Fear and Joy: The Experience of Rosh Ha-shana

  • Rav David Brofsky

 Rosh Ha-shana in Tanakh 

Rosh Ha-shana, as it appears in Scripture, is somewhat mysterious.  The festival is mentioned twice: once in Sefer Vayikra, and again in Sefer Bamidbar.

In the latter (29:1), the Torah commands: 

And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a holy convocation (mikra kodesh) for you; you shall do no servile work; it shall be a day of terua for you. 

While the celebration of Rosh Ha-shana does not entail the pilgrimage component of the other festivals, it shares an issur melakha (prohibition of labor) as well as the title of “mikra kodesh.  The uniqueness of Rosh Ha-shana seems to lie in its being a “yom terua,” “a day of terua,” the ululating sound that is variously described in Scripture as emanating from the shofar, trumpets, or human throats.   

Similarly, the Torah teaches elsewhere (Vayikra 23:23-25): 

And God spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, saying: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a solemn rest for you, a terua memorial (zikhron terua), a holy convocation.  You shall do no servile work, and you shall bring a fire-offering to God.’“ 

Here too, Rosh Ha-shana is described by the term “terua.  While our Sages understand it to refer to the mitzva of shofar, the Torah uses this term to describe the day itself.  In what way does “terua” characterize the day?  What does blowing a shofar or trumpet symbolize?  Throughout Tanakh, we can identify two distinct, yet apparently contradictory descriptions of these sounds — and of Rosh Ha-shana itself. 

On the one hand, the prophet Tzefanya (1:10, 14-16), describing the horrors to befall the Jewish people, relates: 

And on that day, says God, “Hark…  The great day of God is near; it is near and hastens greatly, the sound of the day of God, wherein the mighty man cries bitterly.  That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of waste and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, A DAY OF SHOFAR AND TERUA, against the fortified cities, and against the high towers.” 

The terms “shofar” and “terua” are clearly employed to depict alarm and distress.   

Similarly, Amos (3:6) describes the blowing of the shofar and the people’s response. 

Shall a shofar be blown in the city, and the people not tremble?  Shall evil befall a city, and God has not done it? 

Indeed, when the Jewish people go out to war, they are commanded to make this sound (Bamidbar 10:9): 

And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound a terua with the trumpets; and you shall be remembered before Lord your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies. 

These verses strongly imply that “a day of shofar and terua” is a day of alarm, crisis, and distress.   

On the other hand, the trumpets are also sounded on festive days, as the next verse notes: 

And on the day of your joy, and on your appointed seasons, and on your new moons, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt-offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be for you as a memorial before your God: I am Lord your God. 

Similarly, we find in Nechemya (8:2, 9-12) a description of Ezra’s joyous reading of the Torah on Rosh Ha-shana. 

And Ezra the Priest brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month. 

And Nechemya, who was the governor; and Ezra the Priest, the Scribe; and the Levites that taught the people, said to all the people: “THIS DAY IS HOLY TO LORD YOUR GOD; NEITHER MOURN NOR WEEP!” — for all the people were weeping, as they heard the words of the Torah.  Then he said to them: “Go on your way: eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; FOR THIS DAY IS HOLY TO OUR GOD; DO NOT BE SAD, FOR GOD’S GLADNESS IS YOUR STRENGTH.”  So the Levites stilled all the people, saying: “Hold your peace, for the day is holy; do not be sad.”  And all the people went their way to eat, to drink, to send portions, and to make great joy; because they had understood the words that were said to them.” 

Nechemya commands the people to overcome their grief over their failure to keeps the Torah; instead, it is time to celebrate, because “this day”, Rosh Ha-shana, “is holy to our God.” 

In summary, Tanakh seems to portray Rosh Ha-shana as both “a day of terua” — of fear and apprehension — and a day of great joy.    

Hallel and Simchat Yom Tov on Rosh Ha-shana 

This apparent uncertainty, as to whether Rosh Ha-shana is a day of alarm and distress or one of happiness and joy, continues into the halakhic literature.

The Gemara (Arakhin 10b) instructs us to recite Hallel on the Festivals and the eight days of Chanukka.  (We have discussed the scope of this mitzva elsewhere, as well as the nature of different types of Hallel.)  The Gemara then questions why Hallel is not mandated on other special days, including Rosh Chodesh, Chol Ha-mo’ed Pesach and Purim.  Since Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Ha-kippurim seem to meet the requirements for Hallel — being an “appointed season” with a prohibition of labor — why are they excluded? 

Rabbi Abbahu said, “Is it seemly for the King to be sitting on His Throne of Judgment, with the Books of Life and Death open before Him, while the people sing joyful praises to Him?” 

