The Idea of Rosh Hashanah

September 13, 2001

5 min read


Rosh Hashanah (Day 1: Genesis 21; Day 2: Genesis 22 )

It is common knowledge that Rosh Hashanah marks the Jewish New Year. The Mishna in Rosh Hashanah teaches us that Judaism actually recognizes multiple years and new years. Just as secular society has a first day of school, a first day when the government meets, a first day when taxes are collected, so does Judaism recognize different "new year" days to mark different occasions.

There are four new years. On the first of Nissan is the new year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of cattle. Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Simeon, however, place this on the first of Tishrei. On the first of Tishrei is the new year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables. On the first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, place it on the fifteenth of that month.


A "new year" day marks a passage of time which is based on either an objective criteria or a subjective perspective, what is it that the Jewish new year demarcates?

The traditional response to this question would be that Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world. One would therefore assume that Rosh Hashanah, must delineate the beginning of time.

The Talmud, however reports the following difference of opinion regarding creation:

Rabbi Eliezer says: "In Tishrei the world was created" ... Rabbi Joshua says: "In Nissan the world was created." (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a)

The opinion of Rabbi Eliezer is clarified in the Midrash, where it is explained that in fact the world came into existence on the 25th of Elul.1 Therefore when Rebbe Eliezer referred to the creation which took place on the first of Tishrei ? he was referring to the sixth day and the creation of man – of Adam.

It seems strange that so fundamental an issue as the day of creation could be subject to debate.

Nonetheless, we see that these two great luminaries Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua argue whether creation took place in the fall or spring. It seems strange that so fundamental an issue as the day of creation could be subject to debate.2

Rabbenu Tam however remarkably sees no contradiction between the opinions of Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Yehoshua, he sees these opinions as not being mutually exclusive, he declares:

"These and these are the words of the living God, and one may say that the thought to create was formed in Tishrei, while the actual creation did not take place until Nissan." (Tosfot Rosh Hashanah 27a)

According to Rabbenu Tam, the two rabbis do not disagree, creation involves a process. The question is do we commemorate the beginning or end of the process? Their argument is only in emphasis – which aspect of creation is dominant, the thought of creation, or the actual creation? According to Rabbenu Tam Tishri was the time that God thought of creation. What is the significance of such thoughts?

This idea of a "thought of creation" has a parallel teaching which should shed light on this passage. Rashi in his commentary to the very first verse in the Torah notes that the name of God used to describe creation is Elokim which refers to the aspect of God from which justice emanates. Later on in Genesis (2:4), when the creation is recapitulated, the Torah uses a different terminology to describe God, using the unpronounceable name of God, the Tetragrammaton, plus Elokim – a combination that is usually translated as "the Lord God." In this name, both aspects – judgment and mercy – are expressed.

The Midrash explains why both terms are used side by side in this verse in Genesis.

The Lord God [made earth and heaven]. This may be compared to a king who had some empty glasses. Said the king: "If I pour hot water into them, they will burst; if cold, they will contract [and snap]." What then did the king do? He mixed hot and cold water and poured it into them, and so they remained [unbroken]. Even so, said the Holy One, blessed be He: "If I create the world on the basis of mercy alone, its sins will be great; on the basis of judgment alone, the world cannot exist. Hence I will create it on the basis of judgment and of mercy, and may it then stand!" Hence the expression, the Lord God. (Midrash Rabbah – Genesis 12:15)

The Midrash explains why both terms are used, but it fails to explain why in the first verse in the Torah only the term Elokim is used, thereby implying exclusively that justice was used to create the world.

Rashi explains that the idea of creation is represented by Elokim, and that idea is based on justice. The actual creation though contains both mercy and justice fused together as described in the Midrash.

Rav Gedalya Shore (Or Gidalyahu) suggested that we may draw the following conclusion: The thought of creation is based on justice, the actual creation is based on mercy and judgment. The thought of creation took place in Tishrei while the actual creation took place in Nissan. Therefore Tishrei is a time of judgment, while Nissan is a time of mercy.


We can take this conclusion one step further, the strict aspect of judgment, based on God's creation via thought, is limited to thought. Hence the strict judgment which man undergoes is for his thoughts. However, when it comes to man's actions, God's judgment of man is tempered by mercy.

This leads to a major conclusion regarding the quality of judgment on Rosh Hashanah, and man's obligation.

The major objective of Rosh Hashanah is related to thought. The objective on Rosh Hashanah is to come up with a plan, just as God designed a plan for creation, man needs to come up with a plan for his creation ? his life. This plan is judged by God with incredible strictness. Whether man lives up to his plan or not is judged with mercy, for the world of action God fuses strictness with mercy. God understands human frailty.

"Rosh Hashanah" in its most literal sense means the "head of the year" – it is the time to think.

Perhaps there is another meaning of the term "Rosh Hashanah" in its most literal sense – the "head of the year" is the time to think.

This is the time of year that each of us has to come up with a plan for living our lives, by using our heads, our intellect – the Tzelem Elokim, the "image of God" within us.3 We are judged strictly for this plan, since it directly reflects to what extent our Tzelem Elokim is utilized.

However the implementation is another matter. There are times that man fails due to his animal instincts; this is something that God understands. But we can make no mistake about it, we are judged for these failings – it's just that the judgment is one which is tempered by mercy.

This concept of a plan seen as an independent entity from the actual reality is reflected in the Akaida, where Abraham was called upon to sacrifice his son. Once Abraham was willing and set a plan for the deed to be done, it was no longer required for him to follow through with that deed. We are told that God considers the positive thoughts of the righteous as if they were accomplished.4

On Rosh Hashanah all mankind stands before God in fear and in dread of the awesome Day of Judgment. May we all have the acumen to formulate the proper plan to lead our lives, may we all be given the strength to implement our plans, and may God judge us with mercy on those occasions that we fail.

May we all be immediately written and sealed in the book of life.

Shana Tova from:
Ari, Naomi
Mattityahu, Hillel, Yishi, Yosef, and Elisheva

  1. See the teachings attributed to Rebbi Eliezer found in Pirki Drebbi Eliezer chapters 3-7. (return to text)
  2. In Judaism, creation – or the "mysteries of creation" isa subject which can not be taught publicly – see Mishna Chagiga 2:1 and the Talmud's comments Chagiga 11b. (return to text)
  3. See Rambam in the Moreh Nevuchim 3:8 where he makes the identification between intellect and Tzelem Elokim. See also my book Explorations (Jerusalem: Targum Press, 2001) p. 222ff.b. (return to text)
  4. Kiddushin 40a. (return to text)
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