Rosh HaShanah is a profound and life-changing holiday. It’s a bit mysterious as well, since the biblical text tells us very little about what to do or what its purpose is.
Among the few biblical details, we are told that the first day of the seventh month is a “memorial” (Leviticus 23:24). A memorial is a time or place where one calls attention to past events. But what does this day commemorate?
The verse says that the day is called a zichron tru’ah, which literally means “a memorial of sounding.” Although some English versions take the liberty of inserting the word “trumpets,” this word does not occur in the Hebrew text. Tru’ah can refer to any kind of noise, such as shouting. The only reason we know that trumpets are involved—specifically, a ram’s horn trumpet called a shofar—is on the basis of Jewish tradition.
Nonetheless, the sound of the ram’s horn is the memory-jogging device, the memorial symbol of Rosh HaShanah. What could this commemorate? Some hints can be found in the ancient prayers that we recite in our synagogues on Rosh HaShanah.
The Creation of the World
According to Jewish thought, Rosh HaShanah is the day when Adam was created: the culmination of the six days of creation. Creation should remind us of the absolute sovereignty of God, who created all things for his glory. As the anniversary of the creation of mankind, Rosh HaShanah calls to mind our original purpose and how well (or how poorly) we are accomplishing it.
The Deeds of Mankind
In his parables, Yeshua sometimes depicted God as a manager or employer, who checks in occasionally on our work. That is Rosh HaShanah imagery, and it is not so much about eternal destinies as it is with the fulfillment of our calling as children of God. Rosh HaShanah is a time to revisit our successes and mistakes over the past year and to give an accounting for what we’ve done. It is far better to do this once a year than to deal with it all at once when our life is over!
Being followers of Yeshua does not exempt us from this process by any means. However, as his disciples we have confidence and assurance that the Messiah’s merit will shield us in judgment and that through repentance our sins will be blotted out from the books of remembrance.
The Merit of the Righteous
According to the Scriptures, “the memory of the righteous is a blessing” (Proverbs 10:7). According to Genesis, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). After the flood, “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the livestock that were with him in the ark. And God made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Genesis 8:1).
When God remembers a righteous person, it benefits all those who linger in his or her shadow. It is on this principle that we trust in the merit of Yeshua, whose righteousness and faithfulness has exceeded all others.
The Covenants of the Forefathers
Often, the remembrance of God takes the form of the fulfillment of covenant promises. On Rosh HaShanah, we ask God to remember what he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to bring redemption and salvation. After all, it was in remembrance of this covenant that God delivered the Israelites from Egypt:
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Exodus 2:24)
These covenants exist for a reason. We invoke them as we ask God to show kindness to us year after year, in accordance with the pattern shown to us in Scripture:
For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love. (Psalm 106:45)
When Yeshua returns, the complete Messianic redemption will come in remembrance of all these covenants.
When a relationship encounters challenges, sometimes it helps to reminisce and to remember what drew each partner together when the relationship began. Likewise, Rosh HaShanah is a time for God and Israel to reminisce about the time when Israel followed God through the wilderness. According to Jeremiah, God declared, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Jeremiah 2:2).
The Binding of Isaac
While all these remembrances are important, none quite explains the use of a ram’s horn. But this could symbolize the ram (whose horn was caught in the thicket) that stood in for Isaac, when Abraham bound him on the altar in an extreme act of devotion. According to Jewish sages, this event (called the akeidah, or “binding”) occurred on Rosh HaShanah. The prayer book for Rosh HaShanah asks,
Remember for us, O LORD, our God, the covenant, and the devotion, and the oath that you swore to our father Abraham on Mount Moriah. Let the binding of Isaac appear before you, when our father Abraham bound his son Isaac on top of the altar and he subdued his own paternal compassion in order to perform your will wholeheartedly.
This powerful biblical symbol is even more impressive when understood in a Jewish context. According to Jewish tradition, Isaac was no small child when this happened. He was in his thirties! If so, Isaac’s life was not being taken from him, but he laid it down of his own accord. Thus, both he and his father share in the merit of this act of dedication.
Rosh HaShanah: A Remembrance of Messiah
Scripture tells us that a day of remembrance is approaching. Together with our Father in heaven, we remember our purpose, our duties, and our deeds. We evaluate our lives, our successes, and our shortcomings. We ask him also to remember his covenant promises by sending Messiah to complete the redemption he started.
- Pesikta Rabbati 40.