On Rosh Hashana all of mankind is put on trial, person by person.
The closest thing to a real theological schism within Judaism concerns the inner definition of the holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, celebrated this year on September 9 and 18 (September 10 is appended to make Rosh Hashana a two-day event). In the Bible itself, the first is declared to be a special day, with the blowing of trumpets, but offers no more detail. Yom Kippur, nine days later, is described at greater length as a time where special forgiveness is granted for sins.
In the Oral Tradition, laid out in the Mishna and Talmud, these two holidays form a duumvirate. On Rosh Hashana all of mankind is put on trial, person by person. The trial is to determine if that person should receive the grant of one more year of life. If the verdict is clear, it is handed down the same day. But if the person is, like most of us, a mixed bag of virtue and vice, the case is continued until Yom Kippur. If the person can pull himself together to commit to behaving better in the future, he will be awarded another year.
The debate rages in the post-Talmudic era over why this is the appropriate time to dole out the time allotments for the coming year. One view believes that this day is the anniversary of the Creation of Man. Since the beginning of time, a system was put in place to require annual evaluations for each human being. This is why you hear people refer to this holiday as the Jewish New Year, and indeed the Jewish dating system shifts the year from 5770 to 5771 on this day, despite the Bible stating that this holiday is observed on “the first day of the seventh month.”
The other view, mostly drowned out by this point in history, believed that humanity came into being in the same month as Passover (the Exodus having occurred 2448 years later), which is why that is counted as the first month. Why, then, is humanity judged on this day? Since the Jews were forgiven for the Golden Calf on the tenth day of the seventh month, G-d henceforth instituted an annual trial nine days earlier, with the ten-day extended period allowing for improving the verdict through penitence.
In other words, either Rosh Hashana is the natural day for an annual trial because it is Man’s anniversary, in which case Yom Kippur is a sort of afterthought to help balance the trial. Or the opposite, Yom Kippur is a day of penitence generated by an event in Jewish history rather than human history, and Rosh Hashana, despite being scheduled earlier, is more the afterthought: a trial timed to utilize the opportunity for penance and penitence.
The liturgy reflects the first system, and most Jews are shocked to hear that the matter was once the subject of such controversy. The prayers recited include the phrase: “This is the day of Your initial creation.” And this one: “Today is the womb of the world.”
Thus, it is a universal holiday, despite being observed within the Jewish ritual system. It records the beginning of human history and asks us to reflect each year on the coming year. Is your life valuable enough to be worth sustaining? Are you deserving of the generous grant of an additional twelve months? Are you contributing enough to humanity to make your life a worthwhile investment? Food for thought. Happy New York, I hope…
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