Reflections on the Beginning of the New Jewish Year

The Day for Humanity

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10 September 2021

On the first two days of the Jewish month of Tischrei, which this year falls on September 7 and 8, the Jewish people are blessed with a new year. It is a celebration that is prescribed in the Torah (Leviticus 23: 24-25; Numbers 29: 1-6).

However, unlike Pesach (Passover), on which the departure of the Children of Israel from Egypt is commemorated and the beginning of spring and the barley harvest are celebrated, and unlike Shavuot (Pentecost) when the picking of the first fruits and the beginning of the wheat harvest are celebrated, the Torah does not give any explicit reason why the New Year should be observed at the beginning of the seventh month of Tischrei (the months being counted from the first one when freedom from slavery in Egypt was realized). Why does the New Year begin in the seventh month?

The answer can be found in the fact that Rosh Hashanah (“the head of the year”) is celebrated in connection with the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and Sukkot (“booth”) in the same seventh month of Tischrei. There is a reason that links the three of them.

Sukkot, which is celebrated from the 15th of Tischrei for seven days with an additional eighth day of rejoicing, marks the end of a cycle of agricultural work (Exodus 23:16; 34:22). The time to plow, sow, wait anxiously for the rains, to see the germination and development of the crops, and to harvest those crops now begins again. The farmer rejoices in seeing the fruit of his labor. Sukkot is the expression of the cycles of nature, of life. For this reason the scroll of Ecclesiastes is read on it, and the meaning of existence is pondered.

Yom Kippur, which falls on the tenth day of the month, is the time when—after a process of repentance and contrition (teshuvah) is carried out by each individual—God absolves the errors and sins they have committed. This process takes place at the beginning of that month. That is why the prophet Ezekiel (40:1) uses the term Rosh Hashanah (the first and only time it appears in the Bible) to designate the tenth day, which corresponds to Yom Kippur, since both are part of the same process. There can be no absolution from God if there has not previously been human repentance and contrition (Yad Hachazakah, Hilkhot Teshuvah 1: 3. See Kesef Mishneh ad locum). It must be done every day of life, but from the beginning of Tischrei repentance must occur in a more intensive way in order to reach Yom Kippur as a reformed person who has make strides in becoming a better human being.

The sages of the Talmud specified that the 1st of Tischrei is the day when God judges all humans (Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The Midrash (Vaikra Rabba 29:1) explains that this is the day for this judgment to occur because on that day on which the first human being was created, was forbidden to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, on which he transgressed, and when God judged and acquitted him. The Midrash ends by saying that just as God absolved Adam, God will also absolve people who know how to return to him.

Rosh Hashanah is, in Jewish tradition, the day dedicated to every individual, as part of the great human family, to celebrate the adventure of their existence.

But what is the meaning of existence? What is to celebrate?

Ecclesiastes, the text read on the feast of Sukkot, does not find an answer to this question, because whatever was, is, and will come to pass (1: 9), the wise and the fool alike will have the same end (2: 13—16). They must comply with the precepts of God. That is the only thing that has been revealed to us (12: 13—14). However, the intricate beauty of nature and the ability of human beings to admire and discover the laws that govern it; the great human constructions, the constant improvement of technology, the ongoing knowledge acquired in the sciences are all indications that the existence of the individual cannot be seen as a mere repetitive or insignificant routine. The statement of Ecclesiastes: there is nothing new under the Sun cannot be applied throughout all time. Nor can this statement be applied to the discovery of love, the birth of a child, or of a grandchild. One purpose of reading this text on Sukkot would be to teach about an incorrect vision of existence, one which does not find a meaning to existence and only conceives it in a hedonistic way. The sages of the Talmud (Shabbat 30, b) affirmed that Ecclesiastes is a text full of incongruities.

As long as you are insensitive to the small and great things that comprise your existence, as long as you do not know how to raise your eyes to the heights and perceive the message of mercy and faith from the One who has created everything, then life will remain merely an inconsequential or meaningless interval between birth and death.

The word for “year” in Hebrew is “shanah”, which comes from the consonantal root sh—n—h, meaning change. However, the same root is also used to suggest the idea of repetition. Thus, it is in the hands of each person to choose between the two ways of conceiving of life: to choose change and renewal in order to improve our human condition, or to remain in repetitious circles of mediocrity.

Since in the Jewish tradition Rosh Hashanah is the day when human beings can choose to transform their lives and so magnify the breath of God that is within them, it can fittingly be called the Day for Humanity.

The prayers of the Jewish people during this time invoke the help of God for the most important of God’s creatures so that they may be enabled to choose a life that transforms.

Abraham Skorka