The meaning of Rosh Hashanah: Celebration or challenge?

The meaning of Rosh Hashanah: Celebration or challenge?

Rachel Friedman is dean of Lamdeinu (, the center for adult Torah learning in Teaneck.

The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah 10b describes a dispute between two sages about the date of creation. Rabbi Eliezer insists that God created the world in the month of Tishrei, while Rabbi Yehoshua contends that the world was created in the month of Nisan.

What is the significance of this dispute? Is it simply an argument about when the world was created or does it have a more profound relevance?

A partial answer is that the argument between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua over the month of creation had very important practical ramifications for the Jewish calendar. Each rabbi assumed that Rosh Hashanah – the New Year – would be celebrated on the anniversary of the creation of the world and human beings. Isn’t it logical for human beings to acknowledge God’s sovereignty on the anniversary of their creation? It was therefore necessary to establish when humanity was created, in order to set the day of Rosh Hashanah.

There is, however, a deeper issue at the heart of the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. In the Torah, there is no reference to a New Year celebration on the first day of Tishrei. What we celebrate today as Rosh Hashanah is described as a holy day commemorated with long blasts of the shofar to be observed on the first day of the seventh month. Based on the Torah, the more likely candidate for a New Year celebration would be the month of Nisan which is proclaimed in the twelfth chapter of Exodus as the head month of the year. Immediately before the Israelites leave Egypt, God commands: “This month is for you the head of the months; it is for you the first month of the year!”

How can we resolve this apparent contradiction? What is the appropriate date for the celebration of the Jewish New Year? Is it the month of Tishrei or Nisan? The thirteenth century commentator Ramban offers an insightful resolution. The Jewish calendar really has two beginnings. The year begins in Tishrei because that is when the world was created. But the months are counted from Nisan because that is when the nation of Israel was born. Nisan is the first month for the Israelites because it was then that Israel became a free and independent nation.

The sages ultimately accepted the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer that the world was created in Tishrei and that Rosh Hashanah should be celebrated at this time. This idea is mentioned many times in the Rosh Hashanah prayer service. Every time we hear the sound of the shofar during the musaf service, we respond with the words: Hayom harat olam — on this day the world was created. The rabbis also emphasized that as the anniversary of creation, Rosh Hashanah is a day of judgment for every human being. As the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah 1:2 states: On Rosh Hashanah all the earth’s inhabitants pass before God like a flock of sheep. On the anniversary of creation, no human being gets a free pass. Every human being gets a moment with God to determine if he or she will merit another year.

What lesson can we learn from the fact that Judaism recognizes two beginnings —Rosh Hashanah in Tishrei, commemorating humankind’s creation and the month of Nisan, commemorating the birth of the nation of Israel? The celebration of two beginnings of time in the Jewish calendar teaches us that in Judaism national identity and individual humanity are important values that go hand in hand.

At the same time, the existence of two Roshei Shanah — two New Years — is also a metaphor for the great challenge of every Jew. It represents the complexity of blending a religious life with a life in the wider world. The twentieth century Torah luminary, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, described this challenge with extraordinary eloquence in a comment on the statement of Abraham to the Hittites after the death of his wife Sarah:

“[Abraham remarks]: I am at once a stranger and a resident among you… What do we say to the Jew from America? You are a stranger and a resident. You can participate fully in all political, cultural, and economic activities. You may feel yourself a resident at the university, in the laboratory, in financial circles, in the press, in Congress — but this is not all. You possess a world that is entirely your own, a world of sanctity and chesed, of Torah, of the Shabbat and of education. Despite your participation in all spheres of social and political life, you must also remain a stranger, a Jew living a different life…”

Rosh Hashanah is the season of introspection and resolution for every Jew. It is the season to reflect on the year that has passed and to set priorities for the future. If so, as we make our New Year resolutions, each of us must consider our dual role — as human beings and as Jews. We must seek to harmonize our universal destiny as part of God’s creation with our unique identity as members of the Jewish nation.

As we celebrate the anniversary of creation, we must challenge ourselves to be the best human beings and the best Jews that we can possibly be.

Ketivah va-hatimah tovah.

read more: