By Harriet P. Gross
We are moving quickly toward Rosh Hashanah, which makes this a good, maybe even necessary, time to consider what the holiday is all about.
But don’t we already know that? It’s the new year. It’s a prelude to Yom Kippur. Both of these, of course. However, these reasons are not only not enough, according to biblical researcher and scholar Roger Isaacs. He says we should look harder, dig deeper and find another, truer meaning in this special holiday — what he claims is its originally intended purpose.
The actual words Rosh Hashanah — “head of the year” — are nowhere to be found in the Torah, Isaacs tells us. They do occur once, in Ezekiel (40:1), but there they are used in reference not to a new year, but to a jubilee year, which is the one that ends each seven-year calendar cycle and is considered a time of rest. And there it is: “Rest” is at the core of the forthcoming holiday, according to Isaacs’ theorizing.
He says our actual new year is specified in Exodus 12:2, when “ … the Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt. … This month shall be the head of months (i.e. Rosh Chadoshim) for you. It will be the first of the months of the year for you.” And that ordained new year refers to the month of Nisan, which now comes seventh, not first, in our Jewish calendar.
So, look at your own Jewish calendar. If Nisan were the first month, then guess what would come seventh? That would be Tishrei, the month of Rosh Hashanah. And what did God have to say about that? Again: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites, saying in the seventh month, on the first of the month, you will have a Sabbath … a holy gathering. You will do no work of service … ’”
Of course, on the first of Tishrei we do have a service — the religious service that introduces our High Holy Days. But in Isaacs’ interpretation, that is not the kind of working “service” God had in mind. Wasn’t He, as Isaacs insists, mandating not the start of a major holiday period, but a day of rest?
To be the new year, then, was not the primary purpose of our Rosh Hashanah. And neither was it meant to be the day on which we begin praying and acting in earnest to avert the severe decrees that might await us on Yom Kippur. It was intended to be one of the days of rest set aside by Exodus 20:4, the Ten Commandments: “ … Because in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day … ” Isaacs suggests that Rosh Hashanah is really an important day of rest before our Sabbath of Sabbaths.
Full disclosure: I came upon Isaacs, latest in a long line of Jewish scholars, through name recognition: He happens to be a first cousin of my son’s mother-in-law and has worked in the field of Biblical interpretation for half a century. His book, which I now have but must confess I have not yet read, bears the title “Talking With God.”
It’s been called a jigsaw puzzle put together from words of other ancient languages matched to their Hebrew counterparts in the Torah, for Isaacs believes that when words we translate today as “holy,” “glory,” “sin,” etc., are found to have other meanings, what we consider standard interpretations can offer up important differences.
If you think that a book like this is controversial, you are right. And it has become even more so because Isaacs also brings physics and chemistry as we know them today into his reinterpretations of biblical terms and texts. He goes so far as to subtitle his work, provocatively, “The Radioactive Ark of The Testimony: Communication Through It, Protection From It.”
The late Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at the University of California-Berkeley and himself a biblical scholar, pronounced this book “An enormous, imaginative work,” adding, “I think I would call it a modern midrash.” I picture him smiling when he finished, “And as you know, midrash can be both stimulating and far out.”
I’m not a scientist, but Isaacs’ take on the real meaning of Rosh Hashanah seems tame enough for a start, so I’ll be trying to complete a reading of his book between Selichot and Yom Kippur. Wish me (the literal interpretation, please, of) mazel tov.