Rosh Hoshanah: The Jewish New Year

In by Bruce Scott

As darkness fell, a small Jewish family began walking to the synagogue. They were alone. Then little bands of families and friends slowly appeared from between trees, from neighboring houses, and from dimly lit side streets.

Soon they became a silent stream of holiday penitents, all converging on the local shul (synagogue). Some of the worshipers’ heads were covered; others were not. Some carried prayer books; some were empty-handed.

As the service began, hundreds found their way to their seats. Holiday greetings were exchanged, even as the cantor opened with the festival chants. The buzz of continuing conversations eventually led the rabbi to tap on the pulpit microphone for attention.

To an impartial observer, the demeanor of most of the people in the congregation might have been interpreted as indifferent or even apathetic. Over there a man and his wife were kibitzing (joking) with friends. A few rows ahead young college men were scanning the crowd for young ladies. Nearby a small boy was enjoying a game of leaning his head back on his chair, causing his yarmulke (skullcap) to fall off. In a neighboring seat a woman was sitting with her head propped up on her arm, her eyes closed. All the while, the cantor chanted, the a cappella choir sang, and the rabbi announced the page numbers in the prayer book. Attention became somewhat more focused when the rabbi delivered his sermon. But the restless congregants had heard the theme innumerable times before and looked on seemingly uninterested.

Soon it was all over. The worshipers were on their feet, kissing loved ones, saying “Gut Yontev” (Good Holiday) or “Happy New Year.” The crowd walked home as quietly as it had come, silently disappearing between the trees, into neighboring houses, and down dimly lit side streets.

The experience of this single synagogue is not uncommon to the majority of American Jews. Although they may not attend the synagogue at any other time of the year, on this particular day—as well as ten days later—most people in the Jewish community attempt to attend the services. It is the holiest time on the Jewish calendar. It is the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.


The festival of Rosh Hashanah was instituted by God and given to the nation of Israel (Num. 29:1–6). Together with Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah is part of the high holidays of Judaism. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are referred to as the “Days of Awe” because during this time an individual’s fate is inscribed (on Rosh Hashanah) and sealed (on Yom Kippur) for the coming year. The ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur inclusively are considered “Ten Days of Penitence,” during which people are admonished to repent of their sins and perform good deeds in order to merit an inscription in the Book of Life.

On the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah opens the New Year. However, there are actually four Jewish New Year’s Days. Nisan 1 begins the religious New Year. Elul 1 was used in ancient times to determine the tithing of animals. Shevat 15 was used to determine the tithing of fruit. Tishri 1, Rosh Hashanah, starts the civil New Year.

Rosh Hashanah (meaning Head or Beginning of the Year) is also known by three other names: The Day of Judgment, the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar (ram’s horn), and the Day of Remembrance. Although not taught in Scripture, it is believed that on Rosh Hashanah God sits in judgment of the whole universe. Like sheep passing before a shepherd, who decides which ones will live and which ones will be slaughtered, on this Day of Judgment God evaluates the merits of people and nations. He rules which nations will have plenty and which will lack; which will have war and which will know peace. He decrees which individuals will have good fortune and which will suffer calamity; which will prosper and which will experience poverty and want; which will live for another year and which will die. This theme of God’s judgment is emphasized more than any other on Rosh Hashanah.

The judgment on Rosh Hashanah does not decide a person’s eternal destiny. Rosh Hashanah is for judgment concerning earthly matters. The judgment handed down on that day, with its subsequent recording in the Book of Life, decides a person’s fate in this life for the coming year. That is not to say that people’s actions do not impact the final judgment of their souls after they die, but on Rosh Hashanah their behavior is judged only for the here and now and not for the hereafter.

The verdict is settled by opening three books: one listing the righteous, one listing the wicked, and one listing those somewhere in between. Those in the first book are immediately inscribed for life; those in the second book for death; and those in the third book are given ten days to repent and perform enough good deeds to outweigh their bad deeds.

Rosh Hashanah is also known as the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar or the Feasts of Trumpets. God directed Moses in Numbers 10:1–10 to fashion two silver trumpets to be used to assemble the children of Israel, to announce the moving of the camps, to sound an alarm in battle, and to be used during the sacrificial offerings performed on festival days. Along with these two silver trumpets, a shofar (ram’s horn) was blown on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar became the more prominent instrument on this day.

There is no reason given in Scripture for blowing the trumpets, other than as a “memorial” or reminder (Lev. 23:24). But a reminder to whom Israel blew the two silver trumpets in battle and on festival days to “be remembered before the Lord [their] God” (Num. 10:9–10). Most likely that was also why they were blown on Rosh Hashanah—so that God would remember His covenant relationship with Israel and the promises He had made to them.

Jewish tradition, however, views blowing the shofar as more of a reminder to Israel than to God. On Rosh Hashanah the shofar reminds the Jewish people of two things.

First, it reminds them to offer their lives to God. The account of the offering of Isaac plays a major role on Rosh Hashanah and is highly regarded. Not only is it believed that the offering of Isaac occurred on Rosh Hashanah, but Isaac’s willingness to be bound and put to death is seen as the greatest example for Jewish martyrdom—their readiness to be sacrificed for their beliefs. Also, when Israel remembers the offering of Isaac on Rosh Hashanah, as well as the merits of all of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), God grants them mercy on this day of judgment. It is said that when He hears the sound of the shofar, God is moved to leave His seat of judgment and go to His seat of mercy and forgiveness. As expressed in one of the prayers on Rosh Hashanah, “Do Thou heed from heaven’s heights the Shofar-blast, and leave Thy throne of stern justice for Thy seat of mercy. Remember Isaac who was bound on the altar, and for his sake, grant his offspring mercy.”

Second, it reminds them to have faith in the future coming of the Messiah and the regathering of Israel back to their homeland (Isa. 27:13). As the high holiday prayer book states, “Our God and God of our fathers, sound the great Shofar for our freedom, set up the banner to gather our exiles, assemble our scattered ones from among the nations, and gather our dispersed from the uttermost parts of the earth.”

All of these reminders for God and Israel show why Rosh Hashanah is also known as the Day of Remembrance.