Not a ‘Happy New Year’

Rosh Hashanah

By David Kraemer

Published September 22, 2006, issue of September 22, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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.






Find us on Facebook!
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.