Rosh Hashannah

Summarized and Explained by
Jonathan Wolf

The Mishnah is the core of traditional rabbinic Judaism. It was compiled in the second century BCE by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) and represents a series of legal decisions by the Sages on matters of Jewish law and society. Together with the "gemara" (which means completion in aramaic), we have the Talmud.

-Jonathan Wolf

There are four chapters to tractate Rosh Hashanah. This first chapter deals with the various new years that are celebrated. The Torah leaves many gaps in its understanding. The celebration of Rosh Hashanah as the birth of the Universe is a fact derived in the Talmud by the Sages. In fact, the Torah does not explicitly mention Rosh Hashanah (meaning the new year) by name. Two verses form the basis for the tractate(called "mesechta" in Hebrew). The first one is from Leviticus(Vayikra) 23:24 and states:

"Speak unto the Children of Israel saying, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be unto you a solemn rest; a memorial proclaimed with the blast (teruah) of the horn, a holy convocation".

This verse does not speak of a "new year" nor is the nature of the horn (shofar) discussed in any detail. The months, according to the Torah, begin in Nisan, referred to as the month of "Aviv" (Spring). The name "Nisan" is Babylonian in origin as are the rests of the names used by the Jewish people. In order, the months are Nisan, Iyar, Sivan, Tammuz, Av, Elul, Tishrei, Marcheshvan, Kislev, Teveth, Shevat, and Adar. The first of Tishrei (the seventh month) is the date celebrated by Jews as Rosh Hashanah (the New Year).

The second verse is from Numbers (Bamidbar) 29:1 and states:

"And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, a holy convocation shall you have; (Yom Teruah) a day of blowing (the shofar) it is unto you."

You can see from these verse why the Sages found it necessary to examine their meanings more closely. The festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot ("shalosh regalim") are clearly stated as pilgrimage festivals, celebrated at their appointed times ("moadim"). It is a tradition from Mt. Sinai, that the Torah intends the festivals remain in their proper seasons. Since the "year" is a year of months and a "month" is a month of days, the Sages needed to adapt their reckoning of time to fulfill the commandments of God. From this need, the people developed the combined lunar-solar calendar which Judaism follows to this date. The difference is that when the Torah states,"...you shall proclaim...", it was interpreted literally that Moshe and Aharon(or their designated representatives ) were to watch the phases of the Moon and proclaim the new month in a holy assembly (a court). In later times, the "Elders" of Israel and later the "Great Sanhedrin" fulfilled the role as designated representative (given the authority to proclaim the months).

The destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE scattered the Jews further away than the first Babylonian diaspora in 586 BCE. This necessitated the use of a calculated system of calendar making and is in use at the present time (5759 - 1999 CE).

The first two chapters of mesechta "Rosh Hashanah" discuss the way in which the court examined witnesses who came to testify before the Court (Bet Din). The court would then sanctify the new month and messengers would be sent out to the Babylonian diaspora to disseminate the news. This fact also involves an extensive knowledge of Astronomy which we will briefly discuss in this commentary. We learn that the Sages not only possessed a vast knowledge of Torah, but a great understanding of the Mathematics necessary to calculate and predict the positions of the Moon and the extent of its viability above the horizon!

A word is necessary about format. In these notes, I have decided to group the various mishnayot (the plural of mishnah) in a given chapter into groups that have a common theme. The numerical ordering of the mishnayot remains the same. Additionally, I will reserve the commentary until after the mishnayot are presented. At that time, the comments will reflect common themes, and comments from other sources. One important reference is the treatise "Sefer Mishnah Torah" by Maimonides (known also by his acroynm Rambam). Another important reference is the classical commentary on the Mishnah by Rabbi Obidiah Bertonoro and accompanies all standard Hebrew versions.



Chapter 1

Mishnah 1:

There are four New Years. On the first of Nisan is the New Year for Kings and for festivals; on the first of Elul is the New Year for the tithe of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, for Sabbatical years, for Jubilee years, for planting, and for vegetables. On the first of Shevat is the New Year for trees according to the School of Shammai. The School of Hillel say on the fifteenth thereof.

