What’s the other side to Rosh Hashanah?…ask the Rabbi

August 31, 2015 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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What is the other side to Rosh Hashanah?


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Rabbi Raymond Apple

In olden days education was said to be the 3 Rs – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic. Rosh HaShanah, in contrast, is the 3 Ss – solemn, serious and sacred. The very air of the day is rarefied. It’s obvious it is not a day for frivolity.

True, it all washes over some of those who come to shule for their annual lip service to Judaism, and all they can find to do is to bother their shule neighbours with the 3 W’s – “When is the service going to finish?”, “What is she wearing that dress for?”, “Why did you buy those shares?”

Yet there is a legitimate argument for humour on Rosh HaShanah, as any rabbi with as long a career in shule business as mine can attest.

Take the year when I preached about Jewish demography. The theme was the Torah readings and haftarot of the festival. All focus on children – in particular, our Biblical ancestors’ desperate longing for continuity. I applied the thought to the contemporary Jewish scene. Jews are a vanishing species, I said, and if Judaism is to survive, Jews must have more children – at least four per family.

After I ended I saw a congregant (call him Sam) stand up and signal to his wife, after which both left the synagogue. Later I asked him, “Sam, what was that all about?” Answer: “I was signalling, ‘You heard what the rabbi said: more children per family. We’ve got work to do!'”

Or the year when I was “Ba’al Shacharit” and there was no sign of the chazan. Shacharit took its course and there was still no chazan. I’m no singer and never was. The mere thought that I might have to conduct the rest of the service with the choir!

I began “Avinu Malkenu, chatanu l’fanecha”. The president came up to me: “What shall we do?” I went on, “Avinu Malkenu, ein lanu melech ella attah!” Said the president, “Can you play for time?” “Avinu Malkenu, aseh immanu l’ma’an sh’mecha!… I’ll pray for time!” “If he doesn’t turn up, how will we manage?” asked the president. “Avinu Malkenu, chaddesh alenu shanah tovah! Send me the choirmaster!” Between lines of “Avinu Malkenu” we worked out an ad-hoc program, with the choir doing the main singing parts.

I began “Ein kamocha” with trepidation. I never davened with such a shaking heart. In the end the chazan came in during the haftarah. He had felt unwell and made a detour to the local hospital. He did daven beautifully but it took me years to get over the shock.

In my early days I was also the “Ba’al T’ki’ah”. There is a folk tradition that when the shofar just won’t co-operate one says, “Satan m’kat’reg” – “The Adversary has got into it!” On one occasion I barely managed with the notes. A voice from the congregation was heard, “Sho far sho good!”

I can tell you stories about Tashlich as well, but Rosh HaShanah services shouldn’t go on too long and neither should Rosh HaShanah articles. So a final comment. In any shule where I was the rabbi they saved a little money on Rosh HaShanah. For their apple and honey they only had to pay for the honey (in another shule where the rabbi’s name was Honig it was the apple they had to pay for!)… Shanah Tovah!


Q. We announce every Rosh Chodesh the Shabbat before. Why not Rosh Chodesh Tishri?

A. It is not necessary, because Rosh Chodesh Tishri is also Rosh HaShanah, the approach of which is seen all around us.

The other months are different, since, in the early stages of our history, people were unsure about dates without an announcement.  Even in our own age, with all our technological media, we sometimes wonder what the date is and have to ask a computer or cell phone.

Jewish life and observance depend on knowing the Hebrew date. Announcing the month is a religious duty. Chapter 12 of Sh’mot tells us, “This month (Nisan) shall be for you the first of the months”; Rambam states that this indicates an obligation to announce the months (Hil. Kiddush HaChodesh 1).

Originally the determination of when the month began depended on eye-witness testimony before the Sanhedrin, but later it was governed by “cheshbon” (calendrical calculation).

The wording of the announcement of Rosh Chodesh, asking God to give us a good month, is based on a personal prayer of Rav (Ber. 16b), rewritten in the plural.

The importance of Rosh Chodesh is connected with the phases of the moon. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, so does Jewish history. A person’s spiritual life also goes through stages, oscillating between greater and lesser faith. This doctrine of movement shows us how important it is to take the long view of history and not to be too impressed (or frightened) by the emotion of the moment.

As well as the above explanation, some say that not announcing Rosh Chodesh Tishri is in order to confuse the Adversary, who, if he/it does not know when Rosh HaShanah will be, cannot harm the Jewish people. This theory is well known but has its obvious drawbacks and defects.


Q. I know all about the other festivals because of the events they commemorate. Can you tell me what history there is behind Rosh HaShanah?

A. The main event is the creation of the world, more precisely the creation of Adam on the sixth day. Hence the liturgy says, “Hayom harat olam”, “This is the birthday of the world”.

Other events which are said to have occurred on Rosh HaShanah are Cain and Abel bringing their sacrifices; the Binding of Isaac (the “Akedah”); Jacob’s arrival at Bet-El and his dream of the ladder; God hearing the prayers of three childless women, Sarah, Rachel and Hannah; Joseph’s release from prison in Egypt; and the great assembly of the people called by Ezra and Nechemiah. Other events in medieval and modern times also occurred on Rosh HaShanah.

With all this background, there is ample reason to regard it as a historical commemoration, but Jewish tradition has chosen only one main event to focus on – the creation of the world, in order to invest Rosh HaShanah with the significance of a Divine Day of Judgment on which the whole of creation comes under scrutiny.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

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