Rejoicing and trembling

The joy of Rosh Hashana nullifies ‘aveilut’, the customs of mourning, just like any festival would.

Shofar blown at western wall 370 (photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Shofar blown at western wall 370
(photo credit: Nir Elias/Reuters)
Rosh Hashana brings with it a strange mix of emotions. The day is almost schizophrenic.
Even the melodies of the chazzan (cantor) cascade up and down, like an emotional rollercoaster. The piercing sound of the shofar paralyzes.
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 festive meals.
It even suggests that in doing so, we provide God with joy.
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).
And 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 smitten.
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 judge.
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 train.
Indeed, Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgement – but we know the judge! 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 Aliyah.