Weekly Message from Rabbi Panitz


The Bible is the fountain and origin of our Jewish culture. We expect to find at least the first word of any Jewish discussion in the Bible.

Rosh Hashanah is a peak moment in Jewish life. What does the Bible say about this day?

It may come as a surprise to learn that Rosh Hashanah gets only a bare mention in the Five Books of Moses, and no designation as the New Year. It is the “day of trumpet sounding”, a day of rest and of sacrifice. But its status as New Year is not stated. Why should this be so?

I see three possible answers: Either (1) there was no New Year in Biblical consciousness, or (2) the first day of the seventh month was a holiday, but not a New Year, with some other time being the New Year, or (3) the New Year identity of the first day of the seventh month was known in popular circles but was suppressed in the “elite” presentations that have become our Bible..

The first possibility does not work because the Bible makes a big deal about Nisan being the first month, and Passover being the holiday of that month, celebrated two weeks into it, at the Full Moon. This shows that for the Bible, there was a clear concept of a year and a festival that coincided with the beginning of the year, even if there was not a “Rosh Hashanah” in our familiar sense. Passover, after all, is not about the New Year, but about the harvest and above all about our national coming into being with the Exodus from Egypt.

As for the second possibility, “the day of shofar sounding” does not give us enough to reconstruct what kind of holiday the first of Tishre was, if it was something other than the New Year. One of the Psalms suggests that the shofar was sounded every New Moon, or perhaps every Full Moon, but that does not explain why, of all twelve months, the seventh one was privileged to bear the title “yom Teruah”, “the day of the shofar sounding”.

The third possibility makes the most sense to me. That is because we know from archaeology that there was a major New Year’s festival in Ancient Mesopotamia, known as “barley”-- “Akitu”. This festival has left its traces in our Biblical holidays, but the full message of the pagan festival was so repugnant to Jewish consciousness that the shapers of Biblical Israelite religion wanted to wean us from the connotations of “New Year”.

“Akitu” was a major holiday, lasting nearly half a month. In Babylon, it was celebrated in Nisan (the Spring).But the older version of the holiday, celebrated in Ur, the hometown of Abraham, placed the Akitu New Year festival in Tishre, just like our Rosh Hashanah. After the intense heat of the Middle Eastern summer, the shortening hours of sunlight and the onset of rains at the Autumnal Equinox meant that farmers could plant the new crop of barley, and hence start a new annual cycle of agriculture.

Part of the message of the Akitu festival, for the pagans who observed it, was acceptable to Jews. This was the idea that the community needed Heaven to renew its annual lease on life. We have the same notion in the Rabbinic description of Rosh Hashanah as “hayom harat olam, hayon yaamid bamishpat kol yitzurei olamim”—This is the anniversary of the creation of the world, and the judgment day for all people.
But again, our Jewish source for that notion is Rabbinic, which is to say centuries later than the Bible. So let us look more closely at Akitu to see why it would have been rejected by the guardians of monotheism in Biblical Israel.

The central ritual of the Akitu festival was the transport of the idols of the gods revered by the Mesopotamians out of their regular, in-town Temples, to a special location beyond the city walls, the “Bet Akitu”, and then the triumphant return of those idols back to their permanent Temple. (I wonder if we unconsciously mimic this when our more exuberant folks take the Torah Scrolls on Simchat Torah out into the street and then back into the synagogue?)

If the main image of the Mesopotamian New Year was the public spectacle of idolatry, then it is understandable that the keepers of the Biblical Revolution wanted to have very little to do with that.

There’s more: If the idolatrous spectacle of Akitu was the holiday in practice, then the “Torah portion ”(sic.) that the pagans recited on that holiday conveyed the theory of their belief. The sacred story, solemnly recited during Akitu, was the Mesopotamian creation story, “Enuma Elish”. In this story, the gods engage in a vicious struggle, the result of which was the creation of our familiar Heaven and Earth. The chief God of the pantheon (Marduk in the Babylonian version) defeats Tiamat, an enormous sea-monster, the goddess of the briny deep. So in the Mesopotamian imagination, Akitu, the New Year, is the time when the forces of Order defeated the forces of Chaos, and the moment when one had to renew one’s allegiance to all the gods, so as to gain the benefits of an ordered cosmos for the year ahead.

Echoes of God defeating Yam or Leviathan do show up in the oldest biblical poetry. But standard Biblical belief is that God created the Universe without any struggle. Against whom would the One God have to struggle? The only limitation of God’s power in Judaism is God’s voluntary renunciation of control over humans. God gives us free will, and we are responsible for the consequences of exercising that will.

God loves us, and wants us to lead good lives, but God also judges us, because that is our human condition. With the power of free choice comes the responsibility to choose rightly and the consequence of having to answer for the lives we have lived—That’s Judaism! And that’s the Rabbinic Rosh Hashanah! But it’s not the message of the Akitu.

In the Bible, the fight against idolatry took center stage, so the New Year festival, being tainted by the pagan theology of Akitu, made it untouchable. After the Bible, with monotheism no longer the battleground of the Jewish spirit, we could revisit the sacred calendars of our neighbors and respond positively to those of its features that resonated with our own beliefs. As a result, we now have a Rosh Hashanah that would have surprised our Biblical ancestors. I am glad that we have it.

Wishing you a happy and healthy New Year!

Rabbi Michael Panitz