Why is Rosh Hashana in the autumn?

It all came from our sojourn in Egypt, as did the idea of a New Year celebrated after the harvest, in the autumn.

Rosh Hashanah (photo credit: Gilabrand)
Rosh Hashanah
(photo credit: Gilabrand)
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 prescribed.
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 winter.
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 1oB-11A).
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.
Joshua 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 ceremonial attached.
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.
The 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 Tishrei.
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 four.
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 and 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, Jerusalem.