How Tishrei Became the First Month of the Hebrew Calendar

How did we come to celebrate the New Year in the fall when in the Bible it was celebrated in the spring? And what is the origin of the first month’s peculiar name?


The Hebrew month of Tishrei begins with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah – the festival of the Jewish New Year. Yet many of you will be aware that Tishrei was not actually the first month in the calendar of the ancient Hebrews chronicled in the Bible. So what of the many holidays we associate with Tishrei today? Tishrei originally had at the very least one festival—Sukkot—during which the faithful were expected to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, a feat that was considerably more challenging than the typical holiday traffic nowadays. What’s more, the ancient Hebrews didn’t call this month Tishrei.  In this article, we will learn a bit about this month, its unique name, and how it came to be the first month of the Jewish year.

According to tradition, the patriarch Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac in the month of Tishrei. Above – The Binding of Isaac, as depicted in a copy of Sefer Evronot, a treatise on the Jewish calendar from the 18th century, the National Library of Israel collections

Let’s start with the name. As is well known, the names of the months of the Hebrew calendar derive from the Babylonian calendar, which was in Akkadian, an ancient Semitic language spoken mainly in Assyria and Babylonia. Given that the Babylonians were the leading astronomers in the region, it’s not surprising that their language had such a profound effect on the Hebrew calendar.

The month’s name—Tishrei – in fact stems from the Akkadian word tašrītu which means “beginning.” But the beginning of what?  Similar to most ancient peoples of the region, the Babylonians began counting the new year in spring, in the month of Nisan (another name of Akkadian origin). It could be that the Babylonians marked the beginning of the second half of the year with an additional festival in Tishrei—the seventh month, if one begins counting from Nisan. The Babylonian-Akkadian name also made its way into Arab dialects in the region of Mesopotamia and the Levant: the Gregorian months of October and November are called Tishrin al-Ul and Tishrin a-Thani, meaning – first and second Tishrei.

Illustration for the month of Tishrei from Tsurot Sidrei Olam, a scientific treatise from the 17th century, the National Library of Israel collections

In the Bible, it is customary to call the months of the year by their number. Therefore, when the Israelites are commanded to celebrate Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and the mysterious holiday on the first of Tishrei (“a day of sabbath rest, a sacred assembly commemorated with trumpet blasts”, Leviticus 23:24), the month is simply called the “seventh month.” However, the seventh month is also one of the only months whose local-Canaanite name appears in the Bible. 1 Kings 8 tells of the people who gathered in Jerusalem for the dedication of the Temple by King Solomon: “… at the time of the festival in the month of Ethanim, the seventh month.” The Jewish sages offered various interpretations for the meaning of the “month of Ethanim,” but it is likely that it derives simply from the beginning of the rains, when the rising waters of the rivers and streams generated a strong current (ethan/eitan means “strong” in Hebrew).

A poster inviting the public to a lecture on “The Month of Ethanim [Tishrei] and its Festivals“, 1968. “It is recommended to bring a Bible“, the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

We won’t delve into the intricacies of the theories surrounding the origin of the Tishrei holidays, though journalist and linguist Elon Gilad has discussed these at length in a number of very interesting columns (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot) for Haaretz. Here, we will discuss the change that took place in the calendar, after which Tishrei became the first month of the Jewish year.

According to Gilad, most of the books of the Bible do not mention a festival on the first day of Tishrei. In fact, certain passages even mention other holidays which took place on or near this date. Aside from a number of commandments pertaining to the mysterious festival that appear in Leviticus and Numbers, the first mention of a festive event occurring on this date is in the Book of Ezra, which recounts the reading of the Torah on the first day of Tishrei. The sages were the first to assert this festival’s significance as the New Year, in the Mishna and Tosefta.  These writings date to around 200 CE, but it is possible that they document an earlier tradition.

