What comes to mind when you think of Rosh Hashanah?
It’s the Jewish New Year? The day when all creation is judged by the Israelite god Hashem for the coming year? The day we dip the apple in the honey to symbolize a sweet new year? The day when we engage in a very long prayer service, most of which focuses on declaring Hashem’s dominion over the world? The day when we hear the shofar blowing (ram’s horn)?
Turns out that none of the above, with the possible exception of the shofar blowing (depending what the word t’ru’ah means in Lev. 23:24 and Num. 29:1), appears in the Bible!
On the other hand, the Bible tells us some beautiful things about the holiday we now call Rosh Hashanah that almost none of us was ever taught in school! How about giving food to the poor, for instance?
When the Israelites returned to the Land of Israel from their exile in Persia in the late 6th or 5th century BCE, we are told in Nehemia Chapter 8 that they knew very little about their religion but wanted to learn. When they discovered all the sins they had been committing all this time, it was the first day of the seventh month in the Hebrew calendar – the day we now call Rosh Hashanah.
Here’s what happened:
All the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed Hashem, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
(Nehemia 8 – English Standard Version)
“Send portions to anyone who has nothing ready?”
“All the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions?”
Who ever thought of Rosh Hashanah as a day when we send portions to anyone who has nothing ready!
Rosh Hashanah is one of the few holidays that a good chunk of the Jewish population still celebrates. How many needy people could be served if all who celebrate Rosh Hashanah would send portions to anyone who has nothing ready?
Finally, one other thing we see clearly in the passage above that directly contradicts the practice of some today is that Rosh Hashanah was not a day to cry over one’s sins. As you just read, the people were doing so, and the Levites told them to stop!
So if you know anyone who will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah on Sep. 5, please show them Nehemiah 8, or simply tell them: “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine, send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, and do not be grieved.” You will have made the world a better place. 🙂