Fear and Joy: The Experience of Rosh Ha-shana
Fear and Joy: The Experience of Rosh Ha-shana
Rosh Ha-shana, as it appears in Scripture, is somewhat mysterious. The festival is mentioned twice: once in Sefer Vayikra, and again in Sefer Bamidbar.
In the latter (29:1),
the Torah commands:
in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a holy
convocation (mikra kodesh) for you;
you shall do no servile work; it shall be a day of terua for you.
While the celebration
of Rosh Ha-shana does not entail the pilgrimage component of the other
festivals, it shares an issur melakha (prohibition of labor) as well
as the title of mikra kodesh. The uniqueness of Rosh Ha-shana seems to
lie in its being a yom terua, a day of terua, the ululating sound that is variously
described in Scripture as emanating from the shofar, trumpets, or human
Similarly, the Torah
teaches elsewhere (Vayikra
God spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Israelites, saying: In
the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a solemn rest for
you, a terua memorial (zikhron
terua), a holy convocation. You shall do no servile
work, and you shall bring a fire-offering to God.
Here too, Rosh
Ha-shana is described by the term terua. While our Sages understand it to refer
to the mitzva of shofar, the Torah uses this term to describe the day itself.
In what way does terua characterize the day? What does blowing a shofar or trumpet
Tanakh, we can identify two distinct, yet apparently contradictory
descriptions of these sounds and of Rosh Ha-shana itself.
On the one hand, the
prophet Tzefanya (1:10, 14-16), describing the horrors to befall the Jewish
And on that day, says
The great day of God is
near; it is near and hastens greatly, the sound of the day of God, wherein the
mighty man cries bitterly. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of
waste and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and
thick darkness, A DAY OF SHOFAR AND TERUA, against
the fortified cities, and against the high towers.
The terms shofar
and terua are clearly employed to
depict alarm and distress.
Similarly, Amos (3:6)
describes the blowing of the shofar and the peoples response.
Shall a shofar be
blown in the city, and the people not tremble? Shall evil befall a city, and God has not
Indeed, when the
Jewish people go out to war, they are commanded to make this sound (Bamidbar 10:9):
And when you go to
war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound
a terua with the trumpets; and you shall be remembered before Lord your
God, and you shall be saved from your enemies.
These verses strongly
imply that a day of shofar and terua is a day of alarm, crisis, and
On the other hand,
the trumpets are also sounded on festive days, as the next verse
on the day of your joy, and on your appointed seasons, and on your new moons,
you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt-offerings and over the sacrifices of
your peace-offerings; and they shall be for you as a memorial before your God: I
am Lord your God.
Similarly, we find in
Nechemya (8:2, 9-12) a description of Ezras joyous reading of the Torah
on Rosh Ha-shana.
And Ezra the Priest brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month.
Nechemya, who was the governor; and Ezra the Priest, the Scribe; and the Levites
that taught the people, said to all the people: THIS DAY IS HOLY TO LORD YOUR
GOD; NEITHER MOURN NOR WEEP! for all the people were weeping, as they heard
the words of the Torah. Then he
said to them: Go on your way: eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send
portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; FOR THIS DAY IS HOLY TO OUR GOD;
DO NOT BE SAD, FOR GODS GLADNESS IS YOUR STRENGTH. So the Levites stilled all the people,
saying: Hold your peace, for the day is holy; do not be sad. And all the people went
their way to eat, to drink, to send portions, and to make great joy; because
they had understood the words that were said to them.
Nechemya commands the
people to overcome their grief over their failure to keeps the Torah; instead,
it is time to celebrate, because this day, Rosh Ha-shana, is holy to our
Tanakh seems to portray Rosh Ha-shana as both a day of terua of fear and apprehension and
a day of great joy.
Hallel and Simchat Yom Tov on Rosh Ha-shana
This apparent uncertainty, as to whether Rosh Ha-shana is a day of alarm and distress or one of happiness and joy, continues into the halakhic literature.
The Gemara (Arakhin 10b) instructs us to recite Hallel on the Festivals and the eight
days of Chanukka. (We have
discussed the scope of this mitzva elsewhere, as well as the nature of different
types of Hallel.) The Gemara then questions why Hallel is not mandated on other special
days, including Rosh Chodesh, Chol Ha-moed Pesach and Purim. Since Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Ha-kippurim
seem to meet the requirements for Hallel being an appointed season
with a prohibition of labor why are they excluded?
