A time of joy and trembling

At first glance once could say that Rosh Hashana suffers from a schizoid personality.

cuba shofar 88 (photo credit: )
cuba shofar 88
(photo credit: )
At first glance once could say that Rosh Hashana suffers from a schizoid personality. Sometimes it is a time of joy, a celebration and a true festival similar to holidays such as Succot, Pessah and Shavuot. At other times it becomes a time of judgment, Yom Hadin, an occasion for fear and trembling. On the one hand we wish one another "a good and sweet year," eat honey and other foods that portend only good, sit down to festive meals and utilize the same basic liturgy that is recited on the festivals. We even call it a Yom Tov. On the other hand we recite prayers that refer to God as a judge and have descriptions of a time of judgment that causes even the angels on high to tremble with fear. How can we account for this dichotomy? The answer lies in the fact that Rosh Hashana has a long history and that in the course of its development different attitudes and different themes emerged which exist side by side. The earliest references in the Torah refer to it simply as a "day of sounding" the shofar (see Leviticus 23:24-25 and Numbers 29:1-2). It is the first day of the seventh month, and as such is a glorified Rosh Hodesh, which is itself a festive day, often compared to Shabbat. The number seven has sacred significance, so the seventh month was celebrated in a special and augmented fashion. Most scholars believe that the shofar sounding on that day was connected with the celebration of the proclamation of God as sovereign, just as trumpets are sounded at times of human coronation. They cite especially Psalms 95-100 that refer to God as sovereign and creator and speak of sounding the shofar. Much later the idea that this was also the time of the creation of the world was specifically added, all of that being positive and a reason for happiness and rejoicing. The three special sections added to the service in Musaf, the Additional Service (originally they were in Shaharit - the morning service) concerning Sovereignty, Remembrance and the Shofar are all positive as well. The Sages decreed that the verses recited must all be positive and never mention any punishment (Rosh Hashanah 4:6). Remembrance refers to remembering us, to fulfill His promises to us; and the Shofar verses talk about things such as Sinai or the future days of redemption. However, the Sages later connected Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur and taught that it was the day of judgment, the time when "all human beings pass before Him as troops" (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The solemnity, the seriousness of this, was reflected in some of the prefaces added to the three sections mentioned above and most of all in the poetical additions to the service, the piyyutim. Of special importance is the famous Unetane Tokef poem, which legend connects to the martyrdom of Rabbi Amnon of Mainz in the 11th century, but which is almost certainly much older than that, going back to the Byzantine period. It bears a striking resemblance to the Christian Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) that is part of the Requiem Mass. Both use the same imagery of the Day of Judgment, the books in which our fate and deeds are inscribed, and the sound of the shofar or trumpet. Both are based on descriptions of the Day of Judgment found in Jewish apocalyptic writings. The difference between them is that the Christian prayer relates to the final judgment at the end of the world while Unetane Tokef refers to the yearly judgment on Rosh Hashana. The poem speaks of the fact that on Rosh Hashana judgement is inscribed and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: "who shall live and who shall die." The prayer even mentions the ways in which death will come: water, fire, sword, beast, earthquake, plague, etc. But the point of it is to tell us that "prayer, charity and repentance" can alter the severe decree. It is, in other words, a poem that gives hope for the future. We see, then, that through the accumulation of these various themes, Rosh Hashana took on a complex nature. It is not simply another festival. It celebrates creation, it celebrates God as Sovereign and reassures us of God's care for us. It gives us the feeling of hope that accompanies a new year. Rosh Hashana also reminds us that we are responsible for our deeds and that we stand in judgment before God for what we do and do not do. Thus it reflects light and shadow, joy and awe, much as does life itself. That is what gives it so much power and meaning. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.