[May] A New Year and its blessings begin“ – Illustrated title page for a calendar for the year 5678 (1917–1918), written by Wolf Zopnik, who was captured by the Russians and held in Siberia during WWI, the National Library of Israel collections

Thus, according to Gilad’s hypothesis, sometime during the first and second centuries CE, the Jewish sages gave a new meaning to the mystery festival described in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, according it the special status we attribute to it today. They determined that this is the anniversary of the creation of the world, and the day on which human beings are judged for their actions during the past year, and on which their fate for the coming year is determined. Gilad further speculates that the choice of the fall season for the New Year as opposed to spring, which was common throughout the region (for example, the new year in Iran is still celebrated around March), was intended to distinguish the Jewish people from the surrounding nations. We also add that the destruction of the Temple and the severing of the agricultural connection from the religious ritual likely enabled this change in the calendar.

Whatever the case, today we are able to enjoy a very festive and symbolic month, which has become especially significant in Jewish-Hebrew-Israeli culture. We’ll leave you with this Hebrew “Song for the Month of Tishrei” (lyrics and music by Datia Ben-Dor), courtesy of the cast of Parpar Nehmad, a classic Israeli children’s television show. Happy New Year to all our readers!

The Mysticism Behind the Counting of the Omer

A look at the Kabbalistic significance of the Counting of the Omer, which culminates in the festival of Shavuot

"The Counting of the Omer by Way of the Kabbalah", Italy, 1782, the National Library of Israel collections

The Counting of the Omer (Sefirat HaOmer) – the commandment to count the 49 days from the second day of Passover until the festival of Shavuot – was just one of the 613 commandments (mitzvot), and over history was performed, more or less, according to the particulars of Jewish law. In the Biblical text, the idea behind this mitzvah was to focus on the critical period between the barley and wheat harvests and the bringing of seasonally appropriate sacrificial offerings.

Yet quickly, over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, the commandment became especially significant as a result of the great influence of Lurianic Kabbalah and the influence of the Kabbalistic circle in the city of Safed. As a result, new elements were added to the prayers recited during the Counting of the Omer, additions that focused on the mystical meanings attributed to the seven-week cycle of seven days each. Through the performance of this seemingly minor mitzvah, worshippers were not only able to purify and sanctify themselves; they were also given the opportunity to assist in bringing forward the Messianic Era and redeeming the entire cosmos.

An Ashkenazic rite siddur (prayer book) from Bratislava, 1734, the National Library collections; click on the image to browse through the book

The new mystical focus that Lurianic Kabbalah brought to Jewish prayer caught on rapidly and reached circles far beyond those adept at the study of the secrets of Kabbalah. Very soon, special editions of prayer books were printed specifically for the Counting of the Omer, while exquisitely illustrated manuscripts were also inscribed, all for the purpose of beautifying the performance of the mitzvah and helping the worshiper to focus on the Kabbalistic meaning of the Counting.

Lurianic Kabbalah was often the impetus for attributing new mystical meanings to existing Jewish rituals, especially in relation to the desire to unite and join the disparate and separated elements of the spiritual worlds of Jewish mysticism. While performing the mitzvot, the believer can focus his or her attention on uniting and connecting the Kabbalistic sefirot (the mystical powers or elements of the Godhead) in order to achieve unity, cohesion and coordination in a broken and disjointed universe. Despite the opposition of certain circles to the spreading of Kabbalistic customs to the masses, Lurianic Kabbalah also played a popularizing role, creating rituals and prayers shared by both learned sages and less knowledgeable Jewish worshippers. Kabbalat Shabbat prayers, which quickly became an integral part of the Jewish Shabbat prayer routine around the world, are a clear example of this.