Rabbi Abbahu said,
it seemly for the King to be sitting on His Throne of Judgment, with the Books
of Life and Death open before Him, while the people sing joyful praises to
seems that the Gemara assumes, in its question, that it would certainly be
appropriate, if not obligatory, to recite the joyous prayer of Hallel on Rosh Ha-shana. The Gemaras answer, however, is
somewhat unclear. Does the Gemara
mean to deny Rosh Ha-shana any aspect of joy or happiness, or merely to temper
it by omitting Hallel?
the Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla
Ve-Chanukka 3:6) writes:
we do not recite Hallel on Rosh
Ha-shana and Yom Ha-kippurim, as they are days of repentance (teshuva),
fear (yira) and dread, NOT DAYS OF EXCESSIVE JOY (simcha yeteira).
Rambam describes Rosh Ha-shana as a day of repentance, characterized by fear
and dread, yet he still implies that there is a mitzva to rejoice!
regarding the commandment of simchat
yom tov, rejoicing on the
festival, as well, the Rishonim disagree as to whether the mitzva applies on
Torah (Devarim 16:14) instructs us:
Ve-samachta be-chaggekha, And you shall rejoice on your holiday. The Rishonim debate whether this mitzva
is limited to the consumption of the shalmei simcha, the joyous peace-offerings
brought on the Shalosh Regalim (the Three Pilgrimage Festivals) for the
purpose of rejoicing, or whether it extends to other expressions of happiness as
(Moed Katan 14, s.v. Aseh de-yachid), for example, assume that
the obligation of simchat yom tov may only be fulfilled through
the consumption of shalmei simcha, and they therefore conclude that
the obligation nowadays, in the absence of the Temple, must be rabbinic.
the other hand, the Rambam (Hilkhot Yom tov 6:17-18) writes:
person is obligated to rejoice on these days he, his children, his wife, his
grandchildren, and all those who have joined his family as the Torah states,
And you shall rejoice on your holiday. Even though the Torah is referring to the
obligation to offer and consume peace-offerings (the shalmei simcha), INCLUDED IN THIS OBLIGATION
TO REJOICE IS FOR A PERSON AND HIS ENTIRE FAMILY TO REJOICE IN THE MANNER THAT
IS APPROPRIATE FOR HIM. How is
this practiced? One distributes parched grain, nuts, and delicacies to the
children. One purchases, depending
on what he can afford, clothes and beautiful jewelry for the women in the
family. The men eat meat and drink
wine, as there is no rejoicing without meat and wine.
Rambam expands the parameters of the mitzva of simchat yom tov to include other expressions of
joy as well. Clearly, Tosafot
cannot maintain that the obligation to rejoice on festivals applies on Rosh
Ha-shana, as it has no obligation to offer shalmei simcha! However, the Rambam, who expands the
definition of simchat yom tov, might apply this mitzva to Rosh
Ha-shana. Indeed, as we saw above,
he describes Rosh Ha-shana as a day without EXCESSIVE happiness, but with
happiness nonetheless. Furthermore,
he implies elsewhere (Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17) that the mitzva applies to
festivals other than Pesach and Sukkot, seemingly referring to Shavuot, Rosh
Ha-shana and Yom Kippur!
on Rosh Ha-shana
Mishna (Moed Katan 19a) discusses which holidays pre-empt the first
seven and first thirty days of mourning, known as shiva and
sheloshim respectively, observed after the burial of a close
relative. Rabban Gamliel and the
Chakhamim argue whether only the Shalosh Regalim cancel shiva, or
even Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur do so.
Achai Gaon, in his Sheiltot (Parashat Chayyei Sarah 15), explains
that Rabban Gamliel, who rules that Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur are akin to
the Festivals, maintains that the commandment of simchat yom tov must also apply on these
days. He clearly assumes that it is
the mitzva to rejoice which cancels shiva.
Ramban (Moed Katan 24b) also derives from the verse in Nechemya,
cited above, that on Rosh Ha-shana there is simcha and a prohibition to be sad, and
therefore the observances of shiva and sheloshim are halted by
on Rosh Ha-shana
regarding ones demeanor while eating on Rosh Ha-shana, we find this halakhic
ambivalence. The Shulchan Arukh
(OC 597:1) writes:
eat, drink and rejoice, and they do not fast on Rosh Ha-shana and Shabbat
Shuva. However, they should not eat
to satiety, in order that they not become lightheaded that the fear of God
should be upon their faces (cf. Shemot 20:16).
