Sunday, September 21, 2014

How did Yom Teruah become Rosh Hashannah?

Rosh Hashannah

The title of this post "How did the biblical holiday of Yom Teruah become the modern holiday of Rosh Hashannah" is a good question, and one that's interested me for a long time. Unfortunately, it's not one with an easy answer, however it's a good exploration and will provide a nice introduction for how I tend to tackle certain topics. Also it will give an opportunity to present two main ideas that will permeate nearly many posts of this blog in some form or the other.

The two ideas are: 1) That Judaism developed partly by absorbing and adapting practices and worldviews from surrounding cultures. (The academic word for this is "syncretism.") 2) That the Torah was composed by different authors or groups of authors in different eras and extracting different strata, when possible, can guide our understanding of the development of the religion.

I am not going to prove these points in this week, or indeed probably not in this month. But hopefully, after a year, enough supporting evidence will be amassed to validate these two ideas. Ok, enough intro. Let's get down to business in exploring the development of this holiday.

Yom Teruah in the Tanach

There are two instances in the Torah (and indeed, in all of Tanach) where Yom Teruah is mentioned. Both occur during "holiday rundowns" where the Torah lists all the holidays of the year. The first is in Lev. 23:23-35,  (As usual, all translations come from mechon mamre). 

23 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 24 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. 25 Ye shall do no manner of servile work; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD.

Here the day is referred to as zikron teruah translated here as "a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns," but more literally can be translated as "a memorial of making a noise." The second mention is in Num. 29:1-6

1 And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day of blowing the horn unto you. 2 And ye shall prepare a burnt-offering for a sweet savour unto the LORD: one young bullock, one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year without blemish; 3 and their meal-offering, fine flour mingled with oil, three tenth parts for the bullock, two tenth part for the ram, 4 and one tenth part for every lamb of the seven lambs; 5 and one he-goat for a sin-offering, to make atonement for you; 6 beside the burnt-offering of the new moon, and the meal-offering thereof, and the continual burnt-offering and the meal-offering thereof, and their drink-offerings, according unto their ordinance, for a sweet savour, an offering made by fire unto the LORD.

The first day of the seventh month is referred to as Yom Teruah. These are the only times this holiday is mentioned in all of the Tanach. There are a couple other rundowns of holidays, Deut 16:1-17 is the most extensive of these, but it does not include Rosh Hashannah or Yom Kippur. There are also very brief rundowns in Exod. 34:18-23 and Exod 23:14-17, but those two holidays are missing there as well. Also interestingly, only in the "rundowns" in Vayikra and Numbers is a start of the year clearly indicated. In both cases the year starts on the spring month, the month of Pesach, not the month of Rosh Hashannah. In every other place in Tanach, where months are ordered, it always starts with the spring month.

While it is true that this holiday is not mentioned elsewhere in Tanach, there is one other place where the first day of the seventh month has a special event on it. This happens when Ezra reads the "law" on the first day of the seventh month. (Nehemiah 8:1-4).

When does the year begin?

Biblically, the answer seems clear. The year begins on the spring month. The Torah explicitly states this in Exod. 12:2 "'This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you."  While I remarked earlier that every explicit statement about the beginning of the year starts in the spring, there is a strange wording in the Exodus rundowns. It says, regarding the holiday of Sukkot (referred to in agricultural terms as Hag HaAsif, the holiday of gathering) that it occurs at tekufat hashanah, or the "turning of the year." (Exod. 34:22) Similarly, Exod. 23:16, says that the holiday occurs at tzait hashanah, or the end of the year. However, this is not an explicit beginning of the year, and one can conjecture that the year starts in spring, and ends in fall, and no one cares about the rest of the months because there aren't any holidays there anyway.

Another ambiguous reference can be found in Lev. 25:9, where the proclamation of the shmittah (Sabbatical) year is made on Yom Kippur. Indeed the Mishnah uses this to infer that new years for the Sabbatical and yovel (Jubilee) years begin in autumn.

External archaeological references here are limited. We do have the Gezer calendar which dates to early 10th century BCE and appears to start in the autumn. That's honestly all we have from early Israel archaeological realia on this topic.

However, remembering idea 1 from the intro, it's useful to look at surrounding cultures. When discussing pre-Israelite religious ideas in nearby cultures, the most comprehensive data set we have comes from the ancient city of Ugarit (also sometimes referred to by the modern geographical term Ras Shamra.) The destruction of Ugarit occurred at approximately 1200 BCE and was very sudden. We will discuss some of this history in future posts, but for now, the most important part is that a tremendous amount of cuneiform tablets were preserved, detailing information about their theology, their gods, their religious practices, and other legal and administrative matters.

We will have ample time to examine a lot of these materials, but for the moment we will focus on a set of tablets which described the cultic sacrificial behaviors. These have been translated by Dennis Pardee in the book "Ritual and Cult at Ugarit" (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002). From them, Pardee is able to reconstruct a partial ritual calendar. This calendar is a lunar calendar and begins in the month after the fall equinox, which was called nikkal.

