Laws of the Days of Awe


“Halleluyah! I praise the Lord with all my heart in the assembled congregation of the upright.” (Tehilim 111:1)

I thank God for giving me the privilege of learning and teaching Torah. In His great kindness, He has helped me to write about the laws of the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe.


As in my previous books, first I discuss generalities and only then go into detail. Within each topic, I first emphasize the underlying principles to which all agree. Thus, the laws are explained clearly and logically from both the halakhic and the philosophical perspectives. (For an illustration of this, see chapter 4, where the laws of teru’a and their significance are discussed.) This methodology makes it clear that often disagreements are not as serious as they may seem at first glance. Examples of such disagreements include the discussion of the time of judgment (1:3-4), the question of what Yom Kippur alone atones for, and what requires repentance as well (chapter 6), the laws pertaining to confession (7:6-7), and the parameters of the mitzva to fast (9:1).


The idea of Jewish collectivity is a major theme in the halakhot of the Days of Awe. God chose us from among all peoples to be His special people, designated to manifest His presence and repair the world. The idea of Jewish chosenness is the foundation for repentance and atonement. True, many learned people emphasize the private, individual aspects of repentance. As a result, despite all their intellectual and emotional endeavors, their perspectives remain limited. They ignore the passages of the Seliḥot (penitential prayers), which speak of the redemption of the Jewish people from exile and destruction (below, 2:2-3), as well as the prayers of the Days of Awe, in which the honor of God and Israel are a central theme (3:6). The repentance that we are meant to engage in during the Days of Awe is the repentance of the Jewish people collectively. Just as the Kohen Gadol would confess on behalf of the entire Jewish people, so too, each individual confesses for the entire community, in the plural (7:4). Similarly, in my explanation of the Thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy, I show that the basis for atonement is embodying and connecting to the attributes through which God is manifested in this world (2:8). I also address the significance of Israel’s unique ability to repent and sustain the world (1:9); the certainty of ultimate repentance (3:4-5); the broader meaning of Yom Kippur (chapter 6); the avoda of the Kohen Gadol (chapter 10); and the special place of the Kodesh Ha-kodashim, which corresponds to the highest level of divine unification (10:2).

It is apparent that the dispersal of the Jewish people across the globe often caused many to neglect the collective basis of repentance and the Days of Awe. However, by studying Torah sources without preconceptions we can see that the roots and foundations of repentance and the Days of Awe lie within the principles of faith in God, the election of Israel, and the promise of redemption, as Rav Kook explains with great elaboration and depth. May it be God’s will that by studying the laws of the Days of Awe and their meaning, we will understand all these fundamental and profound concepts.


I still remember walking with my father and teacher, R. Zalman Baruch Melamed, from our home in the Givat Mordechai neighborhood to Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav in Kiryat Moshe on the Days of Awe. Though I was a child, the glorious, awe-inspiring prayers made an indelible impression on me. As long as I could, I prayed there. As the years go by, it becomes clearer to me how deeply its exalted atmosphere continues to influence me. The beit midrash was permeated by the spirit of the yeshiva’s founder, the great luminary of recent generations, our master, Rav Kook, and that of my master and teacher R. Zvi Yehuda Kook. True, R. Zvi Yehuda prayed in the yeshiva’s old building in central Jerusalem, because how could he not pray where his father prayed? Nevertheless, his influence upon those praying in Kiryat Moshe was enormous. I have a vague memory of the prayers of the tzadik, R. Aryeh Levin. On the first day of Rosh Ha-Shana, he led the Musaf service, and on Yom Kippur he led Ma’ariv, Musaf, and Ne’ila. Musaf on the second day of Rosh Ha-Shana was led by R. Mordechai Fromm, a rebbi at the yeshiva and Rav Kook’s grandson-in-law. According to R. Levin, he was recreating the prayers as he heard them in the Volozhin Yeshiva, which trace back to Maharil. After R. Levin passed away, R. Zvi Yehuda asked my father to serve as ḥazan in his place. I heard from our relative, R. Mordechai Sternberg, that the prayers of my father were so similar to the prayers of R. Levin, both in voice and style, that if R. Steinberg closed his eyes it seemed like R. Levin was leading the prayers. My father intoned his prayers in a humble and beseeching manner, like a son trying to appease his father.

In the front, to the right of the ḥazan, sat R. Avraham Shapira, R. Shaul Yisraeli, R. Fromm, and then my father. To the left, facing the ḥazan, was R. Kook’s grandson, R. Shlomo Raanan, may God avenge his blood. I will never forget how he encouraged me to recite together with him the description of the Kohen Gadol’s counting: “One, one and one, etc.” As a child, I wondered about this counting, as it seemed to be very important in light of its prominence in the avoda. As an adult, I continued to wonder about it and its significance. The explanation I offer for it (10:11 below) is dedicated to his memory.

I still remember R. Shabtai Shmueli, the yeshiva’s administrator and one of its first students, chanting “Ha-Melekh” in a trembling voice from his seat, and then walking up to the front to lead Shaḥarit. Later he would also blow the shofar. When he became too weak, my uncle, R. Eitan Eiseman (who walked with us from Givat Mordechai), took his place, becoming the regular shofar blower. My uncle also taught me how to blow the shofar. This provided him with the opportunity to fulfill the words of the Sages: “We do not prevent children from blowing [the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana]. Rather, they may be helped until they learn how to blow” (Rosh Ha-shana 33a; Rema 596:1). I remember the kiddush that the rebbe’im made before Musaf in a classroom with R. Fromm, and the tension in the air in anticipation of the upcoming Musaf prayer.

After Rav Levin passed away, my teacher and master, Rav Shapira, served as the ḥazan for Ne’ila. Following the death of R. Fromm, R. Shapira led Musaf on one of the days of Rosh Ha-Shana as well. When my father moved to Beit El, R. Shapira served as ḥazan for every Musaf. His heartfelt, emotional prayers inspired awe and touched everyone’s heart.

Generally, we prayed Kol Nidrei and Ne’ila in Givat Mordechai. There I had the privilege of praying with laymen, some of whom were Holocaust survivors, and of hearing R. Yehuda Amital zt”l lead the services. His melodies, full of warmth and longing for closeness to God, had an impact on me. Eventually, after R. Amital began to pray at Yeshivat Har Etzion, my father would lead the Ne’ila prayer, which he was doing when the Yom Kippur War broke out and people were called out of synagogue and sent to the front.

When I try to unpack the special atmosphere of Mercaz HaRav, I think that in addition to the enthusiasm found in all yeshivas, there was a unique spirit of earnestness, simple fear of God, tremendous love for all Jews, and idealism. The Torah scholars and students there had a heartfelt connection with soldiers in the army, with settlers making the wastelands of our land flourish, with all the residents of Israel, and with the Jews of the diaspora. Above all, they longed for the dissemination of the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, which would bring redemption to the world. My teacher R. Zvi Yehuda emphasized this in his classes, which I had the privilege of attending during my years in yeshiva.

With this book, I hope to convey some of the inspiration that I was privileged to experience in Rav Kook’s yeshiva during the Days of Awe.


Here I wish to thank R. Maor Cayam, who teaches at Yeshivat Har Bracha and who studied with me and supported me throughout. With his talents and diligence, he brought to my attention many sources which helped clarify issues and served as the basis for key explanations and interpretations. He also worked hard preparing the volume of Harḥavot, which provides additional sources and explanations. I also would like to thank R. Bar’el Shevach, who helped clarify various topics, and R. Yonadav Zar, who helped edit the entire book. I thank R. Maor Horowitz for his help in editing the language and content of the book and preparing it for publication. I would also like to thank R. Netanel Rosenstein for writing the index. Thanks to R. Ze’ev Sultanovitch for his advice and enlightening comments. R. Azarya Ariel’s input regarding the avoda of the Kohen Gadol was very helpful, as were R. Yisrael Ariel’s Maḥzor Ha-Mikdash and R. Moshe Odess’s Ve-hashev et Ha-avoda.

It is not easy to translate halakha with precision and clarity. I am thankful to the translator, Dr. Yocheved Cohen, to the primary editor, R. Elli Fischer, to the copy editor, Nechama Unterman, and to R. Maor Cayam for reviewing the halakhic contents in translation.

The students of Yeshivat Har Bracha (current and former) and the members of the Har Bracha community are full partners in this book. Experiencing the Days of Awe with them year after year provided me with the opportunity to develop my thinking about the holidays and to put the pertinent laws into practice. While writing this book, the input of yeshiva students and community members helped me clarify many issues. I presented a first draft of this book in a series of lectures whose audience provided important feedback and insightful comments about its content and formulations. The audience was comprised of Sephardim, Ashkenazim, and Yemenites, enabling me to incorporate a wide range of customs. “I learned much from my teachers, even more from my friends, and most of all from my students” (Ta’anit 7a).


I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation to my father and teacher, Rav Zalman Baruch Melamed, Rosh Yeshiva of the Beit El Yeshiva, and to my mother and teacher. They have provided me with the foundations of my Torah and my worldview. Special thanks to my dear wife Inbal, who dedicates all her energy to amplifying and glorifying the Torah and encourages my learning and the publication of my books for the public good. May it be God’s will that we have the privilege to see all our sons and daughters, our grandsons and granddaughters, advance in Torah and mitzvot, establish wonderful families, and increase truth, ḥesed, and peace forever.

Finally, I would like to thank all those who dedicate themselves to the holy task of developing the yeshiva and publishing its books: R. Yaakov Weinberger, the yeshiva’s director; Yoni Buzaglo, responsible for printing and distributing; Avishai Greenstein, responsible for marketing; Nechama Rosenstein, who typesets the volumes (including the one before you) and prepares it for print; Yonaton Behar, who actively maintains the strong English social media presence of Peninei Halakha; and R. Elli Fischer, who manages the relationships with our distributors in the English-speaking world and with Sefaria, the latest channel for accessing Peninei Halakha alongside so many other Torah works. May God grant all who help and facilitate the project the necessary wisdom and strength to succeed in their work. May they be privileged to establish fine families. May God fulfill all their hearts’ desires in the best possible way.

And so may Your name be sanctified, Lord our God, through Israel Your nation and Jerusalem, Your city, and Zion, the dwelling place of Your honor, and through the royal house of David Your anointed, and Your Sanctuary and Your Temple. And so instill Your awe, Lord our God, upon all Your works, and Your dread upon all You have created, and all your works will stand in fear of You, and all of creation will worship You, and they will be bound all together as one to carry out Your will with an undivided heart…. And so grant honor, Lord, to Your people, praise to those who fear You and hope to those who seek You, the confidence to speak to all who long for You, gladness to Your land and joy to Your city, the flourishing of pride to David Your servant, and a lamp laid out to his descendant, Your anointed, soon, in our days.

