Rosh Hashanah Liturgical Themes

The focus is on God, humanity, and the relationship between the two.

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In this excerpt, the author mentions the major themes of Rosh Hashanah, and focuses his discussion on the specific theme of the creation of the world. The other themes are highlighted in greater detail, with the use of examples from the machzor, in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy chapters of Entering the High Holy Days. This article is excerpted from Entering the High Holy Days. It is reprinted with permission from the Jewish Publication Society of America.

The liturgy of Rosh Hashanah reflects the dominant thematic strands that are woven together in this holiday: the celebration of God's coronation and kingship, the creation of the world and the beginning of a new yearly cycle, and the recognition of the seventh new month as the time when individuals, nations, and indeed all humankind are judged.

These themes convey a variety of feelings, and the prayers and observances of the day likewise impart a mixture of rejoicing and apprehension, of confidence and trepidation.

mahzorThe idea of kingship is, as we have seen, an ancient one that may have been connected to Rosh Hashanah from its inception. The concept of creation is closely allied to that of kingship. God becomes king when the work of creation is completed and God rules over all He has made. This link between the themes of kingship and creation is reiterated in that between creation and judgment. Rabbi Eliezer offers the following commentary on this subject, in his reading of the verse, "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month" (Lev. 23:24). 

"The world was created on the 25th of Elul… Thus we find that Primal Adam was created on the first of Tishrei...at the 10th hour he disobeyed God's command, at the 11th he was judged.... The Holy One said to him: Adam, you are a precedent for your progeny. Just as you came before me for judgment and I absolved you, so shall your progeny come before Me for judgment and I will absolve them. When? On Rosh Hashanah, 'In the seventh month, on the first day of the month.'"

This midrash explains why days of judgment such as Rosh Hashanah can be celebrated with joy: God's pardon is built into the scheme of judgment.

The centrality ofjudgment as a theme in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy stems from the teachings of the early Sages:

"There are four periods of judgment: Passover for produce; Shavuot for the fruit of trees; on Rosh Hashanah all creatures of the world pass before Him as a troop of soldiers, as it is said, "He who fashions the hearts of them all, who discerns all their doings" (Ps. 33:15); and on Sukkot for water" (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:2).

"All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur. So taught Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Judah says: All [fruits, produce, humans, and water] are judged on Rosh Hashanah and their sentence is sealed at its appropriate time [as above]...so that the sentence of human beings is sealed on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yose says: Human beings are judged daily, as it is said [in Job 7:18], "You inspect him every morning, examine him every minute" (T. Rosh Hashanah 1. 13).

Judgment, as we have seen, stems from the idea that Rosh Hashanah is the time of God's remembrance, when God fulfills His word and remembers us for good. Throughout the Mahzor [holiday prayer book],these themes repeat themselves, reminding us that we live in a created world, under the sovereignty of a God who cares for us and holds us responsible for our actions.

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Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer

Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer is a former President of the International Rabbinical Assembly, he is one of the founders of the Masorti Movement in Israel and is currently Head of the Masorti Beth Din in Israel.