The Experience of Rosh HaShana

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RH machzorby R. David Brofsky, excerpted from Hilkhot Mo’adim: Understanding the Laws of the Festivals
Rosh HaShana in Tanakh

Rosh HaShana, as it appears in Scripture, is somewhat mysterious. The Torah commands:

And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a holy convocation [mikra kodesh] for you; you shall do no servile work; it shall be a day of terua for you. (Num. 29:1)

While the celebration of Rosh HaShana does not entail the pilgrimage component of the other festivals, it shares an issur melakha, the prohibition of labor, as well as the title of “mikra kodesh.” The uniqueness of Rosh HaShana seems to lie in its being a “yom terua,” a “day of terua,” the ululating sound that is variously described in Scripture as emanating from the shofar, trumpets, or human throats. Similarly, the Torah teaches elsewhere:

And God spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to the Israelites, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a solemn rest for you, a terua memorial [zikhron terua], a holy convocation. You shall do no servile work, and you shall bring a fire-offering to God.” (Lev. 23:23–25)

Here, too, Rosh HaShana is described by the term “terua.” While our sages understand this to refer to the mitzva of shofar, the Torah uses the term to describe the day itself. In what way does “terua” characterize the day? What does blowing a shofar or trumpet symbolize?

Throughout Tanakh, we can identify two distinct, yet apparently contradictory descriptions of these sounds, and thus, of Rosh HaShana itself. On the one hand, the prophet Zephaniah describes the horrors that will befall the Jewish people as follows:

Hark…the great day of God is near; it is near and hastens greatly, the sound of the day of God, wherein the mighty man cries bitterly. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of waste and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of shofar and terua, against the fortified cities, and against the high towers. (Zeph. 1:10, 14–16)

The terms “shofar” and “terua” are clearly employed here to depict alarm and distress. Similarly, Amos describes the blowing of the shofar and the people’s response: “Shall a shofar be blown in the city, and the people not tremble? Shall evil befall a city, and God has not done it?” (Amos 3:6) Indeed, when the Jewish people go out to war, they are commanded to make this sound:

And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then you shall sound a terua with the trumpets; and you shall be remembered before Lord your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies. (Num. 10:9)

These verses strongly imply that “a day of terua” is a day of alarm, crisis, and distress.

On the other hand, the trumpets are also sounded on festive days, as the very next verse in Numbers notes:

And on the day of your joy, and on your appointed seasons, and on your new moons, you shall blow the trumpets over your burnt-offerings and over the sacrifices of your peace-offerings; and they shall be for you as a memorial before your God: I am Lord your God. (Num. 10:10)

Similarly, we find the following description of Ezra’s joyous reading of the Torah on Rosh HaShana:

And Ezra the Priest brought the Torah before the congregation, both men and women, and all that could listen with understanding, on the first day of the seventh month…. And Nechemia, who was the governor, and Ezra the Priest, the Scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; neither mourn nor weep!” For all the people were weeping, as they heard the words of the Torah. Then he said to them, “Go on your way. Eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions to him for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our God; do not be sad, for Gods gladness is your strength.” So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Hold your peace, for the day is holy; do not be sad.” And all the people went their way to eat, to drink, to send portions, and to make great joy; because they had understood the words that were said to them. (Nech 8:2, 9–12)

Nechemia commands the people to overcome their grief over their failure to keep the Torah. Instead, it is time to celebrate, because “this day,” Rosh HaShana, “is holy to our God.”

In summary, Tanakh portrays Rosh HaShana as both “a day of terua”– of fear and apprehension – and a day of great joy.

Hallel and Simchat Yom Tov on Rosh HaShana

The uncertainty regarding whether Rosh HaShana is a day of alarm and distress or one of happiness and joy continues in the halakhic literature. The Gemara instructs us to recite Hallel on the festivals and the eight days of Chanukka. The Gemara then questions why Hallel is not mandated on other special days, such as Rosh Chodesh, Chol HaMo’ed Pesach, and Purim. Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur seem to meet the requirements for Hallel; they are “appointed seasons” with a prohibition of labor. Why are they excluded?

R. Abbahu said: Is it seemly for the King to be sitting on His Throne of Judgment, with the Books of Life and Death open before Him, while the people sing joyful praises to Him? (Arakhin 10b)

From the fact that the Gemara asks why Hallel is not recited on Rosh HaShana, it seems to assume that it would certainly be appropriate, if not obligatory, to recite the joyous prayer of Hallel on Rosh HaShana. The Gemara’s answer, however, is somewhat unclear. Does the Gemara intend to deny Rosh HaShana any aspect of joy or happiness, or merely to temper it by omitting Hallel? Interestingly, Rambam writes:

However, we do not recite Hallel on Rosh HaShana and Yom HaKippurim, as they are days of repentance [teshuva], fear [yira], and dread, not days of excessive joy [simcha yeteira]. [1]Hilkhot Megilla and Chanukka 3:6.

Rambam describes Rosh HaShana as a day of repentance, characterized by “fear and dread,” yet he still implies that there is some mitzva to rejoice.