Mishnah 2:

The world is judged at four times during the year: On Passover, for grain; on the festival of weeks, for the fruit of the trees; on the New year, all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him as it is said(Tehillim 33:15):"He who fashioned the hearts of them all, who understands all their doings..."; and on the festival of Tabernacles, they are judged for water.



The first mishnah informs us that there are four New Years. This should not be surprising to you since there are many ways in which a society reckons time. For example, The new civil year begins on January 1st. In some businesses, July 1st. marks the start of a new fiscal year. In other businesses, the October 1st. is the start of the new fiscal year. A new school year is sometimes centered around Labor Day. The new year for Presidents of the United States is every January 20th.

Why is Nisan chosen as the New year for Kings and festivals? The Sages write that this refers to "Jewish" Kings. If a King began his reign on the twenty-ninth of Adar, then when the first of Nisan arrives, he is reckoned as having reigned for one year. If he starts his reign on the first of Nisan, then he will not have reigned one year until the next first of Nisan.

Nisan was also the month that the Jews left Egypt. It marks the birthday of the Jewish Nation. Nisan is also the first month of the year and referred to as the month of Aviv. The sages write that the word "Aviv" (which means "spring") can be interpreted as a combination of "Av" (which means "father") and the letters yud-bet (which alludes to the number 12; for the months of the year). In this way the word "aviv" means "the father of twelve."

The first of Nisan is the start of the cycle of festivals with respect to vows. When a person makes a vow, they should not delay in its fulfillment, as it says ( Devarim 23:22):

"When thou shalt vow a vow unto the Lord thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it..."

The Sages say that the word "delay" implies one cycle of the three pilgrimage festivals (shalosh regalim) Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot which begins in Nisan.

The tithing of animals involved the separation of one tenth of those animals born in a given year . These were given to the Kohanim who slaughtered them in Jerusalem and had to be consumed there. These animals (once designated) were consecrated property and were not to be used for any other purpose. The date of the first of Elul was chosen because of the fact that in Palestine during the days of the Temple, most of the animals were born in Av.

The first of Tishrei is the new Year of years. This fact is not explicit in the Torah but deduced by the sages in the Talmud. The reference to the first of Tishrei as a holy convocation, a "Day of Blowing", is clearly mentioned (see above). The Sabbatical (shemittah) years were cycles of seven years. For six years, the land can be used for planting and sowing. Every seventh year (similar to the weekly Shabbat), the land was to remain fallow. No planting was allowed and the people had to subsist on extra produce grown during the sixth year. It was a sin to deal in any seventh year produce as we will see in a later mishnah. During the shemittah year, all indentured slaves had to be released. A cycle of seven shemittah years ended in a celebration called the Jubilee year (the fiftieth year in the cycle). At that time, all mortgaged land was to revert back to its original owner. The tithing of a tenth of the produce was called "ma'aser" and a second tenth, given to the Levites, was known as "ma'aser sheni".

The tithing of trees is mentioned in the Torah in the following way. For the first three years, a person was not allowed to eat the fruit from a new tree. The fourth year fruits were known as "orlah", and were consecrated property, dedicated to God. They had to be brought to Jerusalem and given to the Kohanim. The word "orlah" also is used in the context of the "bris milah" where the foreskin ("orlah") is removed by a Mohel. The Halachah is that this New Year is celebrated on the fifteenth of Shevat(Tu b'Shevat) according to the School of Hillel.

The second mishnah discusses the four times of the year when the world is judged. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) writes:

"Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rabbi Akiva, why did the Torah enjoin us to offer an omer of grain on Passover? Because Passover is the season of produce(grain). Therefore, the Holy One, Blessed be He, said, Bring before Me an omer of grain on Passover that your produce in the fields may be blessed. Why did the Torah enjoin us to bring two loaves on Shavuot? Because Shavuot (Pentecost) is the season of the fruit of the trees. therefore, the Holy One, blessed be he, said Bring before Me two loaves on Pentecost so that the fruit of the trees may be blessed. Why did the Torah enjoin us to pour out water on the festival of Tabernacles? Because the Holy One, blessed be He said, Pour out water before Me on the festival of Tabernacles, so that the rains this year will be blessed. Also, recited before Me on the New Year, texts that mention kingship, remembrance, and the shofar (see mishnah 5 in chapter 4). Kingship, so you shall proclaim Me King over you; remembrance, so that your remembrance may rise favorably before Me, and through what? Through the shofar!"

