July 18, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of ‘Yom Teruah’?

The Torah gives very little explanation of the holiday that we call today Rosh HaShanah. The Torah calls it only “yom teruah” (in Parshat Pinchas) and “zichron teruah” (in Parshat Emor). What are the meanings of these brief terms “teruah” and “zichron teruah”? What is the plain-sense understanding of this reason for this holiday? Neither of the above biblical sections even mention the word “shofar” or the concepts of judgment or new year!

The word “teruah” (root: resh, vav, ayin) points us in various directions. While it clearly means a loud sound, sometimes it is a loud sound of war or threats, and other times it is a loud sound of joy or praise. (The word “teruah,” in its various forms, appears over 30 times in Tanach.) Other examples of its use are Numbers 10:5, where it is a signal for the tribes to move, and Numbers 23:21, where it is a sound of homage to the king (“u-teruat melech bo”).

I am now going to give a sample of the different approaches to understanding the “yom teruah/zichron teruah” holiday.

Samuel David Luzzatto takes the approach that the fundamental meaning of the holiday is that a teruah is blown to announce the new year. He notes that in the case of the jubilee, the Torah records a blowing of “shofar teruah” in Tishrei (on the 10th) to declare the beginning of that special year. So by analogy, our blowing of a teruah in Tishrei is also likely done to proclaim a new year. (As to “zichron,” Shadal interprets it to mean something like “declaring,” citing Is. 12:4.)

Radak (comm. to Ps. 81:4) suggests that the blowing of a teruah can symbolize the freeing of slaves (e.g., the case of the jubilee year, Lev. 25:9). He theorizes that our ancestors in Egypt must have been freed from work on the first day of Tishrei, even before they left in Nisan. He believes that this event is what our blowing on the first day of Tishrei was enacted to commemorate.

Rav S.R. Hirsch (comm. to Lev. 23:24 and Num. 29:1) sets forth the following interesting approach to the holiday. He translates “zichron teruah” as a teruah that causes one to retrospect on one’s life. Just as the seventh day of the week invites us to reflect weekly, so too this holiday on the seventh month was set up for reflection/introspection. He writes that the yearly teruah on this day calls us to a spiritual yovel, just as the teruah of the 50th year calls us to a social yovel. Our yearly teruah is a call for repossession of those spiritual measures that were originally our very own and that we have parted from. Because the day is in essence one of self-introspection, this explains why the verses state little else about it.

Ramban first focuses on the phrase “zichron teruah.” At Num. 10:10, the Torah refers to the Israelites’ blowing of chatzotzrot with their holiday sacrifices and states that this blowing will result in a zikaron before God. (See also 10:9.) By analogy, Ramban suggests that the phrase “zichron teruah” in our context must also be a reference to a blowing that produces a zikaron before God.

But then he asks the obvious question. The Torah has not explained why we have to produce a zikaron before God on this day. He concludes that because the holiday is in the same month as Yom Kippur, it must be that we are producing this zikaron because it is a yom din. (The idea of Rosh HaShanah being a yom din is found in Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:2.) Ramban does not say this explicitly, but he implies that the purpose of the zikaron we are producing is to act as a reminder to God to judge us favorably on this day of Yom HaDin. See similarly Bereishit Rabbah 56:9.

(Note that in our tefillot, Rosh HaShanah is called Yom HaZikaron. This term for the holiday is very ancient. It is already found in the Dead Sea Scrolls! It probably even originated well before this. Maybe whoever inaugurated the use of this term for our holiday had something like the Ramban’s view in mind, i.e., viewed the meaning of “zichron teruah” as a “teruah” that produces a “zikaron.” But without knowing in what early century and by what early group the term “Yom HaZikaron” first came into use, it is hard to get into the minds of its authors.)

Many others also view the words “zichron teruah” as the key to understanding the holiday. But they interpret the phrase differently. They interpret this phrase as indicating that the holiday is in essence a commemoration of that famous earlier shofar blast described in Exodus Chapter 19, the one associated with the giving of the Torah. This interpretation is first found in Philo (first century C.E.) But many others over the centuries have taken this approach. (But note that Exodus 19 does not use the word “teruah.”)

It bears pointing out that the root z-ch-r can mean both a “mentioning/proclaiming” and a “remembering.” Some of the above approaches are focusing on a meaning like “mentioning/proclaiming” and others are focusing on a meaning like “remembering.”

I would now like to mention a completely different approach to understanding the Torah’s brevity when it comes to this holiday. I first saw this approach in an article by Rabbi Michael Berger, “The Moadim of Parashat Emor,” in the periodical Alei Tziyyon (5756). But it is also implicit in the Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim. The suggestion is that the Torah does not give a specific theme to this holiday on the first day of the seventh month because the holiday is, in essence, merely an adjunct and preparatory holiday for Yom Kippur. The Torah recognizes that we cannot do proper teshuvah on Yom Kippur without a 10-day period of repentance. Yom Teruah is merely the inauguration of this period and the beginning of preparation for Yom Kippur. That is why no independent theme is expressed for the holiday! The concept of the 10 Days of Repentance, in this reading, is already implicit in the Torah itself.

Here are the words of the Rambam, in the Friedlander translation from the Arabic (Chapter 43): “The day is, as it were, a preparation for and an introduction to the day of the Fast…”

It is also interesting to investigate how the Karaites observed the holiday. In general, their observances were based on the biblical verses alone, without our Oral Tradition. One Karaitic approach was not to have any ritual blowing because “yom teruah” was understood to mean “the day where we raise our voices joyfully [in prayer].” (But there were varying Karaitic approaches to the holiday. See Daniel Sperber, “Minhagei Yisrael,” vol. 7, page 228, n. 19.)

I will close with one more insight. When one opens up a standard daily siddur, e.g, ArtScroll, p. 111, one sees the following choices for the recitation of Yaale VeYavo: Rosh Chodesh, Pesach and Sukkot. But do you think it is possible that Yaale VeYavo might have been composed for one particular holiday first, and was later adjusted so it could include the others? What particular holiday could that have been? Let us look at its text: ve-yipaked, ve-yizacher, zichroneinu, u-fikdoneinu, ve-zichron avoteinu, ve-zichron mashiach…ve-zichron Yerushalayim…ve-zichron kol amcha… zachreinu Hashem…u-pakdeinu… Almost certainly, this prayer was originally composed for Yom HaZikaron! Admittedly, there is no proof for this, but it seems evident based on the above language. I first saw this insight in an article by Prof. Meir Bar-Ilan.

Yaale VeYavo is found in the Rosh HaShanah zichronot section in the siddur of R. Saadia Gaon. (See, p. 223.) Perhaps the zichronot section of Rosh HaShanah was what it was originally composed for!

(When I quoted the text of Yaale VeYavo above, I quoted the text in the ArtScroll siddur because that is the text we are all familiar with. I should have quoted the text in the siddur of R. Saadia. But his text is very similar to what we recite today.)

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is “Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy.” He can be reached at [email protected]. He wishes everyone a meaningful “Yom Teruah” and “Zichron Teruah,” in whatever interpretation they adopt for these terms.


For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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