(From the Amida of the Days of Awe)

Eliezer Melamed

Har Bracha

Av 5780

01. Days of Blessing and Judgment

Each year, God recreates life for every one of His creations. So that His kindness does not reach the wicked, He judges all creatures on Rosh Ha-Shana, granting life and blessing to the good and minimizing them for the wicked. In addition to this being proper and just, it is also necessary to improve the world, for if the wicked were to continue receiving life and blessing, it would reinforce their wickedness, and they would bring harm and curses to the whole world (Shlah).

Thus, the days on which God draws close to His creations and grants them new life are also the days on which He judges them. These are also the times when repentance is most readily accepted, since God is closer to His creations then. Therefore, even though it is appropriate to repent all year round, repentance is more readily accepted during the ten days between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur. As the verse states: “Seek the Lord while He can be found; call to Him while He is near” (Yeshayahu 55:6). Accordingly, this period is known as the Ten Days of Repentance (Rosh Ha-shana 18a; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:6).

Even though judgment does not begin until Rosh Ha-Shana and the Ten Days of Repentance, it is better to begin thinking about repentance beforehand. This way, by the time the Ten Days of Repentance arrive, we can truly return to God. Additionally, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. For as a general rule, before a person is called to account for his sins, it is relatively easy for him to express remorse for them, to rectify them by repenting, and to neutralize the charges against him or at least to minimize them. (This is true for human courts as well.) However, once the time of judgment has arrived and the prosecutor has already laid out his case, it is harder to get the charges dropped (Sifrei, Naso §42). Therefore, Jewish practice is to begin repenting in Elul.

Each year anew, we approach these days of repentance with fear and joy. We are fearful because we do not know if we will be vindicated before God, nor what sentence we will receive if found guilty. For many people who were complacent at the beginning of the previous year are no longer alive at year’s end, or are alive but suffering. At the same time, we are joyful because we have the opportunity to return to God through repentance, to pray before Him and offer supplications, to cleanse ourselves of the wickedness that stains us, and to reconnect with the principles we believe in. Even if we are condemned to suffer, this is good for breaking sinful habits, allowing us to improve ourselves and our lives.

Without an annual accounting, the grind of daily life would cause us to forget all the great ideals to which we aspire. Without a vision, we would be overcome by our evil inclination, slaves to our desires, and hostages to our animalistic side. The Days of Awe are our annual reminder of all the great hopes we had, all the topics and books which we wanted to study, and all the good deeds that we wanted to do. We become disgusted with the sins to which we have fallen prey. We are sorry for having committed them, and we confess to them; we re-examine our priorities. All this in hope that the upcoming year will be a good one, during which we will increase our Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds, and dedicate ourselves to improving our families, society, and nation. As a result, we ascend higher and higher each year, improving the world and contributing to it.

02. The Significance of Judgment

The belief that God created and sustains the world is a foundation of faith. Were He to stop infusing the world with life, even momentarily, it would cease to be. God also gave human beings free will. If a person chooses good, he draws down life and blessing upon himself and upon the world. If he chooses evil, he causes suffering and death. This is the judgment according to which God bestows His shefa (a kabbalistic term referring to the bounty or abundance that flows from God to the world) on the world. For when He created the world, He determined that one who draws near to Him will benefit from a shefa of blessing, while one who distances himself will receive less shefa and life, leading to his suffering and death. A person who studies Torah and performs mitzvot clings to God, but one who distances himself from Torah and transgresses its commandments clings to death.

Thus we read:

See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His laws, and His rules, that you may thrive and increase, and that the Lord your God may bless you in the land that you are about to enter and possess. But if your heart turns away and you give no heed, and are lured into the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish; you shall not long endure on the soil that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (Devarim 30:15-18)

God wants us to choose life, as we read:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that the Lord your God swore to your ancestors, Avraham, Yitzḥak, and Yaakov, to give to them. (Ibid. 19-20)

It is only right and just that one who draws near to God, the Source of life and blessing, consequently merits additional life and blessing. In contrast, one who distances himself from the Source of life is moving away from life, and is thus overcome by disease, suffering, and catastrophe.

God gave people a wonderful gift when He granted them free will, as this means the good which they receive from God is theirs justly and by right. This knowledge provides them with joy and satisfaction, as they have earned everything through their own efforts. If God just gifted everything to people, they would not experience the same joy and satisfaction (Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 1:2).

To that end, God’s judgment must be true, precise, and specific, taking into account each and every deed, each and every word, and each and every thought. True, a person is judged in accordance with the majority of his deeds and is vindicated in judgment if his deeds are mostly meritorious. Nevertheless, he is punished for every sin he does not rectify through repentance. Similarly, even if a person is condemned because most of his deeds are evil, he still receives reward for every mitzva he does. The just King knows how to make these calculations, and He determines when reward and punishment will be meted out (Bava Kama 50a; Ḥagiga 5a).

God wishes to bestow benefit on His creations, as we read, “The Lord is good to all, and His mercy is upon all His works” (Tehilim 145:9). The purpose of punishment is to correct, not to avenge. Punishment in this world is meant to direct a person so that he leaves sin and returns to the proper path, as we read, “The Lord your God disciplines you just as a man disciplines his son” (Devarim 8:5). If one has not repented in this world and is still stained by evil, even if he has merits, he cannot be the recipient of divine goodness. Therefore, he is condemned to suffer in Gehinom, where he is purged of evil. Only then can he ascend to Gan Eden, as we read: “The Lord deals death and gives life, casts down into Sheol and raises up” (1 Shmuel 2:6). Those who are entirely wicked are eradicated in Gehinom (Rosh Ha-shana 17a; Pesikta Rabbati §40; Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 1:12).

03. Times of Judgment

As we have seen (section 1 above), blessing and judgment are linked, for when God bestows life upon the world, He also passes judgment upon it, determining who will be granted life and blessing, and who will not. Since God recreates life on Rosh Ha-shana for the next year, it is the primary time of judgment for the whole world.

Thus, the Sages state, “On Rosh Ha-shana, all of humanity pass before Him like sheep, as we read (Tehilim 33:15), ‘He who fashions the hearts of them all, Who discerns all their doings’” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). They also state: “Just as a person’s earnings are determined on Rosh Ha-shana, so are his losses” (Bava Batra 10a).

Even though judgment primarily takes place and is inscribed on Rosh Ha-shana, it is sealed on Yom Kippur. Therefore, the days between them are a time for repentance and prayer to improve the judgment. R. Meir states: “All are judged on Rosh Ha-shana, and the verdicts are sealed on Yom Kippur” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). Similarly, the Sages state: “All of a person’s earnings are determined between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur” (Beitza 16a).

Even though the judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur, in exceptional circumstances it is still possible to improve or annul it until Hoshana Rabba and Shemini Atzeret. This is because the angels responsible for carrying out sentences receive their instructions then, so it is the final stage of the yearly judgment (Zohar III 33b; Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 6:1).

While Rosh Ha-shana is the general day of judgment for the entire year, the Mishna states that the three festivals are days of judgment for particular features. On Pesaḥ, judgment is passed about grain; on Shavu’ot, judgment is passed about fruit; and on Sukkot, judgment is passed about water (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). Since holy days are a conduit for divine blessing to descend to the world, there is consequently judgment then associated with the blessings they convey. The timing of the holidays reflects natural processes. Sukkot is at the start of winter (the rainy season in Israel), so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of water. Pesaḥ is when crops grow, so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of the crops. Shavu’ot is when fruit begin to grow and ripen, so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of fruit. In other words, on Rosh Ha-shana the general fate of water, crops, and fruit is determined, while the detailed judgment is reserved for later: water on Sukkot, grain on Pesaḥ, and fruit on Shavu’ot (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:2).[1]

[1]. The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 16a) explains that the Mishna accords with the academy of R. Yishmael, which states: “The world is judged four times a year: on Pesaḥ for grain, on Shavu’ot for fruit, and on Sukkot for water. People are judged on Rosh Ha-shana, and the judgments are sealed on Yom Kippur.” In contrast, R. Yehuda states, “Everything is judged on Rosh Ha-shana, but each judgment is sealed at its own time: grain on Pesaḥ, fruit on Shavu’ot, and water on Sukkot. People are judged on Rosh Ha-shana, and the judgments are sealed on Yom Kippur.” It would seem that their disagreement is minor. The academy of R. Yishmael maintains that the specifics of water, grain, and fruit are determined during the holidays, although of course they are influenced by the general judgment of Rosh Ha-shana. (Ramban makes a similar point in his Rosh Ha-shana sermon: the general judgment is on Rosh Ha-shana, while the specifics of water are determined on Sukkot, etc. This is how I formulated it above.) In contrast, according to R. Yehuda, everything is determined on Rosh Ha-shana, including the specifics of water, grain, and fruit. It is only the sealing of the judgment that takes place on the various holidays. Ran, in his commentary on Rosh Ha-shana 16a, has a different approach. He writes that the general judgment for water is on Sukkot, the one for grain is on Pesaḥ, and the one for fruit is on Shavuot; it is only what each individual will be allotted of these three that is determined on Rosh Ha-shana.

04. The Manifestation of Blessing and Judgment

Even though judgment is inscribed on Rosh Ha-shana and sealed on Yom Kippur, one’s behavior during the rest of the year still has significant impact, because the shefa of life allotted on Rosh Ha-shana descends to the world gradually, via Shabbatot and Roshei Ḥodashim. As it manifests, it can be diverted toward good or evil. The principle is that the holy days are meant to draw blessing into the world, each day in accordance with its special character. Accompanying the blessing is judgment, so that the blessing reaches the deserving.

Since the blessing descends via Rashei Ḥodashim, they, too, are days of judgment and thus propitious times for repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. There is a custom among the pious to repent on the day before Rosh Ḥodesh (also known as Yom Kippur Katan). Shabbat, too, is holy and blessed, and through it, blessing extends to the six weekdays. So that this blessing manifests properly, one should repent on Shabbat – albeit out of love, good cheer, and optimism, without pain. Homiletically, the word “Shabbat” is related to the word “teshuva” (repentance).

