Why is the Jewish New Year celebrated in the autumn? The Torah says quite
clearly that the first month of the year shall be in the spring (Exod. 12:2),
which means Nisan, though it was originally called “Aviv,” or Spring (Deut.
16:1). This follows the Babylonian calendar, which started with the month of
Nisannu and continued with 10 days of New Year rituals.
The first day of
the Jewish month of Nisan, the beginning of the year, has no rituals
Such rituals as Temple sacrifices and blowing of the Shofar
are only prescribed for the festival six months later, in the month of Tishrei,
in the autumn (Lev. 23:23- 5), though it is not called Rosh Hashana, but the
“Memorial of the sounding of the Horn, a sacred Meeting.” The sacrifices for
that day are further described in Numb. 29: 1-6, so it looks as if that should
be the real New Year festival, in the autumn, when we in fact celebrate it, and
not in the spring. What does this mean?
IN GENERAL, New Year festivals started
in the spring, when Nature appeared to reawaken after a dormant
This was the case in Europe before the arbitrary date of January
1 was adopted. In England the New Year was celebrated on March 26, considered to
be the spring equinox, until 1712. In France, the New Year started at Easter,
also near the spring equinox, until the year 1556. And in Germany, January 1 was
only fixed by decree in 1776. In this way the peoples of the world acknowledged
that the date of the New Year should reflect the revival of Nature after the
winter, as had been done in ancient Babylon.
Since the third millennium
BCE the Babylonians had had a lunar calendar corrected to the solar year by the
addition of an extra month from time to time, a system that we inherited from
them and formalized in the fourth century CE, when we added an extra month seven
times in 19 years. We also took over the Babylonian names for the months, with
slight adjustments. So why did we not take over a date for our New Year in the
spring, like everybody else? As in most things, the date of the Jewish New Year
must have a religious significance, and the Babylonian Talmud relates it to the
creation of the world.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus said that “in Tishrei
the world was created... on New Year the bondage of our ancestors in Egypt
ceased, in Nisan they were redeemed but in Tishrei they will be redeemed in the
time to come.”
However, Rabbi Joshua said that “in Nisan the world was
created... and in Nisan they will be redeemed in the time to come" (Rosh Hashana
It is significant that these two rabbis both base their
statements on natural phenomena. R. Eliezer bases himself on the verse “let the
earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed and fruit trees” (Gen. 1:11), which he
says is Tishrei, the month when the trees bear fruit, while R.
uses the same verse to support Nisan, when grass begins to grow and the trees to
sprout! In other words, they differ on whether we go by the beginning of growth
in spring, or by the harvest of fruit in the autumn.
In spite of his
views, R. Joshua does not say that Rosh Hashana should be on the first of Nisan,
so it is clear that these rabbanim (of circa 100 CE) declared it to be on the
first of Tishrei, based on the fact that that date is described as a festival
with sacrifices and blowing of the horn, while the first of Nisan has no
On the other hand, we can see that things might have
been different at Qumran.
There the Book of Jubilees, which is dated to
the first century BCE, lays down a solar calendar with a year of 364 days and a
celebration on the new moon of the first month, which is Nisan. Thus it
stipulates a festival whereas the Torah does not, as we have seen.
Temple Scroll, also from Qumran, goes further, with a springtime New Year
festival, with burnt offerings of “one young bull, one ram and seven male
lambs.” In other words, the author has taken the Biblical idea of the first of
Nisan being the commencement of the year and linked it with the Biblical
sacrifices of the first of Tishrei, to make a New Year ceremony in the spring!
That still leaves the question of why our Rosh Hashana is in the autumn, in
ONE OF the earliest known pieces of Hebrew writing is the Gezer
calendar, which is dated to the time of King Solomon in the 10th century BCE. It
is a list of the information essential to the agricultural community in that it
records the monthly activities of the farmer, in seven steps of one and two
months, and it starts in the late summer, in Elul/Tishrei, with two months of
ingathering or harvest. That is to say that for the farmer, the significant
start of the year is in the autumn, when his crops are safely in the barn and he
knows where he stands for the coming year.
But this seems to be a
minority opinion as the rest of the world, at a time when it was all
agricultural, liked to start with the beginning of growth, in the spring, rather
than with the end of it in the autumn. So where did this idea of starting with
the autumn come from? Like much else it seems to have originated with Egypt,
where the New Year was celebrated in late summer. Egypt was different from the
rest of the world. In Egypt the calendar year was both lunar and solar as
everywhere else, but the Egyptians had three annual seasons, not
The Egyptian calendar was based on the Nile River, which had three
phases, called Inundation, Seed and Harvest.
The Inundation, or flooding
of the Nile, started in about August, when the heavy spring and winter rains of
Central Africa reached southern Egypt, and then continued northwards until the
end of November.
As the waters subsided, flooding was followed by Seed,
when the farmer went back to planting, which lasted until the end of March, and
was then followed by Harvest, which went on through April, May, June and July.
It was after that the New Year was celebrated, at the end of the Harvest season.
That was how they did it in Egypt.
And that is how the Israelites coped
with it and copied it. At springtime, it may have been normal to celebrate the
beginning of fertility and to pray for its extension over the coming year, but
it was only in the autumn, at the end of the harvest, that the population knew
whether their prayers had been answered, so that was the time to celebrate, to
start the New Year, to be grateful and thank God for His blessings. It was a
lesson that the Israelites learned from their time in Egypt.
time again the Torah says we must remember how, by Divine grace and power, we
were brought out of Egypt. Indeed we have Egyptian reflections in so many of our
ritual activities, right up to the highest level, of the golden Cherubim (winged
creatures on an Egyptian model) mounted on the most sacred Ark of the Covenant
(Exod. 25:18-21). It all came from our sojourn in Egypt, as did the idea of a
New Year celebrated after the harvest, in the autumn.
The writer, a PhD,
is a Senior Fellow of the W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research,