Question: "What is the true meaning of Rosh Hashanah?"
Answer: One of the “appointed feasts of the LORD” given to Israel in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is known today as Rosh Hashanah, literally “Head of the Year.” We read about Rosh Hashanah in the Torah, the Jewish Law found in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall present a food offering to the LORD’” (Leviticus 23:23–25).
Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, is also known as Yom Teruah or the Day of Trumpets. The word teruah means “to shout or make a noise,” so this holiday is marked by the blowing of the shofar or ram’s horn in Jewish synagogues around the world. Rosh Hashanah falls on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri on the Jewish calendar, which usually corresponds to September or October. It always falls on the seventh new moon of the Jewish year. After the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, even though this feast day falls on the seventh month of the Jewish religious calendar, it began to be called Rosh Hashanah and became the beginning of the Jewish civil calendar.
Rosh Hashanah begins a ten-day period leading up to the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. These ten days are called the yomim nora’im or Days of Awe in modern Judaism. The sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a wake-up blast and a sobering reminder that the time is near for the Day of Atonement. It is a call to teshuvah, which is repentance and turning back to the LORD. These ten days are ones of great introspection, heart-searching and self-examination. The sound of the shofar for the Jew was, and still continues to be, a call to examine one’s life, to make amends with all those one may have wronged in the previous year, and to ask forgiveness for any vows one may have broken. So the primary theme of Rosh Hashanah is one of repentance.
A common greeting for Jews just before and during Rosh Hashanah is “May your name be inscribed [in the book of life].” Another popular greeting is L'shana Tova, which is a wish for a good new year. Traditional foods on Rosh Hashanah are sweet things. So apples dipped in honey and many other sweet dishes made with apples, honey, raisins, figs, sweetened carrots, and pomegranates are generally served in the Jewish home. The traditional challah bread is made sweeter and shaped in a circle, symbolizing completeness and never-ending sweetness. The rabbinic idea of this “sweetness” was to bring a sense of optimism to the festival, since the themes of repentance and atonement might have made this season a somber time of remorse alone.
According to rabbinic tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the destiny of the righteous and the wicked are sealed. The righteous are written into the Book of Life, and the wicked are written into the Book of Death, but most people won’t be written into either book. These are given the ten days until Yom Kippur to exercise repentance and self-examination and then seal their fate. Then, on the Day of Atonement, everyone has his or her name inscribed into one of the two books.
Like all of the Lord’s appointed days in the Hebrew Bible, Rosh Hashanah points Christians to an even greater reality. For those who have placed their faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus, we understand the true meaning of the call to repentance and of turning our hearts toward God. The God of the Bible indeed has a Book of Life and a Book of Death. The Bible clearly warns us that on the Day of Judgment, which is yet to come, anyone’s name not found in the Book of Life will reside in the lake of fire for all eternity (Revelation 20:15).
For those who have placed their trust in the atoning work of Jesus through His life, death, burial, and resurrection (2 Corinthians 5:21), their names are already written into the Lamb’s Book of Life. And now, even we believers in Jesus listen for that trumpet call, “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. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, 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. Therefore encourage one another with these words” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–18).