It seems that the Gemara assumes, in its question, that it would certainly be appropriate, if not obligatory, to recite the joyous prayer of Hallel on Rosh Ha-shana.  The Gemara’s answer, however, is somewhat unclear.  Does the Gemara mean to deny Rosh Ha-shana any aspect of joy or happiness, or merely to temper it by omitting Hallel 

Interestingly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla Ve-Chanukka 3:6) writes: 

However, we do not recite Hallel on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Ha-kippurim, as they are days of repentance (teshuva), fear (yira) and dread, NOT DAYS OF EXCESSIVE JOY (simcha yeteira). 

The Rambam describes Rosh Ha-shana as a day of repentance, characterized by “fear and dread,” yet he still implies that there is a mitzva to rejoice! 

Indeed, regarding the commandment of “simchat yom tov,” “rejoicing on the festival,” as well, the Rishonim disagree as to whether the mitzva applies on Rosh Ha-shana.   

The Torah (Devarim 16:14) instructs us: “Ve-samachta be-chaggekha,” “And you shall rejoice on your holiday.”  The Rishonim debate whether this mitzva is limited to the consumption of the shalmei simcha, the joyous peace-offerings brought on the Shalosh Regalim (the Three Pilgrimage Festivals) for the purpose of rejoicing, or whether it extends to other expressions of happiness as well.   

Tosafot (Mo’ed Katan 14, s.v. Aseh de-yachid), for example, assume that the obligation of simchat yom tov may only be fulfilled through the consumption of shalmei simcha, and they therefore conclude that the obligation nowadays, in the absence of the Temple, must be rabbinic.  

On the other hand, the Rambam (Hilkhot Yom tov 6:17-18) writes: 

A person is obligated to rejoice on these days — he, his children, his wife, his grandchildren, and all those who have joined his family – as the Torah states, “And you shall rejoice on your holiday.”  Even though the Torah is referring to the obligation to offer and consume peace-offerings (the shalmei simcha), INCLUDED IN THIS OBLIGATION TO REJOICE IS FOR A PERSON AND HIS ENTIRE FAMILY TO REJOICE IN THE MANNER THAT IS APPROPRIATE FOR HIM.  How is this practiced? One distributes parched grain, nuts, and delicacies to the children.  One purchases, depending on what he can afford, clothes and beautiful jewelry for the women in the family.  The men eat meat and drink wine, as there is no rejoicing without meat and wine. 

The Rambam expands the parameters of the mitzva of simchat yom tov to include other expressions of joy as well.  Clearly, Tosafot cannot maintain that the obligation to rejoice on festivals applies on Rosh Ha-shana, as it has no obligation to offer shalmei simcha!  However, the Rambam, who expands the definition of simchat yom tov, might apply this mitzva to Rosh Ha-shana.  Indeed, as we saw above, he describes Rosh Ha-shana as a day without EXCESSIVE happiness, but with happiness nonetheless.  Furthermore, he implies elsewhere (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17) that the mitzva applies to festivals other than Pesach and Sukkot, seemingly referring to Shavuot, Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur! 

Interestingly, Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gunzberg (1695–1785), in his Sha’agat Aryeh (102), also discusses this issue, and he concludes that there must be a mitzva of simchat yom tov on Rosh Ha-shana since one is allowed to perform certain types of labor necessary for producing food (“okhel nefesh”) on Rosh Ha-shana.  If not for the commandment to rejoice, he assumes, it would be prohibited to cook on Rosh Ha-shana.   

Mourning on Rosh Ha-shana 

The Mishna (Mo’ed Katan 19a) discusses which holidays pre-empt the first seven and first thirty days of mourning, known as “shiva” and “sheloshim” respectively, observed after the burial of a close relative.  Rabban Gamli’el and the Chakhamim argue whether only the Shalosh Regalim cancel shiva, or even Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur do so. 

Rav Achai Gaon, in his She’iltot (Parashat Chayyei Sarah 15), explains that Rabban Gamli’el, who rules that “Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur are akin to the Festivals,” maintains that the commandment of simchat yom tov must also apply on these days.  He clearly assumes that it is the mitzva to rejoice which cancels shiva.   

The Ramban (Mo’ed Katan 24b) also derives from the verse in Nechemya, cited above, that on Rosh Ha-shana there is “simcha and a prohibition to be sad,” and therefore the observances of shiva and sheloshim are halted by Rosh Ha-shana.  Rav Soloveitchik, in his Shiurim Le-zekher Abba Mori, addresses this issue as well.  The Shulchan Arukh (YD 399:6) rules in accordance with Rabban Gamli’el, that Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur DO cancel shiva and sheloshim.   

