or coronation of a King (11Kings 11:12), to rally the people for war and to pronounce victory such as the victory of Joshua at Jericho (I Sam 13:3-4, Josh 6:20). 

It was also used to announce the New Moon with the coming of each new month (Psalm 81:4), and regularly used during worship and praise at the Mishkan or Tabernacle in the wilderness and later at the Temple. In the time of King David, we are told that it accompanied him as he praised and danced before YHVH when he brought the Ark of the Covenant to the City of David (II Samuel 6:14). We are also told in the prophets that the shofar will be blown during the day of YHVH  at the final glorious redemption when He will gather His people from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 27:13, Joel 2:1).

On Rosh Hashanah, the sound of the shofar evokes in our minds all the shofar sounds from the past to the present day and beyond. It takes us back to Sinai and to our covenant with HaShem and brings us forward to the future.

                                                                                                                                                                                  During the typical Rosh Hashanah service in synagogues all across the world, the shofar is traditionally blown 100 times in the typical Ashkenazi community and in the Sephardic community, 101 times… and each time it has a message!

Origins – Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah…What about Yom Teruah?                                                                                                                                                              

In the Torah, Tishrei is simply referred to as the 7th month. It comes in the fall season of the year, usually in September. We begin with the question, ‘Why is Tishrei called the Jewish New Year? ‘Didn’t HaShem tell Moshe when He redeemed His people from Egyptian slavery that “This month (the month of Aviv or Nisan) shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” (Exodus 12:2)

This was in the spring, the month of Passover when the children of Israel were redeemed from Egyptian slavery and in leaving Egypt, (Hebrew Mitzrayim, that “narrow place”), they began their journey on the way to a new life in the Promised Land as a unified people, bound in eternal covenant with their G-D.

Yet for 2,000 plus years, the Jewish people have celebrated their new year, not in the month of Aviv or Nisan in the spring, but in the fall on the first day of the 7th month referred to as Tishrei in the festival called Rosh Hashanah (rosh meaning head and shanah meaning year.) Why is this? What is the meaning behind it?

There are several differing Jewish traditions, but among them is that Rosh Hashanah marked the creation of the world and mankind, (the Babylonian TalmudRosh Hashanah 10b-11a) whereas the 1st of Aviv or Nisan is said to have marked the beginning of the Jewish people. 

In the tractates of the Mishnah, which include both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud, the tractates on Rosh Hashanah suggest that Tishrei and Nissan were actually both recognized as a new year, and were among the four religious and civil new years. 

Arthur Waskow in his book entitled, Seasons of our Joy, suggests that the New Year of Aviv/Nisan in the spring represents new life and a new beginning for the Jewish people which involved freedom in contrast with the New Year of Tishrei in the fall…for in coming in the seventh month, like the “seventh day,” he states that it has “overtones of renewal, not of newness; of refreshing the year, not of beginning it” (p. 2). 

This renewal is marked by the loud blast of the sound of the shofar which traditionally began on the second day of the previous month of Elul, known as the month of Teshuvah or the month of return to HaShem. The Biblical reference to the first day of the seventh month comes from an admonition in the book of Leviticus referred to as Yom Teruah, meaning the Day of Blowing.

“And YHVH spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall you have a Sabbath, a memorial blowing of horns (זכרון תרועה), a holy gathering You shall do no servile work; but you shall offer an offering made by fire unto YHWH ” (Leviticus 23:23-25).

A similar instruction is found in Numbers 29:1, “And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy gathering (a Mikrah Kodesh); you shall do no servile work; it is a day of blowing the horn (Yom Teruah) to you.” 

As many of the other festivals Yom Teruah, which came to be called Rosh Hashanah, had a very simple description in the Torah as indicated above, but through the years as we have brought forth, it became multi-faceted and many layered with a whole plethora of Jewish tradition weaved intricately into the fabric of the holiday…00each designed to deepen our connection with our Creator.

Crowing YHVH as both King and Creator

After the Babylonian captivity, only a portion of the Jewish people returned back to the land of Israel under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. In chapters 7 and 8 we read that most of the people had forgotten the teachings of the Torah. In a desire to rectify this, Ezra decided to gather the people together to listen to the reading of the Torah of Moshe so as to refresh their minds and to encourage them to renew their covenant which the majority of them had broken.

