Ask the rabbi: What's wrong with Rosh Hashana?

The nonobservant may peek into a synagogue or stand outside it on Yom Kippur, but not on Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Rosh Hashanah
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In Israel Rosh Hashanah is the most neglected of all the holy days of the Jewish year. Whereas in the Diaspora it is one of the most im- portant days, in Israel it much more of a vacation time than a religious occasion. For the vast majority of nonobservant Israelis, it is a wonderful time to enjoy a day out, especially since it is the only two-day holiday we have. Otherwise, it is largely ignored. The nonobservant may peek into a synagogue or stand outside it on Yom Kippur, but not on Rosh Hashanah.
The reason for this neglect may be that of all the Jewish holy days, it is the least colorful, lacking any agricultural connection, any connection to national history and any interesting folk customs that might attract an otherwise unobservant person. The only significant event is the blowing of the shofar. Unless you are a believing Jew, why take notice of it? If you are not a synagogue-goer, you have no way of observing it except through a family meal. That is unfortunate because Rosh Hashanah is really a very rich and meaningful occasion. It has a long history and a variety of meanings, perhaps more than any other holy day.
ITS ORIGINS are obscure. In the Torah the name “Rosh Hashanah” never appears.
The day is only given a date – the first day of the seventh month – and the designation as a day of sounding the shofar. No meaning is attached to it. (See Leviticus 23:24-25, Numbers 29:1-2.) Most scholars posit that it was originally connected to the idea of the sovereignty of God. Pagan religions generally had a day celebrating when the most important of the gods was crowned as the chief god. Of course, the monotheistic religion of Israel had no other gods, but it could celebrate the fact that its one God was supreme – the Sovereign – over all the universe. The sounding of the shofar was the announcement of the coronation.
We have several psalms with that theme: “The Lord is king!Let the earth exult” (Psalms 97:1). “With trumpets and the blast of the horn, raise a shout before the Lord, the King” (Psalms 98:6).
Later on the idea that it was the beginning of the calendar year – Rosh Hashanah – was added, as was the concept that the year began then because that was the day when the world was created. Rosh Hashanah, then, became the time to celebrate the existence of the world and of life itself. It is a great “L’haim” to our very existence. That in itself should be enough to make it an important day for all of us – religious and secular alike. Life is never to be taken for granted.
Of course, the final stage in the development of this holiday was connecting it to Yom Kippur as the beginning of a period of judgment, not just for Jews but for all humanity. Therefore it was given the title “Yom Hadin,” the “Day of Judgment.”
This concept is emphasized in some of the great poetry – piyutim – connected to Rosh Hashanah such as “Unetaneh Tokef,” in which there is a description of all humanity parading before God, the Sovereign, for judgment.
The descriptions found in many apocryphal works and in some of the prophetic books of a day of judgment at the end of time – which is the subject of Michelangelo’s magnificent fresco in the Sistine Chapel – were transferred by the Sages from that far-off time to a day of judgment held once a year. We all need a day on which to see ourselves accountable for our deeds, when we realize that there are standards by which we are measured and by which we must measure ourselves. Otherwise, there is no morality and no accountability.
THESE CONCEPTS are of great importance, but they are not easy to understand and not easy to convey. The only place where they are expounded is in the synagogue; and for the nonobservant Israeli, going into a synagogue is not an easy thing to do. In America synagogues are seen as centers of Jewish life, open to all Jews. In Israel that is not the case. Nor, it must be admitted, are the services easy to follow or understand. In most places the Rosh Hashanah service is very long – five hours or so. And much of the liturgy consists of poems that are no longer understandable.
Before printing became common, the liturgy was much more flexible. There was a core of prayers that had to be recited – and it was not excessively long – to which new piyutim were added in each place and changed. Some became standard, but they varied from place to place and from year to year. They changed and fell out of use as well. Once they found their way into printed texts, however, everything became so holy that it could not be eliminated. Instead of seeing the Mahzor as an anthology from which selections could be made, it became the standard text allowing for no deviations.
It’s time that were changed. Perhaps someone should devise a brief service that would include the most important parts of the traditional service together with newer readings and explanations and offer that to the “secular” community.
I’m not certain they would come, but it would be worth trying. And even the regular service should be trimmed to make it less of a burden and more meaningful.
Rosh Hashanah is a rich holiday, filled to the brim with important concepts that could add so much to the lives of all of us, religious and secular alike. It is a pity that in Israel it is so neglected and degraded. All of us a need a day to celebrate life, to appreciate the world and to place our lives and our deeds under scrutiny. Such a day would certainly help to make the year ahead into a Shana Tova – a truly good New Year.
The writer is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly whose book, Entering the High Holy Days, won the National Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, available both in English (JPS) and Hebrew (Yediot Books).