The bounty that descends through Shabbatot and Rashei Ḥodashim continues its descent via the weekdays, each of which has a special sanctity, for each day manifests something of the divine that is not manifested on any other day. Accordingly, each day a person is judged with regard to the unique shefa of that day. As R. Yose said: “A person is judged every day” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). In fact, every hour presents a unique opportunity to reveal a certain aspect of holiness, and thus there is an element of ever-present judgment. This is the meaning of R. Natan’s statement: “A person is judged every hour” (ibid.). Because of the blessing and judgment that take place daily, we recite Shaḥarit, Minḥa, and Ma’ariv daily, to improve the blessing and judgment specific to that day.[2]

The judgments passed on Rosh Ḥodesh, Shabbat, and every other day do not alter the judgment inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, for while judgment is inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, the way it is implemented is not, and the implementation has significant ramifications, for better and for worse. Consider a national budget; it is passed by the legislature at the beginning of the year, and the government has no authority to alter it. Nevertheless, every minister can determine how it will be distributed, and even bureaucrats have the power to direct funding toward one project or another. (See Berakhot 58a.) Similarly, the deeds done all year can direct the judgment for better or for worse. The Gemara elaborates (Rosh Ha-shana 17b):

What is an example of “for better”? Let us say the Jews were completely wicked as of Rosh Ha-shana, and therefore were allotted only a small amount of rain. Later, they repented. It is not possible to send more rain, for the decree has already been made. Rather, God brings [the rain] at the optimal times, on the land that needs it, depending on the land. [Thus, minimal rains can still bring great blessing.] What is an example of “for worse”? Let us say that the Jews were completely righteous as of Rosh Ha-shana, and therefore a lot of rain was allotted to them. Later, they relapsed. It is not possible to send less rain, for the decree has already been made. Rather, God brings it at the worst times, on land that does not need it [so they do not benefit from the rains].[3]

The ideal sequence is as follows. We repent during the month of Elul, and accept God’s kingship on Rosh Ha-shana, leading to a good initial judgment. We continue to ascend spiritually by repenting on Yom Kippur, leading to a better final judgment. With this momentum, we continue to walk in God’s ways. We absorb the shefa of holiness on Shabbat, holidays, and Rosh Ḥodesh, thus increasing the illumination and blessing present in every day, hour, and minute.

[2]. Similar ideas appear in a responsum attributed to Rif; R. Yosef Gikatilla, Kelalei Ha-mitzvot s.v. “din”; Abarbanel (Vayikra ch. 23); Me’iri (Rosh Ha-shana 16a); Maharal (Ḥidushei Aggadot ad loc.); Tzelaḥ, Turei Even, and Ben Yehoyada (ad loc.). Rav Kook explains that while the judgment passed on Rosh Ha-shana is not immutable, the judgments of Rosh Ḥodesh and weekdays have far more impact (Midbar Shur, derush 9).

[3]. Sometimes it is impossible to divert judgment for the better because the verdict was so decisive; for example, if so little rain was allotted that even if it is optimized, there will be a severe drought. Nevertheless, a community has the great power that if they repent wholeheartedly and pray to God concerning it, they can tear up even a final verdict (Rosh Ha-shana 17b). An individual cannot completely tear up a verdict, but he can improve it by repenting and crying out to God from the bottom of his heart – such that if there is any possible interpretation of the judgment that would minimize the punishment, it will be minimized. For example, if death was decreed for a person, there is still some leeway. Through his repentance and prayer, it is possible that death will be replaced by poverty, exile, or very humiliating experiences, all of which are compared to death. This is why R. Yitzḥak says, “Prayer is helpful to a person, whether before or after judgment has been rendered” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a and 18a). This means it is admirable and has an effect, even though it does not invalidate the judgment (Ran and Maharal ad loc.). There is a tradition passed down by the house of King David that “even if a sharp sword is resting upon one’s neck, one should not stop praying” (Berakhot 10a).

05. Judgment and the Next World

How a person is judged on Rosh Ha-shana relates to his life in this world and the next. We have discussed the implications for this world in the previous sections and will yet discuss them further, but at present we will explain how the judgment of Rosh Ha-shana relates to the next world. First, we must explain that life in the next world has two stages. The first stage begins with a person’s death, when his soul ascends to the world of souls, where there is Gan Eden (heaven) for the righteous and Gehinom (hell) for the wicked. The next stage is after the world reaches its perfection with the resurrection of the dead. At that time, souls will reunite with bodies, and together they will experience an infinite ascent (Ramban, Sha’ar Ha-gemul; Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 1:3; Shelah, Toldot Adam, Beit David).

The next world, including both its stages, is also called the “World of Truth,” because, in contrast to this world, where falsehood dominates and external appearances obscure internal essence, in the next world the true stature of a person and the true worth of his deeds become clear.

Since the next world is incomparably more important than this world, as “this world is like a corridor leading to the next world” (Avot 4:16), the judgment which occurs on Rosh Ha-shana primarily relates to the next world. This judgment can be divided into two parts. The first takes into account all the deeds of the past year. For a person’s good deeds, reward awaits him in the next world; for his evil deeds, punishment awaits him. But the judgment passed on Rosh Ha-shana is not final. If he repents over the years, he can save himself from Gehinom and increase his reward in the next world. If, God forbid, he regrets the good deeds he has done and wishes them undone, he will go to Gehinom and lose the reward that had been reserved for him in the next world.

The second aspect of judgment that relates to the next world concerns opportunities to draw close to God in the upcoming year. One who has been judged to life on Rosh Ha-shana will have opportunities during the year that will help him continue to ascend in Torah and mitzvot, through which he will merit life in the next world. When he studies Torah, he will attain greater enlightenment and understanding; when he is engages in mitzvot and good deeds, he will attain greater happiness and blessing, a foretaste of the next world. If, God forbid, his judgment is for death, then during the next year he will face trials and difficulties likely to distance him from God and lose him his place in the next world. Even when he studies Torah, it will be hard for him to absorb the divine light within it; even when he engages in mitzvot, he will not properly feel the sanctity and joy they bring. This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement (Avot 4:2): “A mitzva brings another mitzva and a sin brings another sin, for the reward for a mitzva is a mitzva, and the punishment for a sin is a sin” (Nefesh Ha-ḥayim 1:12).

In general, reward is called “life” and punishment, “death.” Life means closeness and connection with God, the Source of life. This closeness allows a person to experience all the goodness that God brings to this world and the next. God is the Source of all the goodness of life; all the pleasures and delights of this world flow from His shefa. But they are only a pale reflection of the ultimate pleasure, namely closeness to God. The Sages state, “One hour of spiritual bliss in the next world is better than all of life in this world” (Avot 4:17). This is because in the next world, one can enjoy the radiance of the Shekhina and take pleasure in God; life there is intensified immeasurably. In contrast, the divine light which reaches us in this world is filtered and constricted. Nevertheless, by drawing closer to God through Torah study and mitzva observance, a person can experience the equivalent of the next world in this world, taking pleasure in his closeness to God.

While reward is referred to as “life,” punishment is referred to as “death,” meaning distance from the Source of life. The distance leads to the suffering and death of the body in this world, and the suffering of the soul in the next.[4]

[4]. The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 16b) states:

Three books are opened on Rosh Ha-shana: one for those who are entirely wicked, one for those who are entirely righteous, and one for those in between. The entirely righteous are immediately inscribed and sealed for life, the entirely wicked are immediately inscribed and sealed for death, and those in between are in limbo from Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Kippur. If they merit it, they are inscribed for life; if not, they are inscribed for death.

What do the Sages mean by “life” and “death”? According to Tosafot, they are speaking of life in the next world. This is also the position of R. Yosef Gikatilla (Sha’arei Ora, Gate 8). However, Ramban, Ran, Rashba, and others maintain that the Sages are referring to life in this world. It would seem that these positions are not truly in conflict, as reward in this world primarily affects life in the next world, since this world is but a corridor leading to the next (Rama Mi-Fano, Asara Ma’amarot, Ḥikur Ha-din 2:21; Ramḥal, Derekh Hashem 2:2; Vilna Gaon, Bi’ur Ha-Gra, OḤ 582:24; R. Ḥayim of Volozhin in his exposition at the end of Nefesh Ha-ḥayim). Being inscribed for life may also include experiencing a bit of the illumination of the next world while in this world. This is a fulfillment of the blessing, “May you see your world in your lifetime” (Berakhot 17a). See Orot Ha-kodesh 3:122.

06. The Profundity and Complexity of Judgment

The broad principles of judgment are straightforward. One who walks in God’s ways is blessed in both this world and the next, while one who is wicked is punished in both this world and the next. However, the specifics of judgment are immeasurably deep and complex. Therefore, there are instances of the righteous suffering poverty, disease, and untimely death, while sometimes the wicked prosper and endure. There are many possible reasons for this, as we will explain below, all of which are meant to improve the world.

First of all, one must know a fundamental principle: To perfect the world, people must have free choice. As long as the world has not been perfected, it runs according to the laws of nature and fate that God determined, so it is not possible for all the righteous to thrive and all the wicked to suffer. Therefore, judgment, as it applies to individuals, is incredibly complex and involves myriad details. There are always righteous people suffering and wicked people appearing to enjoy the pleasures of this world. Thus, free choice is unimpaired, and one who chooses good improves himself and the entire world.

Nevertheless, over the long term, for example, when it comes to families and true happiness in life, we find that in this world, too, usually the righteous experience blessing while the wicked suffer. The crux of our challenge is to disregard our evil inclination, which urges us to take a superficial, myopic view of the world, and instead to follow our good inclination, which encourages us to look further and more deeply. Thus, even though in this world, too, the righteous, over the long term, attain benefit and the wicked suffer, free choice remains intact, because this truth is not discernible over the short term.

Let us begin to explain some specifics. One person may be destined to be wealthy and face the challenges that accompany wealth. Even if he sins greatly, he will remain rich. His judgment on Rosh Ha-shana is about the circumstances of his life as a wealthy person. Will he find joy in his wealth, or will it cause him endless worry? With respect to the next world, will his wealth help him to withstand trials, be they minor or major? Might it even help him in serving God? Another person may be destined for poverty. Even if he is righteous, he will remain poor. The question is simply whether his poverty will be bearable or unbearable. With respect to the next world, will his impoverishment help or hinder his service of God? In rare cases, a person can change his destiny through outstanding merits or grave sins.