The Counting of the Omer by Way of the Kabbalah, Italy, circa 1850, the National Library collections; click on the images to browse through the book

With the internalization and acceptance of the ideas of the Kabbalah, believers began to understand the concept of seven-week cycles and each of the seven days of the week as parallel to the seven lower sefirot of the Kabbalah, which were perceived as a more accessible unit in the heavenly spheres. Thus, the words Sefirat HaOmer, (The Counting of the Omer), also stimulated a connection to the Kabbalistic sefirot. One of the central concepts of Lurianic Kabbalah is that of tikkun – the ability of a person, through actions made with special intentions, to bring about harmony in the heavenly realms. The special prayers of the Counting of the Omer envision seven internal sefirot within the seven lower sefirot so that each week is dedicated to the tikkun of one sefira, while each day of the week is dedicated to the tikkun of one internal sefira.

In honor of the festival of Shavuot, the National Library is unveiling several examples of these prayer books, which clearly reflect a growing enthusiasm for the fulfillment of the Counting of the Omer.


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Is “Chad Gadya” the First Children’s Song in Recorded History?

Parents have probably been singing songs to their children since the dawn of history, but “Chad Gadya” – composed specifically to help children stay awake until the very end of the Passover Seder – may be the first song ever printed specially for children


From a Passover Haggadah, Amsterdam, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For most modern secular readers not well versed in the enigmatic midrashic style of our Sages, the Passover Haggadah is a rather abstruse text. The decision to conclude the work with an obscure liturgical poem about a strange little goat perhaps only increases the sense of confusion amongst readers. It is possible that the source of this odd song lay in the desire to hold the interest of the youngest participants until the very end of the Seder, which is traditionally a lengthy affair.

Detail from the Passover Haggadah, copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

The purpose of the Haggadah is to fulfill the important commandment “and you shall tell your son” (and your daughter, we might add) the story of the Exodus. Thus, young boys and girls are the focus of the Passover Seder text and the Haggadah is full of various rituals and passages aimed at keeping the Seder’s youngest participants alert and interested: It is the children who ask the four traditional questions inquiring about the strange customs of the evening. They are the ones who search for the Afikoman and keep an eye out for the arrival of the Prophet Elijah. Chad Gadya, the concluding song, with its animals and other fantastic figures, represents something for the children to look forward to.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah copied by Nathan Ben Shimshon of Mezeritsch, 1730; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

For this reason, some scholars have crowned Chad Gadya as the earliest known children’s song – or at least one of the earliest. We obviously have no information about songs which were not set down in writing and which were sung by parents to their children over the course of the thousands of years of human history – there must have been many. But in “Chad Gadya,” we encounter, probably for the first time, a song that was specifically written and put into print for the sake of the edification of children.

Chad Gadya with Yiddish translation, from a Passover Haggadah, 1738; Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

You may very well know the song by heart and perhaps you’re even humming along as you read, but let’s take a closer look at its attributes. Chad Gadya is what’s known as a cumulative song, meaning that in each progressive verse a new element is added to the list of elements from the previous verse. You are probably familiar with songs of this type. For example, “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, and the song that precedes “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah, “Echad Mi Yodea?” (“Who Knows One?”). The repetition and familiar refrain make these kinds of songs especially popular with children.

What else can we learn from a quick look at the song? Although the language appears to be Aramaic, the song is in fact full of grammatical mistakes, and there are Hebrew words embedded in it as well, suggesting that the author wasn’t fluent in Aramaic and that at the time of its writing, Aramaic was no longer a spoken language.

An early version of Chad Gadya from a siddur from the Jewish community of Provence, ca. 13th–14th century

This is also perhaps a clue as to when the song was written. The song’s appearance in the Haggadah dates to the 15th or 16th century, and earlier versions of it may have been written as early as the 14th century. The song first appeared in print in the 16th-century Prague Haggadah. An early version of the liturgical poem (piyyut), in impeccable Aramaic, has been located in a manuscript which was subsequently added to the prayer book of the Provence community in France. The wording is somewhat different than the version we sing today (for example, a mouse appears in some of the versions found in the region of modern-day France). It is assumed that the Jews who fled France after the great expulsion of 1306, brought the liturgical poem with them to communities in the region of Ashkenaz (modern day Germany and northern Europe), and from there it found its way into the Haggadah. Only later did the song also reach the Haggadot of the Sephardic communities in Spain and the Middle East.

