…For more than 25 centuries, we Jews have stood atremble before the highest of benches during the first days of the seventh lunar month, which we call Tishrei. The peculiar rites we perform during the Ten Days of Penitence are designed to ensure us another year of life.
That, at least, is the belief of the 15% of Jews who think that God simply dictated the Torah and all Jewish laws — even those laws promulgated by the rabbis in the Middle Ages — to Moses at Mount Sinai.
The remaining 85% of us, however, might be comforted to know that Jews haven’t been the only nation performing such elaborate rituals of sin-purging around this time of year.…
… We might have our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in the month of Tishrei, but our extinct Babylonian cousins celebrated Akitu and Kuppuru in the month of Tashritu.
Many differences of ritual and theology existed between Babylonians and Jews. While the Babylonians worshipped a pantheon of gods led by Marduk, we have only one. Our autumnal High Holy Days last 10 days, but they had 12.
But the parallels are truly intriguing. First there is the obvious similarity of names above. Secondly, both Jews and Babylonians saw the beginning of the seventh month as the world’s birthday. Third, both observed two New Year celebrations, just as the Torah instructs us; the other was held at the onset of the first month, Nisanu, just before our Passover.
Fourth is the Kuppuru rite, in which a ritually slaughtered animal carcass is deployed and its blood scattered to purge demons and clear impurities from the temple of Marduk for the upcoming year, much as ancient Israel’s high priest did in the Yom Kippur ritual recalled in our late-morning Avodah service.
While some of us might regard the jury as still out on the efficacy of the carcass in demon-purging, there is a further, striking parallel to Yom Kippur’s scapegoat ritual as described in Leviticus 16.
Our ancestors borrowed a great deal from a towering, imperial Mesopotamian culture that for centuries dominated the Fertile Crescent. That we used Babylonian calendar names is widely known. Semitic peoples had used the lunar calendar from time immemorial, but named their months differently. What the (Hebrew-speaking) Canaanites called Aviv, Ziv, Eytanim and Bul, the practical-minded Hebrews first renamed months One, Two, Seven and Eight. The Babylonians called them Nisanu, Ayaru, Tashritu and Archasamnu. In time, our ancestors replaced their numerals with the Babylonian names, many of which are named in honor of Mesopotamian gods.
Yet it wasn’t only Nisan, Iyar, Tishrei and Marchesvan that our ancestors borrowed from the Babylonians. Our forefathers took Akitu and the ritual of Kuppuru and reshaped them in their own monotheistic image into what eventually became Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
For centuries, Israelites had two main festivals: Sukkot in the fall and Pesach in the spring — seasonal harvest festivals adopted and adapted from their Canaanite neighbors. New moons were also observed throughout the Levant, as they are today by observant Jews.
The new moon on the seventh month, however, was considered, to paraphrase a more recent Mesopotamian dictator, the mother of new moons.
What made the new moon of the seventh month special? Most of all, it was the number seven, which seems to hold deep significance throughout the scriptures. The seventh day is the Sabbath. The seventh year is the Sabbatical Year, while seven years squared is the Jubilee. Even the Yom Kippur rite involves seven splatters of blood. The new moon of the seventh month would likewise have been seen as important.…