David Walk

The Head of the Year

Rabbi Adin Shteinzaltz pointed out that calling our New Year’s commemoration Rosh Hashanah, Head of the Year, doesn’t really make sense. No where in the Torah does the name Rosh Hashanah appear. The name for this day is either Day of Tru’ah (Shofar blast) or Zichron Tru’ah (memorial to the Shofar blasts). So, why did our Sages latch on to this name for our New Year’s Day?

The closest Biblical name which could be applied to this celebration actually appears in a totally different context: It is a land which your God the Eternal looks after, on which your God always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning (REISHIT) to year’s end (Devarim 11:12). According to the Talmud this verse refers to what we call Rosh Hashanah:

Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak said: When the Mishna says that the first of Tishrei is the New Year for years, it is with regard to judgment, as on that day God judges the world for the whole year, as it is written: “A land that the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year until the end of the year” (Rosh Hashanah 8a); So, perhaps, the better name might be REISHIT HASHANA.

Before we go back to the name game, I want to add a critical idea which the Ba’al HaTanya (Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, 1745-1812, founder of Chabad) suggests:

For every year there is a new, supernal light, because the light that was generated and shone on this Rosh Hashanah withdraws to its source on the eve of the following Rosh Hashanah. And this is the meaning of the Scripture ‘From the beginning of the year to the end of the year’ only.

I think this idea is crucial to understanding the Alter Rebbe’s conception of Rosh Hashanah. We say daily: Who, in His goodness, renews every day the Creation. I believe that the Alter Rebbe is distinguishing between the daily renewal and the annual total overhaul of Creation. Perhaps, it works like this: Daily God rearranges all the components of Creation to renew the Cosmos. However, on Rosh Hashanah, God returns to the methodology of that primordial week of Creation and totally recreates the entire system. 

The universe is a brand new entity every Rosh Hashana, and this allows us to truly make a fresh start in our lives. It’s a literal new beginning and this happens every first of Tishre. Don’t waste the opportunity.

The Slonimer Rebbe in his Netivot Shalom adds to this sense of total newness: Ezra told the people in Yerushalayim, ‘you must not mourn or weep’ (Nechemia 8:9). They were crying because Ezra made them aware of the fact that they had not properly fulfilled God’s Torah. But the great leader of return from Babylonia explained, ‘Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Eternal is the source of your strength’ (verse 10). What did he mean?

The Rebbe explains:

One must understand that the intent of telling them to stop crying was that they should have faith in CHASDEI HASHEM (the infinite kindness of God)…The Rebbe of Kovrin teaches that all matters of Teshuva and TIKUN must take place in Elul before Rosh Hashanah…The essential service of Rosh Hashanah is not about the past, rather it is about crowning God our King, first upon ourselves then over the entire world…The essential service of the day is to renew the D’VEYKUT (connection) and the Covenant between God and Yisrael…Therefore the mitzvah of the day is to awaken the SIMCHA achieved though BITACHON (trust and faith) in God’s love.

So, Rosh Hashanah is a new beginning, and, therefore, our annual efforts must be dedicated to the future, not the past. The repentance for sin and regret over missed spiritual opportunities for the past year must be completed by the end of that year. The Teshuva of Rosh Hashana is a different concept entirely. This different Teshuva is described by the Rambam:

Teshuvah is great for it draws a man close to the Shechinah as [Hoshea 14:2] states: “Return, O Israel, to God, your Lord;” [Amos 4:6] states: “`You have not returned to Me,’ declares God;” and [Jeremiah 4:1] states: “`If, you will return, O Israel,’ declares God, `You will return to Me.'” Implied is that if you will return in Teshuvah, you will cling to Me…How exalted is this level of Teshuvah!…Now, he is clinging to the Shechinah as [Deuteronomy 4:4] states: “And you who cling to God, your Lord.” He calls out [to God] and is answered immediately as [Isaiah 65:24] states: “Before, you will call out, I will answer.” He fulfills mitzvot and they are accepted with pleasure and joy as [Ecclesiastes 9:7] states, “God has already accepted your works,” moreover, God desires them, as [Malachi 3:4] states: “Then, shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasing to God as in days of old and as in the former years” (Laws of Teshuva, 7:6 & 7).

Assuming that one can truly grasp this novel and optimistic view of Rosh Hashanah, how can one fulfill this mandate?  Well, for that we must return to Rav Shteinzaltz, who started this discussion with his concern over the name Rosh Hashanah. The great rabbi explained:

ROSH is actually a body part, and never signifies the beginning of anything…Rosh Hashanah is not just the time frame from which to begin a year, it is a day whose connection to the year is similar to that of the ROSH to the body…In a body there are organs that fulfill necessary functions, like the the brain, heart and liver. The body can’t survive without any of these organs, but the brain stands at the head of these functions…The brain contains the entirety of a person’s being…The relationship of Rosh Hashanah as a ‘head’ flows from the fact that the year is like a ‘body’…The ability to distinguish between different aspects of time flow helps us realize the importance of a ‘head’ for the year. It helps to prevent wasting time, because a wasted moment can never be recovered…The ‘head’ of the year must contain a certain sense of the entirety of the year… So, it is appropriate on this ROSH to construct in our mind’s eye a picture of the entire year.

Rosh Hashanah is about the coming year, and our plans to make it wonderful. Just as the brain does for our body, this holiday is the critical component of planning and implementing a wonderful New Year. Each of us must take advantage of this boon granted to us by God, to make this next year one of amazing spirituality and D’VEYKUT to God. Rosh Hashanah is the key to this endeavor.


About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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