The Meaning of Rosh Hashanah: An In-Depth Analysis – Part 1

What is Rosh Hashanah all about? In addition to its meaning as the “head of the year”, we also refer to it as the “Day of Judgment”.

By: Rabbi Asher Resnick

Before discussing the specific aspects of any particular holiday, it is important to understand the uniquely Jewish perspective of time as well as holidays in general. The world at large views time essentially as a straight line. The present moment is a unique point along this line that never existed before and will never exist again. The past is completely finished and the future is yet to occur.

The Jewish model of time is a spiral. While time is certainly moving forward, it progresses ahead specifically through a seasonal cycle. Each year we pass through the same seasonal coordinates that are imbued with whatever spiritual potentials were initially established within them.

This is the significance of the Jewish holidays. They serve as signposts on the spiral of time to teach us which specific quality has been embedded into that particular season. When the Jewish people left Egypt at Passover time, for example, it showed us that both physical and spiritual freedom are incorporated within the fabric of every springtime. Whenever our cyclical journey through time encounters a holiday, therefore, we directly re-experience the quality of that time. In addition, whatever it is that originally occurred at that time actually occurs again every single year. Thus, every holiday is a metaphysical window of opportunity.

So, the key question regarding every holiday is – What is the particular opportunity that it presents us with? There are three clues which help us to uncover the meaning of each holiday.

First, what was the actual historical event that occurred the first time that this day was significant? And what was its metaphysical impact upon the Jewish people and the world? This is the most obvious question to ask. As we explained, it is specifically this metaphysical impact that recurs every subsequent year at the same time. This is what the holiday actually consists of.

Second, what are the various mitzvot, Rabbinical guidelines, and customs of the holiday?

If the Torah or the Rabbis tell us to do certain activities or to refrain from others during the holiday, clearly these do’s and don’ts are designed to help us access its opportunity. Even the customs, developed from the subconscious of the Jewish people over the centuries, are rooted in an awareness of the unique potential of these days. The more one understands the particular tools that are appropriate for each holiday, the more one will understand the opportunities themselves that these tools are designed to access.

And, finally, what is the name of the holiday?

Judaism views Hebrew names as having tremendous significance. Far from merely serving as convenient labels, Hebrew names both identify and express the underlying essence of whatever it is that they are describing.

With these three clues to guide us, we can now begin to unravel the various layers of meaning and significance within each of the Jewish holidays.

Rosh Hashanah

Let’s begin by thinking about some curious aspects of the High Holidays. We’ll discuss three different questions and then try to resolve them with the help of our three clues.

What is Rosh Hashanah all about? In addition to its meaning as the “head of the year”, we also refer to it as the “Day of Judgment”. Every single person in the world is judged individually on Rosh Hashanah.

In fact, the Talmud tells us that three different books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: The Book of Life – for those judged to be completely righteous, the Book of Death – for those judged to be completely wicked, and the Middle Book for all who are judged to be in between.

If Rosh Hashanah is really the day when every single person is evaluated for life or death, how would we expect people to act on that day? Wouldn’t we expect people to spend the day fixing up past mistakes, pleading their personal cases, and praying for God to give them all good judgments?

What, in fact, did the Rabbis tell us to do on Rosh Hashanah? Curiously, there is virtually no mention of our own personal judgment in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. Instead, the prayers are all about the general condition of the world. We pray that the world will recognize God is its exclusive King, that He is aware of everything that occurs, and that the shofar of Mt. Sinai will demonstrate God’s love and concern for all of mankind. These are certainly beautiful and meaningful prayers. The difficulty is why we would focus exclusively on the overall world situation just at the time when our lives are on the line? This is our first difficulty.

Now let’s think about Yom Kippur. Why is it such a significant day? It is the “day of kapara” – the time of spiritual cleansing. It is the day that we are able to fix up the damage caused by our various past mistakes. That being so, wouldn’t it be much more logical for Yom Kippur to come first, i.e., for the “day of cleansing” to precede the “day of judgment”? This is our second difficulty.

The third question arises from a discussion in the Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah on the nature of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah presents the story of Yishmael (the father of the Arab nation) pleading for his life (on Rosh Hashanah). The verse tells us that “God heard the voice of the lad where he was.” The Talmud explains that the words “where he was” do not refer to Yishmael’s physical location. That would be completely superfluous. Where else would God be answering him other than the specific place he was in? Rather, the verse is speaking in terms of time. Based on this, Rebbe Yitzchak (in the Talmud) said, “A person is not judged (on Rosh Hashanah) except according to his actions of that exact moment.”

The commentaries explain that Yishmael was saved at that time even though his descendants were destined to hurt the Jewish people throughout later history. In other words, the negative future deeds of his descendants did not change his judgment at that time.

There is a different source quoted by the Jerusalem Talmud, however, which seems to go much further than this. It tells us that even if an individual was not pure and straight in the past, as long as he is pure and straight in the present, on Rosh Hashanah itself, then he will have a positive judgment.

