"And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation: you shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day of blowing the horn unto you. And you shall prepare a burnt-offering for a sweet savor unto HaShem: one young bullock, one ram, seven he-lambs of the first year without blemish; and their meal-offering, fine flour mingled with oil, three tenth parts for the bullock, two tenth part for the ram, and one tenth part for every lamb of the seven lambs; and one he-goat for a sin-offering, to make atonement for you; beside the burnt-offering of the new moon, and the meal-offering thereof, and the continual burnt-offering and the meal-offering thereof, and their drink-offerings, according unto their ordinance, for a sweet savor, an offering made by fire unto HaShem." (Numbers 29:1-6)
Our sages teach us that Rosh Hashana marks the sixth day of creation, the day that adam harishon - the first man - was created. The particular place was none other than what would come to be known as Mount Moriah. We further learn that it was on this very spot that Adam first sinned and repented. Here he built an altar and presented an offering. Some twenty generations later it was here that the angel stayed the hand of Avraham at the binding of Isaac. It was here that the ram appeared, providing Avraham with the means through which to express his love for G-d.
Rosh Hashana is the day that we recognize the sovereignty of G-d the King, Creator of the universe and Judge of all mankind. The day on which "all beings pass before Him like tender sheep," Rosh Hashana's message is truly universal: it is incumbent upon all mankind to accept upon ourselves G-d's sovereignty, and to take account of our thoughts and actions, in light of this awesome recognition.
The trumpets sounded before the entrance to the Kodesh - the Sanctuary - of the Holy Temple on Rosh Hashana are reminders of G-d's dominion. The sound of the shofar - likewise blown on the Sanctuary steps, emanates from breath itself, the breath that comes from deep within us, where it was placed, for the first time, by G-d, in Adam, on the sixth day.
Sanctifying the New Moon
During the time of the Holy Temple, the drama of Rosh Hashana began even before the onset of the holy day. This drama involved the sanctification of the new moon. Rosh Hashana occurs on the first day of the month of Tishrei, and therefore, it can't begin until the appearance of the new moon has been established. The commandment to declare the new moon and establish its appearance for all the children of Israel was the first commandment received by the Israelites, even before they emerged from their bondage in Egypt, (Exodus 12:2) It may seem ironic that G-d - the King of the universe - would call upon His people to determine, as it were, on what day He Himself created the universe! But this is, in fact, what G-d, in His love for His people did: he entrusted the children of Israel as "partners" in maintaining and perfecting His creation. Two witnesses who had seen the appearance of the new moon were required to testify before the Great Sanhedrin, which convened in the Chamber of Hewn Stone, which was located on the northern wall of the Inner Courtyard of the Holy Temple. There they would be questioned and cross examined to verify their fitness as witnesses, and the truth of their words. Only when this had been done to the satisfaction of the sages of the Great Sanhedrin, would the Rosh Hashana service in the Holy Temple begin. Great care and effort was invested by the sages to ensure the veracity and efficiency of the entire procedure of proclaiming the new moon. Ultimately, it all depended on the willingness of the common people to come forth as witnesses. One can only imagine the sense of obligation and privilege felt by each witness as he made his way to Jerusalem.
The Sanhedrin in Yavneh
After the destruction of the Holy Temple, the Sanhedrin moved to the town of Yavneh, where it would receive witnesses' testimony of the new moon. The Talmud relates that Rabban Gamliel displayed pictures of the moon in various stages of its monthly course. He would use the pictures when questioning the witnesses in order to determine the veracity of their testimony. Although this scene portrays the Sanhedrin in Yavneh, after the destruction of the Holy Temple, it no doubt represents similar scenes which occurred every month for hundreds of years within the Sanhedrin that stood upon the Temple Mount.
Witnesses on Shabbat
During the time of the Great Sanhedrin, the new moon was sanctified through the testimony of two witnesses who had seen the new moon. This was in accordance with the biblical commandment. In order to insure that the new moon, (Rosh Chodesh), offerings were prepared in time at the Holy Temple, (as well as the Rosh HaShana offerings on the new month of Tishrei), witnesses were allowed to violate the Shabbat restriction against traveling order to expedite the new moon proclamation. This picture depicts an ailing witness traveling on Shabbat toward Jerusalem, being aided by armed escorts and companions.
One Time in Lod
An incident is related in the Talmud, concerning the city of Lod: It was Shabbat. A number of witnesses to the new moon were passing through the city on their way to testifying before the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. A man named Zefer, who was the mayor of the city of Geder, detained the witnesses. He was of the opinion that witnesses had most certainly already arrived in Jerusalem and presented their testimony. Therefore, he concluded, it was unnecessary for these witnesses to continue on their way, especially since doing so involved a desecration of the Shabbat.
A special courtyard, by the name of Beit Ya'azek, was built in Jerusalem, for the purpose of accommodating arriving witnesses to the new moon. There they were provided with a large meal, and a place to rest as they waited to be called to testify at the Great Sanhedrin. The warm welcome received by the witnesses was intended to lighten the burden of their journey, as well as to encourage people to step forth and travel to Jerusalem when they had witnessed the new moon.
There were enemies of the Jews who sought to harm the Jewish people by deceiving them into observing Rosh Hashana, and the ensuing holidays, at the wrong times. The Talmud tells of an attempt by the Boethusian sect, which one year bribed two witnesses to provide false testimony before the Great Sanhedrin, with the intention of causing the sages to err in their calculations of the new moon. One of the witnesses, however, proved to be a "double-agent," and revealed to the sages the bag containing two hundred pieces of silver that he had been provided in order to perjure himself. The illustration above shows him holding the bag of silver coins, while the man who had placed the bribe in his hands is being led away to receive his punishment: lashes.
Determining the appearance of the new moon through eyewitness testimony was always accompanied with anticipation and uncertainty. The new moon or new year offerings could not be commenced until two witnesses had arrived and testified before the Great Sanhedrin, to the satisfaction of the Great Sanhedrin. It was customary for people to begin observing the holiday as a precautionary measure, even before the testimony had been offered or accepted. It is told that on one occasion, witnesses arrived at dusk. In the rush and ensuing confusion, the Levites neglected to sing their daily psalm. In order to prevent a recurrence, the sages ruled that testimony would henceforth be accepted only up to the time of the daily afternoon offering. If witnesses failed to arrive by this time, the following day would nevertheless be observed as Rosh HaShana.
Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua
The Mishnah relates the following: A dispute arose between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua over the criteria for accepting witnesses testifying about the new moon. The disagreement had very serious practical implications, as it affected the dates accepted by each of the sages regarding the holidays of that particular year. In order to prevent national discord, Rabban Gamliel compelled Rabbi Yehoshua to publicly accept his ruling, telling him: "Come to me with your staff and your money on the day that Yom Kippur falls according to your calculations." Carrying a staff and money were both violations of Yom Kippur. Therefore, by carrying out Rabban Gamliel's decree, Rabbi Yehoshua was publicly displaying his submission to the ruling by Rabban Gamliel concerning the fitness of the new moon witnesses. The illustration above shows Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua, (with staff and wallet), embracing, thus ending their dispute.