It’s all in our heads: A Rosh Hashanah guide

We need to do everything in our power to make ourselves happy, to bring joy to our family and friends on this holy day

One of the most famous aggadot regarding Rosh Hashanah tells of the three books in which everyone is inscribed for the coming year — the righteous, the wicked, and those in the middle (whose inscription is pushed off until Yom Kippur). This idea, reflected in prayers such as “Avinu Malkenu,” in which we repeatedly mention the idea of inscription, is a powerful motif in the holiday atmosphere and in our popular imagination.

The Baal Shem Tov has a remarkable understanding of this concept:

All of the thoughts that come into one’s head on Rosh Hashanah – they are the inscribing, whether for good or for bad [God forbid] and if one has negative thoughts he must sweeten them and do battle with the yetzer hara [evil urge] that purposely sends us these thoughts.

This outstanding idea — that we essentially determine our fate for the coming year by the nature of our thoughts on Rosh Hashanah — is based upon the well-known notion that Rosh Hashanah, as the “head” of the year, sends out spiritual nerve impulses through the coming year, just as the brain controls the rest of the body. Just as a baby’s entire genetic makeup is determined at the moment of conception, so too Rosh Hashanah, known as harat hayom, (the day of the conception), determines the makeup of the coming year.

What the Baal Shem Tov adds to this is that all of it is in our hands; more specifically, it is in our heads!

This understanding of Rosh Hashanah has very far-reaching consequences for our observance. The most important thing is to be careful to remain in a positive state of mind throughout the entire two days of the holiday. We must be even more careful than usual not to let anything make us upset or angry, and not to get annoyed about all kinds of little things that may come up at the synagogue or at home.

Blowing the shofar in the town of Lifta, near Jerusalem (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Blowing the shofar in the town of Lifta, near Jerusalem (photo credit: Uri Lenz/Flash90)

As many of us can attest, the yetzer hara works overtime on Rosh Hashanah to provide us with all kinds of reasons to get annoyed or to slide into a bad mood. Perhaps the cantor wasn’t to our liking, or the service was too fast or too slow. Maybe the food wasn’t prepared exactly as I like it, or someone forgot to arrange something at home the way it should be. It was too hot outside, or the air conditioner in shul was too cold. My neighbor at shul distracted me by talking, or my child had trouble sitting still. Perhaps I am just angry and frustrated about my own inability to progress spiritually, as I desire, or a little bit resentful toward God about some perceived unfairness.

Are these the thoughts that we want to determine the coming year? Certainly not! We must make a strong effort not to think like this, and if we find these ideas creeping into our heads, to “sweeten” them, by trying to find the good, or by gently distracting ourselves and getting back into a positive frame of mind. Of course, if we do have negative thoughts we certainly shouldn’t become upset about it — that will only compound the problem. We need to do everything in our power to make ourselves happy, to bring joy to our family and friends on this holy day.

I once heard from the rebbe of Komarno, Rav Eliezer Zvi Safrin, that this is also the reason for the simanim, the special foods we eat at the evening meal: We aren’t engaging in a magical ceremony; we are simply eating sweet foods and dishes whose names have positive connotations, in order to help strengthen our positive state of mind.

As we go into the new year, may we merit to internalize the transformative teaching of the holy Baal Shem Tov and to actualize it throughout the two days of the holiday. We will thus, with God’s help, inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life, for a year of happiness, health, livelihood, warm relationships, spiritual awakening, and of course, positive thinking.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Zvi Leshem directs the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. He is the author of 'Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals'. Many of his articles can be accessed at