Many aspects set aside the day of Rosh Hashanah from other festival days. Although it is considered a Yom Tov, no Hallel is recited, for it is improper to sing while all creatures stand before judgment. The day obligates us in a none-too-simple combination of joy and trepidation, celebration together with deep concern. Furthermore, although Rosh Hashanah is the first of the Ten Days of Repentance, we make no mention of sin, and even avoid the consumption of nuts, whose numerical value (of the word egoz) hints at sin.

This year, we focus on another property that sets aside Rosh Hashanah from other festivals of the year: the very name of the day, “Rosh Hashanah.”

The Name “Rosh Hashanah”

The festival that we will celebrate this week is customarily referred to as Rosh Hashanah—literally, the Head of the Year. It is striking that this name does not appear in the Torah, or in any other book of the Tanach. In the writings of Chazal, however, including the Mishnah and other Tanaic texts, the two Talmuds, and Midrashic texts, the day is referred to almost exclusively as Rosh Hashanah (see, for instance, Mishnah Shevi’is chap. 1 and 2; Shabbos chap. 19; Eiruvin chap. 3, among many other references).

The discrepancy between the Torah name for the day, and its rabbinic title, requires scrutiny. No other festival exhibits such a deviation from Torah nomenclature. The names Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos, are all explicitly employed by the Torah, as is the title of Yom Kippur. In addition, all of these titles correspond to the inner essence of the day. Yom Kippur, as its name suggests, is the national Day of Atonement. Pesach and Succot are named after the central mitzvah of the festival, while the name Shavuot follows the count of weeks which essentially defines it.[1]

In the case of Rosh Hashanah, however, the name appears to be an innovation of Chazal. This is not for lack of Torah-ordained alternatives. The Torah calls the day by the names Yom Teru’ah, which corresponds to the mitzvah of Shofar, and Yom Hazikaron, which hints at the hidden theme of collective judgment, Rosh Hashanah being the day on which all creatures are ‘remembered’ by Hashem in judgment. However, following a tradition whose universal acceptance indicates ancient roots, Chazal use an alternative. Why is this so?

Furthermore, the name Rosh Hashanah seems to bear no correlation with the essence of the day. It refers to no specific mitzvah, and alludes to no particular aspect of the day that the Torah sees fit to mention. What then is the essential meaning of this name, such that it should override the names given by Torah itself? Why, moreover, assuming the special significance found by Chazal in the name, was it not given by the Torah itself?

A Creation of Doubt

The Midrash relates of how the Ministering Angels, with whom Hashem consulted concerning the creation of Adam, were divided as to the worthiness of man’s creation. The Angels of Kindness proclaimed that he should be created, for he performs acts of kindness; those of Truth placed their vote against his creation, for he is “full of lies;” Tzedek said he should be created (for he performs justice), while Shalom said he should not (for he is full of dispute).

The Midrash mentions several opinions as to how Hashem reached a final verdict. The last opinion cited is the most surprising of all: “Rav Huna, the rabbi of Tziporin, said: While the Ministering Angels were discussing the matter among themselves, and dealing with the matter among themselves, Hashem created him. He told them: What are you discussing? Man has already been created!” (Bereishis Rabbah 8:5).

The manner in which Hashem created humankind seems most bewildering. If, in the end, Hashem was to create humankind unilaterally, taking no notice of the dispute that had emerged between the ministering angels, then why did He consult with them in the first place? Rashi (Bereishis 1:26) explains that the purpose of the consultation is to teach us the “derech eretz and the attribute of humility”—the great consulted with the slight. Yet, the conclusion of the affair, in which Hashem told the angels to cease their now futile debate, seems out of line with this analysis. How can it be understood?

It would appear that the initial dispute of the Divine entourage concerning man’s creation, and the final act of creation that was undertaken in the heat of the dispute, served to define the very essence of human existence. Humankind was created in a basic condition of doubt. Paradoxically, the circumstance of man’s creation was a doubt over the worthiness of his existence. The condition of doubt did not end with man’s creation—it lives on at the heart of human existence. The final decision, the verdict of whether man is worthy of creation or not, is given over to his own hands. If he follows the path of good, he decides his own verdict for life; if he strays after ways of evil, he tips the scales in the other direction.

