This piece appeared in the Rosh Hashanah 2007 issue of the Jerusalem Report Magazine


While Rosh Hashanah is known by several names—among them the Day of Judgment, the Birthday of the World—its official title, as proclaimed by the ancient Rabbis, is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. On its most basic level, Rosh Hashanah as Day of Remembrance proclaims God’s omniscience: “You remember all that happens in the world,” begins the Zichronot, or Remembrance section of the Musaf, the additional prayer. What is God remembering, and how does God remember? And what role do humans play in the process?

Memory is different than history. “Memory” implies personal experience, with a twist of internality different than the colder connotations of “history.” Where the three Pilgrimage festivals—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot—emphasize the historical event of the Exodus from Egypt, Rosh Hashanah (and Yom Kippur) focuses on the personal, lived experience of the individual Jew. As Franz Rosenzweig writes in The Star of Redemption, “The Days of Awe place the eternity of redemption into time… Eternity is stripped of every trace of the beyond…; it is actually there, within the grasp of every individual and holding every individual close in its strong grasp.” While on Passover we strive to see ourselves as if we personally had left Egypt, as the Haggadah reminds us, on Rosh Hashanah there is no as if: The moment is real, it is here. The memory we relive is our own, and not the history of our ancient ancestors.

Rosh Hashanah is thus the holiday that most emphasizes our humanity. The narrative of Jewish national identity which forms the basis of the Pilgrimage festivals, and even of Yom Kippur (which appeals to the relationship between God and Israel as the basis for forgiveness) is virtually absent from the holiday. Pointedly, Rosh Hashanah is the only Jewish holiday that draws its traditional Torah readings from Genesis—that is, from the book of the Torah whose narratives take place before the emergence of the people of Israel. It is, after all, the birthday of the world, and not only the Jews. 

And thus Rosh Hashanah, in a very singular way, is the day on which are invited to be authentically ourselves. There is no part to act out, no role to play. There is no Haggadah, no script; there is no matzah or maror, no sukkah or lulav, there are no props. Instead, Rosh Hashanah is our Day of Remembrance, our day to remember our own lives, to invite and enable God to remember our lives with us. Indeed, in order for God to “remember all that happens in the world,” we humans must remember all that has happened in our lives. In the process, just as the sound of the shofar travels and reverberates within our bodies, we invite the Divine consciousness to enter our own. On Rosh Hashanah, as on no other day, God needs us.

A Rabbinic legend (Midrash Tehillim 81:6) powerfully illustrates the point. If the Rabbinic court proclaimed Rosh Hashanah a day later than was anticipated, says the midrash, God tells the Heavenly court to go home and come back tomorrow. “When it is not a decree for Israel,” the midrash states, “It is not an ordinance for God.” That is, if the Rabbinic court says that today is not Rosh Hashanah, then God is bound by the decision.

The message of this and other Talmudic passages is that the human role in the Covenantal relationship is particularly pronounced on Rosh Hashanah. In fact, it is so pronounced that God bows to human utterances. Yet this reality exists in a lovers’ quarrel with the ultimate power wielded by God: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written… who will live and who will die.” Still, the question must be asked: Where ends God’s agency in bringing about our future, and where does our own begin? (Likewise: When does the silence end, and the sound of the shofar begin?) On Rosh Hashanah we are reminded of how intertwined the life of the Divine is with our own lives.

To return to memory: The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 32b) asks, Why on the High Holidays do we not recite Hallel, the celebratory collection of Psalms sung on the Pilgrimage festivals? The Talmud answers that God Himself says that it would be inappropriate to sing Hallel on a day when the books of life and death are open before Him. In other words, it would be inappropriate to sing Hallel, says God, because today is not a day of history, it is not a day for scripted singing. It is rather a day for a song emanates from the individuals who are standing in judgment, remembering themselves. And so the song of Rosh Hashanah is not a song of words, but a primal song open to manifold interpretation, the song of the shofar, that says “Wake up, wake up, and remember who you are!”