Sometimes a person’s destiny is not absolute, but only determines a direction that allows for change. In such cases, the judgment of Rosh Ha-shana can determine whether someone destined to have money will be comfortable, rich, or fabulously wealthy, or whether someone destined to be needy will be needy, poor, or destitute.[5]

[5]. “Children, life, and sustenance do not depend upon merit but upon fate (mazal)” (Mo’ed Katan 28a). The Gemara’s proof is that Rabba and R. Ḥisda were both righteous; when there was a drought, the prayers of both were answered. Yet R. Ḥisda lived to the age of 92, while Rabba died at 40. R. Ḥisda’s household celebrated 60 weddings, while Rabba’s home suffered 60 bereavements. R. Ḥisda’s home was wealthy, and even the dogs were fed the highest grade of wheat. Rabba’s home was poor, and people did not always have enough of even cheap barley bread. Another Gemara sheds light on this. R. Ḥanina asserts that Jews are subject to mazal, while R. Yoḥanan and Rav maintain that they are not (Shabbat 156a). According to Tosafot, even those who maintain that Jews are not subject to mazal do not mean that it has no effect, but rather that someone with great merit can change his fate (as explained in Yevamot 50a). However, sometimes, even with great merit, mazal does not change, as we see in the case of R. Elazar b. Pedat (Ta’anit 25a).

It is important to note that only individuals are subject to mazal, not the collective. The reward and punishment discussed in the Torah are collective (Responsa Rashba 1:148). However, individuals, with great spiritual effort, can ascend to the level of the collective, beyond the reach of mazal. It should be further noted that the Torah’s this-worldly rewards and punishments are primarily promised to Israel as a people, to be delivered naturally. Thus, free will is not compromised, since individuals are still subject to fate. (See section 8 below.)

07. Specific Considerations in Judgment

Sometimes a person is destined to be neither rich nor poor. Rather, his destiny is not fixed; if he chooses well in matters of money and charity, then he deserves to be wealthy so that he can continue to improve his piety and charity. Yet sometimes it is known to the Knower of secrets that if a certain person were to become wealthy, his evil inclination would overcome him and perhaps make him arrogant, lustful, and stingy; he would no longer be righteous. Since people’s relationship to God is the most important thing and their eternal life depends on it, heaven has mercy upon him and sentences him to struggle to make a living. This way he avoids the difficult challenge and is more likely to earn a place in the next world. Without such mercy, he may become wealthy in this world but face challenges likely to corrupt him.

Another consideration is how difficult it is for a person to choose good or avoid evil. Some people are born with a very strong evil inclination or grow up in very difficult and toxic environments. If they manage to study a bit of Torah and do a few good deeds, it is extremely impressive, and they will receive immense reward. As the Sages say, “In accordance with the pain is the reward” (Avot 5:23). Other people are born with a strong good inclination or grow up in a supportive environment. If they nevertheless sin, they will be punished severely.

Another consideration is that sometimes a wicked person who has done a few mitzvot is rewarded for them in this world, so that he is utterly destroyed in Gehinom. Similarly, sometimes a righteous person who has committed a few sins receives his punishment in this world, so that he can ascend, pure and clean, to Gan Eden. Even though reward and punishment in this world are trivial compared to the next, these judgments are still just and proper, for the wicked person performed mitzvot with superficial motivations, because he wanted to show off and impress people, so it is fitting that his reward be given in this superficial, transient world, rather than in the World of Truth. In contrast, the primary interest of the righteous person was closeness to God. If he sinned accidentally, just as his sin was superficial, so is his punishment. This will purify him and he will enter the next world without blemish (Kiddushin 39b; Derekh Hashem 2:2:6).

These are some of the factors that go into judgment, and there are also collective factors that will be elaborated on in the next section. The main point from the human perspective is to repent and return to God, for even if we do not understand the profundity of the judgment, we are certain that repentance and good deeds are always good for a person. Reward is primarily in the next world and secondarily in this world. As long as a person is alive in this world of free choice, his actions are of incalculable value and earn him eternal reward. This is as the Sages say, “One hour of repentance and good deeds in this world is better than the whole of life in the World to Come” (Avot 4:17).

08. Individual and Collective Judgment in Eretz Yisrael and in Exile

It is important to know that even though on Rosh Ha-shana the Jewish people as a whole as well as each individual are judged, the judgment of the individual is strongly impacted by the general state of whichever nation that person belongs to. This is as we learned about the nation of Israel in the section dealing with blessings and curses:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. I will grant peace in the land…. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword…. I will be ever present in your midst; I will be your God, and you shall be My people…. But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments…I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to fail and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it…. I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit…. I will lay your cities to waste and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors…. And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheathe the sword against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ruin…. You shall not be able to stand your ground before your enemies but shall perish among the nations; and the land of your enemies shall consume you…. (Vayikra 26:3-38)

Sometimes there is no contradiction between the judgment of the nation and that of the individual. For even if the nation as a whole merits a shefa of blessing, this does not mean that a few individuals cannot be punished for their sins. Similarly, if the nation as a whole is punished, this does not mean that a few individuals cannot be rewarded. However, sometimes there is a contradiction between the judgment of the nation and that of the individual. For example, if a harsh decree such as destruction or exile has been issued against the nation, the righteous, perforce, will also suffer. Nevertheless, the judgment stands, and the righteous will receive their reward in the world of souls, in Gan Eden. Similarly, if the nation as a whole is good, the wicked will not receive their punishment in this world but in the world of souls, in Gehinom. Judgment will be completed in the next world, when the dead are resurrected and souls reunite with their bodies.[6]

It is also important to be aware that when the Jewish nation is in exile and the Temple lies in ruins, God’s role in the world is deeply hidden. It appears as if God has left the earth and evil rules the world; the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer. The same forces of evil that destroyed the Temple allow the wicked to prosper. Just as the Shekhina is suffering in exile, so too, the righteous are drowning in pain and suffering. Additionally, when harsh decrees are passed against the Jews, all individual Jews suffer as a result.[7]

Though it seems unjust that the righteous suffer more, being righteous means experiencing more pain over Israel’s exile; as long as the honor of heaven is being trampled by the nations, the righteous take no joy from this-worldly pleasures. Their sorrow and mourning for Zion and the Temple allow them to cling to the Shekhina and draw redemption nearer. For this, their reward is very great.

[6]. The sin of Adam created a division between the worlds and between body and soul. This division is the “death” that was Adam’s punishment. His soul and body were separated. As a result, reward and punishment cannot be fully realized in the physical world. Rather, a small part is meted out in this world and a larger part in the World of Souls (i.e., in Gan Eden and Gehinom). Reward and punishment are completed at the time of the resurrection of the dead, when the physical world will be perfected, the worlds will be reunited, and body and soul will become one again. Part of the uniqueness of the Jewish nation is that it represents the unity of body and soul, vision and deed, even in our current imperfect world. Even when the Jewish people are damaged spiritually or physically, their spiritual and physical core remain. Therefore, even in this world, they experience true life. See the next section.

[7]. Similarly, Tanya (Igeret Ha-teshuva, ch. 4-6) explains that at a time of destruction and exile, we can fathom “neither the tranquility of the wicked nor the suffering of the righteous” (Avot 4:15), for God’s role is concealed, and the power of impurity is strengthened by sins. This is the meaning of the exile of the Shekhina. It is imprisoned by the husks of impurity, and the goodness directed toward it is hijacked by the sitra aḥra (the “other,” demonic side) to strengthen the wicked and harm the righteous. In times of exile, the divine punishments of karet and death at the hands of heaven are not carried out, so many who deserve to die live long and happy lives.

09. The Judgment of Israel

The judgment of Israel impacts the entire world, since the relationship of Israel to the other nations is like the heart’s relationship to the body’s other organs. The existence of the entire world depends upon the Jews, who must reveal the light of Torah in the world in order to guide it to perfection. Thus, the Gemara declares, “God made a condition with the act of creation and said, ‘If the Jews accept the Torah, you will continue to exist; if not, I will return the world to chaos’” (Shabbat 88a). Ever since the Torah was given to the Jews, the world’s existence has depended upon their adherence to it. Furthermore, the redemption of the world depends upon the repentance of the Jews. Since Israel bears such a great responsibility, when they sin, their punishment is more severe than the punishment that other nations would incur for the same sin. On the other hand, the reward that Israel receives for choosing what is right is greater as well, since by doing so they bring blessing and redemption to the entire world.

Therefore, judgment on Rosh Ha-shana begins with the Jewish people, as we read: “Blow the shofar on the new moon, on the covered moon, for our festival day; for it is a law for Israel, a ruling for the God of Jacob” (Tehilim 81:4-5). Only after judging the Jews does God judge the other nations (Rosh Ha-shana 8a-b). This seems to imply that if (God forbid) the Jews choose evil, God will destroy them and the entire world. But God chose His nation and entered into a covenant with them. Therefore, even if they sin greatly, He will not desert them. Rather, He will punish them severely and rule over them wrathfully, in order to encourage them to return to the right path. This accords with the conclusion of the section of blessings and curses in Vayikra:

Yet even then, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or spurn them so as to destroy them, annulling My covenant with them; for I the Lord am their God. I will remember in their favor the covenant with the ancients, whom I freed from the land of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God; I am the Lord. (Vayikra 26:44-45)

Additionally, the blessings and curses of Devarim state that ultimately, after the suffering of the Jewish people, God will doubly punish their wicked tormentors, redeem His people, and purify His land: “For He will avenge the blood of His servants, wreak vengeance on His foes, and purify His land and His people” (Devarim 32:43). Similarly, we read: “For the Lord will not forsake His people; He will not abandon His very own” (Tehilim 94:14).

We see that the Jews’ existence in this world and the next is guaranteed. What judgment determines is what type of existence they will have. Will it be blessed and peaceful, or (God forbid) the opposite? Similarly, the Jews are guaranteed that redemption will arrive; if they repent, it will arrive more quickly and peacefully. If they do not repent, a long exile will culminate in terrible, awful suffering. Following this, the scattered Jews will gather together and settle Eretz Yisrael. They will continue to ascend until they achieve complete repentance and redemption (Sanhedrin 97b-98a; Zohar III 66b).

01. Elul and Shofar Blowing

The month of Elul and the Ten Days of Repentance are particularly auspicious for repentance, as this is the period when God agreed to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf. Forty days after the Torah was given, when Moshe had not yet descended from Mount Sinai, a group of sinners persuaded the people to make a golden calf as a replacement for God’s authority. At that moment, a great anger was kindled against Israel. It was serious enough that God said to Moshe, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation” (Shemot 32:10). Moshe prayed fervently and reminded God of the merits of the patriarchs and matriarchs, thus delaying the punishment. Then he descended the mountain, shattered the Tablets, and, together with the tribe of Levi, executed the sinners. He melted down and pulverized the calf, mixed the ash with water, and made all the Israelites drink from it. The water served as a litmus test, and those who had worshipped the calf died. Nevertheless, the threat of destruction still hovered over Israel. Displaying a spirit of self-sacrifice, Moshe stood before God and declared, “Now, if You will forgive their sin [well and good]; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written” (ibid. v. 32). Following this declaration, the decree was lifted. However, Israel was still disgraced and distant from God. It was as if they were no longer His children, His servants, or His special nation. Furthermore, the first Tablets lay in pieces.

On Rosh Ḥodesh Elul, Moshe once again ascended Mount Sinai to pray as Israel’s emissary, asking God to have mercy upon them and forgive them. On Yom Kippur, their repentance was fully accepted. Moshe descended to give the Jews the second set of Tablets and to inform them that they were forgiven. As an indication of their renewed closeness and specialness, God commanded them to erect a Mishkan (Tabernacle), through which the Shekhina would be revealed to them. Since the timing of important events is not accidental, we see that the forty days from Rosh Ḥodesh Elul until Yom Kippur are particularly auspicious for repentance.

This accords with the following midrash:

On Rosh Ḥodesh Elul, God said to Moshe, “Come up to Me on the mountain” (Shemot 24:12). The shofar was then blown in the camp, to let it be known that Moshe was ascending the mountain again and that Israel must not repeat their mistake. God ascended on that day through those same shofar blasts, as we read, “God ascends with a blast (teru’a); the Lord, with the sound of a shofar” (Tehilim 47:6). Therefore, the Sages ordained that the shofar be blown each year on Rosh Ḥodesh Elul. (Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer 46)

They chose to have the shofar serve as a wake-up call for the people, because it has the power to discourage people from sinning and to awaken the masses to repent (Tur and Beit Yosef, OḤ 581:1).

Accordingly, Jewish communities customarily blow the shofar during the month of Elul. Ashkenazic custom is to blow each day at the end of Shaḥarit. Sephardim, who recite Seliḥot all month, blow the shofar when they recite the concluding Kaddish of Seliḥot. Many Sephardim also blow the shofar when reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Blowing the shofar in Elul is not obligatory, but it is proper for communities to try to do so. Nevertheless, an individual who did not hear the shofar blown does not need to search for someone to blow the shofar for him.[1]

[1]. Formerly, some Sephardic communities blew the shofar during Seliḥot, while others did not (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 581:13). Nowadays, almost all blow ten shofar blasts during Seliḥot (tashrattashattarat; see 4:4 below) as well as during the full Kaddish (which concludes the service); some also blow the shofar when reciting the Thirteen Attributes. Yemenites, too, blow at the end of Seliḥot, with some also blowing during the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes. In contrast, Ashkenazic custom is to blow four shofar blasts (tashrat) at the end of Shaḥarit. R. Waldenberg points out that this is the custom during communal prayer, not individual prayer (Tzitz Eliezer 12:48). From Rosh Ḥodesh Elul until Shemini Atzeret, Ashkenazim customarily recite Le-David Hashem Ori Ve-yish’i (Tehilim ch. 27) following the shofar blowing, as well as at the end of Ma’ariv (or Minḥa).

02. The Basis for the Custom of Reciting Seliḥot

Many Jews have a custom, extending back to the times of the Ge’onim, to wake up early during the Ten Days of Repentance to recite Seliḥot. This is done primarily to inspire people to repent, ask God for forgiveness and atonement, and beg Him to be merciful to His exiled and suffering people. We ask that He not look at our sins and transgressions, but rather that He remember His covenant with our ancestors and with us. We ask Him to remember the sacrifice of Yitzḥak and all the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to sanctify His name. We also pray for the ingathering of the exiles, the rebuilding of Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem, and the Temple, and the return of the Shekhina to Zion. It is customary to recite Seliḥot specifically during the Ten Days of Repentance because it is a time of judgment and prayer is more readily accepted then. It is proper for every individual to join the community and pray fervently for the Jewish people, for the Shekhina to dwell among us, and for God’s name to be sanctified in the world. Through this, one’s personal prayers will be accepted as well.

Indeed, we find that the prophets encouraged the Jews to gather together in times of trouble to fast, pray, and beg God to have mercy on His people and His land. Thus, we read:

Blow a shofar in Zion; solemnize a fast; proclaim an assembly! Gather the people; bid the congregation purify themselves. Bring together the old, gather the babes and the sucklings at the breast. Let the bridegroom come out of his chamber, the bride from her canopied couch. Between the portico and the altar, let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep and say: “Oh, spare Your people, Lord! Let not Your possession become a mockery, to be taunted by nations! Let not the peoples say, ‘Where is their god?’” Then the Lord will be roused on behalf of His land and have compassion upon His people. (Yoel 2:15-18)

Together with reciting Seliḥot and prayers, we must repent and improve our behavior. Thus, during this time period, it is customary to recite Seliḥot, to study works of musar (ethical improvement), and to have sermons that exhort us to repent. Some have the custom to have sermons before Seliḥot, to rebuke and inspire.

03. Seliḥot Nowadays

Today, there is more reason than ever to recite Seliḥot. Now that God has had mercy on us and has begun to redeem us by gathering in the exiles and allowing us to settle Eretz Yisrael, we should be more inspired to repent. We must beg God to continue to have mercy upon us; to gather in the exiles, and settle them in the land that He granted to our ancestors and to us; to facilitate our repentance, which will draw us nearer to Him; to help us become greater Torah scholars and sanctify ourselves through mitzva observance; and to allow us to rebuild the Temple, illuminating the entire world with the light of His faith and His Torah.

When the Jews returned from Babylonia with Ezra, they had serious spiritual problems, similar to those we are experiencing today. Through repentance, though, they merited to build the Second Temple. The Book of Ezra makes this clear. Ezra left Babylonia for Eretz Yisrael only to discover that many Jewish men, including officials and dignitaries, had married non-Jewish women. In Ezra’s own words:

When I heard this, I rent my garment and robe, I tore hair out of my head and beard, and I sat desolate. Around me gathered all who were concerned over the words of the God of Israel because of the returning exiles’ trespass, while I sat desolate until the evening offering. At the time of the evening offering, I ended my self-affliction; still in my torn garment and robe, I got down on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, and said, “O my God, I am too ashamed and mortified to lift my face to You, O my God, for our iniquities are overwhelming and our guilt has grown high as heaven. From the time of our fathers to this very day, we have been deep in guilt. Because of our iniquities, we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to foreign kings, to the sword, to captivity, to pillage, and to humiliation, as is now the case. But now, for a short while, there has been a reprieve from the Lord our God, Who has granted us a surviving remnant and given us a stake in His holy place; our God has restored the luster to our eyes and furnished us with a little sustenance in our bondage. For bondsmen we are, though even in our bondage God has not forsaken us, but has disposed the kings of Persia favorably toward us, to furnish us with sustenance and to raise again the House of our God, repairing its ruins and giving us a hold in Judah and Jerusalem. Now, what can we say in the face of this, O our God, for we have forsaken Your commandments…. After all that has happened to us because of our evil deeds and our deep guilt – though You, our God, have been forbearing, [punishing us] less than our iniquity [deserves] in that You have granted us such a remnant as this – shall we once again violate Your commandments by intermarrying with these people who follow such abhorrent practices? Will You not rage against us till we are destroyed without remnant or survivor? O Lord, God of Israel, You are benevolent, for we have survived as a remnant, as is now the case. We stand before You in all our guilt, for we cannot face You because of this.” (Ezra 9:3-15)

Ezra’s anguish, fasting, and prayers awakened the nation to repentance, as we read, “While Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the House of God, a very great crowd of Israelites gathered about him, men, women, and children; the people were weeping bitterly.” They accepted God’s covenant, and the men agreed not to remain with the women and children who were unwilling to convert. “So Ezra at once put the officers of the priests and the Levites and all Israel under oath to act accordingly, and they took the oath” (ibid. 10:1-5). Nevertheless, since many Jews did not repent, and many did not come to Eretz Yisrael but remained in Babylon, the presence of the Shekhina was not as strong in the time of the Second Temple as in the First, and ultimately the Second Temple, too, was destroyed on account of our sins.

Certain passages in Seliḥot are appropriate for a period of exile, which makes it difficult for some people to identify with their content nowadays. Some are even worried that there is an element of falsehood in reciting such Seliḥot. However, if we see the Jewish people as a nation that transcends history, with each and every one of us linked to all Jews in all times and all places, we can recite even these exilic selections and identify deeply with them. For we identify with our ancestors who lived in exile and suffered such horrible tribulations and degradations that they almost lost hope. We identify with the Jews who experienced anti-religious persecution by Muslims and Christians, and who were tortured and martyred during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Chmielnicki Massacres. Most recently and most devastating of all, we identify with the victims of the terrible Holocaust which took place less than eighty years ago. How can we be so complacent as to say that the supplications of the Seliḥot are no longer appropriate, when there are still survivors among us who endured the ghettos and the concentration camps, and the world is still filled with monsters who openly proclaim that they hope to continue the work of the Nazis? In light of all this, we can still recite the Seliḥot and identify deeply with them.

4. The Contents of Seliḥot

Because the Sages did not explicitly ordain the recitation of Seliḥot, there is no standard rite, and each community added its own supplications and piyutim (liturgical poems). Nevertheless, there is a basic framework that all communities follow and which appears in Seder R. Amram Gaon. We begin with the recitation of Ashrei (Tehilim 145), as every prayer service begins with praise of God. This is followed by a half Kaddish and the paragraphs that begin “Lekha Hashem Ha-tzedaka” (“To You, O Lord, is righteousness”) and “Shome’a tefila adekha kol basar yavo’u” (“Hearer of prayer, all humankind comes to You”; Tehilim 65:3) and additional verses of petition and supplication. We then recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the standard confession (“Ashamnu” – “We are guilty”) and the longer confession (“Ashamnu mi-kol am” – “We are the guiltiest of all peoples”). Toward the end, we recite “Aneinu” (“Answer us”) and “Asei le-ma’an shemekha” (“Act for the sake of Your name”). The service concludes with Taḥanun and the full Kaddish.

  1. Amram Gaon writes that additional verses, piyutim, and supplications may be added to the basic outline. In fact, Jewish communities have added many piyutim to Seliḥot, with the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy repeated in between them. There are differences between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic rites of these additional piyutim. Also, while Sephardim recite the same Seliḥot every day, Ashkenazim have different piyutim for each day.

When time is short, worshippers may skip the additional piyutim and recite just the basic order set out by R. Amram Gaon. If a congregation is selecting which piyutim to say, they should opt for those that inspire repentance.[2]

[2]. Some say that it is forbidden to recite piyutim that address various angels, as one may turn in prayer only to God (Rambam; Ramban). Accordingly, one should not recite “Makhnisei Raḥamim” (“Purveyors of Mercy”), which is mentioned in Seder R. Amram Gaon and which Ashkenazim usually say at the end of Seliḥot, as it is addressed to angels. Likewise, according to this view, one may not recite the piyutMidat Ha-raḥamim aleinu hitgalgeli” (“Attribute of Mercy, Descend upon Us”) as it is addressed to a divine attribute and not directly to God. However, most poskim permit the recitation of these piyutim, which were composed long ago by Torah giants, and which Jews have been reciting for hundreds of years. The rationale seems to be that as long as the supplicant knows that everything is in the hands of God, he may ask the angels to fulfill their mission, namely, to transport our prayers to God and remind Him of our merits (R. Sherira Gaon; R. Eliezer of Worms; Shibolei Ha-leket §252: Mahari Bruna). Indeed, this is the practice of most communities, which have not expunged such piyutim from the siddur. Others maintain that fundamentally the stringent position is correct. Nevertheless, they do not want to eliminate these piyutim entirely, because of the long-standing custom to recite them. To resolve the dilemma, they adjust the formulations of the prayers slightly, rephrasing them so that it is clear that the prayers are addressing God, asking Him to teach the angels how to transport our prayers to Him (Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-avoda ch. 12; this was the practice of R. Zvi Yehuda Kook). Alternatively, some rabbis took their time reciting the prayers earlier in Seliḥot in order to ensure that they would not have time to recite the problematic ones. Nevertheless, they did not object to the congregation saying them (Ḥatam Sofer OḤ 166).

05. The Days on Which Seliḥot Are Recited

In Geonic times, the custom in both of the prominent yeshivot in Babylonia was to recite Seliḥot during the Ten Days of Repentance. In a few places, Seliḥot were recited during the entire month of Elul. By the end of the medieval era, Sephardic communities had accepted the practice of reciting Seliḥot throughout Elul (SA 581:1). On Rosh Ḥodesh Elul itself, though, Seliḥot are not recited (Responsa Rama Mi-Fano §79; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 581:1). As Rosh Ha-shana draws near, more and more people make sure to attend Seliḥot, and people are especially meticulous about doing so during the Ten Days of Repentance. The Ashkenazic custom is to begin reciting Seliḥot on the Saturday night before Rosh Ha-shana, provided that there will be at least four days of Seliḥot prior to the holiday. This means that if Rosh Ha-shana starts on Thursday or Shabbat, Seliḥot begin the Saturday night before the holiday, but if Rosh Ha-shana starts on Monday or Tuesday, Seliḥot begin the previous Saturday night.[3]

While the Sages did not make reciting Seliḥot mandatory, it is the predominant Jewish custom. Nevertheless, one who finds it difficult to wake up for Seliḥot need not do so during Elul. During the Ten Days of Repentance, though, he should make serious efforts to recite Seliḥot, as these days are auspicious for repentance and forgiveness. (See Rosh Ha-shana 18a; MT, Laws of Repentance 2:6.) If one is unable to go to sleep early, and waking up for Seliḥot would result in his being too exhausted to fulfill his work obligations, then he should not wake up early, even during the Ten Days of Repentance. Rather, he should try to recite chapters of Tehilim, and during the course of the day he can recite those sections of the Seliḥot that an individual may recite alone. (See section 7 below.)

The accepted ruling is that even very diligent Torah scholars should recite Seliḥot (Birkei Yosef and Sha’arei Teshuva 581:1). Indeed, this is the custom in all yeshivot, even though reciting Seliḥot takes time away from Torah study. However, if one finds that waking up early makes him lose even more time than the time taken by the recitation of Seliḥot because he cannot concentrate on his studies later on, it is better for him not to wake up early for Seliḥot.

[3]. In the past, many people had a custom to fast for ten days as part of their repentance (as will be explained in section 9). Only on six of the Ten Days of Repentance is it permissible to fast (because there is a mitzva to eat on both days of Rosh Ha-shana, Shabbat Shuva, and Erev Yom Kippur). Accordingly, it was important to have four days before Rosh Ha-shana during which fasting and reciting Seliḥot were permissible. Nowadays, the widespread practice is not to fast for ten days. Nevertheless, we continue the custom of starting Seliḥot at least four days before Rosh Ha-shana. An additional reason to have at least four days of Seliḥot before Rosh Ha-shana is that we imagine that we are offering ourselves to God. As we know, offerings must be prepared and checked for imperfections at least four days before they are sacrificed.

Why then do we always begin Seliḥot on Saturday night rather than beginning four days before Rosh Ha-shana? Some suggest that always beginning Seliḥot on the same night is less confusing (Tur and Rema 581:1; MB ad loc. 6). Others suggest that the point of beginning Seliḥot on Saturday night is in order to start our supplications as we exit the holy Shabbat. During Shabbat, people study Torah joyfully, which allows the Shekhina – which only rests where there is the joy of a mitzva – to rest upon them (Leket Yosher).

06. When to Recite Seliḥot

The best time to recite Seliḥot is the last ashmoret (“watch”) of the night, just before morning, which is a time of mercy and acquiescence, a time of anticipation for the dawn of new light and the revelation of God’s word in the world. At this time, everyone is asleep; the world is pure and unsullied by evil thoughts and deeds. Prayer bursts forth from the depths of the heart, breaks through all barriers, and is accepted on high. Any time after midnight is also appropriate for reciting Seliḥot, as that is when people begin to look forward to dawn; it is also a time of mercy and compassion.

Nowadays, people generally go to sleep relatively late, and wake up between six and seven in the morning, which is generally about two hours after the end of the last ashmoret in Israel. Were they to get up during the ashmoret, they would be tired all day and their work or studies would likely suffer. Therefore, many people wake up a half hour or an hour earlier than their usual time and recite Seliḥot before Shaḥarit. Even though it is past dawn, Seliḥot may still be recited then. Nevertheless, it is better to recite Seliḥot after midnight when possible. In any case, a person should make sure that the recitation of Seliḥot does not leave him so exhausted that he cannot meet all his work or study obligations.

There are those who say that a community that cannot get a minyan for Seliḥot in the morning may, on a temporary basis, recite them before midnight – at 10:00 PM, for instance. (See Igrot Moshe OḤ 2:105.) In practice, however, it is better to say Seliḥot on one’s own at the proper time, since the kabbalists and many poskim say that it is not appropriate to recite Seliḥot before midnight. During the first part of the night, the attribute of justice is dominant, and the world is full of worries and sullied by all sorts of evil thoughts and deeds (Birkei Yosef 581:1-2; Sha’arei Teshuva ad loc. 1; MB 565:12).

There are Seliḥot that refer to waking up at dawn. Some maintain that one who is reciting Seliḥot at a different time must skip these piyutim (AHS 581:4). However, the custom is not to be too exacting about this, because the prayer was instituted for the entire Jewish people, and every day there are some who wake up before dawn to recite Seliḥot.

07. Laws of Seliḥot

Seliḥot are recited with a minyan, because the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy are “devarim she-bikedusha” (holy words), which may only be recited in a quorum of ten (SA 565:5). Of course, a minyan is also required for the recitation of the half Kaddish at the beginning of Seliḥot and the full Kaddish at the end. If the time to recite Seliḥot arrives and there is no minyan yet, the congregation should recite Ashrei, the supplications, and the piyutim while skipping the Thirteen Attributes and the paragraph that introduces them. When the tenth man arrives, the congregation should first recite three verses, follow them with the half Kaddish, and then say the Thirteen Attributes from then on, in their assigned places (MB 581:4).

One who is in a place without a minyan for Seliḥot may recite them on his own. However, he must either skip the Thirteen Attributes or read them with the cantillations, as if he were reading from the Torah. Some say he should also skip the Aramaic prayers (SA 565:5; MB 581:4), while others disagree (Kaf Ha-ḥayim 581:26; see Harḥavot).

Even though there is no mitzva to wear a talit at night, according to Ashkenazic custom the ḥazan for Seliḥot wears a talit to honor the prayers and the congregation (MA 18:2; SHT 581:3). Yemenite custom is for all male participants to wear a talit. According to Sephardic practice, the ḥazan for Seliḥot does not wear a talit. After all, he does not wear it for Minḥa, and certainly not for Ma’ariv and Seliḥot, which are recited at night. However, if the ḥazan is not dressed respectably, for example if he is not wearing a jacket, it is proper for him to put on a talit (R. Eliyahu, cited in Mikra’ei Kodesh: Rosh Ha-shana, p. 72, n. 35).

If the service is at night, the ḥazan does not recite a berakha when putting on the talit, as there is uncertainty. According to Rosh, one recites a berakha when putting on a talit at night, whereas according to Rambam, one does not, and in cases of uncertainty about berakhot, we are lenient and do not recite them (Levush 581:1; see MB ad loc. 6). Some ḥazanim make a point of borrowing a friend’s talit (having in mind not to acquire it); since a borrowed talit does not require tzitzit, everyone agrees that a berakha is not recited over it (Taz 581:2).

Even in the presence of a bridegroom or the father (and other honorees) of a child on the day of his brit mila, the vidui and Taḥanun of Seliḥot are nevertheless recited. Some disagree with this; nevertheless, it is the common practice. Since reciting Seliḥot is not absolutely obligatory, it is preferable for a newlywed or someone making a brit not to attend. This way, the congregation does not face uncertainty.

Sephardim say some of the Seliḥot sitting and others standing. Yemenites recite most of them while sitting, while Ashkenazim stand for all of them. Those who find it difficult to stand may sit. They should try to stand when reciting vidui and the Thirteen Attributes, as well as when the ark is open. The elderly, the weak, and the sick who find even that too difficult may sit for the entire service. (See section 12 below.)

