In the experience of most Jews, at least in the United States, Rosh Hashanah is an occasion of relative joy. It is a time when they put on their best and even new garb, families gather for abundant, festive meals and fellow congregants greet one another with a hearty “Happy New Year!” either in English, Hebrew (“Shanah tovah”), Yiddish (“Gut yontif”) or some combination of the above. By contrast, Yom Kippur is a time of great solemnity, marked not just by fasting and deprivation but also by lowered voices and lowered glances. It is a time — or so we imagine — when we should stand in fear and trembling before our Maker.
But this is not the way it is supposed to be. Somehow, in the course of time, we have gotten it (almost) all wrong. In fact, the sources that define this period, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, are perfectly clear in their insistence that Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment (the annual one, not the final one) and Yom Kippur is the day of Divine forgiveness. It is the former, therefore, that calls for fear and trembling, and the latter that calls for rejoicing, at least as the end of the day approaches.
Let us start with the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.), the first Jewish text to articulate this notion. The Mishnah describes Rosh Hashanah (1:2) as the time when “all of the world’s inhabitants pass before Him [to be judged] as sheep [before the shepherd]” (alternatively: “as troops [before the general]”); the Mishnah makes no mention of Yom Kippur in its discussion of judgment. The Gemara’s commentary on this Mishnah (page 16a) adds a variety of different opinions, but they all agree that judgment at least begins on Rosh Hashanah, while Yom Kippur is probably the time when the verdict is sealed.
We must understand the meaning of this image: If the verdict is sealed on Yom Kippur, this means that the judgment was completed sometime earlier, presumably on Rosh Hashanah. But as we all know, there is a difference between judgment and sentencing. A person might be judged guilty but given a light sentence — or even no sentence at all. In the Jewish system of annual Divine judgment, the verdict is sealed, and the sentence declared, on Yom Kippur (at least until the later tradition extended this period to Hoshanah Rabbah). This is to our advantage, for Yom Kippur is the day of God’s mercy.
But back to Rosh Hashanah. If this is the day of judgment, then this is surely not a day for festivity or lightheartedness. It should instead be a day of fear and trembling. So how did Rosh Hashanah become a “Happy New Year”? The answer, I suspect, is a product of translation and cultural borrowing. Rosh Hashanah is properly translated as “New Year” (literally, “the head of the year’) and for us, “New Year” implies joyous celebration. In our understanding, New Years are supposed to be happy! But this is not the way it was to be in our tradition, nor in many ancient traditions. In the alternative, a New Year is meant to be a period of regeneration and purification, both of which require the elimination and forgiveness of sins before they can be realized. So the process must naturally begin with judgment, and we must approach the whole process with introspection and anxiety. We will be judged on Rosh Hashanah — and, if we are honest with ourselves, probably judged guilty — but we can look forward to Divine mercy on the day of God’s forgiveness, Yom Kippur.
Of course, this recognition demands of us not only a change of attitude but also a change of greeting. So let me wish you, on your Rosh Hashanah, a good outcome in judgment — and a Happy Yom Kippur.
David Kraemer is professor of Talmud and rabbinics and Joseph J. and Dora Abbell librarian at The Jewish Theological Seminary.