Hand-written copies of the liturgical poems “Echad Mi Yodea” and “Chad Gadya” added to the Prague Haggadah, 1527

But what is the origin of the poem? Are the motifs in it a Jewish invention? As one might expect in the case of an ancient folk song, we have no definitive answer to these questions. Similar motifs appear in many songs from around the world. In his article on Chad Gadya, Uriel Ofek mentions similar motifs in stories from Japan, Greece and as far as South America. One can find comparable tales in Russian and French, and some German-language versions even use the “Chad Gadya” formula. Interestingly, a Brothers Grimm fairy tale song, “The Pear Does Not Want to Fall,” bears a remarkable resemblance. In this song, a landowner sends a peasant boy named Jockli to shake a pear from a tree. After Jockli refuses, a dog is sent to bite him. When the dog refuses, a stick, water, a bull, and a butcher are sent in succession, with each refusing to carry out the task, until the intimidating executioner arrives, causing the rest of the characters to fall in line.

The song’s English equivalent is “The House that Jack Built,” with the chain beginning with malt (grain) that is eaten by a rat. The song’s characters are radically different and progress from a rat to a cat, a dog, a “cow with the crumpled horn”, a “maiden all forlorn”, a “man all tatter’d and torn”, a “priest all shaven and shorn”, a “cock that crow’d in the morn” and a “farmer sowing his corn”. Not everyone eats each other, but some scholars have insisted on the connection between the songs and have argued that Jack’s tale originated from the song about the Jewish goat. As mentioned, there is no way to determine for sure which came first. Uriel Ofek speculates in the article mentioned above that “it would not be an exaggeration to claim that there isn’t a nation or language that does not have a fable, rhyme or folktale with some Chad Gadya-like format or content.”


Jewish scholars over the years, not content to leave “Chad Gadya” as just an endearing tale in the Passover Haggadah whose sole purpose is to entertain the children, have layered it with interpretations. The cumulative chain of episodes, which can easily be read as nothing more than a humorous fairy tale, has been weighed down with theological import about God’s role in the world. One commentary, for example, suggests that the goat is a symbol of the Jewish people, and the other characters are the nations that have plotted to destroy it: Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Muslims, the Crusaders and the Turks. Finally, the Holy One will come and redeem the Jewish people.

A Passover Haggadah from Amsterdam, copied by Chaim Mordechai Binger, 1796; the Braginsky Collection, Switzerland

Much has been written about this intriguing song that begins with a little goat and which concludes the Passover Haggadah. The mysterious piyyut has aroused the interest of researchers of folklore and liturgical poetry over the years who have tried to locate its origin and connection to similar folk songs in different languages. Perhaps around the Passover table this year you can also share something about the song, which may very well be the first recorded children’s song in history.



We did not forget that preceding “Chad Gadya” in the Haggadah is another song of similar structure, also intended for the enjoyment and edification of children. The story of “Echad Mi Yodea” deserves a separate article, but we can already tell you that it too appeared for the first time in print in the same 16th century Prague Haggadah, and that it was known in Europe perhaps from the 15th century. “Echad Mi Yodea” also has parallels in European languages, but unlike “Chad Gadya,” it spread much earlier to the communities of Spain and Portugal and even reached the Cochin community in India. Hence, the question of its origin is even more complicated, but we will tell you more about that in the future.


You can listen to a range of different performances of Chad Gadya which are preserved in the National Library of Israel’s National Sound Archive, here.


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Prayers, Amulets and Spells to Ward off Plague

The sages of Safed created amulets, the Jews of Italy wrote prayers and other Jews warned of less conventional plagues…

An amulet attributed to Isaac Luria, "The Holy ARI", 1855

The first occurrence of plague in the recorded history of the Middle East was known as the “Plague of Justinian”, named after the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. It made its way to the Land of Israel from Egypt around 541-542 AD. The results were documented in detail by the emperor’s court historian.