The metaphor of God sitting on His Throne of Glory and sitting in Judgement is a powerful one. As sheep pass through the fence to be counted, so too, do we pass before the Holy One. In Chapter 4, we will see how the structure of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service revolves around the concepts of "Malchyot", "Zichronot", and "Shofarot." In each section, selections from the Tanach (Torah, Neviim, Ketuvim; Pentateuch, Prophets, Writings) are recited and then followed by the sounding of the shofar. On Sukkot, we say the blessings for "geshem"the dry season (in Eretz Yisroel) we pray for the morning dew which keeps the fields moist and alive. The cycle of life follows the cycle of the seasons. The cycle of the seasons is tied to the motions of the Sun and Moon in the sky. This is the basis for tractate Rosh Hashanah.

Mishnah 3:

On six months the messengers go forth: On Nisan, because of Passover; on Av, because of the Fast; on Elul, because of the New Year; on Tishrei, because of the determination of the holidays (Yom Kippur and Sukkot); on Kislev, because of Chanukah; and on Adar, because of Purim. And, while the temple stood, they went forth also on Iyar because of the Minor Passover.

Mishnah 4:

Because of two months they (the witnesses) could profane the Sabbath: Because of Nisan and Tishrei, for on them the messengers went forth to Syria and by them the Holy Days were determined. And when the Temple stood, they could profane it indeed for all of them (all months) for the correct regulation of the offering (the korban musaf on Rosh Chodesh).



These next two mishnayot seem to be out of place. Mishnah 3 discusses the sending of messengers to the diaspora to announce the new month and mishnah 4 discusses when witnesses may violate the Sabbath by traveling to the High Court and testify that they have seen the crescent moon.

It therefore seems likely that the mishnayot are assuming that we already know the procedures followed by the bet din in sanctifying and announcing a new month! Witnesses who saw the crescent moon, low on the western horizon after sunset, would travel to Jerusalem (or wherever the High Court sat) and testified about what they had seen. The court, after having thoroughly examined the witnesses (a topic which the mishnah will discuss later), the new month was announced and messengers were sent forth to the diaspora. The mitzva to proclaim the new month at its proper time and celebrate the festivals at their appointed time ("moadim") was interpreted by the sages as one of the few reasons to violate the restrictions of traveling ans carrying on the Sabbath (to "save a life" is another reason to violate the Sabbath restrictions).

A few comments on mishnah 3. The fast spoken of in Av is of course "Tisha b'Av", the fast on the ninth of Av. The "Minor Passover" in Iyar was observed up until the destruction of the Second Temple. According to the Torah, a man made a pilgramage to Jerusalem (or any other designated site by the Sages) in order to sacrifice and consume the "korban Pesach". If he were away on a journey, then he was obligated to come to the ttemple one month later (in Iyar) and fulfill his obligation at that time.

The Rambam, In his "Mishnah Torah", has a nice commentary on the procedures followed by the bet din (Hilchot Kiddush Hachodesh):

"Originally, when the court would sanctify the new moon, they would light bonfires on the mountain tops to notify the people in distant places. When the Samaritans began conducting themselves in a debased manner, by lighting fires att he wrong time to confuse the people, the Sages instituted the practice of sending messengers tonotify the people."

"These messengers may not violate the sanctity of the holidays, nor Yom Kippur (by traveling on these days). Needless to say, they may not violate the Sabbath to uphold the sanctification of the new month, only to actually sanctify it."

