The words Rosh Hashanah never appear in the Tanach. Nor is the chag referred to except as the shofar-blowing on the first day of the seventh month. The first time we see the term Rosh Hashanah being used is in a mishnah:
“There are 4 Rosh Hashanahs…”
ארבעה ראשי שנים הם.
(Maseches RH 1:1)
So the very first time we see the words “Rosh Hashanah,” they’re actually in plural form. This mishna teaches us that there are actually not one but 4 rosh hashanas. 1 Tishri (new year for years), 15 Shevat (trees and fruit), 1 Nisan (kings and festivals), and 1 Elul (animals and cattle).
It’s a strange phrase, if you think about it: “The new year for years” (ראש השנה לשנים). It doesn’t seem to make much sense, especially given that in the Torah this is the 7th month, not the 1st.
So why is this Rosh Hashanah the big one, the one we all celebrate every single year?
We get a hint in the very next mishna, which says, “there are four times when the world is judged: at Pesach for crops, at Sukkot for tree fruits, and on Rosh Hashanah all the world’s occupants pass before Him like sheep.”
And all of a sudden, something strange has happened. Even though in the first Passuk there were 4 Rosh Hashanahs, now there is only one. Because we all know which one the mishna is talking about. THE Rosh Hashanah. The big one.
Now, this development probably took some time and to some extent has been lost in the mists of history. Somewhere between matan Torah and the recording of the mishna it had become understood that the shofar day, the first day of the 7th month, had become THE rosh Hashanah.
Or… almost. By the time we get to the second mishna, the other 2 Rosh Hashanahs have been kind of pushed aside – trees and animals were not as important as kings and seasons.
But to this day there remains this tension between the two biggies – Nissan and Pesach and Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah (the dynamic is not perfect because Rosh Hashanah comes at the time of the new moon instead of the full moon – or perhaps it is, full light vs almost-full darkness).
And these two big roshei Hashanah represent the conflicting pull of life as a Jew: the question of whether our focus should be inward or outward.
And the answer, this mishna and others seems to be telling us is… both.
Pesach is about US and us alone. It is Hashem rescuing our people, and we read in the Haggadah, has it ever happened at any other time in history that Hashem has reached in and rescued one people from the midst of another people? It hasn’t.
There are even huge questions about whether we’re allowed to have non-Jews at our seder because this evening, the meal and its order are the quintessential educational device for transmitting the Jewish faith. We have everything in there, generations of history, praise, thanks, sorrow over lives lost.
But what is Rosh Hashanah? Rosh Hashanah is haras olam, as we say
"הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם
הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים”
"Today is the birthday of the world. Today all creatures of the world stand in judgment,” just as the Mishna tells us. (This is from the Machzor for Rosh Hashanah.)
Rosh Hashanah is NOT about us. Jews may be the only ones who observe it, pretty much, but it’s about the whole world. We even see on Sukkot that we are ordered to bring 70 bulls as korbanot, sacrifices on behalf of the nations of the world.
So while Nissan is about us, and our relationship with Hashem, Tishrei is about the world, and our role within it. Of course, neither reflects one theme alone. Our relationship with Hashem is on the line in Tishrei, too, and our role within the world is an important part of Pesach. But the ikar here is that Tishrei is about the world.
Then again, our sources tell us it’s not even the world’s birthday. There is a machlokes, in fact, as to whether the world was created in Nissan or Tishrei – again, those two months at opposite ends of the year pulling us towards their competing themes and objectives.
However, it’s most commonly accepted that Tishrei is when it happened. Or rather… the 25th of Elul. Which makes Rosh Hashanah the birthday of Adam and Chava, a totally different thing. The idea here, as I understand it, is that there isn’t much point in creating the world without us in it. It’s the classic question of the tree falling in the forest if there’s nobody there to hear it.
The world is meaningless without people in it. Specifically, without Jewish people, gathering each year to celebrate our inheritance of this magnificent creation and reaffirming our belief that Hashem rules as king over it all.
Dovid Hamelech shares this message with us in Tehillim 109 which parallels the story of creation with one huge difference. While in Bereishis, the animals, the plants, heavens and water are passive and inactive – a snapshot of the world being created, here we see these creations as active and dynamic, serving Hashem and mankind in the way Hashem intended.
In Bereishis, the tale is passive: the waters are “gathered together” (1:9) and the dry land simply “appear[s]” (1:9). Birds, fish and even man are “created” but this is not yet a living tableau. In contrast, in Tehillim 109 Dovid Hamelech shows us creation as it is animated by human life. Even inanimate objects like the winds are “messengers,” the flaming fire “attendants.”
ד עֹשֶׂה מַלְאָכָיו רוּחוֹת; מְשָׁרְתָיו, אֵשׁ לֹהֵט.
Water “rush[es] away” from the sound of Hashem’s thunder and quenches the wild creatures’ thirst.
מִן-קוֹל רַעַמְךָ, יֵחָפֵזוּן.
And what is the place of mankind in this active, living tableau? Our role is simply to observe, to record, to praise, as Dovid HaMelech writes, “I will sing to Hashem while I live, I will sing praises to my G-d while I endure.”
אָשִׁירָה לַה בְּחַיָּי; אֲזַמְּרָה לֵאלֹקי בְּעוֹדִי.
Creation, he is telling us, is meaningless without humanity here to marvel and to praise Hashem for all His works.
