The Judgment of Rosh Hashanah
The Siftei Chaim points out a few fundamental questions surrounding the holiday of Rosh Hashanah that can help enrich our understanding of the judgment that takes place on this day. There is a well-known principle in Jewish thought that says names always express essence. By studying the depth behind names a person can get an understanding of the spiritual nature of the person, object, etc. bearing that name. Similarly, the names of the holidays reflect their core. According to this, since the primary notion of Rosh Hashanah is judgment, then why isn’t “Yom HaDin” (“Day of Judgment”) the primary name of the holiday? After all, the name “Rosh Hashanah,” “Head of the Year,” seems to hint at nothing more than the mere date of the day. Furthermore, since Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, wouldn’t it be more fitting to celebrate it at the end of the previous year, the year from which our actions are being judged, rather than the beginning of the upcoming year? Finally why is a new judgment necessary every year?
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 10b) tells us that the first day of Tishrei marks the creation of man, which in turn marks the completion of the creation process. It was on this day that man was given his first commandment to refrain from eating from the Tree of Knowledge, and the job of working and guarding the land. It was also on this day that Adam was given the tools he needed to accomplish this goal. He was placed in the ideal environment for growth (Garden of Eden), given the ideal spouse as a helpmate, and the fruits of all the trees — except for the Tree of Knowledge — as food. Ultimately, he wasn’t missing anything he needed to accomplish his assigned role. However, Adam was unable to succeed, and sinned on the very day he was given the commandment. He was judged on this day, and given a second chance, but under different conditions. His ultimate job in the world had changed, and therefore the tools he was given also changed. His environment was no longer the same since he was expelled from Eden; he then had to work for his food, Chava then had to endure childbirth pains, etc.
What can we learn about Rosh Hashanah from this? The Maharal explains that the Hebrew word for “year,” “shana,” has the same root as the Hebrew word for “change,” “shinui.” The meaning behind this is that with every New Year there are changes in both the details of the goals that need to be met, and purposes that need to be brought to fruition in the world. Just like every generation faces new trials to overcome and jobs to accomplish, so too every year the details of what is expected of you change. In this sense every year is like a new creation unto itself and mirrors the original creation process.
Based on the above, the commentaries suggest that everything that happened at the original creation of the world takes place every year on Rosh Hashanah. Just like on Rosh Hashanah, Hashem created and judged Adam, and determined the ultimate job that would be given to him, so too, on this day, Hashem judges us to see what, if any, job we will be allotted in the undertaking for the New Year. Furthermore, just as Adam was given everything he needed to carry out the job he was expected to accomplish (both before and after his sin), so too, every year on this day, riches, health, marriages, births, deaths, etc. are decided, based on the personal job given to every individual. A person may be given wealth to accomplish his goal to use it for good causes, while a person may live in poverty to test his level of trust in Hashem. Every person’s tools are decided based on his personal tests and goals for the upcoming year. There is, however, one major difference between the original day of creation and what takes place every year on Rosh Hashanah. Hashem’s original decision to create Adam was not dependent on Adam’s actions, simply because Adam was yet to be created. Conversely, the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is based solely on one’s individual merits.
Based on the above, we can answer the questions we started with. Since every year brings with it changes in the goals that need to be met, a judgment is needed once a year to determine the role of each individual with its changes. Also, since the purpose of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah is not to hand out punishments for the past, but rather it is a judgment for the upcoming year, the judgment is on the first day of the new year rather than on the last day of the previous year. Finally, the name “Rosh Hashanah,” “head of the year,” is more essential than the name “Yom Hadin,” “Day of Judgment,” since this energy of newness, which demands new obligations and roles, prompts the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. Therefore the name “Rosh Hashanah,” like all other holidays, elegantly encapsulates the essence of the day.