"Messnegers are sent out for six months...For Elul, because of Rosh hashanah, that is, so the people could wait in readiness on the thirtieth day of Elul. If it became known to them that the High Court had sanctified the thirtieth day, they would observe only that day as a holiday (Rosh Hashanah). If it did not become known to them, they would observe both the thirtieth and thirty-first days as Rosh Hashanah until the messengers of Tishrei arrive (to tell them when to observe Yom Kippur and Sukkot)..."

"Even when the moon was clearly sighted on the previous night, the messengers for the months of nisan and Tishrei would not depart until the sun rose the next day and they heard the court pronounce "It has been sanctified!" If, however, the court sanctified the moon at the conclusion of the twenty-ninth day, as we have explained, and the messengers heard the court pronounce it sanctified, they might depart that evening."

"The messengers for the other months, by contrast, may depart in the evening after the moon has been sighted. Althought he court has not sanctified the new month, since the new moon has been sighted, the may depart, for the court will surely sanctify the new month on the following day."

"Wherever these messengers would arrive (before the celebration of the festivals), the holidays would be observed for one day, as prescribed by the Torah. In the distant places, which the messengers would not reach (before the celebration of the festivals), the holidays would be celebrated for two days because of the boubt. For they wouldnot know the day on which the High Court established the new month."

"There are places where the messengers sent ou for nisan would arrive in time for the celebration of Pesach, but the messengers sent out for Tishrei would not arrive in time for the celebration of Sukkot. According to the letter of the Law, it would appropriate for them to observer Pesach for only one day, since the messnegers reached them and informed them when Rosh Chodesh had been established, and, for them to observe Sukkot for two days, since the messengers had not reached them. Nevertheless, so that there would be no difference between the festivals, the Sages instituted that two days be observed for all of the festivals in all places that were not reached by the messengers sent out in Tishrei. This includes even the festival of Shavuot".

The Rambam's commentary seems to clear up the matter slightly. We also observe the historical basis for the custom of observing two day fetsivals except in Eretz Yisroel. The date of Shavuot is technically not fixed by the calendar since it is tied to pesach and the counting of the "omer" on the second day of Pesach. The seventh day of Pesach is considered a separate holiday as is the eigth day of Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret). The key point in these mishnayot is that the motions of the moon were carefully followed! It should benoted that when the Rambam or mishnah speaks about seeing the "new moon", they are actually referring to the thin crescent moon seen after sunset (startng about 21 hours after the new moon's conjunction with the sun).

Mishnah 5:

Whether the crescent was clearly visible or whether it was not manifestly visible, they (the witnesses) may profane the Sabbath because of it. Rabbi Yose says:If the crescent was undoubtably seen, they must not profane the Sabbath because of it.

Mishnah 6:

It once happened that more than forty pairs of witnesses passed through, but Rabbi Akiva detained them in Lydda. Rabban Gamliel sent to him:"If you detain the many, you may lead them astray in the future."



Mishnah 5 stresses that someone who sees the crescent moon clearly (or even partially) must travel to the place of the bet din to testify and sanctify the new month. Rabbi Yose's objection was that if the moon were obviously seen in jerusalem, then someone will undoubtably appear to testify and therefore the number of people allowed to violate the sabbath is restricted. The sages, however, rule that Rabbi Yose's opinion is not acceptable and all who see the crescenhave an obligation to travel (even on the Sabbath) to the bet din and testify.

An example of this is given in mishnah 6. Rabbi Akiva saw that a large number of witnesses was passing through the city of Lydda. He therefore tried to detain them for fear that too many people would be crowding into the bet din and also violating the sabbath. While his intentions were honorable, he was reprimanded by the Nasi (head of the Sanhedrin) Rabban Gamliel the Elder, who sent a note to him indicating that if he (Rabbi Akiva) detains people, then they will become discouraged in the future and not come to testify at all!

It is worthwhile to spend some time discussing the Astronomy involved in the sanctification of the new moon. The various phases of the moon are caused by the changing angle of sunlight reflecting off of the moon's surface. The Moon orbits the earth in a nearly circular (slightly elliptical orbit every 27 1/3 days (siderial period). However, during that time, the earth is also revolving around the sun. This extra motion adds about two days to the time to complete a cycle of phases. This is known as the synodic period and takes 29 1/2 days.

