Welcoming a new year with a reminder of ancient promises.
by Laura Costea | September 15 2023
Rosh Hashanah has been called a “day of tensions.” Perhaps that’s because the Gregorian calendar that most of us use to plan our lives doesn’t recognize Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of a new year. Or maybe it’s because we know that even according to Torah, a biblical year actually begins with Passover in the spring. And yet, Rosh Hashanah definitely signals the start of something new for the Jewish people every year. It is a chance to turn back to God, a chance to look ahead, a chance to welcome in the Ten Days of Awe.
Perhaps we feel the tension between past and future. Our traditions anchor us to the history of our people, yet Rosh Hashanah encourages us to look ahead: to plan, to prepare, and to learn.
Let’s explore what the traditions of Rosh Hashanah have to say, both about the ancient calling of our people and about what is to come.
Rosh Hashanah literally means “the head of the year.” But originally, this holiday was called Yom Teruah (the Feast of Trumpets). We read about it in the book of Leviticus.
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’” (Leviticus 23:23–25 NIV, emphasis added).
This holiday was named after its central activity: the blowing of the shofar (ram’s horn). The shofar always signaled something special: a time to gather, a time to prepare for war, a time to break camp and move, or sometimes a time to just listen. When we hear the shofar today, we may well remember the first time a trumpet summoned our people. The mountain trembled violently, the smoke billowed up around it, and “the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder” (Exodus 19:19). Moses spoke, God answered, and the words of the Law changed the course of the nation of Israel—and the world—forever.
In addition to the trumpet blasts, the Lord prescribed a sacred day of rest and sacrifices at Yom Teruah. The special Shabbat and offerings God instructed us to observe were not about this day only. They were to prepare us for the Yamim Noraim (Ten Days of Awe). “Just as Shabbat, the seventh day of the week, is set apart from the other days, Tishri, the seventh month, is set apart from the other months.”1 The Ten Days of Awe, culminating in Yom Kippur, remind us to turn back to God, which also means turning away from sin.
In rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashanah has also become a “day of judgment.” Biblically speaking, this day was linked to atonement. One of God’s specific instructions was to offer a “male goat as a sin offering to make atonement for you” (Numbers 29:5).
Historically, there were also other kinds of offerings made to the Lord at Yom Teruah (Numbers 29:1–6). We can no longer present offerings by fire because we no longer have a Tabernacle nor the Temple. But we believe Jesus has offered the perfect sacrifice, as the apostle Paul (the Messianic Jewish writer of much of the New Testament) said, “[Messiah] loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2).
The ancient idea of sacrifice is embodied in the traditional synagogue reading for Rosh Hashanah: the Akedah, the story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22.
One of the ways we celebrate Rosh Hashanah is by reading special parts of Scripture. The Torah portion for this Shabbat includes the story of our oldest patriarchs.
Abraham had waited and trusted God to provide not just any son, but a son of the promise. Isaac came and grew, and Abraham, who knew he was growing older, taught him all he knew, eager to pass on the torch of trust.
Then the day came when the Lord said to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2).
Looking back, we know this was a test. But still, we must not assume that passing it was easy for Abraham. How must he have felt, binding his only son to the altar? And how great must his relief have been when he turned to listen to the angel of the Lord, who said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son” (Genesis 22:12, emphasis added). God provided a ram instead for the sacrifice. As we picture the ram hiding in the bushes, we imagine Abraham’s joy at God’s plan, and we remember the ram’s horns which are still used today to make the shofar.
In a way, the faith Abraham exercised that day was both old and new. Old, because this was the God he’d trusted in since the day he left his father’s house; new, because he’d never been asked to sacrifice his only son before.
Abraham learned anew what we remember, too, as we read this story: God always provides.
Would a Jewish holiday even be a holiday without food? If you’ve never tried your hand at making homemade bread before, there’s a first time for everything! Make a challah (many recipes can be found online) and then form it into a round loaf. Circular loaves of bread symbolize our turning away from sin and turning towards God.2
Like most of our holidays, Rosh Hashanah’s menu items are not only food, they’re symbolic. And sometimes one food item can have more than one meaning! Braided or circular loaves also resemble a crown—symbolic of God’s kingship. As Jewish believers in Jesus, they can also remind us of this neverending hope we have in Messiah: eternity with God.
Dip apples in honey and wish each other a sweet new year: L’Shana Tova!
The sound of the shofar is one that can’t be forgotten once heard. It commands total attention, inviting us to put down whatever we’re doing, to refocus, to be still.
In a synagogue at Rosh Hashanah, you’ll hear different kinds of trumpet blasts with different meanings. All are solemn sounds meant to convey the seriousness of turning back to God during our High Holy Days.
It’s interesting that though the blowing of the shofar was (and is) the duty of a worshiper, it was also a call to battle. Yet even in battle, it wasn’t just a call to summon our own armies and strength; it was a call that meant the Lord would do battle for His people (2 Chronicles 13:14–16).
If you have a pond, lake, or river nearby, you may like to participate in the tradition of tashlich (casting off). Tashlich is a tangible reminder of seeking and giving forgiveness.
Prepare a bag of breadcrumbs, pile your loved ones into the car (or put on your walking shoes), and head to a nearby body of water. Take turns throwing breadcrumbs into the water, and watch them float away. As you do, read Micah 7:19 (emphasis added): “He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.”
Family members young and old alike may also enjoy digging down deep into their pockets to find any crumbs or lint that have escaped the washing machine. This symbolizes reaching down deep and throwing away our sins. It is also a good reminder to ask ourselves if we have wronged anyone, and if we have, to try to make amends.
As Jewish believers in Jesus, we believe that through Messiah, God has washed away our sins once and for all. Tashlich is an “ongoing call to spiritual vigilance” as well as a chance to be renewed and to renew our hope in Him.
Rosh Hashanah reminds us of the continuity of God’s promises and of our calling as His people. This special holiday has always been about God gathering His people to Himself and about our turning back to Him.
The trumpet blast historically summoned us, “Come!” And it will again. Paul wrote this about a future trumpet: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.… Then we … will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, emphasis added).
As you enjoy the “crown” of bread on your table this Rosh Hashanah, you may like to read about how our King Messiah also wore a crown. Matthew, another first-century Jewish follower of Jesus, describes how Pilate’s soldiers “twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head” (Matthew 27:29 NIV). Yet Jesus our King laid down his life so that we might have a true relationship with God. As Messianic Jewish believers, we thank God that He provided the perfect sacrifice—so that we could be prepared to gather with Him.
As King David said, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).
Though Rosh Hashanah is a day of solemnity, it’s fitting that it should welcome in a season of celebration. We have much to be thankful for! Among the many things God has done, He has always been the one to call us, cleanse us, and gather us.
1 Janie-Sue Wertheim and Kathy Shapiro. Walking with Yeshua Through the Jewish Year. (San Francisco: Purple Pomegranate Productions, 2015), 13.