The Tradition of Rosh Hashanah

And all believe that He is the faithful God.

-from the Machzor

This ninth-century, twofold alphabetical acrostic has been ascribed to Yohanan ha-Cohen, but M. Zulay says that Yannai (ca.550 C.E.) may have been it’s author. Declaring that God holds in His hand the scales of justice, the piyyut affirms that He is merciful even as He fathoms our secret devisings.

-Max Arzt
Chapter 2: “The New Year (Rosh Hashanah), pp 175-6
Justice and Mercy: Commentary on the Liturgy of the New Year and the Day of Atonement

This morning (as I write this), I listened to part of an audio teaching by Aaron Eby called “The Shofar and the Signs of the Times: A Lesson for Rosh Hashanah” as I commuted to work. Since I can’t take notes and drive at the same time (my wife says that men can’t multitask), I can’t reference large portions of the content, but one thing Aaron said has stayed with me. He said that the Bible teaches us almost nothing about how to celebrate or commemorate Rosh Hashanah, which is more accurately called “Yom Teruah” (which literally means in Hebrew “Day of Loud Noise”). Almost everything we know about celebrating Rosh Hashanah was developed much later by the various Rabbinic sages across Jewish history.

I find this rather telling and even amusing in a way, since most Christians (including Hebrew Roots Christians) tend to believe the Talmud or Oral Traditions are wholly manufactured by people and have nothing to do with the Bible. But while traditional (church going) Christians are highly unlikely to have anything to do with Jewish observance, including the commemoration of Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew Roots devotees this year almost certainly marked the occasion through a form of observance that attempted to mirror that of religious Jews in the synagogue.

The “disconnect” in the behavior of the latter group is that they not only tend to dismiss Rabbinic authority in establishing binding methods of worship, but they rather avidly declare that Hebrew Roots believers follow only the written Torah and not the Oral Law.

And yet, the Rosh Hashanah services many of them attended a few days ago were largely established, not in Biblical times (and remember, the Bible contains few if any instructions on how to commemorate Rosh Hashanah), but by the later Rabbinic Sages.

I’m not trying to start another in a long, long series of arguments relative to Messianic Judaism and Hebrew Roots, but I do want to point out something that I think we all need to “get”.

But the very notion that the whole people [who received the Torah at Mt. Sinai] was the vehicle of divine revelation saved Judaism from an arid, literal biblicism. It gave rise to the belief that the “oral law” is the authentic and living interpretation of the “written law,” so that Revelation came to be regarded as a continuing process. The Rabbis seem to have grasped intuitively an idea akin to the modern concept of historical evolution, when they asserted that at Sinai both the oral and the written laws were revealed.

-ibid, p. 186


What was implicit in the rabbinic expansion of the concept of revelation must become an explicit principle in our day, when Jewish tradition faces the challenge of new ideas and of discoveries of major proportions. As a viable religion, Judaism must continue to be a vehicle of God’s continuous Revelation to His people, for the voice that Israel heard at Sinai “did not cease” (Onkelos on Deut., 5:19).

-ibid, pp. 186-7

Torah at SinaiOK, that’s not going to sit well with a lot of people. These statements presuppose that either a written Torah was given to the Israelites at Sinai along with an oral set of instructions on how to interpret the written texts, or that God gave an ongoing authority to the Jewish teachers of each generation to make binding interpretations of how to operationalize the written Torah and apply that to the Jewish people. The problem is that for most of Israel’s history, there has been no one apparent standard of interpretation. In the time of the Apostle Paul, for example, there were numerous streams of Judaism in existence, most of which contracted one another.

But perceiving that one group were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, Paul began crying out in the Council, “Brethren, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” As he said this, there occurred a dissension between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor an angel, nor a spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.

Acts 23:6-8 (NASB)

But then how can Jewish Rabbis and scholars say they have God-given authority to make binding halachah for the Jewish people when not only more than one standard exists, but these different standards are at odds with each other?

An even bolder extension of the idea of Revelation is implied in the statement that where scholars offer two mutually contradictory opinions on a legal problem or on the interpretation of a biblical verse, both opinions are considered to be “the words of the living God,” since both are equally the result of a reverent search for an understanding of the Torah (Erub. 13b).

