Parashat Rosh Hashanah: Tears and laughter

Not only is Rosh Hashana "the head" of the Jewish year, but it is also the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance. Indeed, many of our sages considered the two days of Rosh Hashana as days of sadness rather than rejoicing.

September 20, 2006 10:27
apples honey 88

apples honey 88. (photo credit: )


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Not only is Rosh Hashana "the head" of the Jewish year, but it is also the beginning of the Ten Days of Repentance. Indeed, many of our sages considered the two days of Rosh Hashana as days of sadness rather than rejoicing. The fundamental character of this opening festival has to do with whether or not an individual may choose to fast on it. Rabbi Sar Shalom Gaon maintained that one may fast and recite dirges and penitential prayers on Rosh Hashana. Rabbi Tsemah Gaon concurs with this opinion, and in both of the great Torah academies in Babylon - in Sura as well as in Pumbedita - permission to fast was granted to those students who wished to do so. However, the accepted, and now normative, opinion is that one may not fast on Rosh Hashana. In a later generation of gaonim, Rabbi Hai Gaon (of Pumbedita) cited the verse which commands that the Israelites "eat fatty meats and drink sweet drinks" on Rosh Hashana (Nehemiah 8:10), and Rabbenu Saadiah Gaon ultimately ruled that Rosh Hashana is no less joyous than the pilgrim festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Succot, and even has the joyous power to cancel the seven-day mourning period for an individual who had suffered the loss of a close relative. Nevertheless, I believe it's important for us to understand those who permitted fasting on Rosh Hashana. After all, it is listed as one of the major festivals in the Bible (Lev. 23:23). Why would even a minority opinion condone fasting on this day? Rosh Hashana is talmudically and liturgically defined as "the anniversary of the day on which the world was conceived," the day of the creation of the human being. At the same time, the Torah commands that on the first day of the seventh month "you shall have a day of the remembrance… of the broken, staccato (trua) shofar sound" (Numbers 29:1). The Talmud attempts to define the precise nature of this sound: it is either a sighing similar to three groans of sadness (Hebrew: shvarim), or a wailing sound similar to nine sobs of distress (Hebrew: trua), or a combination of both. Why celebrate the creation of the world with such expressions of despair? Perhaps the reason is because our world has not yet been completed: tragedy abounds, from tsunamis to hurricanes to suicide bombings. Our universe is a vale of tears. Neither has humanity succeeded in perfecting itself, in refraining from inflicting pain on others or from upsetting the ecological balance of our environment. Much the opposite: we have developed science to the point of being able to destroy civilization. If indeed Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment for every human being - either for this world or the next - as the Mishna suggests (Rosh Hashana 16a), I submit that most of us would be found wanting! Is this not sufficient reason for mourning? But the failure of human nature heretofore is not the whole story. Yes, God created the human being as mortal, weak and even instinctively animalistic, but He also endowed each of us with a Divine image, an actual spark of God (Genesis 1:26,27; 2:7). The cosmos around us is also filled with much beauty and potential just waiting to be activated. The very freedom which has enabled humanity to choose death and destruction could just as well empower it to choose peace and perfection. And God loves and believes in the children with whom He has peopled His universe: "For the human being is but a little lower than God, crowned with glory and majesty." It is precisely because of His belief in and love for us that the Almighty grants us the possibility of repentance, and creates a 10-day period of repair culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Forgiveness. And all our sages agree that Yom Kippur is a day of rejoicing. Yes, we may fast on Yom Kippur, but not as mourners who cry over destruction (as on Tisha Be'av) but rather as angels who have no need of physical blandishments because we are qualitatively different from beasts as we stand in the presence of the Divine. And so the biblical portion we read last Sabbath guarantees national return - both to the land of Israel and to the Torah of Israel (Deut. 30:1-10) - and next week's Haftara (Shabbat Shuva) concludes with the divine promise: "And you shall know [at the time of your return and redemption] that I am in the midst of Israel. I am the Lord your God; my nation shall never again be ashamed or confounded" (Joel 2:27). It is because of this divine guarantee that even on Rosh Hashana we do not merely sound the broken, staccato trua, but add the jubilant, exalted and exultant tekiya sound; this tekiya, we are told, was sounded on Yom Kippur of the jubilee year, when the entire nation was given a foretaste of redemption, with all slaves being freed, all debts being rescinded, and every Jew returning to his family homestead. Indeed, the real term for ram's horn is not shofar, which literally means beauty (since the horns are the glory of the animal), but is rather yovel, or jubilee - the jubilant sound of freedom, return and redemption. Our sages deduce that not only is the jubilant sound to be added on Rosh Hashana, but for every broken sound there must be two jubilant ones; each trua (or shevarim) must be surrounded by two tekiyot (B.T. Rosh Hashana 33, based on Lev 25:9). And it is this triumphant sound of redemption which concludes the final Yom Kippur prayer (Ne'ila) as well. Yes, the world may still be a vale of tears, but we are confident that God has empowered us to perfect it and ourselves in His divine kingship. At that time all of humanity, joined together in harmony and peace, will cry out, as we do now at the end of Yom Kippur: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord who is now our God will ultimately be acknowledged as the God of the universe." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

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