Indeed, the Rishonim disagree as to whether the mitzva of simchat Yom Tov, the command to rejoice on the festivals, applies to Rosh HaShana. The Torah instructs, “Vesamachta bechagekha” – “And you shall rejoice on your holiday” (Deut. 16:14). Is this mitzva limited to the consumption of the shalmei simcha, the joyous peace-offerings brought on the Shalosh Regalim (the Three Pilgrimage Festivals) for the purpose of rejoicing, in which case it would not apply to Rosh HaShana, or does it extend to other expressions of happiness as well?

Tosafot assume that the obligation of simchat Yom Tov may only be fulfilled through the consumption of shalmei simcha. The obligation to rejoice on the festivals nowadays, in the absence of the Temple, must be rabbinic in nature. [2]Tosafot, Mo’ed Katan 14, s.v. aseh deyachid. On the other hand, Rambam writes:

A person is obligated to rejoice on these days – he, his children, his wife, his grandchildren, and all those who have joined his family – as the Torah states, “And you shall rejoice on your holiday.” Even though the Torah is referring to the obligation to offer and consume peace-offerings (the shalmei simcha), included in this obligation to rejoice is for a person and his entire family to rejoice in the manner that is appropriate for him. How is this practiced? One distributes parched grain, nuts, and delicacies to the children. One purchases, depending on what he can afford, clothes and beautiful jewelry for the women in the family. The men eat meat and drink wine, as there is no rejoicing without meat and wine. [3]Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17–18.

Rambam expands the parameters of the mitzva of simchat Yom Tov to include other expressions of joy as well. Clearly, Tosafot cannot maintain that the obligation to rejoice on festivals applies to Rosh HaShana, when there is no obligation to offer shalmei simcha. Rambam, however, who expands the definition of simchat Yom Tov, might apply this mitzva to Rosh HaShana. Indeed, as we saw above, he describes Rosh HaShana as a day without excessive happiness, but with happiness, nonetheless. Furthermore, he implies elsewhere [4]Ibid. that the mitzva applies to festivals other than Pesach and Sukkot, seemingly referring to Shavuot, Rosh HaShana, and Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gunzberg (1695–1785) discusses this issue in his Shaagat Aryeh, [5]Sha’agat Aryeh 102. concluding that there must be a mitzva of simchat Yom Tov on Rosh HaShana since one is allowed to perform certain types of labor necessary for producing food (“okhel nefesh”) on Rosh HaShana. If not for the commandment to rejoice, he assumes, it would be prohibited to cook on Rosh HaShana.

Mourning on Rosh HaShana

The Mishna discusses which holidays preempt the first seven (shiva) and first thirty days (sheloshim) of mourning observed after the burial of a close relative (Mo’ed Katan 19a). The Chakhamim and Rabban Gamliel dispute whether only the Shalosh Regalim cancel shiva, or if Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur do so as well.

Rabbi Achai Gaon explains that Rabban Gamliel, who rules that “Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are akin to the festivals,” maintains that the commandment of simchat Yom Tov also applies on these days. Rabbi Achai Gaon clearly assumes that it is the mitzvato rejoice that cancels shiva. [6]She’iltot, Parashat Chayei Sara 15.

Ramban derives from the verse in Nechemia cited above that there is “simcha and a prohibition to be sad” on Rosh HaShana, and the observances of shiva and sheloshim are thus put to an end by Rosh HaShana. [7]Ramban, Mo’ed Katan 24b. The Shulchan Arukh rules in accordance with Rabban Gamliel; Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur cancel shiva and sheloshim. [8]Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 399:6. Rabbi Soloveitchik addresses this issue as well in his Shiurim LeZekher Abba Mori.

Fasting on Rosh HaShana

The halakhic ambivalence toward the nature of Rosh HaShana is found once again regarding one’s demeanor while eating on the holiday. The Shulchan Arukh writes:

They eat, drink, and rejoice, and they do not fast on Rosh HaShana and Shabbat Shuvah. However, they should not eat to satiety, in order that they not become lightheaded – “that the fear of God should be upon their faces” [cf. Ex. 20:16]. [9]Ibid., Orach Chaim 597:1.

The Mishna Berura explains that although Rosh HaShana is a “day of judgment,” the commandment of simcha obligates one to eat and drink, as stated in Nechemia. [10]Mishna Berura 597:1.

Rema, [11]Rema, Orach Chaim 597:3. however, cites the Terumat HaDeshen, [12]Terumat HaDeshen 245. who asserts that some consider it “a mitzvato fast on Rosh HaShana.” Magen Avraham, in his introductory comments to this chapter, cites Bach, who relates that Maharshal would not eat fish on Rosh HaShana, as he especially enjoyed this dish and he wished to restrict himself in some way. Magen Avraham also cites a discussion regarding the propriety of eating meat and wearing festive clothing on Rosh HaShana.

In opposition to this opinion, the Mordekhai [13]Mordekhai, Rosh HaShana 708. cites Rabbi Nachshon Gaon, who prohibits fasting on Rosh Ha-Shana due to its inherent simcha, and Taz [14]Taz, Orach Chaim 597:1. and Mishna Berura [15]Mishna Berura 597:12. concur.