This was “the first day of the seventh month” and is estimated to have occurred about 485 BCE. The test states that the people listened attentively, and after realizing how far they had drifted away from their G-D and Torah, bowed their heads and began to weep in t’shuvah. Ezra and Nehemiah then announced that this was a holy day and that they should rejoice and celebrate and refrain from their weeping! (Nehemiah 8:2)

It has been suggested by some scholars that this particular day, the first day of the seventh month was related to a Babylonian holiday which occurred at the end of a plentiful harvest season each year. In thanksgiving, its followers renewed their obedience and pledge to the Babylonian throne and their god as supreme king. This theory asserts that the Jewish people, either during or following the Babylonian exile were influenced by this holiday and subsequently incorporated many of its aspects into their own traditions.  Basically, they transformed this pagan holiday to declare that their G-D, Yud Hey Vav Hey, rather than the Babylonian god, was the One and Only G-D, the Supreme King and Creator of the Universe! 

By the time the Mishnah (the earliest authoritative body of Jewish oral law) was written down, about 200 BCE, the theme of HaShem’s Coronation as King and Creator of the Universe, His passing judgement upon the world and its peoples had formally became a part of the Oral Tradition. 

Subsequently, each year on the 7th day of the 7th month, the Jewish people have assembled themselves as they did first at Sinai and then at the Water Gate in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah in an endeavor to return in t’shuvah to their G-d. In celebration of this Festival they have reenacted the themes of the Kingship of YHVH’s absolute and unquestionable sovereignty and His subsequent role as judge and Creator of the universe. (See Psalm 74:12-17 and Psalm 96:10)

As a result the biblical festival on the first day of the 7th month referred to in Torah as Yom Teruah the Day of Blowing took on a new name, that of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, yet the central message outlined by HaShem in the Torah carried through.

What is this Central Message of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Teruah as it was originally called?

 “And YHVH spoke unto Moses, saying, Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall you have a Sabbath, a memorial blowing of horns (זכרון תרועה), a holy gathering You shall do no servile work; but you shall offer an offering made by fire unto YHWH ” (Leviticus 23:23-25).

This day is a Shabbaton, a Zikkaron, and a Mikrah Kodesh…a Sabbath, a Remembrance, a Holy Convocation and is proclaimed by a Teruah  a series of shofar blasts. It is a special day set apart comparable to an “island in time.” It is a Zikkaron, a memorial, a day of remembrance designed to remind us of who HaShem is and who we are and all He has done for us, His children, through the ages up to this day. It is a day of thanksgiving, reconnection and rededication to Him.  It is a festival day, a day proclaimed by the blast of the shofar as a holy gathering, one dedicated to our G-d and Creator, to HaShem, YHVH. It is a day of standing before Him, the King of Kings and offering Him our highest praise through the “fruit of our lips” (Hosea 14:2)! 

It is a day of shutting out the noise of the world and going to that quiet place inside ourselves.

It is a day of what is called “cheshbon hanefesh,” in Hebrew…taking stock of ourselves, both the good and the bad parts of us, and making a determination to change what we need to change and to become better people…it is a day that offers renewal, refreshing and an opportunity to begin again once more…

As we listen to the plaintive call of the shofar, may we let its piercing tones shake us to the core of our being…and cause us to return to our G-D in heartfelt t’shuvah…

This message of return and renewal is expressed so beautifully in the lyrics of the well-known High Holiday song “Return Again” by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z”l) 

“Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul

Return to what you are, return to who you are, return to where you are

Born and reborn again…

Return again, return again, return to the land of your soul”

So as we begin this designated Jewish New Year of 5782 we will be entering a very special 10 day period referred to as Yamin Nora’im, the Days of Awe. These days will lead us up to the Awesome Day of Yom Kippur. As we listen to the plaintive, clarion call of the shofar, may it reverberate through to our souls, and remind us to seek HaShem with all our hearts and truly Return Again! 

Stay tuned for Part Two – Yamim Nora’im, Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Return) and Yom Kippur…

Shanah Tova and Happy Yom Teruah!

By Elisheva Tavor, Rosh Hashanah 5782

You may also like...