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Secrets of Rosh Hashanah

This first of this week’s two Torah portions, Nitzavim, is always read right before Rosh Hashanah, and appropriately begins: “You are all standing today before Hashem, your God…” The verse has traditionally been seen as an allusion to Rosh Hashanah, when each person stands before God and is judged. The Torah says today, implying one day, yet everyone celebrates Rosh Hashanah over two days. This is true even in Israel, where yom tovs are typically observed for only one day.

The reason for this is because in ancient times there was no set calendar, so a new month was declared based on the testimony of two witnesses. Once the new month was declared in Jerusalem, messengers were sent out to inform the rest of the communities in the Holy Land, and beyond. Communities that were far from Israel would not receive the message until two or three weeks later, so they would often have to observe the holidays based on their own (doubtful) opinion of when the holiday should be. They therefore kept each yom tov for two days.

Rosh Hashanah, however, is the only holiday that takes place on the very first day of the month, so as soon as the new month of Tishrei was declared, it was immediately Rosh Hashanah, and messengers could not be sent out! Thus, even communities across Israel would observe the holiday for two days, based on their own observations.

Although today we have a set calendar, and there is no longer a declaration of a new month based on witnesses, two days are still observed since established traditions become permanent laws. Of course, this is only the simplest of explanations, for there are certainly deeper reasons in observing two days, especially when it comes to Rosh Hashanah.

Judgement in Eden

Rosh Hashanah commemorates the day that God fashioned Adam and Eve. On that same day, the first couple consumed the Forbidden Fruit, were judged, and banished from the Garden of Eden. Originally, they had been made immortal. Now, they had brought death into the world, and God decreed that their earthly life would have an end. Adam and Eve were, not surprisingly, the first people to be inscribed in the Book of Death. Each year since, on the anniversary of man’s creation and judgement, every single human being (Jewish or not) is judged in the Heavenly Court, and inscribed in the Book of Life, or the Book of Death.

This is the idea behind the symbolic consumption of apples in honey. In Jewish tradition, the Garden of Eden is likened to an apple orchard, with the scent of the air in Eden being like that of apples. (Having said that, it is not a Jewish tradition that the Forbidden Fruit itself was an apple!) The apple reminds us of the Garden—of Adam and Eve and their judgement—and we dip it in honey so that our judgement should be sweet.

But what happens when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat? It is well-known that there is no judgement on Shabbat. The Heavenly Court rests, and even the souls in Gehinnom are said to have a day off. This is illustrated by a famous exchange in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) between Rabbi Akiva and the Roman governor of Judea at the time, Turnus Rufus:

Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: “How does [Shabbat] differ from any other day?”
He replied: “How does one official differ from another?”
“Because my lord [the Roman Emperor], wishes it so.”
Rabbi Akiva said: “the Sabbath, too, is distinguished because the Lord wishes it so.”
He asked: “How do you know that this day is the Sabbath?”
[Rabbi Akiva] answered: “The River Sambation proves it; the ba’al ov proves it; your father’s grave proves it, as no smoke ascends from it on Shabbat.”

An illustration of Rabbi Akiva from the Mantua Haggadah of 1568

Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva how the Jews are certain that the Sabbath that they keep is actually the correct seventh day since Creation. Rabbi Akiva brings three proofs:

The first is a legendary river called the Sambation (or Sabbation), which was known in those days, and which raged the entire week, but flowed calmly only on Shabbat. The second proof is that people who summon the dead from the afterlife (practicing a form of witchcraft called ov) are unable to channel the dead on Shabbat. (I know of a person who was once involved in such dark arts and became a religious Jew after realizing that he was never able to summon spirits on the Sabbath or on Jewish holidays!) Lastly, Rabbi Akiva notes how Turnus Rufus’ own father’s grave would emit smoke every day of the week, except on Shabbat. This is because the soul of Rufus’ wicked father was in Gehinnom, but all souls in that purgatory get a reprieve on Shabbat. (Historical sources suggest that Rufus’ father was Terentius Rufus, one of the generals involved in the destruction of the Second Temple.)

Based on this, we can understand why Rosh Hashanah must be observed over two days. When the holiday falls on Shabbat, no judgement can take place, so the judgement is pushed off to the next day. This is also related to the fact that when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown. This is not at all because blowing a shofar is forbidden on Shabbat, which is, in fact, permitted.

The simple explanation given for this is that we’re worried the person blowing the shofar might carry it to the synagogue (in a place without an eruv), and carrying is forbidden on Shabbat. The deeper reason is this: Blowing the shofar is supposed to “confound Satan”. Satan is not the trident-carrying, horned demon of the underworld (as popularly believed in Christianity). Rather, Satan literally means the “one who opposes” or the “prosecutor”. It is Satan’s job to serve as the prosecution in the Heavenly Court. The shofar’s blow confuses Satan, and prevents him from working too much against us. On Shabbat, the Heavenly Court rests, and Satan is having a day off, so there is no need to confound him!

The First Shabbat

One might argue that Rosh Hashanah should only be two days long when it falls on Shabbat; in other years, one day would suffice. Other than the fact that this would be confusing—as the holiday would span different lengths in different years—there are other explanations for the two days, including that each day involves different types of judgement (for example, one day for sins bein adam l’Makom, between man and God; and one day for bein adam l’havero, between man and his fellow). Nonetheless, our Sages still describe Rosh Hashanah as really being one day—one unique, extra-long, 48-hour day which our Sages called yoma arichta, literally the “long day”. Perhaps this is another reason for the custom of not sleeping on the “first night” of Rosh Hashanah. (The other reason: how could anyone possibly sleep through their own trial?)

Finally, the story of Rabbi Akiva and Turnus Rufus gives us one more reason to commemorate Rosh Hashanah over two days. Rufus questioned Rabbi Akiva on how he can be so sure that the Sabbath which he keeps is indeed the correct seventh day going back to Creation. If Rosh Hashanah is the day Adam and Eve were created, then it corresponds to the sixth day of Creation. That means the very next day was the seventh day of Creation, and that the second day of Rosh Hashanah always commemorates the very first Sabbath. When we celebrate on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we mark Adam and Eve’s first Shabbat, and recognize that each seventh day has been observed ever since, and will continue to be observed for another, 5778th upcoming year.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!