Mishne Torah 58.
(photo credit: Ron Peled)
Rosh Hashana comes early this year – or perhaps we should say that September
comes late. This coming week we will begin to observe a period of time that has
come to be called the Days of Awe, hayamim hanora’im. What is the implication of
the term “awe”? In popular Hebrew parlance today it seems to mean something
terrible (ayom v’nora). On the other hand American slang has taken “awesome” to
mean something extraordinarily wonderful and fantastic. Which is it?
the term Days of Awe does not appear in the Torah – for that matter the name
Rosh Hashana isn’t there either – it might be useful to see how nora is used
there. The first and most well-known usage is in the story of Jacob’s dream,
When he awakes after having seen the Lord, he is filled with awe and says, “How
awesome – nora – is this place! This is none other than the abode of God, and
that is the gateway to heaven.” Jacob is not really afraid. He has no reason to
be, since God has promised to watch over him and care for him.
also had an experience of seeing God. In that vision, he hears the angels
proclaim.”Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts!” (6:3). Those two words – nora
awesome – and kadosh
– holy – often appear together and seem to have a similar
meaning. For example, “His name is holy and awesome” (Psalms 111:10) and in the
prayers of the Days of Awe we say, “Holy are You and awesome is Your name.”
Moses defines God as “the great, the mighty and the awesome God” (Deuteronomy
10:17), a description that has become an important part of our prayers,
appearing, among other places, toward the beginning of every Amida.
as it is difficult to give an exact definition of the word “holy,” so it is
difficult to explain “awesome.” They are both attempts to encompass what it
means to be in the presence of the divine. For Jacob, the reaction was not
Rather he was awestruck. It was an amazing and a wonderful
Taken in that way, these are days of wonder, of experiencing
the awesome presence of the divine in a positive way.
As I mentioned in a
previous column, some have felt that these days are yamim nora’im
in the sense
of days of fear because they are days of judgment.
This idea of God
sitting in judgment at this time on all of humanity is found first in the Mishna
(1:2) when it describes God as a commander who views all of his
troops as they parade before him.
That simple description does not
elaborate and does not speak of fear. That element was brought into our liturgy
by the third century Babylonian amora Rav in his introduction to the Remembrance
Verses (Zichronot) of the Musaf Amida. “All creatures will be visited on this
day, to remember them for life or death,” and the destiny of all nations is then
determined, “which for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger and which
But the truly terrifying description is found in the piyut
, written much later, probably in the Byzantine period, by an
anonymous poet. He made use of the Mishna and of Rav’s prayer and borrowed from
various biblical and apocalyptic works describing the great day of final
judgment in order to picture the yearly day of judgment, Rosh
The prophet Malachi had called that day “the great and awesome –
– of the Lord” (3:23) and the poet says, “We shall ascribe holiness to this
day, for it is awesome – nora
– and terrible – ayom
.” He has now redefined
“awesome” to truly mean something fearful, and describes how all creatures,
including the angels, are filled with fear and trembling on this day because on
it is determined “who shall live and who shall die.” And any cantor worth his
salt will make certain that the congregation is struck with fear and trembling
when hearing these words.
Before we succumb to the idea that Days of Awe
really means “fearsome days,” however, we should remember that the main
designation of Rosh Hashana according to the sages is Yom Hazikaron – the Day of
This is based on the phrase in Leviticus 23:24 zichron
, best translated as “a reminder by blasting the shofar,” indicating
sounding the shofar to cause God to remember us for good and to fulfill all the
divine promises made to our ancestors and to us. Just as God remembered Sarah
and fulfilled His promise to her, granting her a son, and just as God remembered
Noah in the ark and rescued him to renew humankind and civilization, so shall
God remember us for good and for blessing on these yamim nora’im
, Days of Awe
and wonder.The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti
Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.