Rosh Hashana – The Jewish Celebration of a Cosmic Event

  • Rav Yair Kahn



Rosh Hashana encompasses multiple themes, as is indicated by the special prayer that our Sages authored for the Mussaf service. This tefilla contains three central berachot, as opposed to the single blessing found in parallel teffilot. The complexity of Rosh Hashana makes the task of writing a short article on the subject a difficult one. Instead of beginning by exploring the day's various themes, I would like to start with a more basic question, which impacts on the the place Rosh Hashana occupies within the context of the Jewish holidays and the way we as Jews should relate to it.


Rosh Hashana is different from all other holidays of the year. All the other holidays relate to a unique Jewish experience. They record events of dramatic religious and historic significance: the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah, the giving of the second luchot, and the sukkot in the wilderness (whether real or divine). Some are also related to the agricultural cycle typical of life in Eretz Yisrael and the religious response demanded at such times. The common denominater of all the other holidays is a singular connection to the Jewish experience, which leads to a holiday specific to the Jewish people. In sharp contrast, Rosh Hashana, which according to tradition commemorates the beginning of the cosmic order, is of universal significance. Shouldn’t all of creation join in celebrating the formation of the world and proclamation of Hashem as king? According to tradition, Rosh Hashana is also a day during which all mankind is judged. Shouldn’t all mankind therefore be involved in repentance and prayer?


It is possible to suggest that Rosh Hashana should, in fact, be commemorated by all of mankind, but only the Children of Israel, who received the Torah and became aware of the significance of Rosh Hashana, are privileged to celebrate it. However, if this is the case, Jews celebrate Rosh Hashana not as Jews, but rather as creations of Hashem. It would thus no be accurate to call Rosh Hashana a Jewish holiday in the same sense as holidays that relate to the unique experience of Am Yisrael.


On the other hand, perhaps there is an aspect of Rosh Hashana that does relate uniquely to the Jewish people. Let us consider the korbanot that the Torah prescribes for Rosh Hashana. In parshat Pinchas, the Torah tells us that on Rosh Hashana, "one ox, one ram, and seven complete one-year-old sheep" should be offered. Aside from Rosh Hashana, this list of korbanot appears only on Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret. Regarding Shemini Atzeret, which follows the seven days of Sukkot during which seventy oxen were sacrificed, the gemara in Sukka (55b) quotes R. Elazar: 


To what do these seventy oxen correspond? They correspond to the seventy nations of the world. Why is one single ox brought [on Shemini Atzeret]? To represent a singular nation. It is analogous to a human king who said to his servants to arrange a huge feast. On the last day of the feast, he said to his beloved, "Make a small meal so that I shall enjoy your company."


According to R. Elazar, the single ox sacrificed on Shemini Atzeret represents Israel, a singular nation, in sharp contrast to the rest of Sukkot, in which the seventy oxen correspond to all the nations of the world. In other words, the "par echad" indicates a private and intimate relationship unique to Hashem and the People of Israel.


We can understand why this korban, symbolic of the intimate relationship between the Almighty and Israel, is also relevant on Yom Kippur. After all, Yom Kippur is rooted in the penitence awarded to the Children of Israel following the sin of the golden calf, when they received the second tablets. Similarly, each year on Yom Kippur, the Jewish People are capable of achieving penitence. This potential for penitence following the universal judgement of Rosh Hashana is limited to the Jewish People and is based on their ability to achieve purity grounded on the unique and intimate relationship with Hashem. This idea is stated explicitly in the Torah: “For on this day [Yom Kippur], He will forgive you, to purify you from all your iniquities; before Hashem you shall be purified” (Vayikra 16:30). In fact, the central part of the Temple service of Yom Kippur, aimed at achieving forgiveness for Klal Yisrael, involves the entry of the High Priest to the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, a service which has no parallel on any other occasion.    


At first glance, this korban seems totally inappropriate for Rosh Hashana. As we noted, Rosh Hashana corresponds to a cosmic event, not a Jewish one. This observation leads us to the conclusion that for some reason, the Jew celebrates Rosh Hashana in a unique manner, specifically as a Jew, not only as a human being.


Before attempting to determine what the unique Jewish angle on Rosh Hashana is, let us consider another related issue. Why do we feast on Rosh Hashana? Isn’t it a day of judgement? Wouldn’t fasting be a more appropriate response? And yet, we find in Nechemia (8:10) that the people are told to feast and drink, “for today is holy to the Lord.” How can finite man rejoice on Rosh Hashana when standing in judgement before Hashem? What exactly are the Jews called upon to celebrate?


