In this series, I will not cover the customs and laws of Rosh HaShanah. These are readily available from other online articles, as well as from much of popular literature. Rather, I shall go into the appropriate mood of this Holy Day (actually, two days, already since the last years of the Second Temple). My early experiences of the observance of the day(s), led me to believe that it was a time of dread, when our lives hang in the balance, to be saved only if we pray sufficiently hard, and fully repent of our sins. While repentance is a great thing, a more careful analysis will show that this is NOT the central theme of Rosh HaShanah, but rather a secondary theme that "took over" in certain circles.The Torah calls it the "Day of Remembrance"("Trumpets" is the name used in heretical circles), although it being the beginning of the year is also mentioned in passing. Our foremost mentioning of Rosh HaShanah is in Nehemiah 8:9-11. The Jews had recently returned from Babylon. They had forgotten much of the Torah. Ezra and Nehemiah read the Torah to them "in the Seventh Month", and the people began to wail at their disobedience.
…9Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all of them, “This day is holy to the L-RD your G-d. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the Law. 10Then Nehemiah told them, “Go and eat what is rich, drink what is sweet, and send out portions to those who have nothing prepared, since today is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the L-RD is your strength.” 11And the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, since today is holy. Do not grieve.”…
So, we see, that Biblically, RoshHaShanah is a day of celebration.But celebrating what?First and foremost, celebrating the Reign of G-d! RoshHaShanah, according to tradition, represents the creation of Man. There is no King without a Kingdom. G-d becomes King on Rosh HaShanah! It is also the Day of Remembrance; remembrance of significant things, past present and future. As the only holiday observed on the New Moon (most are at the Full Moon), it represents renewal. The proper mood is not the exuberance of Purim, for example.But rather the quiet basking in the joy of G-d;s Kingdom, and taking stock, while optimistically anticipating the life that lies ahead. Celebratory foods are eaten, in a sort of symbolic prayer for that which is yet to come. (Interestingly, Chinese tradition has an almost identical ceremony on their New Year of eating things that hint at good fortune).So where did the judgment idea come in? The Mishnah, Tractate Rosh HaShanah, at the very beginning:
The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals; Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon say, on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees according to the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.
At four times the world is judged: On Pesach, for the crops. On Shavuot, for the fruits of the tree. On Rosh Hashnah, all the world passes before Him like sheep, as it says, "He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, that considereth all their doings." (Psalms 33:15) And on Sukkot, they are judged for the water.
Thus we see, that there are several days of New Year; days of starting over.All of our holidays contain an element of Judgment. This does not detract from their joyous nature. So how did Rosh Hashanah change from a day of Joy, to a Day of Awe? And why is this a particularly Ashkenazi preoccupation? (In Sepharadic tradition, it is primarily a day of celebration, with an undercurrent of preparation to stand before G-d in Judgment. The services are only slightly longer than an ordinary Shabbat). To answer that question, we must consider some history. We must also consider a liturgical poem, composed between the the sixth and eight centuries, that became firmly connected with an eleventh century fictitious rabbi. That poem transformed Rosh HaShanah in the Ashkenazi perception, from a day of contemplating life, to one of dreading imminent death. More next time.