So when we say Rosh Hashanah is a birthday, it’s not exactly right, at least in the conventional way. It’s a “birth day,” rather, in the sense that each of us, in our lives, receive only one true birth day – the day when we are born. On Rosh Hashanah, the world is born anew as we recognize and take on the task of partnering in Hashem’s creation, one year at a time.
Reb Noson of Breslov used to say, “The Architect of the world never does the same thing twice. Every day is an entirely new creation.” So too each year is somewhat alike yet very, very different. So today we sing praises to Hashem and recognize our role in His mighty work of creation.
We are new today; we are not the same people that we were last year at this time. And just as the seder is a literal (not just symbolic) reliving of yetziat mitzrayim, today is a literal day of birth, not just symbolically but in a very real sense.
What do we mean by Rosh Hashanah? We can see all the aspects of the chag in its common names:
- · Yom Terua – this is the name from the Torah
- · Yom Hadin – day of judgment, as the mishna explains
- · Yom Hazikaron – day of remembrance
- · Rosh Hashanah – head of the year
But there’s another name for Rosh Hashanah that’s less well-known. It’s hinted at in Tehillim 81, which we also say in the daytime Kiddush for Rosh Hashanah (so it’s actually quite well-known, but whatever):
ד תִּקְעוּ בַחֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹפָר; בַּכֵּסֶה, לְיוֹם חַגֵּנוּ.
The word “keseh” is usually taken to mean the time of the month when the moon is hidden. But Rav Yissocher Frand says something more.
After Rosh Hashanah, it’s very common to ask one another how the chag was. Just like we do for every other yom tov. And you know, after every other Yom Tov, the answer is obvious. Sure, Pesach was fine – the matzah was yummy, the seder went ‘till 3 am. Sure, Sukkot was great – we didn’t get rained out, it wasn’t too hot or too cold.
But how was our Rosh Hashanah? We don’t know. In the sense that the outcome of the day itself is “keseh” – it’s concealed. We won’t know until right before NEXT Rosh Hashanah what our decree was for this particular year.
For all the other Roshei Hashanah, the outcome is obvious, and success is guaranteed. Our trees and cows are another year older, we relived yetziat mitzrayim and enjoyed some delicious dried fruits.
But this Rosh Hashanah is so much greater, so much more important, exactly because it is hidden.
Rav Frand relates the following story:
A father had a son who (as is all too often the case) was having problems during his teenage years. The son was not acting as he should and he gave his father much grief. In hope of putting the son on the right path, the father sent him to Eretz Yisrael with the hope that somehow in the Holy Land, the boy would straighten out. In Israel, the son visited a psychologist who had some success with the lad. The father visited the son that year and decided to go speak to the psychologist himself to hear first hand how his son was doing. The psychologist explained to the father that the problem he was having with his son could be traced back to unresolved issues that he (the father) was having with his own father.
The person heard what the psychologist said and understood it. But when he came back to America, he really did not act upon it. Several months later, however, a friend of the boy’s father lost his own father and was sitting shiva. The father went to visit his friend who was mourner the loss. The mourner made the following comment: “I lost the person in the world who loved me the most. No one loved me like my father.”
When the father with the problem son heard this comment, it stuck with him. He deeply wished that he could make a statement like that about his own father. He wished that he could feel he had a father who loved him. He decided that the next time the Israeli psychologist came to America, he would make an appointment to see him together with his own father so that the two of them could try to work out their issues. And so it was. The psychologist came to America. The father went to his own father – a European Jew, a holocaust survivor – and said “I want to go with you to a psychologist.” He explained, “Our relationship has suffered for years. Maybe we can do something to improve it.”
Much to his surprise, the father agreed and thus the “grandfather” and the “father” went to the psychologist a nd had a session. At that session, when the “grandfather” began telling over his life story – the events that happened before, during, and after the holocaust — how he was instrumental in saving members of his own family from death and so on — the “father” suddenly had an amazing epiphany. He turned to his father and said “I never knew this about you! You are a hero! I never knew this. The only thing I knew about you was that I was afraid of you.”
The “grandfather” turned to his son and said, “I love you more than anything else in the world.” Those words that the son (now a middle aged man) was longing to hear his whole life, he now heard from his own father. This “father” then had an even greater epiphany and an even greater awakening: “If my father who is flesh and blood loves me that much, then how much more so does the Ribono shel Olam [Master of the Universe] love me!” This awakening changed the person’s entire relationship not only with his own father, but with his Father in Heaven.
At this time of year, we do our best to heal relationships with those who are important to us, including our relationship with Hashem. But the joy and fear in this day, its very importance, is in its hidden nature. This isn’t the kind of test where we get the answers back almost right away. We won’t find out if we passed for another year.
Yet we rejoice, singing and dancing, because we are confident that with this hishtadlut, Hashem will accept our tefillot and give us everything worthy that we are davening for today both for ourselves and for the entire world.
May we all be zocheh to celebrate many coming Roshei Hashanah, both this year and in future years, and may all our tefillot for good be accepted, written and inscribed in the Book of Life.
לשנה טובה נכתב ונחתם
And may you be written and inscribed in the Book of Life for a good and sweet new year.
(rushing, so this is a little less focused than my usual… but hopefully still some decent ideas!)
Photo © Lilach Daniel via flickr