Rosh Hashanah: Judgment Day Or A Day Of Joy?
What Is The Origin & Purpose of Rosh Hashanah?
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
Rosh Hashanah: The Day of Judgement
Rabbi Fohrman explores the concept of Rosh Hashanah in both the Mishnah and the Talmud and introduces Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment. Focusing on the text of Nehemiah Chapter 8, he introduces the idea that a day of judgment could actually be celebrated instead of dreaded.
This is Rabbi David Fohrman and welcome to Aleph Beta.
So Rosh Hashanah is coming up, let me ask you a slightly blasphemous question, how excited are you? How many of you look forward to the High Holidays?
The Meaning of Yom HaDin: How Should We Relate to Judgment?
Now, don't everybody raise their hand at once here. You know it's funny, there are a lot of Holidays that we do kind of look forward to; Purim – a lot of fun; Pesach – very celebratory, the Seder, family gets together it's great. But Rosh Hashanah, we call it the Yom HaDin – the day of judgment, that's a pretty scary notion – a day on which G-d judges humanity.
I mean you read some of the medieval poetry on the day you hear about angels trembling, G-d sifting through all of our deeds from the past year, inscribing us in one of these two books, I mean, it's enough to make you want to run for the fields. So the question I want to talk with you about in this series is how should we relate to Rosh Hashanah?
What emotional stances should we take to it? I mean, fear is one possibility, but on the other hand, it kind of sounds like a terrible thing to just be trying to emotionally avoid a Jewish holiday, is that what we're supposed to be doing? Could we do any better than that?
In beginning to come to grips with this notion of Rosh Hashanah as judgment day, maybe we can get a little bit of help if we go back and look at some of the sources from which these ideas come. Where does it come from this notion that Rosh Hashanah is a Yom HaDin – is judgment day?
The Origin of Rosh Hashanah in the Mishna
It turns out that the Mishna itself – going all the way back to early times in rabbinic literature – the Mishna characterizes Rosh Hashanah indeed as a kind of judgment day.
It says that on Rosh Hashanah, kol bo'ei olam, all of the inhabitants of the world, ovrim lefanav kivnei maron, pass before the Almighty as if they were sheep – it's unclear exactly what the name Maron is but that's one interpretation. So there's some individual kind of judgment for every member of the human race, that's at least what the Mishna seems to say.
Now if you look later on in the Talmud you'll actually find this tradition that b'Tishrei nivrah ha'olam, that the world was created in Tishrei – so that perhaps Rosh Hashanah commemorates creation itself. It's our planetary birthday as it were, and this gets reflected in the Machzor itself when we say hayom harat olam – today the world, the universe, was conceived.
But the problem is if you take these two things together – this idea of birthday and judgment day – they don't go together all that easily. I mean, after all would you celebrate a birthday with judgment of all things?
Imagine trying this at home with little Jimmy. Jimmy is six, seven years old and he's been looking forward to his birthday for a while, so you are his parent and you say, hey Jimmy, I just want to let you know this year we're doing something a little bit different. So you invite over all of Jimmy's friends and there's Bobby there and there's Sandy, and there's Davie, and you say, hey guys, this year we've decided to replace Pin the Tail on the Donkey with a new game, we're calling it Judgment Day.
Then, just then, out comes the parents dressed in black with this stone-faced expression, taking up seats to preside over the judgment of Jimmy. Yes, boy and girls we're going to be looking over all of Jimmy's actions over the past year, we're going to decide whether he should continue to live in this coming year.
I mean, the kids are going to be terrified. No one is going to have much of an appetite for the cake and ice cream, shall we say. They'll all come running home to their parents, they'll never want to come over to Jimmy's house again. No one is going to like that game very much.
So is this really how G-d celebrates our planetary birthday? I mean, how happy is He to have us, if the great celebration is judgment day?
How Do We Explain What Rosh Hashanah Means?
Here's another difficulty I think we face when we look at Rosh Hashanah as a judgment day: it's difficult with the prayers of the day.
Let me try a little thought experiment with you. What if you were in charge of writing the Machzor? What would you give people a chance to say in their prayers? What if you were putting together the Shmoneh Esrei for Rosh Hashanah and you decided there would be three great themes that you were going to emphasize in the prayers, what would they be?
I don't know about you, but if it was me, here would be my three sections.
The first section I would call the bargaining section. I mean, you know if it's judgment day I'm going to bargain for my life. I'm going to ask myself what can I promise G-d in exchange for a good decree on this day? I want so many things; I want health, I want happiness, I want good living, I want to find my soulmate, I want all these things.
So what could I sort of promise G-d in exchange for this? I'll be really good G-d, I'll be extra careful on Lashon Hara'ah – gossip, I'm not going to speak gossip from 5:00 to 6:00pm every Thursday, it's my great New Year's resolution. I can sort of bargain in a way with these various New Year's resolutions that I'm going to solemnly commit myself to. So I certainly want a section for New Year's resolutions.
After my New Year's resolution section, maybe I'd have like a lawyering section – as kind of blasphemous as that sounds – where I try to explain myself. Maybe like, uh G-d I know that if You look at my life from this perspective it's kind of not so impressive but I do have some accomplishments, let me highlight them for You. Here are my accomplishments for the year, aren't You sort of proud of this, aren't You sort of proud of that? So I can have my sort of lawyering section where I try to represent myself as best as possible.