08. The Thirteen Attributes of Mercy

The pinnacle of the Seliḥot service is the recitation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, the divine attributes through which God governs the Jewish people. God revealed these attributes to Moshe Rabbeinu after forgiving the Jews for the sin of the Golden Calf. At that point, Moshe requested, “Let me behold Your presence” (Shemot 33:18). God replied, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name ‘Lord’” (ibid. 19). In other words, “I will reveal to you the attributes with which I relate to Israel.” Then:

The Lord came down in a cloud; He stood with him there and proclaimed the name Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and absolving them.” (Ibid. 34:5-7)

  1. Yoḥanan commented:

Had the verse not stated this, we would not have been able to say it. God wrapped Himself in a talit like a ḥazan and showed Moshe how to pray. God said to him: “Any time the Jews sin, they should recite these words, and I will forgive them.” (Rosh Ha-shana 17b)

We therefore recite the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy frequently during Seliḥot, on fast days, and on Yom Kippur.

Following the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, it became clear that the connection between God and the Jews is eternal and cannot be negated, no matter how sinful we are. Sins will indeed lead to punishment and terrible suffering, but the deeper connection between God and the Jews remains. Therefore, it is always possible to repent. By reciting the Thirteen Attributes we deepen our faith, connecting with God in such a profound way that it becomes clear that our sins are peripheral and external to us, and thus we can easily repent for them. Because the Thirteen Attributes reveal the exalted status of the Jewish people, they may be recited only with a minyan (SA 565:5; see section 7 regarding an individual praying alone).­­­[4]

[4]. To understand the power of the Thirteen Attributes, we must first explain that there are two ways in which God relates to the world. Kabbalistic sources usually call them ze’er anpin (smaller face) and arikh anpin (greater face). In Da’at Tevunot §134 and many other places, Ramḥal calls them governance through law (hanhagat ha-mishpat) and governance through unification (hanhagat ha-yiḥud). Normally God relates to Israel through law, according to which everything depends on a person’s actions. If he chooses good, he receives blessing; if he chooses evil, God’s shefa is withheld from him. However, God also relates to the world in a more elevated, hidden way. It is through this relationship, referred to as unification, that the world constantly advances and progresses toward its redemption. Even at low points of sin and punishment, God directs matters behind the scenes to ensure the continued elevation of the world. This relationship is dependent upon God’s covenant with Israel, which is expressed in the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The more connected we are to the relationship of unification, the more our faith grows, and the more we can connect the world to its purpose. In a sense, this is repentance on the global scale. Forgiveness and atonement ensue, the heavenly prosecutors disappear, and blessing flows to the world.

09. Penitential Fasting

In the past, many people fasted on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, to accept suffering for their sins, for when a sinner accepts suffering as part of repentance, he is granted atonement and exempted from more severe punishments warranted by his sins. The same applies to public fast days; they atone for sins and exempt the community from further punishment. The Sages offer a parable:

To what can this be compared? To a city that owed a large amount of tax to the king. The king sent agents to collect it, but they were unsuccessful. The city could not pay because the debt was so large. What did the king do? He told his servants and soldiers, “Let’s go there!” By the time the king and his entourage had traveled ten parasangs, the residents heard of his journey, and were frightened. What did they do? Their leaders went out to greet the king. He asked them, “Who are you?” They replied, “We are residents of such and such a city, the one to which you sent tax collectors.” He asked them, “What do you want?” They replied, “Please do us a kindness, as we have nothing to give.” He said to them, “For you, I will reduce the amount by a third.” When the king got closer to the city, ordinary residents went to greet him. He asked, “Who are you?” They responded, “We are people from such and such a city, to which you sent tax collectors, but we cannot pay. We ask that you take pity on us.” The king reduced the payment by another third. He got even closer, and all the residents came out to greet him, young and old. He asked them, “What do you want?” They responded, “Our master and king, we are not able to pay what we owe.” He forgave the final third.

The king in this parable refers to the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. The people of the city are the Jews, who accumulate sins all year long. What does God do? He tells them, “Repent, starting on Rosh Ha-shana.” What do they do? On Erev Rosh Ha-shana the leaders of the generation fast, and God forgives a third of the sins. From Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Kippur, individuals fast, and God forgives another third of the sins. On Yom Kippur, all Jews fast and beg for mercy – men, women, and children – and God forgives them completely. Thus we read (Vayikra 16:30), “For on this day, atonement shall be made for you to purify you of all your sins; you shall purify yourselves before the Lord.” (Tanḥuma Emor §22)

Since the Sages said that fasting before Rosh Ha-shana is very effective, most Jews in the medieval era fasted on that day (see the next section). So states Shulḥan Arukh: “It is the custom to fast on Erev Rosh Ha-shana” (581:2). Since the fast is not mandatory (as are the fasts which commemorate the destruction of the Temple), many fasted only half the day or until plag ha-minḥa (1.25 seasonal hours before sunset). They did not fast the whole day so as not to start the holiday in a state of deprivation (Rema ad loc.; MB 562:10).

Some people fasted for ten days, as Rema writes (ad loc.): “Those who are meticulously observant customarily fast for ten days, and it is proper to do so.” They would fast for six of the Ten Days of Repentance (as it is forbidden to fast on the two days of Rosh Ha-shana, Shabbat, and Erev Yom Kippur), as well as four days prior to Rosh Ha-shana.

In recent times, far fewer people follow customs that involve fasting; even on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, most do not fast. Some suggest that people are weaker and softer than they used to be, so it is not fair to demand that they deprive themselves as an expression of piety (Ḥayei Adam 138:1). The great Hasidic masters maintained that the primary mode of worship in our generations should be joyful, so customs that detract from joy should be avoided. If someone would like to maintain the custom of fasting on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, but he finds it difficult, he should give charity instead. The amount should be either what he would be willing to pay to avoid needing to fast, or minimally, what he would spend for food on an ordinary day.

10. Erev Rosh Ha-shana

As mentioned, in the time of the Rishonim, most Jews fasted on Erev Rosh Ha-shana (SA 581:2; MB ad loc.16), while today most do not. A few people still fast half the day or until plag ha-minḥa. Others give charity in place of fasting.

Ashkenazic custom is to recite many more Seliḥot on Erev Rosh Ha-shana than on other days. If Seliḥot begin before dawn, Taḥanun is recited at the end of the Seliḥot service. Even then, Taḥanun is not said following Shaḥarit, as Taḥanun is normally not recited on Erev Yom Tov. If Seliḥot begin after dawn, Taḥanun is not recited at the end of Seliḥot either (MB 581:23).[5]

On Erev Rosh Ha-shana we do not blow the shofar, so as to distinguish the custom-based blasts of the month of Elul from the obligatory blasts of Rosh Ha-shana (SA 581:3; Levush). Some are stringent and do not even practice blowing the shofar on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. However, one who wants to practice may do so in a closed room (MA ad loc. 14; Eliya Rabba ad loc. 4; MB ad loc. 24).

Since Rosh Ha-shana is called a sacred occasion (mikra kodesh), we honor it as we do Shabbat and holidays. We prepare for it by cleaning the home, doing the laundry, showering, preparing festive meals, and setting the table nicely. If one needs a haircut or a shave, it is a mitzva to take care of it beforehand, in honor of the holiday (SA 581:1; below, 3:4).

As a good omen, in hopes that the upcoming year will be filled with abundance, it is customary to make particularly good and plentiful food for Rosh Ha-shana. To enable this, common practice was to slaughter many animals before Rosh Ha-shana, for the festive meals. In fact, Erev Rosh Ha-shana is listed in the Mishna as one of the four days of the year on which the most animals were slaughtered. Therefore, special care had to be taken to avoid slaughtering an animal and its offspring on the same day, which is forbidden (Ḥullin 83a).

Some have the custom of going to mikveh on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, to purify themselves in anticipation of the Day of Judgment (Rema 581:4). One who wishes to follow this custom but finds it difficult may wash with nine kavim (approximately 11 liters) of water instead (MB ad loc. 26). That is, he should stand in the shower while nine kavim of water streams down on him without interruption. He should ensure that this water comes into contact with his entire body (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:16 and n. 8).

It is customary to do hatarat nedarim (nullification of vows) on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. During the recitation, future vows are disclaimed as well (as we will explain below, 5:11-12).

[5]. Some customarily give charity on Erev Rosh Ha-shana. Others visit cemeteries (Rema 581:4) so that the merit of the righteous buried there will help their prayers to be accepted. However, those who visit a cemetery must be careful not to ask the dead to pray on their behalf; they must turn to God alone (Maharil; Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha-avoda ch. 12; Ḥayei Adam 138:5; MB 581:27). But some say that one may ask the deceased righteous to pray to God on our behalf (Pri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 581:16; Responsa Maharam Schick OḤ §293). Individuals should follow their family’s custom. Some people also visit graves before Yom Kippur (Rema 605:1). However, in practice, almost no one does so, since Erev Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov in some respects. In fact, even on Erev Rosh Ha-shana the custom is not widespread.

11. The Ḥazan on the Days of Awe

The ḥazan plays a central role during the Days of Awe, since he leads the prayers. Sometimes the whole congregation recites the prayers along with him, while he sets the pace, and at other times he recites the prayers alone, serving as the representative of the congregation (shli’ah tzibur), while the congregation then responds with “amen” (such as during the repetition of the Amida and the recital of Kaddish). Thus, it is important to make sure that the ḥazan is worthy of this sacred task. He must be upright, meaning he should not be a sinner, and especially not a thief. He should have a good reputation and should not have been known as a wanton sinner even in his youth. He should be humble, and the congregation should be happy with him, as he is their representative. He should know how to recite the prayers with precision and should be someone who regularly studies Torah and rabbinic texts. He should know how to perform the proper melodies and should have a pleasant voice, as this allows him to honor his Creator and to engage the congregation, inspiring the people and improving their concentration. If they are unable to find someone who has all these virtues, they should choose the wisest and best person available (Ta’anit 16a; SA 53:4-5).

It is proper that the ḥazan be married, just as the Kohen Gadol had to be married, and that he be at least thirty years old, just as the Levites began to serve at the age of thirty (Rema 581:1). Someone dedicated to Torah who is young and single should be given preference over a thirty-year-old, married ignoramus. Even if the choice is between an older man who has a good voice and is well-liked but is ignorant, does not understand the prayers, and makes mistakes reciting them, or a youth of thirteen who does not know the melodies but understands the prayers, the youth is preferable. A long-standing ḥazan should not be replaced even if a better candidate is available, unless there is something specific which now disqualifies him (SA 53:25).

