Why is it that we Jews celebrate the New Year at the beginning of the seventh month? Yes, I know, Jewish tradition actually recognizes four New Years Days (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1), but only the first of Tishrei -- the one we know as Rosh Hashanah -- is a major holiday.
Only one other New Year, the New Year of Trees (which we usually call Tu Bishevat) has any practical existence at all, and that one only as a very minor holiday. The day that is the most obvious candidate for New Years Day, the first day of the first month (Nisan) has no inherent significance at all in contemporary Judaism.
The puzzle only increases when we remember that the Torah specifically identifies the month of Nisan, the month in which Passover falls, as the first of the months of the year (Ex. 12:2). It prescribes the first of Tishrei as a festival, but nowhere does it identify that festival as Rosh Hashanah, or tell us much of anything else about it. Indeed, even Yom Hazikaron (Day of Remembrance), the name by which Rosh Hashanah is formally known in the liturgy, is nowhere mentioned in the Torah. The Torah mentions the holiday itself only twice: in Parshat Pinchas (Num. 29:1-6), where it is called Yom Teruah (the Day of the Shofar Blast); and in Parshat Emor (Lev. 23:23-25), where it is referred to as Zikhron Teruah (the Remembrance of Shofar blasts).
In other words, the only thing the Torah tells us about the holiday we call Rosh Hashanah is that it is associated with the blowing of the Shofar. That association by itself gives us little help in understanding the significance of the day, however, because the significance of the shofar itself is subject to a variety of interpretations. Saadia Gaon famously listed ten different reasons for blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, including its association with creation, with the Akedah (binding of Isaac), with the revelation at Sinai and, ultimately, with the Messianic Redemption. The blessing over the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah refers to the mitzvah as "hearing the voice of the Shofar," but since that voice speaks without words, the message that is heard depends a great deal on who is doing the listening.
Perhaps we can get some help on the meaning of Rosh Hashanah from the two verses from the Book of Psalms that are most closely associated with it, the verses we use on it to introduce both the evening Amidah and the afternoon Kiddush: "Sound the shofar on the new moon, at the time appointed for our feast day. For it is a statute (chok) for Israel, a judgment (mishpat) for the God of Jacob." (Psalms 81:4-5).
The most common interpretation of these verses is as referring to the prerogative of the Beit Din (Jewish court), during the time when the Temple stood, to fix the date of each Rosh Chodesh (New Moon) -- including Rosh Hashanah, which is the Rosh Chodesh of Tishrei. Only when Israel, through the Beit Din, has determined which day is Rosh Hashanah can that day become a day of judgment (mishpat) for the God of Jacob.
But there is another way of understanding these verses that might help us to understand better the essence of Rosh Hashanah: focusing on the use of the words chok and mishpat, which we usually understand as referring to two different types of mitzvot. A chok is a commandment whose purpose we do not understand and which we perform only because God has commanded us to do so. A mishpat is a commandment, like the prohibitions on murder and theft, for which the rationale is self-evident.
If we understand the words chok and mishpat in these verses the same way we understand them in most other contexts, then perhaps we can start to see why the Torah treats Rosh Hashanah the way it does. The day on which the shofar is sounded (i.e., Rosh Hashanah), the Psalmist tells us, is a chok (law without any apparent reason) for Israel, but a mishpat (a law whose purpose is self-evident ) for the God of Jacob. From God's perspective, in other words, Rosh Hashanah has a clear and self-evident reason, but He has chosen not to reveal that reason to us in His Torah, making the holiday a chok from our perspective. (The word "mishpat" in that verse may have a double meaning, as both a counterpoint to chok and a day whose focus is on judgment.)
With no clear explanation in the Torah of the reason for Rosh Hashanah and no ritual associated with it other than the blowing of the shofar -- a ritual act which itself is susceptible to multiple interpretations -- the holiday might well be a kind of Rorschach test of the Jewish people as a whole. There are no doubt many possible meanings that Jews could have chosen to attribute to this unexplained holiday, but there was one particular meaning that prevailed.
That prevailing meaning, the one that the Jewish people has long associated with Rosh Hashanah, is that it is the beginning of a ten-day period of repentance that will end with Yom Kippur. Despite its cryptic handling of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah is very clear about the meaning of Yom Kippur as a day for Jews to atone for their sins and elaborates in great detail (Lev. 16:1-34) on the atonement service that took place when the Temple stood. But the Torah does not create a ten day preparatory period before Yom Kippur, nor does it suggest any association between Rosh Hashanah and the atonement process of Yom Kippur.
If Yom Kippur is to achieve its purpose, however, it cannot appear suddenly and alone, without giving us an opportunity to prepare for it. Teshuva is a lengthy process, and a difficult one. The more opportunity we have to reflect on our deeds over the course of the past year, the greater the likelihood that we will be able to complete the process of teshuva successfully.
One might argue, of course, that even though the Torah does not expressly link Rosh Hashanah to the atonement process that will culminate on Yom Kippur, it hints at such a link by prescribing the dates of the two holidays with only ten days between them. When it comes to the concept of Rosh Hashanah as a New Year, however, the Torah provides no such hint. Indeed, by placing Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the seventh month -- literally at the opposite end of the calendar from the first month of the year -- the Torah's words would seem to militate against such.
So why did the Jewish people come to view Rosh Hashanah as the primary New Year of the Jewish calendar? Perhaps it's because we came to understand the idea of renewal in a spiritual rather than a chronological sense. What makes one particular day the beginning of a new year is not its position on the calendar but its significance in our lives. This season of teshuva, by its nature, provides us with the ability to wipe the slate clean and to start our lives afresh.
By placing the season of teshuva in the seventh month -- as far as possible from the chronological beginning of the year -- the Torah reminds us that it is our teshuva, not the calendar, that has the capacity to provide us with that fresh start. However mired we are in the patterns of our lives, however overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable task of self-improvement, we have the capacity -- especially in this season but ultimately in any season -- to begin our return to God. "Return us, O Lord, to yourself, and let us return. Renew our days as of old." (Lamentations 5:21)
May all of us -- and, indeed, all the Jewish people -- be inscribed and sealed for a year of life, of health and of peace.
Ketivah vechatimah tovah.