Then if all of this fails – my bargaining section, my lawyering section – then I can have a kind of a last-ditch repent and forgiveness section. That would be a really good thing to do. In that section I could tell G-d how sorry I am for any misdeeds I committed. Say, look, I may not deserve for You to be nice to me but couldn't You see Yourself towards forgiving me? I could ask for forgiveness – for Selichah, for Mechilah.
But the problem is, is that the actual prayers on Rosh Hashanah do not support any of these three main themes which I would put in here if it was judgment day. There's no bargaining section in the prayers, and no lawyering section in the prayers, not even a repentance and forgiveness section.
I remember kind of as a kid this was very confounding to me; people would go around in Yeshiva and they would ask forgiveness from one another right before Rosh Hashanah, and you would get to Rosh Hashanah and you would actually look at the prayers and you wouldn't be supported in any of that.
The prayers do not actually beseech G-d for forgiveness – there's no Vidui, there's no confession. Ten days later on Yom Kippur yes, you have those themes, but why don't we have them here? You would imagine it would be the first thing on our mind on judgment day. So I'm confused here, is this a judgment day or not?
And the truth is, that that confusion only deepens if we go back earlier in time.
What Does the Bible Say About Rosh Hashanah?
If we go back before the Talmud, before the Mishna, looking at the Bible itself, at Tanach itself, what do we find there with reference to Rosh Hashanah? How does the Bible characterize this day?
So interestingly enough we can actually find a record of an actual celebration of Rosh Hashanah that historically occurred within the times of the Bible itself. You find that in the eighth chapter of the Book of Nechemiah. It's one of the last books of the Bible.
The setting: Israel is coming back to the land after a 70-year exile imposed upon them by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylonia. Seventy years before this the Temple had been destroyed, but now a few of the first pioneers are coming back to the land of Israel with Ezra and Nechemiah in an attempt to build the Second Temple. We hear about the events of a certain Rosh Hashanah when they came back.
Vayigah ha'chodesh ha'shevi'i – the month of Tishrei came;
U'Bnei Yisrael b'areihem – and the people of Israel were in their cities.
Vayei'asfu kol ha'am k'ish echad – and everyone came together as if they were one man;
El ha'rechov – to the street;
Asher lifnei sha'ar ha'mayim – that was in front of the Water Gate in Jerusalem.
Vayomru l'Ezra HaSofer – and they said to Ezra, the Scribe;
L'havi et sefer Toras Moshe asher tzivah Hashem et Yisrael – bring a Torah scroll, the Torah that Moses was commanded by G-d.
They read the scroll – Ezra reads it to them publicly. He reads it to them from dawn all the way through high noon. The text makes clear to you that it was the first day of the month, so it's Rosh Hashanah when this is happening.
Then the people begin to cry. Bochim kol ha'am k'shamam et divrei haTorah – the people were all crying when they heard the words of the Torah. Rashi explains they were crying because they felt that they weren't keeping the Torah well enough.
Now stop right there, if you were Ezra or Nechemiah, one of the leaders of these people, and it was Rosh Hashanah and the people were crying because they felt they weren't keeping the Torah well enough, they felt bad about that, how would you respond to those tears? So I don't know about you but if I was in their shoes I'd be totally delighted, it's a Rabbi's dream.
Imagine three Rabbis standing around the water cooler talking about their respective High Holiday sermons. So one Rabbi says, you know what kind of reaction I got? This little old lady came over and told me it was the most inspiring thing she ever heard. The next Rabbi said yeah, well when I was done we had the best appeal ever in the history of our Synagogue. Third Rabbi said, when I was done everyone was crying.
So they turned to him and said yeah, well what did he do? He says, I don't know. I actually didn't give any Derasha at all, all I did was I turned to the Holy Ark, I took out a Torah and I began to read it and then they all began to cry. Why were they crying, the Rabbis say? Well it's because they felt that they weren't fulfilling the Torah well enough.
So you know, the other Rabbis would say wow, can you come speak in my congregation? It's the most amazing thing in the world. It's judgment day, that's what you're supposed to be thinking, it's what you're supposed to be feeling.
So let's get back to Ezra and Nechemiah, what did they do? How did they respond to those tears? What actually happens is this. Nechemiah speaks up and says to all the people:
Hayom kadosh hu laHashem Elokeichem – today is a holy day unto G-d, it's Rosh Hashanah today.
Al titablu – do not mourn.
V'al tivku – do not cry. Go home, make yourself delicious food;
u'shetu mamtakim – drink milkshakes, sweet drinks;
V'shilchu manot – send gifts to your friends;
Kadosh hayom la'Adoneinu – it's a holy day unto G-d.
V'al tei'atzeivu – don't be sad;
Ki chedvat Hashem hi ma'uzchem – the delight of G-d is your strength.
How do we understand this? What is he telling them?
What Is the True Meaning of Rosh Hashanah?
It seems like there's only two possibilities here. One possibility is that Nechemiah doesn't believe it's judgment day, he just doesn't. Or, Nechemiah does believe it's judgment day but his idea of judgment day is very different than what we might have expected.
I think that the latter possibility is in fact the case. Nechemiah understood that this is judgment day, but his idea of what judgment day is, is a day to be celebrated not to be dreaded.
If we can understand what he understood, maybe for the first time we wouldn't dread the day also. Maybe for the first time we could discern in the day some real meaning that touched our lives rather than simply the awful fear of brimstone and hellfire. Join me on a journey to try to discover the Rosh Hashanah we never knew was there.