Of the surrounding major cultures, that appeared later in Israelite history, the Mesopotamian cultures began their year in Spring. The names of the Hebrew months (Nissan, Iyar, etc.) come from Babylonian. The Persians, like the Babylonians began their year in the spring. Moving later in the timeline, the next culture the Israelites may have been influenced by is the Greeks, but their calendar starts in the summer. We can safely rule out Hellenic influence in this matter.

The status of the calendar in Judaism today is summed up in the Mishnah, masechet Rosh Hashannah 1:

There are four New Year days, viz.: The first of Nissan is New Year for (the ascension of) Kings and for (the regular rotation of) festivals; the first of Elul is New Year for the cattle-tithe, but according to R. Eliezer and R. Simeon, it is on the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is New Year's day, for ordinary years, and for sabbatic years and jubilees; and also for the planting of trees and for herbs. On the first day of Shebhat is the New Year for trees, according to the school of Shammai; but the school of Hillel says it is on the fifteenth of the same month.

So, we have a Torah that is pretty emphatic that the New Year begins in the Spring, yet some verses indicate that there might be a new year in the fall too. We have a Mishnah which clearly indicates a fall new year, and indeed describes Yom Teruah as Rosh Hashannah with all of our current day understanding. We have two very early sources, the Gezer calendar and the ritualistic calendar from Ugarit which indicate a fall new year, but later cultures that early Jews interacted with used a Spring new year.

A Somewhat Speculative Reconstruction

From these data points, we can begin to speculate on how this transition took place. We start by postulating that early Israelites began their year in the autumn. We base this on the Ugaritic calendar, and the Gezer calendar. We also speculate, using idea 2, that the verses about the holidays in Exodus and possibly Deuteronomy date to this period. (I should note, this isn't just self serving. There are very good independent reasons to date these verses before the other two, which we'll get to those parshiot.) It is possible that the first day of the month after the autumnal equinox was celebrated as a local new year holiday, although there is no evidence of this.

In the Exilic and post-Exilic period, Jewry adopted the Babylonian calendar. In doing so, the authors of the sections of the Torah that date to this period, were emphatic that the new year began in the spring. They may have had to find a place for local celebrations of a new year holiday, and in doing so converted it into Yom Teruah. The Torah often cautions against following Canaanite customs, and it's possible that the fall new year, was one of the customs they disliked.
Nevertheless, local customs, especially local holidays, do not go away easily, and the idea of an autumn new year remained in Judaism throughout the Persian period and into the Hellenistic period, where the Rabbis decided to finally enshrine it in law, since it was already in practice anyway.  The end result is the mishnah in Rosh Hashannah in which multiple new years are represented.  The multiple new years resulted from the practices of the different cultures Judaism drew from.
Now, as I said, this is speculative, although I feel it is still reasonable. There may be other possibilities that explain all the data, and I'd love to hear them.  Hopefully, this week gives a good idea of how I plan to go about things for the year I plan to post on this blog. For each topic, I'll gather all the evidence I have available, and use it to suggest some solutions to the topic I've chosen. Next week, I'll discuss the development of reward and punishment ideas throughout Judaism. I hope you'll join me.

Postscript - Was Rosh Hashannah Derived from Akitu?

A week before this was scheduled to be released I saw this article on Failed Messiah, which attempts to relate the increased hoopla around Rosh Hashannah with the Babylonian New Year, or Akitu, festival.  I think they overstate the claims, and here's why.  I'm going to have to deal with a wiki source for now on this festival, since I forgot to take proper notes on this when researching.  The Akitu festival was indeed a very large festival, going something like twelve days in length.  However, the Babylonian New Year, as mentioned above, was in the Spring not the Autumn.  If Judaism was to adapt this festival, it would have done it on the first of Nissan, not the first of Tishrei.

There's another reason to be skeptical of Babylonian influence.  As the article notes, Rosh Hashannah didn't really gain prominence until the Second Temple period, which was after the Babylonian Exile, and well into the Persian or possibly the Hellenistic period.  If people wanted a Babylonian inspired New Year festival, it would have shown up in Exilic texts, or in other words, it should be in the Torah.  And while it seems that the first references to Yom Teruah date to this era, that's not quite the same.  In other words, the Failed Messiah article has its timing wrong.  It's not clear that Yom Teruah even existed in the first temple period, since it's not mentioned in Devarim!

There is one aspect of the Akitu festival which might have carried over.  One of the prominent events of the festival was a recitation, and indeed a reenactment, of the Babylonian foundational myth Enuma Elish.  We'll talk about what's in this myth more in three weeks.  However, one might speculate that the reason Ezra moved the recitation of the Torah on the first of Tishrei, instead of Sukkot where the Torah commands it (Deut. 31:10-13), was prompted by the Babylonian recitation of their foundational text on their new year.   

