Ernst Simon elucidates for us here the meanings of Rosh Hashanah. An earlier commentary of his, on the book of Jonah with special reference to Yom Kippur, appeared in our September 1953 number.
The calendar, with its rhythmic division of the year, its beginning and its end, its workdays, rest days and holidays, provides a characteristic expression of the spirit of different religions, cultures, and peoples. This is especially true of that moment or event which is taken as the starting point from which time is reckoned. For Christianity, Jesus, as the son of God, had only to be born to open a new era in world history; Islam, however, whose prophet claimed no divinity for himself, begins its reckoning, quite consistently, not with Mohammed’s birth but with his first great act as the founder of a religion, the flight from Mecca to Medina, the “hegira” of 622.
Secular movements too, like the French Revolution and Italian Fascism, have attempted—mostly without success—to introduce new calendars, and thus to symbolize their epochal importance. With us also one occasionally sees a date given as “In the year such-and-such since the foundation of the Jewish state,” but the idea does not seem to have caught on. Jews, even those of Israel, still reckon time from the creation of the world; their New Year is its birthday.
This was not always wholly undisputed. The Mishnah tract “Rosh Hashanah” begins as follows: “There are four beginnings of the year: the first of Nisan is Rosh Hashanah for the kings [i.e., their reigns] and for holidays. The first of Elul is Rosh Hashanah for the tithe of cattle. . . . The first of Tishri is Rosh Hashanah for the year and for the fallow year and the jubilee year, for planting and for vegetables. The first of Shebat is Rosh Hashanah for trees, according to the school of Shammai; but the school of Hillel says the fifteenth.”
The Jewish calendar still retains certain remnants of this original division into four: Nisan, not Tishri, is the first month, and we celebrate the “New Year’s festival of the trees” on the fifteenth of Shebat. None of these survivals has, however, acquired even in the slightest degree the religious significance of “Rosh Hashanah,” even though “Rosh Hashanah” doesn’t appear in the Torah, as we know, as a specially significant day but only as the day of the shofar-blowing and of the holy gathering that precedes Yom Kippur by ten days.
Samson Raphael Hirsch has characterized the luach, the Jewish calendar, as our catechism, and Bialik has taught us to look for ultimate metaphysical positions in Talmudic interpretations. Perhaps it would not be too bold, therefore, to extend a similar interpretation to the foregoing Mishnah. From this point of view the conflict between the four beginnings of the year would represent a decision worked out by the Jewish folk spirit. The New Year on the first of Nisan would represent the political principle, that on the first of Elul the religious one, and that on the fifteenth of Shebat the purely natural one. But the first of Tishri, our Rosh Hashanah, simply opens the year, although, of course, the date has connections with the rhythm of nature, and its religious-legal regulation. It is—in the language of the machzor, the holiday prayer book, Yom Harat Olam—the birthday of the world. And as such, it conquered its political, ritual, and purely natural rivals. The outcome of this rivalry bears a universalistic character: it is an acknowledgment of humanity and its unity.
This characteristic of the Jewish New Year is also expressed in the excerpts from the Torah and the Prophets that we read by rabbinical prescription on Rosh Hashanah. The first day shows us a very old couple, Sarah and Abraham, who now at last have received their long prayed-for son: Isaac. But Sarah is so jealous of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by the Egyptian maid Hagar—whose name points etymologically to hagira, hegira, to wandering and flight—that she forces Abraham to drive them forth, and even God gives his consent. But now the suffering and distress of the fleeing mother are depicted, as her son is threatened with death by thirst in the desert. She goes a bowshot’s length away from him because she cannot bear to watch him die. But an angel of God comforts her from heaven, and God opens her eyes and shows her a nearby well, “for God heard the voice of the lad wherever he was” (Gen. 21). So God heard the voice of a suffering child then, and leaned down to the heart of a tortured mother, even though she was “only” a fugitive Egyptian.
The prophetic text for the same day, the first chapter of the First Book of Samuel, takes up the same purely human motif of the primal relationship between parents and children, and carries it further. Elkanah has two wives, the childless Hannah, and Peninnah, the “pearl,” the fruitful one. It is Hannah whom he loves more, but she endures one humiliation after another from her fortunate rival, as Hagar, the maid, did from Sarah, the “princess.” But whereas in the Torah passage, despite all the sympathy shown to Hagar, the final victory goes to Sarah, in the Prophetic text the situation is reversed. We hear no more of Peninnah, but Hannah, whose name is related to chen, mercy, finally wins divine mercy by her mute prayer in which “only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard,” and which laid the religious-legal foundation for the softly spoken Shmóna Esrai, the recital of the Eighteen Benedictions.
However, Eli, the priest, who is the official superintendent of the ritual and the highest representative of “religion,” misinterprets Hannah’s mute prayer as the behavior of a drunkard, and must learn the truth of her religious intoxication from her. The simple woman conquers the priest’s skepticism. . . . And so Judaism begins every new year with this victory of the mother over the institution and its soul-deaf representatives. Hagar the Egyptian, the mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs, and Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, join hands as sisters in maternal suffering and maternal consolation.
The second day of the holiday brings a further heightening of the same motif. Abraham must lose Isaac, Isaac, the one of his two sons whom he loves wholly. After the suffering of mothers, passive feminine suffering, comes active masculine suffering; he must inflict it on himself. The paradox of his loyal readiness to sacrifice his son, understandable only as mystery, is rewarded; as God’s angel had reserved a well for Ishmael, so God has reserved something better for Isaac: a sacrificial lamb instead of his own sacrifice. The two half-brothers and foes run the same danger and are saved in similar ways; they too have become brothers, as Hagar and Hannah have become sisters.
But the Prophetic text from the thirty-first chapter of Jeremiah lifts one factor in this primally human motif of the day of Rosh Hashanah—and that perhaps the central one—out of the realm of the personal, although it does not destroy its personal meaning. That is the factor of the mother. Rachel weeps for her children and refuses to be comforted, “ki enennu.” The two Hebrew words can be translated in different ways, and next to the customary translation—“because they are not”—one might set the bolder one—“as if they were not.” This becomes especially clear when one thinks of the only other Biblical parallel in which a man apparently robbed of his child refuses to be comforted: that of Jacob mourning for Joseph (Gen. 37:35). But Joseph is alive, and so are the sons of Rachel, who for Jeremiah’s prophetic consciousness was at once mother and ancestress. Thus her children become the temporally lost and eternally safe tribes of Israel.
But the father motif, too, is capable of a further extension. We learn of it in a prayer that belongs exclusively to the “ten days of returning” from the first to the tenth of Tishri, and in which we call God both “our Father” and “our King.”
“Avinu, Malkenu,” it is He Who, on the birthday of His world, comforts His children and makes them brothers and sisters, all the loving fathers and mothers and their threatened and rescued children. As it always does, here, too, the thing most individual depends on the universal: the world is reborn in the individual human being.
Today the “Days of Awe” are an embarrassment for most of us because we can give them neither a national, a ritual, nor a purely natural meaning. The return they require of us leaves the birthdays of the kings, of the tithes, and of the trees their place and their rights, but it claims the central place for that which Rosh Hashanah always was and always will be—the birthday of the world.