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Rosh Hashana: Judgement Day or Day of Creation?

Dr. Yoel Rappel
| 13/09/2015
High Holidays
Rabbinic Literature

Jewish sources posit different dates and meaning to the Jewish New Year.

The verses of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading force us to ask ourselves how to define the essence of this day. Leviticus 23 tells us, “… In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. You shall do no manner of servile work; and you shall bring an offering made by fire unto the LORD.” In Numbers 29 it is written, “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.” These two descriptions, referring to a memorial and a blast of horns, are a far cry from the holiday we know as Rosh Hashanah. How did a day of rest and blast of horns become the day to mark the new year, and why on the first day of the seventh month?

More questions persist. In Exodus 12, we read, “This month [Nissan] shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you.” Thus, the new year begins on the first of Nissan and not in Tishrei. The only mention of Rosh Hashanah in the Bible is in Ezekiel 40; there too, the date given is not the first of Tishrei but “the tenth of the month.” If the month is Tishrei, then the day referred to is Yom Kippur.

The Mishna, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, adds to the confusion. “There are four New Year days: Nissan 1, the new year for Kings (to mark the years of a reign); Elul 1, the new year for the cattle tithe, although R. Eliezer and R. Simeon say it is on Tishrei 1; Tishrei 1 marks New Year’s day for ordinary, sabbatic and jubilee years, and for the planting of trees and herbs. Shevat 1 is the New Year for trees, according to the House of Shammai, but the House of Hillel says it is on Shevat 15.”

Thus there are two dates for Rosh Hashanah. One is in Nissan and marks the historic event of the Exodus, giving us a national historic context. The other is in Tishrei and is universal, cosmic, marking the beginning of time.

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah 10b, we find a very interesting debate between R. Eliezer and R. Joshua. “R. Eliezer taught: In Tishrei the world was created….inNissan,Israelwas redeemed, and in Tishrei they are yet awaiting redemption. R. Joshua says: In Nissan the world was created…in Nissan was the past redemption and in Nissan will be the future redemption.” R. Eliezer claims that the world was created in Tishrei and links this to the future redemption; his is a universal approach, and it explains the seemingly arbitrary date for Rosh Hashanah, for on this day the world, and humankind, were created. R. Joshua, on the other hand, ties the creation and redemption to the national, historic event in Jewish history.

The second Mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah opens with “The world is judged at four intervals [of the year],…On the New Year, [first of Tishrei] all who have entered the earth pass before Him, one by one, like young sheep…” Here Rosh Hashanah takes the aspect of the Day of Judgment. This aspect is not mentioned in the Bible, but it is familiar to us today. Based upon the verses we have brought, we can understand the Rabbis’ thinking, which infused the day with three subjects: the creation of man, the day of judgment, and the day of coronation of God as King – none of which are mentioned in the Bible. “The liturgy,” writes Sara Friedlander Ben-Arza, “reflects the Rabbis’ establishment of the theme of judgment, leading to repentance, on one hand; and of God’s coronation as King of the universe, on the other.” We ask, then, what is the meaning of these different themes of the day? Is there a connection between judgment, creation and redemption?

In the High Holiday prayers, the Rabbis sought to give expression to each of these themes. At the opening of the Zichronot(remembrance) prayers in the Musaf service, we recite, “This is the day of the beginning of Your Works, a remembrance to the first day.” This refers to the Creation. Before the blowing of the shofar, we crown God as King of the universe. “O clap your hands, all ye peoples; shout unto God with the voice of triumph. For the LORD is most high, awful; a great King over all the earth. He subdues peoples under us, and nations under our feet. God is gone up amidst shouting, amidst the sound of the horn. For God is the King of all the earth; sing ye praises in a skillful song. God reigns over the nations; God sits upon His holy throne.”

The short hymn Hayom harat olam (‘Today the world was conceived’) is sung after each group of shofar blasts. It expresses the idea of the entire world standing in judgment on Rosh Hashanah. The opening words, taken from the book of Jeremiah, imply the Creation as the theme of the day, described as a birth:

“Today is the birthday of the world.
Today all creatures of the world
stand in judgment – whether as children
or as servants. If as children,
be merciful with us as the mercy of a father for children.
If as servants, our eyes depend upon You,
until You will be gracious to us
and release our verdict as light,
O Awesome and Holy One.”

Dr. Yoel Rappel, a graduate of the Schechter Institute, has worked in recent years as a researcher at the Eli Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and as the director of the Eli Wiesel Archives, both at Boston University. He has published 29 books, 14 of which are on Jewish topics.

(English translation: Penina Goldschmidt)

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