This concept is stated by Chazal in a number of places. On the verse, “Guard My commandments, and do them,” the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 35:7) states: “He told them, if you shall observe My Torah, I consider it is though you have created yourselves.”[2] By means of his own free will, man is given the power to decide his own existence. If he keeps the Torah, he has the merit of “creating himself;” if he does not, he is not created at all. Man was thus created in a state of doubt, in order that he should be master over his own creation.

The Deepest Partnership

In a number of places Chazal describe the partnership between G-d and humankind. A judge that judges true and perfect judgment is considered as though he partners Hashem in the creation of the world (Shabbos 10a). Chazal write laud similar acclaim for one who prays on the eve of Shabbos, and recites vayechulu on Shabbos (Shabbos 119b). Yet, it would appear that the deepest manifestation of human partnership with G-d is in a person’s creation of his own self.

The purpose of this partnership, as the Ramchal writes in a number of places (see Daas Tevunos no. 124), is in order that a person should be empowered to earn, by the labor of his own hands, that which is truly his. Chazal teach that a person prefers one measure of that which is his own to nine measures of that which is another’s (Bava Metzia 38a), for benefit derived from others (or from others’ belongings) is inherently flawed—like the flaw of a beggar whose dependency on alms involves a deep shame. Therefore, in creating the world, Hashem left room for human input, for the rectifications of Torah and mitzvos, so that each person receives his eternal reward from that which is truly his.

The depth of this partnership is revealed in the creation of man himself. A person’s own life, his existence for eternity, is “his” in the fullest sense of the word—for with his own labor he “creates” himself. By fulfilling his task in the world, the elevated task of “mending the world in the kingdom of Shakai,” a person does not receive some “external reward,” like the wages paid to a hired laborer. Rather, his reward is his own existence—he merits the creation of his own person.

It thus emerges that the day on which the depth of man’s relationship with Hashem is revealed is the day of Rosh Hashanah, the first day on Tisrei—the day on which Adam was created. In the Mussaf prayer of Rosh Hashanah we state, “This day is the beginning of Your works, a remembrance of the first day.” The “first day,” teaches the Midrash, is the day on which humankind was created, on which the world reached its true purpose (Pesikta derav Kahana, chap. 23). The very same process by which man was created, the same fateful question concerning the very existence of humankind, repeats itself year after year, on the day of Rosh Hashanah.

Each year, a person is judged anew on the day of Rosh Hashanah. Each year, we are given the opportunity anew to partner Hashem in our own creation, in tipping the scales of judgment for life. Chazal derive this idea—the concept of our partnership in self-creation on Rosh Hashanah—from a Torah verse: “In all of the offerings the Torah uses the word “you shall bring,” yet here [with regard to Rosh Hashanah] the Torah uses the word “you shall do.” Hashem said: Because you have brought yourselves into judgment on Rosh Hashanah, and you have emerged in peace, I consider you as though you have been created anew.” On the day of Rosh Hashanah, by entering the judgment and by being found worthy, we create ourselves anew.

The “Head” of the Year

It is perhaps for this reason that the rabbinic name of “Rosh Hashanah,” by contrast with other festival days, deviates from the Torah names for the day. As we have shown, on Rosh Hashanah the partnership between Hashem and humankind, as represented by the nation of Israel, comes to the fore. By calling the day “Rosh Hashanah,” a title unmentioned by the Torah, Chazal gave an expression to the partnership in the very name of the day.

Moreover, it would seem that the name “Rosh Hashanah” alludes to the theme we have outlined above. Every year is a full cycle of life, spanning from the birth of spring, when the world is renewed from its winter hibernation, though the teeming life of summer and the decay of autumn, and finally to the death of winter. Even in the winter, however, the seeds for the rebirth of spring are already sown. The circle is closed, a cycle of life that never ceases.