-Artz, p. 186

Talmud Study by LamplightI have a tough time wrapping my brain around that one, but it does seem to be accepted in Judaism that the various sages and teachers for each community or stream of Judaism have the right to establish binding standards for their own groups.

This point is disputed, not only in traditional and Hebrew Roots Christianity, but in Messianic Judaism. In the comments section of this blog post which I quoted in part in the body of this article, such a debate between two Jewish men in Messiah is demonstrated.

Carl Kinbar said:

I would like to contend these thoughts, at least in the absolute way you have expressed them. You’ve drawn this from the story of Achnai’s Oven, in which God does miracles to support the opinion of Rabbi Eliezar over the opinion of the majority of rabbis. But they reject not only God’s miracles but his also voice, which declares “the halakhah is according to Rabbi Eliezer. The majority “defeated” Rabbi Eliezer and God by pointing out that the Torah is not in heaven but on earth. God’s opinion doesn’t matter. Then God laughs in delight that “my sons have defeated me.”

So, as a Jew, I can imagine myself standing before the majority of rabbis as a believer in Messiah Yeshua. God says, “Carl is right–Yeshua is the Messiah.” But the majority refuses to accept God’s voice and declares me a min (heretic). God then laughs, “My children have defeated me again!” God is pleased with them and displeased with me for rejecting the majority, even though he knows full well that Yeshua is his Messiah.

The identity of Messiah is just the beginning of areas in which the majority would overrule God. They do not recognize the Brit Hadashah and they do not recognize the joyous obligation of Jewish believers in Yeshua to love all our fellow Yeshua believers as Messiah has loved us. Should Jews accept the traditional majority in these matters, too?

Hopefully, one day I will find an opening to express the depth and beauty of my relationship with Torah and rabbinic tradition. For now, I just want to say that accepting the majority’s right to interpret and apply Torah is not absolute and God does not laugh when his voice is ignored.

ProclaimLiberty said:

I understand your contention and I share in your frustration with the unpleasant reality that the leaders of the Jewish people actually have the authority to be WRONG. However, for good or for ill, this is an irrevocable gift of authority, which only increases the responsibility borne by these authorities. I do not say that HaShem holds them guiltless for any divergence from His Torah in applying or interpreting the Torah. The episode of Aknai’s oven only underscores the degree of this awesome legal responsibility. It then becomes our responsibilty as Rav Yeshua’s hasidim to work toward opening the eyes of current authorities to the finer distinctions between the negative elements that previously were inveighed against with some statements, and the positive aspects of ourselves and Rav Yeshua’s approach to Torah.

Chazal reiterates some of Rav Yeshua’s Matt.23 criticism of the Pharisees (or a recognizably faulty subset of them), for example, illustrating that corrections and improvements are possible. I believe that the power lies within us (b’ezrat HaShem) to demonstrate that the modern MJ community is not defined by the characteristics that impelled earlier generations of rabbis to present a rejectionistic front. However, there is still much improvement required of the modern MJ community in the aggregate to support such a demonstration. Thus we should not wish for miraculous signs or voices from heaven to justify us in our appeal to these authorities. Rather, the miraculous signs should be evident in improving our behavior and our demeanor on earth as a community and as individuals, that we should be seen as walking examples of Torah whose positive contribution to the Jewish enterprise cannot be denied as sectarian or separatist.

debateI can’t pretend to have the ability to resolve this apparent dissonance within Messianic Judaism specifically and within larger religious Judaism as a whole, but as I said more recently, an adaptive dynamic to the interpretation of Torah for Jewish communities existing in different geolocations and across time is one of the requirements for the continuation of Judaism and the existence of the Jewish people. Without the ability of different streams of Judaism to be able to continually interpret their own scriptures, there either would be no Judaism at all or one that existed as a complete anachronism within the modern landscape, totally incapable of managing even the simplest elements of 21st Century life.

Interestingly enough, Christianity (and probably any other current religion with ancient origins based on ancient texts) engages in a similar dynamic. Imagine transporting a church leader or elder from some popular Christian community of five-hundred years ago into even the most conservative, Fundamentalist church in modern times. Would this person, even if they shared a common language with the modern believers he was placed among, understand what was going on around him? How would he view the modern attire being worn, especially of the women in the chapel? What would be his feelings about the music, about youth groups, about Sunday school, about all of those early 16th Century Christian practices and traditions he holds dear and true and Biblical that are likely not to be evident at all in any 21st Century church?

