Before We Called it ‘Rosh Hashanah’…

Did you know that Rosh Hashanah was not always called Rosh “Hashanah”? Does that knowledge give you new ideas about the holiday?

Looking back over history, and the traditions of Judaism, we see that the knowledge of both yield remarkable new ways to see our present. The facts – and mysticism – of our past enrich our present. I love this piece that Rabbi Larry Milder of Beth Emek in Pleasanton wrote. He sent this to his congregation before Rosh Hashanah but its teaching and its sweetness are eternal.

What is this period of time, the High Holy Days, to you?  A time of renewal, of responding to God’s call, a new year? Learn the past and create your own present. Studying the teachings of generations before us offers a wide array of messages. All of them belong to you. Pick through them. See what speaks to you and serves your needs to be the best person you can be.



Excuse Me, My Shofar’s Calling

Rosh Hashanah wasn’t originally Rosh Hashanah.

That is, before the holiday we call Rosh Hashanah got that name, it was a holy day on the Jewish calendar. It just wasn’t the Jewish New Year, so it wasn’t called Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”). It is not until the Mishnah (2nd century CE) that it is referred to as Rosh Hashanah.

In the book of Numbers (29:1), the holiday is known as Yom Teruah, the Day of Sounding (the horn). We were observing this as a holiday for blowing the Shofar for centuries before we adopted the Babylonian calendar, and moved our New Year to the fall.

The origins of the holiday are not all that clear, but the blowing of the Shofar was clearly meant to symbolize some great liberation.

  • At Mt. Sinai, “there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn” (Ex. 19:16).
  • We are taught that every 50th year, “You shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and…you shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants” (Lev. 25:9).
  • Isaiah prophecies that “In that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded, and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Eternal…in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13).

The Day of Sounding the Horn was probably an act of anticipation, of belief in the possibility of a world redeemed, of the ills of the present age passing away and the dawning of a new era of peace.

From here, the association with a New Year becomes entirely reasonable. But at its core, the sounding of the Shofar was an affirmation of Judaism’s eternal optimism. We are never permitted to give up, never allowed to turn our back on the task of redemption.

When I hear the Shofar, I hear something primal and ancient. It is a cry: no longer can things remain as they are. We are meant to live in a different kind of world.

Some have suggested that the Shofar calls had a function in defense of the nation:

  • Tekiah: Assemble
  • Shevarim: To your stations
  • Teruah: Charge!

If so, the same calls became, in time, an urgent plea to each of us:

  • Tekiah: Come together
  • Shevarim: See what is “broken” (shevarim)
  • Teruah: Go forward with urgency, and make this world whole again.

Rabbi Larry Milder