The form of a circle does not reveal any point of beginning or end. The circle is closed, possessing neither head nor tail—a line that continues indefinitely. Such, indeed, is the general way by which the world operates. To the naked eye, the world, including all its events and upheavals, moves ever on in a circular path knows no beginning and has no end: “That which there was is that which will be, and that which was done is that which will be done, and there is nothing new beneath the sun” (Koheles 1:9). Chazal hint at this theme when they state that “there is no square from the days of creation” (Yerushalmi, Maasros 25b); the entire world resembles a closed circle.

In calling the name of the day by its Talmudic name, Chazal reveal that even in a circle, even the closed cycle of the year, possesses a “head.” The natural year might plot the course of a closed circle, yet there is a particular point at which the essence and nature of the year are determined—just as the head determines the qualities and actions of every limb of the body. Although the world was created in the form of circles, preprogrammed with the unstopping motion we know as nature, the very partnership with humankind declares that human deeds must somehow penetrate the constancy of the world’s circles. By virtue of human input, the individual course of each year is plotted on the day of Rosh Hashanah.

In the verse (Devarim 11:12), “A land … the eyes of Hashem, your G-d, are upon it, from the beginning of the year unto year’s end,” Chazal (Rosh Hashanah 16b) find an allusion to the day of Rosh Hashanah. The year is a circle, yet it has a beginning. Its beginning, the “head” that determines the properties of the year to come, is the partnership with man that defines the day of Rosh Hashanah.

“Yom Teru’ah” and “Rosh Hashanah”

It is noteworthy that the verse from which the Midrash derives the lesson of a person “creating himself” on Rosh Hashanah is found in the passage of the day’s offerings. What do the offerings of the day have to do with the potential for self-renewal on Rosh Hashanah?

The answer to this is latent in the fundamental nature of offerings. In bringing an offering before Hashem, we take a part of the world, and “annul” it before Hashem, returning it, as it were, to its Creator. The same motion of annulment before Hashem defines the foundation of our service before G-d. Our basic duty is to annul our own will before the Divine will, thus direct all of our deeds for the sake of Heaven. If we succeed in so doing, we become partners with Hashem in the very labor of creation.

In accordance with this theme, the entire prayer service of Rosh Hashanah focuses on the establishment of the Divine Kingdom. The following passage is recited in all prayers of the day: “Reign over the entire universe in Your glory; be exalted over all the world in your splendor, reveal Yourself in the majestic grandeur of Your strength over all the dwellers of Your inhabited world. Let everything that has been made know that You are its Maker, let everything that has been molded understand that You are its Molder, and let everything with a life’s breath in its nostrils proclaim: ‘Hashem the G-d of Israel, is King, and His kingship rules over everything.'”

On Rosh Hashanah, the day of our partnership with Hashem we declare our part in the partnership: to establish the Divine Kingdom in the world, to reveal His presence before all of mankind, and to be the loyal subjects of the Great King.

Aside from the concept of the kingdom, the prayers of Rosh Hashanah are accompanied by the sound of the shofar: “Recite before Me malchiyos, zichronos, and shoraros… and with what ? – with the shofar” (Rosh Hashanah 34b). The sounding of the shofar embodies the climax of our self-sacrifice before Hashem, the peak of our annulling our will before the will of our Maker. The teru’ah of the Yom Teru’ah, the broken and fearsome blast of the shofar, is the call to judgment itself.

In sounding the call, we fulfill the words of Chazal mentioned above: “Because you have brought yourselves into judgment on Rosh Hashanah… I consider you as though you have been created anew.” We “bring ourselves into judgment.” Our own blowing of the shofar brings Divine judgment upon us. “Yom Teru’ah” and “Rosh Hashanah” merge in the sounding of the shofar. In sounding the shofar we are partners in our own judgment; if we are found worthy, we are partners in our own creation.

We end with a prayer: may we—individuals, community, and nation—merit a kesivah vechasimah tovah, a good and sweet year.


[1]     The count of weeks from Pesach to Shavuos defines not only the timing of the festival, but reflects even on its essence. The count of weeks is the preparation that we must go through for receiving the Torah. Once we are fully prepared, the Torah is given, as it were, as a “reaction” to our preparations. Hashem is always ready to give His people the Torah—the determinative factor is our preparation: Shavuos.

[2] A similar statement is found in the Zohar, beginning of Parashas Bechukosai.

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