Christianity is as adaptive as Judaism. It has to be. If it wasn’t, if it took some ancient standard of practice and behavior and suspended it like a fly in amber, forever isolated, immobile, and ageless, its members most likely couldn’t manage modern life outside the church’s walls at all. The Church, as it were, operates with a sort of historically developmental “oral law” just as Judaism does. Only the “clothing” that process is dressed up in is different.

The Jewish people today could hardly be expected to know how to commemorate Rosh Hashanah and many other events and practices without its history of adaptive interpretation of the mitzvot. Whether an objectively existing Oral Law was given to Moses by God at Sinai, or whether it just became an accepted standard in Judaism that the Rabbis would be considered as having authority assigned them by God to make binding rulings, the effect is the same. Judaism has continued to exist for the past two-thousand years after the destruction of the Temple, the razing of Jerusalem, and the scattering of the Jewish people to the four corners of the Earth, because the Jewish people have allowed themselves the ability to progressively interpret Biblical canon as historic and geographic conditions have changed.

The secret to Rosh Hashanah isn’t in the Bible, it’s in Talmud.

4 thoughts on “The Tradition of Rosh Hashanah”

  1. D. Lancaster has a recent audio teaching on this subject. http://www.bethimmanuel.org/audio/content/messianic-judaism-and-jewish-authority
    I won’t begin to summarize or even quote from Lancaster, but I do think he brings some valid points from scripture supporting the authority of Rabbis passed down from God.

    The argument over oral tradition vs written scripture is tiring, in my opinion. It is incredibly inconsistent with the rest of life. Typically, the same people do not argue that birthdays, national holidays, wedding anniversaries, or Thanksgiving dinners are not scriptural. While I know there are some that do not celebrate these types of traditions either, the arguments regarding religious traditions are so laborious.

    Tradition by itself is neither good nor bad. Tradition can be used to enhance life by bringing a fullness or richness to a culture. Only when tradition contradicted, detracted, or deviated from scripture did Jesus teach against traditions of men. In those cases we read the leaders did not typically argue.

    “And the Lord said: ‘Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,’” Isaiah 29:13

    Obviously these are not the words of Jesus, but could have been one of the scriptures he used as a basis for his arguments against some traditions. He was not fighting against tradition itself, but the heart of the person following the tradition or the reason for the tradition.

    So much of this type of discussion is following the road of man’s desire to compartmentalize God or scriptures into this box or that box. Christians, as a general stereotype, get very territorial during discussions, arguing that Jesus is the Messiah and will return. Anyone not adhering to this belief before he returns is choosing to not go to Heaven. While I do believe that Jesus is the Messiah, I have found a calming peace in my soul that the details will be sorted out when he returns, the Kingdom is established, and anyone with a heart for God will recognize the chosen Messiah at the appropriate time.

    Rabbi Jeremy Gimpel spoke at El Shaddai Ministries earlier this year. Without going back and listening to the audio and providing an exact quote, I will repeat in my own words as I remember hearing it. He was asked a question about the messiah. He graciously took the question and gave a response something similar to “When the messiah arrives we can ask him if this is his first trip or his second. If he’s smart, he won’t answer the question.” Of course, this drew a lot of laughter, but it is an answer has stuck with me because it shows the heart of a man that is facing toward God and willing to accept God’s answers.

    The overall theme of this post is whether to recognize the authority of the Talmud. I believe we must be willing to recognize the authority, passed from God through His people to bind and loose. There will be times we must respectfully disagree, the same way the apostles needed to.

    1. I’m hardly an expert on Talmud and halachah, but it’s my understanding that in many areas of religious Judaism, it is believed that the sages for each community have God-given authority to interpret the Torah for their group and their generation and to establish binding rulings that the community must abide by. Those rulings aren’t considered quite as binding as Torah commandments, nevertheless, they can’t be ignored. Apparently, there isn’t a problem with different sages across time arguing and the way the Talmud is constructed (to the best of my understanding, having never studied it), it can give the appearance of different sages, separated by centuries of time, arguing or debating a particular issue. When in doubt as what to do on a disputed matter as a Jew, consult your local Rabbi.