I believe that the answer to this question is rooted in Rosh Hashana’s complex nature, which we noted at the beginning of this lecture. Rosh Hashana, which on the one hand relates to the beginning of the cosmic order, is not intended merely to remember ancient history. The day in which creation came into being is also the day on which the reign of Heaven was given fuller expression. After all, what is the meaning of being King of the entire universe when no universe exists? Therefore, every year on Rosh Hashana there is an obligation for man to recognize the divine rule. Moreover, Rosh Hashana forms an opportunity for man to proclaim Hashem as ultimate King.


Of course, the divine reign is not only political, but ethical as well. Hashem does not only sit on a royal throne, but also on the seat of judgement. Rosh Hashana, therefore, is also the day of din, judgment. From a divine perspective, these two themes, reign and judgment, are complimentary, but from a human perspective they are contradictory. Should man rejoice and celebrate the coronation of the Almighty, or should he fast to do teshuva and appeal to divine grace in anticipation of the great judgment?


The Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashana expresses a heroic collective decision to defer personal and national concerns and needs and prefer to rejoice in the crowning of the Almighty. Moreover, the collective acceptance of Hashem’s reign raises the sovereignty of God to a higher level. The Vilna Gaon notes that there is a distinction between two seemingly synonymous terms, “melekh” and “moshel.” When Yosef’s brothers responded to Yosef’s dreams, they said, “Ha-malokh timlokh aleinu, im mashol timshol banu” – "Will you be king over us? Will you rule over us?" (Bereishit 37:8). The Vilna Gaon explains that the term “moshel” refers to rule that is unwillingly imposed. The term “melekh,” on the other hand, refers to a rule that is accepted by the subjects, as we find in Teffilat Aravit: “U-malkhuto bi-ratzon kiblu aleihem” – " His malkhut was willingly accepted by them." In other words, even though Hashem’s dominion over all His creatures is absolute, unless His rule is accepted, He is only a “moshel.” When Am Yisrael voluntarily accept Hashem’s rule, He becomes a “melekh.” Thus, we read in Tehillim (22:29), “Ki la-Hashem ha-melukha u-moshel ba-goyim” – "For Hashem serves as melekh and moshel over the nations."


Thus, despite the universal roots of Rosh Hashana, there is a singular aspect to the Jewish celebration. Perhaps it is for this reason that the korban mussaf of one single ox is an appropriate one for Rosh Hashana. After all, it is one singular nation that puts aside the fear of the judgment day in order to rejoice in the coronation of the Almighty and to establish Hashem as “melekh.”


However, there is another element of Rosh Hashana that is unique to the Jewish People. While Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, on which Hashem relates to all of creation with the Divine attribute of "din," justice, with respect to Am Yisrael, this attribute is tempered by the attribute of “rachamim,” mercy (see commentary of the Ramban on Vayikra 23:24). It is possible that these two unique aspects are interrelated. Perhaps Hashem treats the Jewish People with mercy because we participate in the coronation of the Almighty as a community. Maybe the special relationship shown to Am Yisrael by Hashem is due to the fact that it is Am Yisrael who establish Him as “melekh” on this world. 


In the shofar service, we quote a verse from Tehillim (89:16): "Ashrei ha-am yodei terua, Hashem be-or panekha yihaleikhun," "Fortunate is the nation that knows how to blow the shofar, Hashem, in the light of Your countenance will they walk." Why does the psalmist refer to Am Yisrael as the nation that "knows to blow the shofar?" Are we a fortunate nation because we possess the technical ability to blow the shofar? Is the Psalmist referring to special musical aptitude? Obviously, the reference is to something much more profound.


Based on what we have said above, I would suggest that the knowledge of blowing the shofar is a reference to the collective acceptance of Hashem as melekh, as it says: “With trumpets and the call of the shofar blow in the presence the melekh Hashem” (Tehillim 98:6). Thus, the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana enters the inner sanctum (see Rosh Hashana 26a), and an intimate bond beween the divine Melekh and His loyal subjects is formed. It is this ability that invokes the light of Hashem’s countenance, as it were, which is a symbolic reference to Hashem’s attribute of mercy.


In concluding, let us note that in the Rosh Hashana service we go beyond accepting Hashem as King. We pray for a time in the future when the entire universe will finally recognize Hashem’s rule. On that great day, Hashem will indeed be melekh over the entire universe: "Vi-haya Hashem li-melech al kol ha-aretz; ba-yom ha-hu yihiye Hashem echad u-shemo echad," "And Hashem will be melekh over the entire land; on that day Hashem will be one and His name will be one” (Zecharia 14, 9).