Fasting on Rosh Ha-shana 

Even regarding one’s demeanor while eating on Rosh Ha-shana, we find this halakhic ambivalence.  The Shulchan Arukh (OC 597:1) writes: 

They eat, drink and rejoice, and they do not fast on Rosh Ha-shana and Shabbat Shuva.  However, they should not eat to satiety, in order that they not become lightheaded — that the fear of God should be upon their faces (cf. Shemot 20:16). 

The Mishna Berura (597:1) explains that although Rosh Ha-shana is a “day of judgment,” the commandment of simcha obligates one to eat and drink, as stated in Nechemya. 

The Rema (597:3), however, cites the Terumat Ha-deshen (245), who asserts that some consider it “a mitzva to fast on Rosh Ha-shana.”  The Tur and Beit Yosef cite the relevant opinions.  Furthermore, the Magen Avraham, in his introductory comments to this chapter, cites the Bach, who relates that Rav Shelomo Luria (1510-1574), known as the Maharshal, would not eat fish, which he especially enjoyed, on Rosh Ha-shana, as he wished to restrict himself in some way.  He also cites a discussion regarding the propriety of eating meat and wearing nice, festive clothing on Rosh Ha-shana. 

Still, the Mordekhai (Rosh Ha-shana 708) cites Rav Nachshon Gaon, who prohibits fasting on Rosh Ha-shana, due to its inherent simcha, and the Taz (1) and Mishna Berura (12) concur. 

Tefilla on Rosh Ha-shana 

The question of the nature and experience of Rosh Ha-shana may also impact upon both the text and recitation of the day’s prayers.

Regarding the text of the Shemoneh Esreh and Kiddush of Rosh Ha-shana, the Rosh (Rosh Ha-shana 4:14), and subsequently his son, the Tur (582), bring different customs.  They cite Rav Sar-Shalom, Rav Paltoi Gaon and Rav Shemu’el ben Chofni, who report that in the two major Babylonian yeshivot they would say on Rosh Ha-shana the standard Shalosh Regalim formula, thanking God for giving us “mo’adim le-simcha, chaggim u-zmannim le-sason,” “appointed seasons for rejoicing, holidays and times for jubilation.”  The Tur concludes, however, that the custom is in accordance with Rav Hai Gaon, who omits the references to simcha.  Clearly, they are debating the very character of Rosh Ha-shana. 

Interestingly, the Posekim discuss even the manner in which one should pray on Rosh Ha-shana.  The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (129:2), for example, records that some are accustomed to praying the silent, standing prayers of Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur while bowing, with their heads lowered.  He personally recommends praying upright, with a “bent heart and with tears.”  

Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Da’at 2:69) also discusses this issue: should one pray with happiness and elation, or out of “fear of judgment,” while crying?  He cites Rav Chayyim Vital, who testifies that the Arizal would cry during his Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur prayers.  Alternatively, he notes that the Vilna Gaon (Ma’aseh Rav 207) maintains that one should not cry during one’s prayers on Rosh Ha-shana and that the cantor should lead the prayers with a traditional Festival melody.  He concludes that one who is naturally overcome by tears may cry.  However, one should not bring oneself to weep; rather, one should pray with happiness and great focus.   


Rosh Ha-shana surely emerges as a confusing holiday; from the Sages to the later Acharonim, our greatest minds have grappled with its nature and experience.  

It would seem that this confusion is no accident.  In fact, all service of God, as King David relates, reflects this dialectic.  In his Tehillim, we find both “Serve God with joy; come before His presence with singing” (100:2), and Serve God with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (2:11).           

Midrash Tehillim (100, s.v. Ivdu) asks: 

“Serve God with joy” — another verse says, “Serve God with fear.”  If [one serves] with joy, how is it with fear? And if [one serves] with fear, how is it with joy? 

The midrash records different resolutions to this quandary.  On the one hand, Rav Acha suggests that one should serve God in this world with fear, in order to reach the next world with happiness.  Similarly, Rabbi Aivu distinguishes between tefilla, during which joy is the primary feeling, as opposed to other activities, during which fear dominates.  On the other hand, the midrash suggests another type of solution: “‘With joy’ – is it possible without fear as well? The verse therefore teaches, ‘with fear.’” 

In other words, joy and fear do not necessarily contradict each other; rather, they are crucial and complementary components of our service of God. 

When we discuss the different reasons behind the mitzva of shofar, we will note that Rosh Ha-shana is “yom harat olam,” “the day of the world’s creation,” during which we coronate God as King over humanity.  Standing before God and accepting upon ourselves His service inspires not only feelings of fear and trepidation, but feelings of joy and happiness as well.  

These seemingly contradictory feelings are natural for one who truly experiences and internalizes Rosh Ha-shana and sets the proper tone for the entire year, during which our service of God vacillates between simcha and yira, and at times is even comprised of both.