      How does all that apply to Messianic Judaism? Probably in multiple ways depending on each synagogue and whatever umbrella organization to which they’re affiliated (if any). Some Messianic communities may choose to observe a minimum of Rabbinic traditions or select those with the least amount of restrictions (perhaps some combination of Reform and Conservative halachah). Others may go a more Orthodox route. This reflects the larger world of religious Judaism where, depending on the branch, you’ll see differences in how observance is approached.

      As far as Yeshua is concerned:

      Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.”

      Matthew 23:1-3 (NASB)

      Yeshua (Jesus) isn’t saying what the Pharisees are commanding is invalid or even that they don’t have the authority to make their binding rulings, he’s saying just don’t imitate their actual behavior because they are hypocrites. What they say and teach is good, but they (at least some of them) don’t follow their own teachings. In all likelihood, Yeshua behaved most commonly like a Pharisee and so did Paul. My opinion of the first century Jewish movement of “the Way” is that it was a form of Pharisaism which contained all of their primary beliefs (in the resurrection, in angels, in the world to come, in final judgment), but also had an unusually liberal policy on admission of Gentiles not on the fast track to the proselyte rites.

      You might want to read a paper written by Noel S. Rabbinowitz called Matthew 23:2-4: Does Jesus Recognize the Authority of the Pharisees and Does He Endorse Their Halakhah (PDF). It’s rather eye opening.

  2. The paper looks very interesting. I’ve scanned it, but will be digging in deeper later, perhaps during my morning study time.

    One thing I notice is several reference to Jesus using irony or sarcasm, both of which I would disagree with. If a teacher, especially one with as much long term reach as Jesus, is to effectively teach, using a method of communication that provides potential for confusion is not effective. The idea that Jesus would use irony or sarcasm, which both could not only cause confusion, but arguably is a communication style derived from pride, ego, or arrogance, all of which are traits that Jesus should not have possessed.

    I lean more towards the argument that the seat of Moses was a term used to describe a leadership position within the Sanhedrin, temple, or synagogue. Lancaster suggests it refers to a spot on the Sanhedrin. Any of the three is a position of leadership in which the congregation would submit to their authority. I find the argument compelling that Jesus was agreeing with the words or rulings of the Pharisees in charge at the time, but not accepting the hypocritical behavior.

    Keep in mind that Jesus spent very little time with, and in fact was dismissive to the Sadducees that confronted him. This was a sect of Judaism that Jesus would not even spend time trying to teach or correct. They did not believe in the fundamental principle of resurrection, among other things I’m sure. Jesus rebuked and then dismissed the Sadducees. He did not with the Pharisees. He continued to correct and challenge them. Ultimately swaying some of them to understand his perspective.

    Gamiliel, himself, offered the argument to the Sanhedrin, and ultimately a ruling to leave the apostles alone because their teaching of a resurrected messiah was not out of the realm of interpretation, even if he did not agree with the person they had chosen.

    We see Paul submit to the authority of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and again in Acts 18 taking a Nazarite vow. There is evidence throughout the apostolic writings of submitting to authority.

    Another interesting point regarding Jesus is that he went to Jerusalem for Hanukkah which is a non-scriptural holiday, set in place by rabbinic ruling. Had he no regard for non-scriptural rulings, I would think that this “man made” holiday would not have been on his to-do list.

    My thoughts feel like unorganized ramblings. Hopefully you can piece together that I’m on the side of the fence that rabbinic rulings hold value and in some way we have to live within those rulings. Obviously being a Gentile complicates that statement. Now the discussion has come full circle to yet another discussion without any concrete answer.

    1. I think I can agree with most of what you said, Terry. As far as whether or not Jesus could be sarcastic or ironic, it’s hard to tell from the plain text, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I definitely think Paul expressed himself by sarcasm at times, and his epistle to the Galatians was loaded with irony, at least according to this book written by NT scholar Mark Nanos. I also definitely believe Jesus express exasperation at times (see Matthew 17:17, Mark 9:19, Luke 9:41). We tend to focus on the Messiahship and the Divine nature of Jesus and not relate to him as a human being. If he didn’t have human qualities, he would have been too difficult to approach and to interact with.

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