There are eight recognized phases of the moon. These phases can be understood from two frames of reference. From the earth's frame of reference, the phases of the moon are related to the positon of the moon and sun in the sky. Thus, when the sun and moon appear together (known as "conjunction" or"molad" in Hebrew), the moon is "new" (and hence invisible). Due to its orbital motion, the moon rises (in the east) about one hour later each night. At three days after new, a clear crescent moon (called the new or "waxing" crescent is visible for about 2 hours after sunset. The earliest observation of the new crescent occurs in strictly clear (and light free) conditons at about 20 hours after conjunction.

The "horns" of the crescent always point away from the sun and in the early phases, the moon is east of the sun in the sky. As the days progress, the amount of sunlight illuminating the moon increases and we see a first quarter (half) moon, a gibbous (three quaters) moon, and finally, after about 14 days, we see the full moon. Depending on the time of year (and the observer's latitude), the full moon rises approximately at the same time as the sun sets (within an hour). The moon and sun are on opposite sides of the sky and the term used is "opposition".

The full moon marks the end of the "waxing" phases. For the next 2 weeks or so, the moon is now west of the sun and its illumination gradually decreases ("wanes"). below, you can see some illustrations of some phases of the moon as seen from the earth from space. The moon rotates on its axis in the same amount of time that it orbits the earth, and therefore we see only one side of the moon!

Waning Gibbous Crescent
First quarter
Full Moon


As you can see, the full cycle of phases is not a suitable time measuring period since it includes part of a day. Since the Torah declares that the month is to be " a month of days" and a year is to be " a year of months", it is not practical to have too many fractions of time. Therefore, the Sages adopted the standard 24 hour day instead of the actual rotational period of the earth which is 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 sec. It is also interesting to note that the Talmud follows a "geocentric model" (earth centered). Thus, the "day" is not the rotational period of the earth on its axis, but the time it takes the sun to appear in the same place in the sky the next day (relative to the stars or some other "fixed" refernce frame!).

In his "Mishnah Torah", the Rambam writes:

"When witnesses see the new moon and there is a journey of the night and a day or less between them and the place where the court holds sessions, they should undertake the journey and testify. If the distance between them is greater, they should not undertake the journey. For the testimony that they will deliver after the thirtieth of the month will be of no consequence, since the new month will have already have been made full."

"The witnesses who see the new moon should journey to the court and testify even ont he Sabbath as is implied by the Torah in Vayikra 23:2, 'These are the festivals you should proclaim in their season...' Whenever the Torah uses the word 'season', the Sabbath prohibitions may be overridden. Therefore, the sabbath prohibitions may be violated only for the sake of Rosh Chodesh Nisan and Tishrei, to commemorate the festivals in their proper season. In the days of the Temple, they were violated every Rosh Chodesh because of the musaf offering and its sacrifice supersedes the sabbath."

A final word about some terms that are used. In the Jewish calendar, a month of twenty nine days is called "defective" while a month of thirty days is called "full". Twelve months of thirty days each would not match the actual 365.25 days in one solar year. If the months were each twenty nine days long, the numbers would again not match. Therefore, in the Jewish calendar presently used (which is calculated), we have alternating months of twenty nine and thirty days. This is still not quite accurate and occasionally, an extra month (Adar II) is added during a leap year in order to keep the festivals in their proper season. We will discuss this aspect of the calendar a little later.

Mishnah 7:

If a father and his son saw the new moon, both should go; not that they can be paired together, but in order that if one of them become ineligible, the second one may be included with another. Rabbi Shimon says, A father and his son and all near of kin are eligible to give ecidence fort he new moon. Rabbi Yose says that it once happened that Tobiah, the Physician, saw the new moon in Jerusalem; he himself, his son, and his freed slave. The Priests accepted him and his son, but pronounced his freed slave ineligible. When they apepared before the court, they accepted him and his freed slave, but declared his son ineligible.