Mishna Berura (597:1) explains that although Rosh Ha-shana is a day of
judgment, the commandment of simcha
obligates one to eat and drink, as stated in Nechemya.
Rema (597:3), however, cites the Terumat Ha-deshen (245), who asserts that some
consider it a mitzva to fast on Rosh Ha-shana. The Tur and Beit Yosef cite the relevant
opinions. Furthermore, the Magen
Avraham, in his introductory comments to this chapter, cites the Bach, who
relates that Rav Shelomo Luria
(1510-1574), known as
the Maharshal, would not eat fish, which he especially enjoyed, on Rosh
Ha-shana, as he wished to restrict himself in some way. He also cites a discussion regarding the
propriety of eating meat and wearing nice, festive clothing on Rosh
the Mordekhai (Rosh Ha-shana 708) cites Rav Nachshon Gaon, who prohibits
fasting on Rosh Ha-shana, due to its inherent simcha, and the Taz (1) and Mishna
Berura (12) concur.
on Rosh Ha-shana
The question of the nature and experience of Rosh Ha-shana may also impact upon both the text and recitation of the days prayers.
the text of the Shemoneh Esreh and Kiddush of Rosh Ha-shana, the
Rosh (Rosh Ha-shana 4:14), and subsequently his son, the Tur (582), bring
different customs. They cite Rav
Sar-Shalom, Rav Paltoi Gaon and Rav Shemuel ben Chofni, who report that in the
two major Babylonian yeshivot they would say on Rosh Ha-shana the
standard Shalosh Regalim formula, thanking God for giving us
moadim le-simcha, chaggim u-zmannim le-sason, appointed
seasons for rejoicing, holidays and times for
jubilation. The Tur concludes, however, that the
custom is in accordance with Rav Hai Gaon, who omits the references to simcha. Clearly, they are debating the very
character of Rosh Ha-shana.
Interestingly, the Posekim discuss even the manner in which one should pray on Rosh Ha-shana. The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (129:2), for example, records that some are accustomed to praying the silent, standing prayers of Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur while bowing, with their heads lowered. He personally recommends praying upright, with a bent heart and with tears.
Ovadya Yosef (Yechavveh Daat 2:69) also discusses this issue: should one
pray with happiness and elation, or out of fear of judgment, while
crying? He cites Rav Chayyim Vital,
who testifies that the Arizal would cry during his Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur
prayers. Alternatively, he notes
that the Vilna Gaon (Maaseh Rav 207) maintains that one should not cry
during ones prayers on Rosh Ha-shana and that the cantor should lead the
prayers with a traditional Festival melody. He concludes that one who is naturally
overcome by tears may cry. However,
one should not bring oneself to weep; rather, one should pray with happiness and
Ha-shana surely emerges as a confusing holiday; from the Sages to the later
Acharonim, our greatest minds have grappled with its nature and experience.
It would seem that this confusion is no accident. In fact, all service of God, as King David relates, reflects this dialectic. In his Tehillim, we find both Serve God with joy; come before His presence with singing (100:2), and Serve God with fear, and rejoice with trembling (2:11).
Tehillim (100, s.v.
Serve God with joy
another verse says, Serve God with fear. If [one serves] with joy, how is it with
fear? And if [one serves] with fear, how is it with joy?
records different resolutions to this quandary. On the one hand, Rav Acha suggests that
one should serve God in this world with fear, in order to reach the next world
with happiness. Similarly, Rabbi
Aivu distinguishes between tefilla, during which joy is the primary
feeling, as opposed to other activities, during which fear dominates. On the other hand, the midrash
suggests another type of solution: With joy is it possible without fear as
well? The verse therefore teaches, with fear.
In other words, joy
and fear do not necessarily contradict each other; rather, they are crucial and
complementary components of our service of God.
When we discuss the
different reasons behind the mitzva of shofar, we will note that Rosh Ha-shana
is yom harat olam, the day of the worlds creation, during which we
coronate God as King over humanity.
Standing before God and accepting upon ourselves His service inspires not
only feelings of fear and trepidation, but feelings of joy and happiness as
These seemingly contradictory feelings are natural for one who truly experiences and internalizes Rosh Ha-shana and sets the proper tone for the entire year, during which our service of God vacillates between simcha and yira, and at times is even comprised of both.