These two different sources together (i.e., the positive judgment of Yishmael on Rosh Hashanah despite his descendants hurting the Jewish people later in history, and ignoring the fact that the person being judged was not pure and straight in the past) teach us a remarkable fact. It sounds like the judgment of Rosh Hashanah does not have to do with either the past or the future, but rather exclusively with one’s situation on the day of Rosh Hashanah. This would seem to be telling us that even if the one being judged was evil during the entire previous year, as long as he was righteous on Rosh Hashanah, he would be judged as a righteous person. This, of course, runs counter to any notion of logic and fairness in the nature of judgment. This is our third difficulty.

To summarize, the three questions are:

Since we are all being judged for life and death on Rosh Hashanah, why don’t we do teshuva or plead our personal case?

Why doesn’t Yom Kippur – the “day of cleansing” – precede Rosh Hashanah – the “day of judgment”?

How can the judgment of Rosh Hashanah be exclusively a function of the day of Rosh Hashanah itself, irrelevant of the future and even of the past?

The blowing of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a call for all Jews to do teshuvah (repentance) and to stir our hearts to become closer to Hashem. Photo Credit: INN

We mentioned previously that every holiday has three clues that help us to unlock its hidden meaning. Let’s begin with the first one, its historical significance, to try to resolve these various difficulties.

What is it that actually occurred on the very first Rosh Hashanah? Although in the davening (prayers) of Rosh Hashanah it is referred to as “yom harat olam” (the birthday of the world), it was not actually the day of creation of the world, but rather the creation of mankind. The first Rosh Hashanah was day number six of creation, and the day upon which the first man, Adam, was created.

The Birthday of Free Will

Let’s ask what may seem like an odd question – What is the great significance of the creation of mankind? Prior to day six, the Torah tells us that God had already created the entire physical world as well as a vast number of different forms of life. What, then, did mankind bring to the world that had not previously existed?

When the Torah describes the creation of mankind, it tells us that man was created “b’tzelem Elokim” (in God’s image). One of the most central meanings of this fundamental concept is that human beings have the ability to exercise free will in relation to moral decisions.

To properly understand this, we need to appreciate the Jewish view of a human being. Every person has a body and a soul. The body desires physicality, the soul wants spirituality; the body is interested in short-term gratification, the soul in eternity. What is it that decides which side will prevail?

Judaism understands that there is a third component in the system – free will. Free will is what arbitrates this existential tug-of-war between the body and the soul. It is specifically the creation of free will, which epitomizes our very humanity, that we celebrate and relive every Rosh Hashanah. As Rav Berkowitz, a teacher of mine, once expressed it – Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of free will.

Free will Exists Only in the Present

It is significant that of these three different components within every human being – the body, the soul, and the free will – it is specifically the free will which exists exclusively in the present moment. For example, a person could live his life by a particular set of moral guidelines for many years and then, in an instant, decide to completely shift course. The state of one’s free will is, by definition, whatever he chooses at that particular moment.

In contrast to free will, which exists only in the present, the state of both the body and the soul are almost entirely a function of the past. A person’s physical health at any given time, for example, is mostly determined by their past diet and exercise even if they happen to deviate from that at the present. Similarly for the soul, it is generally the cumulative past behavior that determines one’s spiritual health, not occasional changes afterwards.

Focus of Rosh Hashanah

Now if we put this point – that free will exists exclusively in the present, together with the cryptic statement in the Talmud that: “A person is not judged (on Rosh Hashanah) except according to his actions of that exact moment,” we come to a remarkable insight – the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is specifically on the state of our free will. Let’s try to understand what that means.

We generally assume that the focus of Rosh Hashanah is on the state of our soul – i.e., the spiritual repository of our actions of the previous year, not on what our free will is choosing at that particular time. This would explain why it seems so obvious that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah would be a cumulative evaluation based on our actions of the previous year.

The spiritual health of one’s soul as a result of one’s past behavior is obviously of critical importance, it just happens not to be the focus of Rosh Hashanah.

Everything that we have ever done, both positively and negatively, has affected our souls. And if this is left as is, these various impacts will be with us forever, in both this world and the next. Fortunately Judaism says that there is a way to minimize or even to eliminate the negative impact of our past mistakes on our eternity. This mechanism is “teshuva” (return) and the result is called “kaparah” (a spiritual cleansing). This goal of kaparah is so important that we have a holiday devoted exclusively to its attainment – Yom Kippur (the “day of kaparah”). It is on Yom Kippur that we try to address our actions of the previous year and fix up all of our mistakes.

Since it is specifically Yom Kippur that addresses our behavior and situation of the previous year, what, then, is the purpose of Rosh Hashanah? We mentioned earlier that one of the clues to uncovering the essence of a holiday is to examine its name. The way that Rosh Hashanah is often understood, it would seem more appropriate for it to have been called “Sof Hashanah” (the “end of the year”), and for it to have been placed at the end of the previous year. However, it is actually called Rosh Hashanah (the “head of the year”), and, of course, it is situated at the very beginning of the brand new year. Besides reinforcing that the focus of Rosh Hashanah is not on our actions of the previous year, what else does the name teach us?


(To Be Continued Next Week)

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