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Rosh HaShanah: The head of the year

Why use a body part to denote a fresh start? A study in how people improve themselves

The center of life

The term “Rosh HaShanah” is a strange expression; it is only because of our familiarity with it that we fail to notice its strangeness. The more precise designation for the day on which the year begins is “Reishit HaShanah,” the beginning of the year, as the term actually appears in Scripture. Rosh HaShanah means the “head” of the year (similar to Rosh Hodesh, the head of the new month). But “rosh” is the designation of a part of the body and does not denote the beginning of something!

It seems that just as living creatures have a head, so does the year. Rosh HaShanah is not just the point from which the year starts; it is a day that is connected to the year in the same way that the head relates to the body.

Several organs play vital roles in the body, as among them “the three kings” — the brain, the heart, and the liver. The brain is the center of thought, the heart is the center of circulation, and the liver is the center of digestion. To be sure, the body cannot survive without even one of these three; but even among them, there is a hierarchy — and the mind is clearly at the top of the ladder.

The brain, which is in the head, is man’s center. In a certain sense, all of man’s knowledge of the world — including knowledge of himself — is no more than cerebral experience. When a person sees that something is in front of him, all that he has at that moment is an experience of that thing as perceived in his brain. We have experiences of objects, of people, of the world, of the sun rising — yet they are all “in our head.” We do not know with certainty whether all of this is real or not.

The brain contains all of man’s being, the whole experience of his existence. Besides the various senses of pleasure, pain, heat, or cold, the brain is the source of one’s sense of his own existence.

The year as an independent entity

Rosh HaShanah is regarded as a “head” because the year itself is a “body,” a complete being with its own actual existence. The year, like every unit of time, is not just a measure of set duration. It is a being — with beginning and end — that is distinct and distinguished from all others.

If we are to equate two parcels of land of equal measure, we could easily discern that although each one is equal to the other quantitatively, each one differs from the other in nature and character. Every centimeter in the world is unique, and it is impossible to find even a speck of dust that is exactly equal to another.

The same is true of units of time. To be sure, time can be measured in external units, and there would appear to be no difference between its various parts, between one minute and the next, between one hour and the one that follows. But the truth is that each unit of time is distinct; every single moment is new and different.

Such an outlook engenders a serious attitude toward accounting for time and toward the utilization or waste of time. Since every minute is unique, if it is wasted, that minute is no longer rectifiable; the time of rectification is already a different time. Two successive moments may, perhaps, be similar, but they will never be identical, and they may even be totally dissimilar. If a mitzvah is performed at a certain moment, that moment is adorned; in contrast, a moment in which a transgression is committed is defiled.

The same applies to the larger units of time — years. The consecutive numeration of the years is not an insignificant successive numbering. The number assigned to a particular year is like a library serial number, which signifies a book’s type and subject. Each year has its own character, uniqueness, and array. The new year is analogous to a newborn child, who can be like his older sibling — or significantly worse, or incomparably better. A new year can be an ordinary year, and it can also be a year that will bear a special increase in blessing and life.

Life for the year

The rosh of the shanah, because it is the “head” of the unique “body,” contains within it, as in a single thought, all the days of the year. For this reason, good spiritual work on Rosh HaShanah forms a better inner picture of the year’s shape and character.

This does not mean, however, that on Rosh HaShanah one should make plans for the whole year. That would be impossible, for an entire year is multidimensional and is connected to many different worlds. What one should do on this day is form a general picture of what ought to be the character and direction of this year. One should place on the head of the year a “crown of Kingship” and thereby transform the year into a completely different form of being.

This spiritual work must be done not only in honor of the day, but also because of the influence that the “head” of the year exerts on the entire “body” of the year. On Rosh HaShanah, a person has it within his power to impart life-force to the whole year.

In general, dead things belong to the “not good” aspect of the world. In fact, all forms of impurity take effect upon death, and it makes no difference whether it is a great death or a small death. The opposite of impurity is life; hence the expression “the living God.” Thus, we read: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” The conclusion of the passage is not, “Choose good,” but rather, “Choose life.” Choosing life is of primary importance because life, by its very nature, presents an advantage; a living thing is better, even when the life is not on the side of holiness.

On Rosh HaShanah, we are to build a new year. We are to instill in the year life and goodness, and thereby fashion a new and different year. If one merits it, he can revitalize many others; at the very least, he can revitalize himself, and cause the whole body to follow him, to follow the head.

About the Author
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is the founder of Shefa and The Israel Institute for Talmudic Publications. In 2012 he completed his monumental, 45 volume translation of the Talmud into modern Hebrew. The Steinsaltz Talmud has been translated into 29 volumes in French and 5 volumes in Russian. In 2012, the first volume of the “Koren Talmud Bavli” in English with Rabbi Steinsaltz's commentary was published. Adin Steinsaltz was awared the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor, for his educational achievements in opening the Talmud and was was among the first recipients of the Israeli Presidential Award of Distinction, for his contribution to Israeli society and its standing in the world. In 2012, Rabbi Steinsaltz received a National Jewish Book Award for the English Koren Talmud Bavli from the Jewish Book Council (USA). He was also the recipient of the French Order of Arts and Literature.
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