Mishnah 8:

These are they who are ineligible (to give testimony about the new moon): a dice player, a usurer, those who fly pigeons, dealers in produce fromt he sabbatical year, and slaves. This is a geenral principle: all evidence that a woman is not eligible to give, these are also not eligible to give.

Mishnah 9:

If one sees the new moon and is unable to walk, they may bring him on an ass or even on a litter; and if any lie in wait for them, they may bring sticks in their hands. If the journey be a long one, they may carry food in their hands because for a journey lasting a might and a day, they may profane the Sabbath and go forth to give evidence about the new moon, as it is said, "These are the appointed seasons of the lord which you shall provlaim in their appointed season."



This concludes chapter one. Some clarification is needed about the mishnayot presented in this section. The Sages conclude that near relatives cannot be paired together to give evidence before the court. Rabbi Shimon's reasoning (which is rejected as Halachah), is that the command to proclaim the festivals at their appointed times, was given to Moshe and Aharon (who were brothers). Therefore, according to Rabbi Shimon, this extends to any person and their near kin giving testimony together. The Sages reject this argument and cite the example of Rabbi Yose and Tobiah the Physician. The conclusion is that the Moshe and Aharon were given the commandment to proclaim the new month not because they were brothers, but because they were the leaders of Israel (at that time). Therefore, the authority, to proclaim the new month rests with the bet din and the Sages do not allow two people who are related (by blood or marriage) to testify together.

In mishnah 8, we se that certain people are characterized as ineligible to give evidence. These same people are also ineligible to give testimony in other legal cases as well (see Mishnah Sanhedrin, chapter 3). A dice player is a gambler as is a "flyer of pigeons". The commentators state that these people would race pigeons for money and bet on the winner. A usurer is someone who charges interest ("ribbis") on a loan to a fellow Jew. This is strictly forbidden in the Torah. A person who deals in Sabbatical produce considered "unsavory". While it is forbidden to work the land during the "Shemittah" year, if any produce grows naturally, it is not forbidden to eat it; it is however, forbidden to sell it. In traditional Jewish Law, women are ineligble to give testimony in legal cases accept in certain circumstances: a case involving the death of her husband(so she can remarry) and if she is accused of being a "sotah" (an adulteress). The Sages ruled that any situation in which a woman is prohibited from testifying, these people (including slaves who do not have a legal status) are also ineligible.

Mishnah 9 deals with the violation of the Sabbath. A person who clearly saw the moon should be impelled to give testimony. If this means carrying him on an ass or in a "litter", which was a wagon with a bed in it), then this shoudl be done. If the journey is going to take a night and a day, and if it means violating the limitations of travel on the Sabbath, then they must still bring him to testify. If there is a danger that robbers or "highwaymen" may lie in wait to rob them, then they are permitted to carry sticks for protection. They may also bring food along with them as well.

Further commentary on these topics can be found in the Rambam's "Mishnah Torah":

"The observation of the new moon is not entrusted to every individual, as in the case of the regular weekly sabbath where anyone may count six days and rest on the seventh. The suthority for the new moon is given to the court only, to sanctify and proclaim the day as the first day of the new month. That day proclaimed by the court is Rosh Chodesh as it is written:'This month shall to you' (Shemot 12:2), implying that the evidence in this matter is surrendered to 'you', meaning, the members of the court."

"Like Astronomers who engage in calculation and know the positions and motions of the stars, the Jewish Court calculates and investigates minutely so as to know if it is or if it is not possible for the new moon to be visible in its time, which is the night of the twenty-ninth day. If the members of the Court found that it would be possible, they had to wait in the courthouse for the arrival of witnesses throughout the thirtieth day. If witnesses arrived and were duly examined and tested and found trustworthy, the thirtieth day was sanctified as the first day of the new month. If the new moon did not appear and no witnesses arrived, that day was counted as the thirtieth day of the past month and the thirty-first day was declared to be Rosh Chodesh; the first day of the new month. This method is known as 'intercalation'. If, however, the members knew by calculation that the new moon could not possibly be seen, they were not required to sit and wait for the witnesses on the thirtieth day. If witnesses did arrive, they were most certainly false witnesses..."