We are discussing the “when and why” of Rosh Hashanah.
Here’s what we’ve learned so far:
There is a long-ago dispute about when the world was created. We follow the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer: it was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul.
This date is a full five days before the day the Torah defines as the beginning of the year, Rosh Hashanah.
The significance of our Rosh Hashanah, the first of the month of Tishrei, is that Man was created on that day, the last day of open Creation.
Hashem created the universe as an act of pure kindness, yet its crowning achievement will be the Honor brought to Hashem’s Name.
Our mission in this world is somehow connected to the concept of Rosh Hashanah.
We are left wondering: how is the “birthday of the world,” now understood as the creation of Man, related to Rosh Hashanah being a “Day of Judgement?”
It seems that Hashem judges Mankind specifically on the anniversary of its creation. Why?
On a basic level, one might say that it’s simply the most appropriate point of demarcation. In this line of thinking, the equation could go something like this: (Step One:) Hashem wants to judge Man once a year, at an exact juncture. (Step Two:) The only fair and sensible way to begin this process was on the one-year anniversary of Adam being created; this way, there was a judgment initially rendered after exactly one year- no more and no less. (Step Three:) This formula is used for every judgement thereafter, so that Mankind continued to be judged in precisely such intervals.
Now, none of this is actually wrong. However, it’s not completely accurate either. This is because the above approach makes two tricky assumptions:
- The first Day of Judgement was indeed one year after Creation;
- A system of Judgement in turn necessitates a period of time that will thus be judged. In other words, Once Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, decided to judge the world in certain intervals, a unit of one (exact) year was chosen as the testing period, the amount of time given as fodder for the upcoming Judgement.
In truth, however, both of these presumptions are suspect.
For starters, the first Judgement actually occurred not on the first anniversary of Man’s creation, but in fact on the first day of his existence; God ‘sat in judgement’ of Adam HaRishon just hours after creating him- after Adam and Chava sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Here’s an excerpt from the Talmud’s account of the day Adam was created:
In the ninth hour he was commanded not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge; in the tenth hour he sinned; in the eleventh hour he was judged; and in the twelfth hour he was banished from the Garden of Eden…
-Gemara Sanhedrin 38b
Now that we see that each Rosh Hashanah is in fact a double anniversary of the first day, recalling not only Adam’s creation, but also the Judgement he faced on that fateful first day, the relationship between Man and Judgement may be understood in a different light. Instead of simply saying that Judgement is held on the past existence of a person, the previous year, we may now add another layer: Judgement is held on the birth, on the recreation, of a person.
Rav Chaim Friedlander zt”l and Rav Shimshon Pincus zt”l would explain Rosh Hashanah in these terms as well. If you think about it, it is a bit odd that our yearly Day of Judgement is actually on the first day of the next year. Intuitively, we would have expected the judgement to be held at the very end of the year in question- on the twenty-ninth day of Elul. The subsequent day, the first of Tishrei, would then begin a fresh slate on the new calendar. According to what we are learning here, though, it makes a lot of sense. Adam HaRishon was judged on ‘Rosh Hashanah’, and was given a totally new life. He and Chava had been warned by Hashem that eating from the fruit of that tree would bring death to the world- and this consequence immediately set in upon their transgression, as they and their descendants would all eventually die. Moreover, Hashem cursed the earth, punishing Mankind in the process: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread.” The world was suddenly a radically changed place, requiring completely different ‘tools’ in order to navigate the new landscape, to succeed in an altered existence. Adam, Chava and their progeny would now spend their time and energy differently in sustaining themselves- both physically and spiritually.
Rav Friedlander writes in his Sifsei Chayim that Hashem’s judgement of Adam thus gave him the fresh challenge- a consequence, or punishment, of his actions- and also the wherewithal to follow Hashem’s will going forward.*
This then, is why our judgement is precisely on the first day of the new calendar: because Hashem is deciding whether to give us new existence. Just as Adam started anew (while still on the day of his literal creation), so do we, thousands of years later, wait to see if we will merit new life.
In the same vein, Rabbi Pincus teaches that on Rosh Hashanah the verdict is actually whether we will be ‘renewed.’ We know that Hashem continually re-creates the world, as He provides every creation with its life, energy and properties, without interruption. On Rosh Hashanah, then, Hashem decides whether He will “renew our contracts,” and indeed continue to sustain us, or whether He will simply stop doing so. Again, this conceptualization speaks to the “birthday” of Man, and to the ‘rebirth’ of Adam and all subsequent generations. Rosh Hashanah is thus the day on which we ask God for life- beseeching Him to continue to sustain us. Part and parcel of this request, as we now know, is that we are granted life so that we may serve Hashem.
During the Days of Repentance, and in particular on Yom Kippur, we express remorse for our sins, and commit to a better plan for following Hashem’s will. On Rosh Hashanah we began the process by affirming that Hashem is our King, and that we are here to serve Him. However much we want to live, and as much as God does give life with His mercy, we recognized that we are here to bring honor to His Name. At this point, we can focus specifically on the corrections we must make in order to come close to God once more. We pray to Hashem for forgiveness, and tell Him- and ourselves- that we want to live… because He wants us to live. We want to live the way we were meant to live. We want to fulfill our potential. We want to ‘repay’ Hashem for all the kindness, for all the patience and mercy, that He has shown us until now.
Please, Hashem, give us life!
May we all return to Hashem, and merit an amazing year.
* We did not discuss whether Adam and Chava were in fact forgiven for their sin! While this seems to be a very wide-ranging issue, on the surface we know that they engaged in repentance to an incredibly high degree, and that they went on to live extremely long and holy lives. True, they still did die, but that was more of a ‘consequence’ for the effect of sin on the world than it was a punishment. Their punishment seems to have been at least mitigated, if not totally done away with. For now, we can just appreciate the effort these righteous people put into returning to Hashem, and that He surely did not turn them away empty-handed.
G’mar chatimah tovah!
Elli Schwarcz is an alumnus of the Toras Moshe, Ner Israel, and Carteret Yeshivos, and has been involved in Jewish outreach for almost 15 years. He is a Hebrew School and English Language Arts teacher, and has a Master’s Degree in Counseling from Johns Hopkins University. Of all his pursuits, Elli most enjoys teaching high-level Jewish thought and Talmud to teenage boys, exposing them to the beauty and wisdom of their heritage while highlighting their own ability to engage in advanced Torah learning. Elli lives in Lakewood, New Jersey, with his wife and children.