Rejoicing and trembling
The joy of Rosh Hashana nullifies ‘aveilut’, the customs of mourning, just like any festival would.
Shofar blown at Western Wall Photo: Nir Elias/Reuters
Rosh Hashana brings with it a strange mix of emotions. The day is almost
Even the melodies of the chazzan (cantor) cascade up and
down, like an emotional rollercoaster. The piercing sound of the shofar
We evoke the fear of the day and exclaim: “and from the fright
of the judgment my soul trembles,” “Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror
will seize them... behold it is the Day of Judgment.”
And then we wish
each other a gut yontef, and go home to dip apples in honey and eat a festive
meal! How should we feel on Rosh Hashana? Is it a day of fear and trembling? A
day of judgement? Or is it a festival? The answer is all of the above. And this
dialectic is expressed in the halachic literature. After discussing the
recitation of the Hallel on festivals, the Talmud concludes that it is
inappropriate to recite Hallel on Rosh Hashana: “The ministering angels asked
the Holy One, Blessed Be He, ‘Master of the World, why does Israel not sing
praise before you on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur?’ “He said to them, ‘Is it
possible that the King sits on his Throne of Judgement and Israel should sing?’”
(Arachin 10b; Rosh Hashana 32b).
We are filled with uncertainty and doubt
concerning our fate. How can we sing Hallel? How can we even eat? In fact,
Rabbeinu Asher, at the end of his commentary to Chapter four of Tractate Rosh
Hashana, discusses the custom of fasting on Rosh Hashana. He ultimately
concludes that Rosh Hashana is a festival and fasting is inappropriate. (See
also Mordechai to Tractate Rosh Hashana, Chapter 1; Tur Orach Chayim 597 and
Beit Yosef, ad loc.; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 597:1 and Mishnah Brurah, ad
loc.) Many authorities point to a passage in Nechemiah, which seems to capture
the appropriate attitude toward Rosh Hashana. The story goes as follows: On the
first of the seventh month (Rosh Hashana), Ezra reads the Torah publicly for
those who ascended from Babylon.
They are shaken when they realize just
how foreign the words of the Torah are and how far they have strayed from it.
They begin to cry and mourn. Ezra, Nechemiah and the Levites tell the people:
“‘Today is a holy day to Hashem your God; do not mourn and do not weep.’ For all
of the people were weeping as they heard the words of the Torah. He said to
them, ‘Go eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to those who
have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our God.
Do not be sad; the
joy of Hashem is your strength’” (Nechemiah 8:9-10).
It would seem from
this passage that Rosh Hashana should be celebrated, like all festivals, with
It even suggests that in doing so, we provide God with
In the Torah, Rosh Hashana is included together with all of the
other festivals, and just like them it is considered a “holy convocation”
(Vayikra, Chapter 23).
It is even called a festival (Psalm 81:4; Rosh
Hashana 18a; Succah 55a; Arachin 10b; Sotah 41a). In fact, some Geonim record
the custom of incorporating the festival liturgy into the Rosh Hashana Amida
prayer (See Rabbeinu Asher, loc cit).
In addition, the joy of Rosh
Hashana nullifies aveilut, the customs of mourning, just like any festival would
(See Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 399:6).
But the potential for hubris is
tempered. While many authorities instruct us to “eat, drink and rejoice,” we are
warned not to go overboard, as indulging too much doesn’t befit the seriousness
of the day. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 597:1, citing the Agudah).
while we wear our nice clothes, some suggest we should not wear our finest silk
or embroidered clothing, settling instead for simple white garments (Turei Zahav
to Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 581).
The Psalmist captures the emotions
of Rosh Hashana when he instructs us to “rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11).
How is that accomplished? When one stands before Hashem there is tremendous
fear, but also tremendous joy. We relate to Hashem both as our King (malkeinu)
and as our Father (avinu).
Rosh Hashana is a day filled with uncertainty
and doubt; fear and trembling.
But it is also a festival. And in
celebrating it as a festival, we express our confidence; our trust in God. A
beautiful passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi expresses this confidence: “Who is
like this Nation? The practice of the world is when one knows that he is
awaiting judgment – he wears black, wraps himself in black, grows his beard –
for he does not know what the verdict will be. But Israel is not like that. They
wear white, wrap themselves in white, trim their beards, eat, drink and rejoice
– for they know that the Holy One Blessed Be He will be merciful and forgive
them” (Rosh Hashana 1:3).
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach told the following
story: One day, a man was riding the subway on his way home from work. Looking
around the subway car, his eyes met those of a woman and he was instantly
He knew that she was his beshert, the woman destined to be his
bride. This was fate.
But just as he summoned up the courage to approach
her, the train stopped at 34th Street, Herald Square. Before he could reach her,
she exited and the doors closed on him. He got off at the next stop and ran up
the stairs, knocking over anyone in his way. He pushed through the crowd and
opened the door of a cab. Ignoring the couple waiting to enter the cab, he
yelled at the driver, “take me to 34th Street, now!” As he entered the taxi, a
police officer who had witnessed the commotion apprehended the man and began to
question him. He tried to explain what was happening, but the cop wouldn’t let
him go. The man tried to run off but soon found himself in the back of the squad
car – arrested for creating a public disturbance and resisting arrest. He spent
that night in jail kicking himself and wondering if he would ever see the woman
from the subway.
The next morning, he had to appear before the
He was devastated. When his name was called, he looked up at the
judge. Smiling back at him from behind the bench was the woman from the
Indeed, Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgement – but we know the
The writer lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches Torah inspired by the
Land and its People. His forthcoming book is Return Again: The Argument for