Tefilla on Rosh HaShana

The question of the nature and experience of Rosh HaShana may also impact upon the text and recitation of the day’s prayers. Rosh [16]Rosh, Rosh HaShana 4:14. and his son, the Baal HaTur, [17]Tur, Orach Chaim 582. record different customs regarding the text of the Shemoneh Esreh and Kiddush of Rosh HaShana. They cite Rabbi Sar-Shalom, Rabbi Paltoi Gaon, and Rabbi Shmuel ben Chofni, who report that in the two major Babylonian yeshivas, the standard Shalosh Regalim formula was recited on Rosh HaShana, thanking God for giving us “mo’adim lesimcha, chagim uzemanim lesasson” – “appointed seasons for rejoicing, holidays and times for jubilation.” Tur concludes, however, that the custom is in accordance with Rabbi Hai Gaon, who omits the references to simcha. Clearly, these scholars are debating the very nature of Rosh HaShana.

Interestingly, the posekim also discuss the manner in which one should pray on Rosh HaShana. The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, for example, records that some are accustomed to praying the silent prayers of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur while bowed, with their heads lowered. He personally recommends praying upright, with a “bent heart and with tears.” [18]Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 129:2.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef also discusses this issue: should one pray with happiness and elation, or out of “fear of judgment,” while crying? [19]Yechave Da’at 2:69. He cites Rabbi Chaim Vital, who testifies that the Arizal would cry during his Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur prayers. Alternatively, he notes that the Vilna Gaon maintains that one should not cry during the prayers on Rosh HaShana and that the cantor should lead the prayers with a traditional festival melody. [20]Maase Rav 207. Rabbi Yosef concludes that one who is naturally overcome by tears may cry, but one should not bring himself to weep; rather, one should pray with happiness and great focus.


Rosh HaShana surely emerges as a confusing holiday. From the Sages to the later Acharonim, our greatest minds have grappled with its nature and experience. It would seem that this confusion is no accident. In fact, all service of God, as King David relates, reflects this dialectic. In his Tehillim, we find both, “Serve God with joy; come before His presence with singing” (Ps. 100:2) and “Serve God with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (2:11). Midrash Tehillim asks:

“Serve God with joy” – another verse says, “Serve God with fear.” If [one serves] with joy, how is it with fear? And if [one serves] with fear, how is it with joy? [21]Midrash Tehillim 100, s.v. ivdu.

The Midrash records different resolutions to this quandary. R. Acha suggests that one should serve God in this world with fear in order to reach the next world with happiness. Similarly, R. Aivu distinguishes between tefilla, during which joy is the primary feeling, and other activities, during which fear dominates. The Midrash suggests another type of solution as well: “‘With joy’ – is it possible without fear as well? The verse therefore teaches, ‘with fear.’” In other words, joy and fear do not necessarily contradict each other; rather, they are crucial and complementary components of our service of God.

Rosh HaShana is “yom harat olam,” “the day of the world’s creation,” during which we coronate God as King over humanity. Standing before God and accepting upon ourselves His service inspires not only feelings of fear and trepidation, but feelings of joy and happiness as well. These seemingly contradictory feelings are natural for one who truly experiences and internalizes Rosh HaShana, setting the proper tone for the entire year, during which our service of God vacillates between simcha and yira, and at times is even made up of both. [22]I heard this analysis in 1992 from Rabbi Michael Rosensweig.


1Hilkhot Megilla and Chanukka 3:6.
2Tosafot, Mo’ed Katan 14, s.v. aseh deyachid.
3Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:17–18.
5Sha’agat Aryeh 102.
6She’iltot, Parashat Chayei Sara 15.
7Ramban, Mo’ed Katan 24b.
8Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah 399:6. Rabbi Soloveitchik addresses this issue as well in his Shiurim LeZekher Abba Mori.
9Ibid., Orach Chaim 597:1.
10Mishna Berura 597:1.
11Rema, Orach Chaim 597:3.
12Terumat HaDeshen 245.
13Mordekhai, Rosh HaShana 708.
14Taz, Orach Chaim 597:1.
15Mishna Berura 597:12.
16Rosh, Rosh HaShana 4:14.
17Tur, Orach Chaim 582.
18Kitzur Shulchan Arukh 129:2.
19Yechave Da’at 2:69.
20Maase Rav 207.
21Midrash Tehillim 100, s.v. ivdu.
22I heard this analysis in 1992 from Rabbi Michael Rosensweig.

About David Brofsky

Rabbi David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum and writes a weekly halakha shiur for the Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). He is the author of Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer, and the recently published Hilkhot Moadim: Understanding the Jewish Festivals.

One comment

  1. This dual reality of Rosh HaShana is also reflected in the simanei milsa. On one hand, it might be a day of fasting. On the other hand, we should eat and rejoice. Hence, we incorporate our bekashos and yiras shamayim into our simchas yom tov by selecting foods that hint to the deeper meanings of the day. It is not a day of stam eating and rejoicing; but, of a focused/directed/meaningful joy of eating.

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