At Rosh Hashanah we get a second bite of the apple

The New Year takes us symbolically back to the Garden of Eden and the original vision for humanity at Creation


By Raphael Zarum, September 22, 2011
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The most astute description of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I ever read came from an essay by a non-Jewish student on a basic Judaism course. The teacher had spent much time explaining the customs and traditions of these Yamim Noraim, these "Days of Awe", but the student had heard and understood something else. His essay was titled "The Daze of Ahhh!"

This is a surprisingly accurate portrayal of the high point of the Jewish calendar. The long hours in shul send us into a daze and we finally end them with a sigh of relief, ahhh.

One issue that keeps us dazed and confused is not really understanding the difference between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Besides fasting on Yom Kippur, much of what we do on these High Holy Days is the same: the shul is adorned in white, we dress up, pray a lot, stand austerely, kneel occasionally, and think about our mistakes and how we can improve.

But there is a vital difference between the two. Yom Kippur is all about our sins, while on Rosh Hashanah we make no mention of them at all. On Yom Kippur we beat our hearts, confess our failings and pray for forgiveness. On Rosh Hashanah we do none of these; in fact, we hardly refer to our everyday lives at all.

Rosh Hashanah returns us to the very start of history

This is because Rosh Hashanah is Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment. But it is not our actions that are judged, it is our essence. Instead of listing all the wrongs we have done, we concentrate on the nature of our being, our role in the world.

And so the sages teach us that Rosh Hashanah enables us to relive that first day in the Garden of Eden, when humanity was created and the world was fresh with potential (Leviticus Rabbah 29:1). On that day we shared with God a vision for all of Creation.

On other festivals we relive particular moments in the history of our people: Exodus at Pesach, revelation on Shavuot, the Temple's destruction on Tishah b'Av. But Rosh Hashanah returns us to the very start of human history. This grand story of our origins can teach us, even today, who we are. For rather than our biology, it describes our humanity.

Created in God's image, with self-awareness and the capacity for free choice, we were tasked to be responsible for this world, "to work it and to guard over it" (Genesis 2:15). Said Rabbi David Kimchi (12th century): "work it" means educating ourselves, "guard over it" means taking moral responsibility by enacting God's Will.

This explains many of the themes in the prayers and customs of Rosh Hashanah. We recognise God as Sovereign of the universe, the Creator of Life, the Judge of Existence. We listen to the sound of the shofar, produced by the breath first breathed into us back in Eden. We eat again the sweet primal fruit of its garden.

So Rosh Hashanah is not about what you have done, it is about what you were meant to be. It is a chance to dream about a more meaningful life, to actually taste it. On Rosh Hashanah we get another bite of the apple.

Dr Zarum is dean of the London School of Jewish Studies.

Last updated: 11:28am, September 22 2011