Thursday, September 09, 2010

Today is Rosh Hashanah: About the Feast and Its Meaning

The ancient Jewish feast day started last evening at sunset. To all our Jewish friends, happy feast day!

Here I thought I'd offer some reflections on the festival. We just went over this in much more depth in my graduate seminar on Pentateuch.

(By the way, if you're looking to take classes in Biblical Theology, check out our new program at JP Catholic which is either available on-campus or, for students unable to sit in a classroom, on-line [e.g., videos, on-line live conferencing, etc.] Next quarter students will begin to study Biblical Hebrew, not to mention study the Historical Books of the Old Testament as well as Aquinas' treatment of the Trinity in the Summa!).

The Feast and Its Meaning for Ancient Jews

The feast Rosh Hashanah literally means "head of the year"--it is the Jewish celebration of the New Year, although, technically it falls on the seventh month of the Jewish calendar (i.e., the civil and religious calendars begin at different times).

It is also known as Shoferim ("Trumpets"). Of course, it is described in the Torah. It precedes the solemn feast of Yom Kippur, ushering in a time of penance and repentance of sin. This is the season of the "high holy days".

Like Yom Kippur it is meant to be a day of solemn observance and a day of rest. In fact, Shoferim is linked to atonement sacrifices.
"And the Lord said to Moses, 24 'Say to the people of Israel, In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with blast of trumpets, a holy convocation. 25 You shall do no laborious work; and you shall present an offering by fire to the Lord'" (Lev. 23:23-25).

“On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets, 2 and you shall offer a burnt offering, a pleasing odor to the Lord: one young bull, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish; 3 also their cereal offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for the bull, two tenths for the ram, 4 and one tenth for each of the seven lambs; 5 with one male goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you; 6 besides the burnt offering of the new moon, and its cereal offering, and the continual burnt offering and its cereal offering, and their drink offering, according to the ordinance for them, a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord. (Num 29:16-7).
Interestingly, in later writings such as the Leviticus Rabbah, the feast is linked with the idea of standing before the throne of God and the concept of judgment. In the Talmud it is linked with the final judgment. This makes sense--the connection with the theme of judgment is a natural fit as this feast marks a time of inward reflection and repentance of sin.

Indeed, in the rabbinic literature God's role as a merciful judge is also emphasized.
"Judah son of R. Nahman opened his discourse with the text, God is gone up amidst shouting, the Lord amidst the sound of the horn (Ps. XLVII, 6). When the Holy One, blessed be He, ascends and sits upon the Throne of Judgment, He ascends with intent to do [strict] judgment. What is the reason for this statement? 'God is gone up amidst shouting.' But when Israel take their horns and blow them in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, He rises from the Throne of Judgment and sits upon the Throne of Mercy--for it is written, 'The Lord amidst the sound of the horn'--and He is filled with compassion for them, taking pity upon them and changing them the Attribute of Justice to one of Mercy. When? In the Seventh Month. . . .

R. Joshua opened his discourse with the text, Happy is the people that know the sound of the blast; they walk, O Lord, in the light of Thy countenance (Ps. LXXXIX, 16). R. Abbahu interpreted the verse as referring to the five elders who enter for the purpose of prolonging the year. What does the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He leaves His senate on high and, descending, confines His Presence to a narrow space among those below. . . It is written, Happy is the people that know the sound of the blast.' But do the nations of the world know how to sound the blast? What a host of horns they have! . . . What a host of trumpets they have! Yet you say, 'Happy is the people that know the sound of the blast'! It can only mean that they know how to win over their Creator with the blast, so that He rises from the Throne of Judgment and goes to the Throne of Mercy. . . When? In the seventh month." (Lev. Rab 29:3, 4; cited from the Midrash Rabbah [London: Soncino Press, 1983]).
This passage is fascinating. Among other things we can note the following.

1. The liturgical celebration of the feast is associated with God's descent from heaven--the liturgy is a kind of "heaven on earth" experience.

2. God's coming down to his people is linked with judgment--to stand in his presence is to also be made accountable.

3. The liturgy is a kind of participation in eschatology--the feast for ancient Jews signified the final judgment, but in the feast itself the Judge was made present.

4. God is "won over" by worship. Worshipping on the feast of trumpets is the means of turning the prospect of judgment to mercy.

I might also add that rabbinic tradition also links the feast to creation. Again, that makes sense--the feast marks the new year. According to the Jewish reckoning, by the way, 2010 would be year 5771.

Fulfillment in Christ

Of course, Christians believe that Christ represents the fulfillment of the Law (e.g., Matt 5:17). In fact, the New Testament uses the language of "type"--the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament. So what is the ultimate fulfillment of Shoferim?

Let me suggest the following.

Above I mentioned that the feast was associated with both trumpets and the day of judgment. Interestingly then we might point out that St. Paul describes the coming of Christ on the Last Day with the blowing of a trumpet:
"For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; 17 then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess 4:15-17).
The last day, the day of Christ's coming and the day of judgment, is therefore linked with trumpets. If the Jewish traditions of linking this feast to the judgment goes back to the time of St. Paul, the language of 1 Thessalonians is further coherent: the true day of judgment is the last day when the final trumpet will be blast! Indeed, the passage describes how Christ will descend with the sound of the trumpet--language that seems similar to that which we see in the Leviticus Rabbah, i.e., the divine judge descends at the trumpet blast.

Obviously, I realize that the rabbinic literature comes later--however, perhaps Paul is an early witness to the traditions which we later written therein.

Of course, we might also see significance from a Christian perspective in the feast's connection with "creation"--Christ will come on the last day to make manifest the "new creation," which, although already ushered in, is not fully realized until the end of time.

Finally, a shameless plug: I'll be talking more about this feast on my radio show tomorrow (EWTN Global Radio Network, 2pm Eastern Time: here to find your local station or click the radio tab to listen live).

Lastly, if anyone is interested in learning about the feasts of the Jewish year and the significance they have for Christians today, I'd recommend that you pick up the audio set of the talks Scott Hahn, Brant Pitre and I did at a conference done a few years ago, entitled, Feasts of Faith: The Old Testament Feasts and Their Fulfillment in Christ. You can order them here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Let me Messianic Jewish to thank Hashem in Yeshua name for you. My prayer is more Catholics would support Israel. We all believe in Christ who is the Jewish Messiah. Shalom.