Rosh Ha-shana: Fast or Feast
On the one hand, we call Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur "the High Holidays;" on the other hand, we refer to them as "the Days of Awe." Likewise, in Hebrew when we refer to "the Chagim" we have Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur in mind together with Sukkot, but when we refer to them by themselves, we call them the "Yamim Noraim." This dual nomenclature reflects a far-reaching duality in the nature of Rosh Ha-shana - it is a day of both festivity and great solemnity.
The ambiguous status of the day can already be discerned in the Torah: On the one hand, Rosh Ha-shana is included in "Parashat Ha-mo'adim," the section of Parashat Emor (Vayikra 23) which enumerates all of the festivals. Likewise, cooking is permitted on Rosh Ha-shana, as it is on all other festivals, presumably indicating that there is a special importance to eating on this day. But nowhere is the word "mo'ed" (festival) used explicitly in connection with Rosh Ha- shana, nor is there any mention of a commandment to rejoice (mitzvat simcha).
Likewise, in the book of Ezra, the new "olim" are encouraged to celebrate the day joyfully - but this admonition is itself addressed against an explicit background of dread of judgement. "And Nechemia the Tirshata and Ezra the Cohen and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people, said to the people: 'Today is holy unto the Lord your God; do not be mournful and do not weep.' (For all the people were weeping when they heard the words of the Torah.) And he said to them, 'Go eat rich foods and drink sweet drink, and send portions to any who lack, for today is holy to our Lord; and do not be sad, for rejoicing in the Lord is your might'" (Nechemia 8:9- 10).
Several halakhic questions also depend on how we view the holiday. For instance, is it proper to mention in our Rosh Ha-shana prayers "mo'adim le-simcha" - including Rosh Ha-shana among the fixed times that God ordained for rejoicing? The Tur (OC 582:8) quotes several authorities who rule that we should mention this, although the custom follows Rav Hai Gaon's negative ruling. It follows that we do not greet one another by saying "Chag Same'ach" (Mo'adei Ra'aya).
And how should we dress? It is a mitzva to groom oneself and to wear dignified garments in honor of a holiday. Consequently, the Shulchan Arukh rules that one should indeed wash one's clothes and have a haircut before Rosh Ha-shana (OC 51:4), but some Acharonim suggest that, at any rate, one shouldn't wear one's finest clothes (Taz cited in Mishna Berura 51:25).
Then there is the question of eating. It would seem that the awe of Judgement Day would preclude a festive meal, yet we see that, despite the general prohibition of melakha (labor) on Rosh Ha-shana, cooking is permitted. The Shulchan Arukh rules that one is commanded to eat and drink and rejoice (597:1), but immediately explains that some have a custom to fast on this day.
While the accepted halakha is a bit of a compromise - one should wear nice clothes, but not overly fine ones; one should not fast, but may go until noon without eating to hear shofar - it seems that, overall, "feast" wins out over "fast." This is especially true nowadays, when most people wear their holiday clothes to shul and have a little kiddush in the morning so that they can concentrate on hearing the shofar.
What is the explanation of this dominance of the festive element of the day? Does it mean that we subordinate the more solemn aspect?
One explanation which is mentioned by several Acharonim is that while we are internally and individually in awe of judgement, we want to demonstrate outwardly and collectively that we are sure of vindication in our trial, presumably because of the collective merit of our community and of our holy forefathers (Mishna Berura op. cit.).
An additional explanation may be that the conflict is not as great as it seems. Perhaps the experience of Divine Judgement is itself a reason for rejoicing!
While most people believe in God, they usually feel very far from Him. At the most, they feel that God is with them at an especially lucky or happy time, or whisper a truly heartfelt prayer to Him when they face misfortune. Even an inspirational talk or article usually strengthens one's abstract faith rather than one's active awareness of God's presence - the feeling of an encounter with the Infinite.
But the day of judgement is the day of the ultimate closeness to God. First of all, the act of judgement itself involves standing in the presence of the King of Kings. This experience itself, while an awe-inspiring one, is a unique privilege - one that is extended to all of mankind on this day, but one that only the Jewish people are fully aware of.
Indeed, we should be joyous not only over the fact of God's judgement, but also over the content of His judgement. The Divine Judge on Rosh Ha-shana scrutinizes all of our actions of the past year. We now realize that all those times that we felt God was very far from us, He was actually very close. On this day He remembers each and every action, its context and significance.
We should further rejoice over the outcome of the judgement - the sentence. God decrees our circumstances for the coming year. Whatever our material conditions during the coming year, we may remind ourselves that they are not mere chance, but rather are due to the active intervention of God in our lives according to what He ordained for us at the outset of the year.
Finally, we should realize the significance of the act of judgement. Since a king's main function is to judge the people, entreating God to judge us is the most direct way of making Him sovereign - the main theme of the day's prayers.
If it still seems unseemly that even the positive side of such a dreadful encounter with the King of Kings should be a reason for feasting, let us keep the nature of the "trial" in perspective. We should remember that Rosh Ha-shana is not the "final judgement." We are not judged then as to whether we will merit resurrection, or on our place in the next world; these judgements are put off until we reach the World of Truth, after we leave this world. The Ramban explains that the judgement on Rosh Ha-shana regards our earthly status - wealth or poverty, health or sickness, even life or death, but not our ultimate spiritual attainment, and this point of view is certainly borne out by the content of the day's prayers. While a person should certainly not be indifferent to the circumstances under which he will be endeavoring to serve God in this world, it is proper to view these circumstances with a certain degree of equanimity - a degree sufficient to view the actual experience of judgement as an encounter which transcends the actual subject matter of the case.
Indeed, on Rosh Ha-shana we actively urge God to judge us. We emphasize in our prayers His role as judge and his remembrance of each and every detail of our lives.
The idea of desiring God's closeness, even though this involves severity of judgement, is a common theme in Scripture. For instance, as part of the praise of the land of Israel, the Torah emphasizes that its bounty is dependent on our behavior: "For the land which you are entering to inherit is not like the land of Egypt which you left, which you would sow and then irrigate with your foot like a garden. Rather, the land which you are passing over to inherit is a land of hills and valleys, and you will drink of the rain of the sky. It is a land which the Lord your God scrutinizes constantly, the eyes of God are upon it from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. And it will be, if you hearken well to my commandments which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will bring yourland's rains at the appropriate time, the early and the late rain, and you will gather your grain and your wine and your oil" (Devarim 11:10- 14). The Torah goes on to explain that neglect of the commandments will lead to the withholding of the land's material bounty.
In other words, the land of Israel is desirable and good exactly because it is subject to God's scrutiny, and our material circumstances in it are totally dependent on our adherence to God's will. Likewise, Rosh Ha-shana is a joyful time exactly because it is a day when God examines our actions, and judges our material circumstances accordingly. Indeed, the judgement of Rosh Ha-shana seems to be hinted at in the above passage, which refers to the fact that God's attention is upon the land "from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."
The act of judgement involves God's intimate attention to all of our actions - indicating His providence - and demonstrates that He is the ultimate judge - indicating His sovereignty. Here is the ultimate experience that God is involved and present wherever we go, and whatever we do. What could be a better occasion for rejoicing?