A thousand years later, the residents of the land were still dealing with fairly frequent outbreaks. Throughout the 16th century, plague spread across different parts of the Middle East. The common wisdom in Jerusalem of the period spoke of a new wave of pestilence hitting the city every six or seven years. In the writings of the sages of the holy city of Safed (Zfat), in the northern Land of Israel, we find evidence that these rabbis sought to fight off the plague with the help of special amulets, among other things.

We found the amulet below in a copy of the book Shaar HaYichudim (“The Gate of Unifications”) by the famous Safed Kabbalist Hayyim ben Joseph Vital. The Hebrew title appearing at the top reads “This amulet is for plague from the holy ARI…” (The holy ARI was Rabbi Isaac Luria, Vital’s teacher). The charm in fact consists of two different amulets joined together, one on top and one below. The image here is taken from a later printing of the book which includes various commentaries on the writings of Vital and Luria, but the amulet, or similar versions of it, appear in earlier printings as well. This edition was published in 1855 in the city of Lemberg, today’s Lviv, in western Ukraine. Isaac Luria perished during an outbreak of plague in the year 1572, when he was only 38 years old.

The letters appearing in the upper amulet – אנקתם פסתם פספסים דיונסים, likely transliterated as Anaktam Pastam Paspasim Dionsim – form one of the secret divine names, according to certain Jewish mystical traditions

Another interesting text can be found in a manuscript which is part of the Bill Gross Collection and which received the rather generic title, “Prayers Against the Plague“. The text begins with the words שויתי יהוה לנגדי תמיד (“I have placed the Lord before me constantly“), followed immediately by Psalm 91, in which the speaker tells of the refuge provided by the wings of the Lord, while also citing the various evils from which he is protected, including “devastating pestilence” (דבר הוות). Later, the story of how Aaron the High Priest was able to halt the plague with incense is recounted, along with what appears to be a recipe.

As opposed to the Kabbalists of Safed, who invoked the secret divine names to save themselves, the scribes of this manuscript decided to make use of canonical texts telling of the victories of God over the various plagues which threatened the People of Israel. Judging by the style of script, as well as the name of the youth to whom the manuscript was dedicated – Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati – which appears on the last page, it is likely that the manuscript was inscribed in Italy during the 18th or 19th century.

The manuscript ends with a dedication to a young man: Yosef Tzemach Gabriel Donati

Over time, the Hebrew word for “plague” – Magefa (מגפה) – has come to be associated with other meanings as well. In the pashkevil broadsides which are popular in ultra-orthodox Jewish communities, the word is often used to describe various “ills” which have spread throughout modern Israeli society, whether they be of a biological, theological or moral nature. In 1980, this Pashkevil poster warning of the plague of archaeology spreading throughout the Holy Land was printed and hung up in various ultra-orthodox communities. The text states that “new areas are discovered from time to time, where the plague of archaeology has taken hold in the northern, southern and central regions“.

“The plague of archaeology”, a pashkevil from 1980

Another pashkevil, seen here below, which dates to the period of the British Mandate, warns of the “plague” of eating and selling non-kosher meat, which had “broken out” among the Jewish community.

A “plague” of non-kosher meat, from the British Mandate period

The last manuscript which we will present also hails from 19th century Italy. It is preserved today in the British Library in London.

The main difference here relates to the type of pestilence which was spreading across the country, with the text mentioning an outbreak of “cholera morbus” (קולירה מורבוץ) and expressing the hope that “no harm will befall us, nor will a plague draw near to our tent“. Like other manuscripts of its kind, it draws a link between observance of the laws handed down to Moses at Mount Sinai and the health of the individual and the community. This promise is expressed in the quote: “I, the Lord, heal you, for it is written – and the sun of mercy shall rise with healing in its wings for you who fear My Name.”

A prayer warding off the effects of cholera morbus, Italy, 19th century, the British Library


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