Thursday, September 11, 2014

An introduction

Roughly twelve years ago, in what now seems like an alternate life, I used to be a proud Orthodox Jew.  However, shortly after that, when I was in my early twenties, I started getting more and more disaffected with the religion and religious practices.  The more I delved into the Torah, it became more and more obvious that it was a product of human hands.  The more I read Gemara and later commentaries of the Rishonim, the more obvious it was that these leaders were just normal people, with no special knowledge or insight, just their own interpretations.  In many cases, they seemed as far removed from the culture that produced the Torah as we are from them!  The more I contemplated the morality of the Torah and contemporary Jewish culture, the more I was unable to accept that these rulings could be the product of a divine being.  And finally, the more I became immersed with scientific thinking and methodology, and the more I applied it to religious claims and theories, the less stable the entire religion became.  After several years of difficult introspection, I concluded that I could no longer follow a religion I did not believe in, and I left.  For many years I let my considerable knowledge of Judaism rust.

However, sometime about 3-4 years ago, I decided on somewhat of a whim that I would reread the Tanach.  Partly because I felt like I was forgetting my biblical Hebrew, and partly because I knew that I had a shaky knowledge of certain books that were never much discussed in shuls and yeshivot.  In the process, a lot of the old questions that I had came to me again.  The odd word here, the repeated episode there, the blatant contradiction with Rabbinical explanations that were hardly convincing.  I wondered if there were better answers.  When I last contemplated these questions, the internet was in it's childhood, Google and Wikipedia were beginning to ramp up their production.  In other words, finding answers wasn't so easy.  However, nowadays, it's easy to find a ton of answers, and to my surprise, a lot of the answers from secular academic sources were far more convincing than the traditional ones I had come up with.  I discovered an entirely new world of information and interpretation.  One that meshed far better with the scientific thinking which was now ingrained in my thought process.

I had never thought to really pursue the findings of modern academia.  This was because, like many Orthodox Jews, I was told that modern academists had a poor understanding of the texts, they didn't understand Hebrew, they were anti-Semitic, the theories had all been disproved.  I'm not sure why I never really questioned this, even after leaving the religion, perhaps it was because I never really thought about it that much.  But I didn't question it.  However, after delving into some of these answers, I learned that like so many other things, the Rabbis of my youth were incorrect in this matter as well.

They claimed that they had a poor understanding of the texts, but what they had was the understanding that these texts likely had a very different purpose than the one that was ascribed to them by the Geonim.  They claimed that academicians didn't understand Hebrew, but modern academia has far better tools to understand biblical Hebrew than traditional Judaism does.  Specifically, they have written language results from contemporary cultures, such as Sumeria, Akkadia, and Egyptian, which can greatly assist at determining meanings of cognate words.  I found the academic explanations to be rooted in archaeology and linguistics, whereas the Rabbinical ones seemed like guesswork, or were driven by theology.   They said the proponents of various biblical theories were anti-Semitic, and indeed some earlier theorists like Wellhausen were.  But it'd be impossible to make that claim today with a straight face, since many of the people involved in the field are Jewish themselves.  Finally, they said, it had all been disproved.  This is easily refuted.  Disproved hypotheses do not get taught at every university with a secular bible course.  Incorrect theories, perhaps.  But not disproved ones.  Once they're found to be wanting, they are discarded, except perhaps in courses on history.

This blog will represent many of the interesting things I've found.  I call it kefirah which means blasphemy, because many of the things I will discuss have unfortunate ramifications for traditional Jewish theological thinking.  Not every denomination of Judaism will have problems with this, but the Orthodoxy I grew up with does.  Unlike the people at, I have no desire to try and mesh modern academia into a version of Judaism, and I don't plan to try.

I will post once a week, on Wednesdays (except on holiday weeks, the first post will be on Monday, Sept 22).  I will attempt to focus on the parsha of the week, but sometimes, I will address more general topics. Most of the posts will provide support for one of the following claims:

  1. The Torah was written by different groups of humans at different times, and shows a development of theology
  2. The Judaism we know today was strongly influenced by surrounding cultures, ranging from ancient Canaanite to Roman.
  3. The historicity of Tanach is highly questionable based on findings of archaeology.  In turn, these archaeological results can help determine the date of composition.
None of these will be proven in a single post, and due to the nature of providing information relevant to the parsha, at some points, I will assume one of the conclusions to make a different point, and come back to the supporting evidence some weeks later.  However, provided I make it through the year, all three of these points will wind up being well supported and well sourced.  Some topics I will not really discuss.  These include arguments for theism and atheism in general.  I will also not argue for basic scientific theories like evolution and radioactive dating.  The brand of Judaism I grew up with accepted these theories anyway. 

So, what made me decide to create this blog?  The main reason was to motivate me to look critically as a lot of different topics in the field, and learn about them in depth.  The best way for me to do that is to write about them.  Then, I will force myself to research topics, take proper notes, and strengthen my own knowledge. Another reason is that this area is a pleasant diversion from my professional work (physics).  It's a nice hobby, albeit quite a bizarre one.  And finally, it's a way to talk to "myself" from 12 years ago.  If I could point my former self towards this blog, it would probably eliminate several wasted years of rationalization, and chasing dead ends.  Perhaps someone out there today is in the shoes I once was in, if so maybe this will help.  If not, that's fine two, the first two reasons are more than enough to carry me through for a year.