Depending on the circumstances, there may be additional qualities to look for in a ḥazan. For example, if a community is fasting because of a drought, it is proper to look for a ḥazan who is poor, who has young children whom he has difficulty feeding, and who works hard in the field, as the drought causes him great suffering. In general, if the congregation is praying due to some threat, it is good to choose a ḥazan who is personally affected by it, or a leader who truly feels the suffering of the congregation (Ta’anit 16a; MB 581:10).

During the time of the Sages, it was forbidden to write siddurim because it was only permitted to put the written Torah – the Tanakh – into writing. It was forbidden to write down any orally transmitted material, including prayers and blessings instituted by the Sages (Temura 14b). Therefore, it was necessary for a ḥazan to recite all the prayers out loud, in order to fulfill the prayer obligation of the people who did not know them by heart. Thus, a community would appoint a ḥazan for the entire year, making sure that he had all the virtues discussed above. According to Sefer Ḥasidim (§758; MB 581:10), anyone who helps get an unworthy ḥazan appointed deprives the congregation of a worthy advocate and will be called to account for it in the future.

Over the course of time, the Sages permitted writing down the Oral Torah. With the advent of the printing press, siddurim became widely available. It was no longer necessary to appoint a regular ḥazan for all the prayers, because everyone prayed from their own siddur. Therefore, a different ḥazan now leads each service, and we are not as particular about his qualifications.

Nevertheless, on the Days of Awe, when we are begging God to forgive our sins, deliver us from troubles, and hasten the redemption, a community should be careful to select a ḥazan who meets all the criteria mentioned above. This is especially important for the Musaf service, as it is during Musaf of Rosh Ha-shana that we blow the shofar, and it is during Musaf of Yom Kippur that we recite the Kohen Gadol’s avoda (Temple service). If someone knows that he is not fit to be a ḥazan, he should turn down the honor if approached, because heaven promptly punishes an unfit ḥazan for his sins (Eliya Rabba; MB 581:10).

Even if an unfit person is chosen, it is not appropriate to have a quarrel over it. First of all, a quarrel is a serious sin in its own right. Second, even on the Days of Awe, all have maḥzorim and need not rely on the ḥazan to fulfill their obligation (Ḥatam Sofer OḤ 205; MB 581:11).

It is extremely important for a ḥazan to have a pleasant voice and familiarity with the melodies, and to use them for the glory of God. He should not engage in flourishes to show off his voice. A ḥazan who arrogantly extends the prayers is addressed in the verse, “They roar at Me, so I hate them” (Yirmiyahu 12:8). But if he uses his sweet voice and pleasant melodies to make the prayers beautiful in order to honor God and help the congregation focus, he will be blessed and his reward will be great (Rashba; SA 53:11).

12. Praying Out Loud and Standing Up When the Ark Is Open

As a rule, the Amida is supposed to be recited quietly (Peninei Halakha: Prayer 17:7). However, on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur, there were those who recited the Amida out loud in order to improve their concentration. Even though it is not permissible during the rest of the year, as it may confuse other worshippers, this is not a concern on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur because everyone has a maḥzor (SA 582:9). Nevertheless, people should not pray too loudly, both to avoid disturbing other worshippers and to avoid appearing like the prophets of Ba’al, who screamed at their gods (Rema 101:3; MB ad loc. 12).

Another reason to recite the Amida quietly is its exalted nature, which dictates that it be kept private (MA OḤ 101:4; MB ad loc. 11). On the Days of Awe, it makes sense to be even more careful about this. Where almost everyone prays silently, as is the case in most congregations today, one may not pray out loud. Even though there is no concern that people will make mistakes, as they have maḥzorim before them, nevertheless, when one prays aloud, it distracts worshippers and disrupts their concentration.

As maḥzorim note, it is customary to open the ark during the recitation of certain prayers. At those times, it is customary for everyone to stand in order to give honor to the Torah, which is on display. However, according to the letter of the law, the obligation to stand is limited to the time when the Torah scroll is in motion. When it is stationary, whether in the ark or on the podium, one is not required to stand. Therefore, the elderly, the weak, and the sick, who find it difficult to stand up, may sit even while the ark is open. Nevertheless, when the Torah is in motion, they should make extra efforts to stand.[6]

[6]. According to Taz, when the Torah is resting in the ark or on the podium, it is unnecessary to stand since it is in a different domain (Taz YD 242:13), i.e., an area over ten tefaḥim high (76 cm) and four tefaḥim wide (30.4 cm), which constitutes a private domain on Shabbat. According to Pri Megadim, if the Torah scroll is in its place of honor on the ark or podium, even if they are less than ten tefaḥim high or four tefaḥim wide, it is not necessary to stand. In reality, every podium and almost every ark nowadays is at least ten tefaḥim high and four tefaḥim wide.

01. The Day of Remembrance and Judgment

Rosh Ha-shana is the day on which God creates the new year and grants new life to all His creations. It is a mysterious day, rooted in the transcendent, beyond time and place, and therefore everything about it is hidden and can only be glimpsed little by little. This is why one of its names is keseh, deriving from kisui, “cover.” It is the only holiday that coincides with the beginning of the month, when the obscured moon just begins to reappear (Rosh Ha-shana 8a). The practical manifestation of this hiddenness is that there is some uncertainty about when exactly Rosh Ha-shana is supposed to be. To alleviate this uncertainty, it was celebrated for two days. (See sections 7 and 8 below.)

Like other holidays, there is a mitzva to refrain from melakha on Rosh Ha-shana and to sanctify it through food, drink, and clean clothes. Its unique feature is the mitzva to turn it into a day of remembrance (zikaron) and blasts (teru’a). As we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: “Speak to the people of Israel thus: ‘In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated (zikhron) with loud blasts (teru’a). You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.’” (Vayikra 23:23-25)

Similarly, we read, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day of blasts (yom teru’a)” (Bamidbar 29:1).

In the Amida and kiddush, Rosh Ha-shana is called the “Day of Remembrance” (Yom Ha-zikaron), because on this day God remembers His creations and renews their life for the upcoming year. The term “zikaron” (remembrance) in reference to God means that He comes to someone’s aid and grants them life. So that His kindness is not turned into wickedness by wicked people who would use it for evil, God ordained that blessing would be granted based on one’s deeds throughout the year. If one chooses good, he merits a shefa of goodness and blessing, whereas if he chooses evil (God forbid), the shefa of goodness is minimized, and the person consequently suffers much grief and pain. We see, therefore, that Rosh Ha-shana is a day of remembrance and judgment; God sits on His throne of judgment and appraises His world, judging each person individually and each nation collectively.

The primary judgment of the world hinges on the Jewish people and Eretz Yisrael, as the Jews are God’s people, the heart of the world, upon whom the repair of the world depends. Accordingly, the reward and punishment of the Jews is greater than that of other nations. God therefore judges the Jews first, and the judgment of mankind and the world in general is an outgrowth of this judgment (Rosh Ha-shana 8a-b; Ta’anit 10a). When we blow the shofar, recollections of us ascend to Him positively.

On the day that God remembers His creations, we, too, must awaken ourselves to remember what is most important and fundamental to us – faith in God, the Creator of the World – and, accordingly, to accept His divine yoke upon ourselves. Of course, it is always a mitzva to remember the foundations of faith. But on the day that God designated to recall His creations and judge their every action, for better or worse, we, too, must correspondingly contemplate His kingship, undertake piercing introspection, and resolve to better ourselves. This is the meaning of the commandment to make Rosh Ha-shana a “zikhron teru’a”: By remembering our faith and accepting the yoke of heaven, we tremble with the dread of judgment and the immensity of the responsibility we bear. And this is precisely how we are recalled before God in a positive light, mitigating the severity of judgment and increasing blessing in the world.

02. A Day of Teru’a

Because Rosh Ha-shana is a day of judgment, it is called “yom teru’a” (Bamidbar 29:1). While teki’a expresses joy and stability, teru’a alludes to brokenness, dread, crying, and radical change (4:1 below). Thus, Onkelos translates the phrase “yom teru’a” as “a day of wailing.”[1]

Similarly, God instructed the Israelites in the desert to blow a teki’a on the trumpets when they needed to gather the people, as a teki’a expresses joy and togetherness. In contrast, when they needed to go out to war or leave their encampment and move on, they were instructed to blow a teru’a (Bamidbar 10:1-7), for a teru’a represents brokenness and crying over that which is finished but imperfect, and apprehension about what comes next. If this is the feeling that results from physical dislocation, how much greater is the apprehension surrounding Rosh Ha-shana – a time when a person’s allotted life for the past year has run out, and his life for the next year has yet to be allotted. It has yet to be determined who will live and who will die, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer. All is dependent upon the judgment.

Furthermore, intense apprehension fills the heart of all who are aware of the tremendous responsibility God tasked us with – sustaining and repairing the world. With fear and dread, each person takes stock of his internal landscape, evaluating whether he has carried out his mission or fallen short. Therefore, even though the sound of a teru’a is of short duration, the day in its entirety is referred to as yom teru’a – a day of brokenness and tears, fear and apprehension.

We are commanded to blow a shofar rather than a trumpet because the sound produced by the shofar better expresses the teru’a. It is a cri de coeur, a primal sound, a sound that precedes words and articulation, more primal than standard sighs or tears. Its sound has the power to express tremendous pain for all the lies, thieving, neglect, and wantonness; for the awful distance which separates a person from the Creator; for the vast chasm between our lofty aspirations and our mundane lives (Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Torah Or §55).

This is the great mitzva that God commanded His people – to blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, to express, with humility and modesty, their recognition of His kingship. It is precisely through the pain and wailing hinted at by the shofar blasts that all claims against us are annulled, and we are judged favorably. This is the meaning of the Sages’ statement: “Any year that starts impoverished (rash) will end with wealth, as the verse says, ‘From year’s beginning (me-reshit [spelled defectively]) to year’s end’ (Devarim 11:12)” (Rosh Ha-shana 16b). However, we are also commanded to surround each teru’a with teki’ot, which allude to stability and happiness, since judgment and punishment at their root are meant to perfect and correct.

It is said in the name of Arizal that one should cry on Rosh Ha-shana, and that if one is not overcome with weeping, it indicates that his soul is indecent and imperfect (Sha’ar Ha-kavanot 90a). Tears are an expression of yom teru’a, a day of wailing and tears. True, Rosh Ha-shana is also a holiday and a sacred occasion, on which there is a mitzva to rejoice. Evidently, the tears of Rosh Ha-shana are not tears of despair and depression, but tears of longing to ascend higher, tears of sorrow for all that we have not yet been privileged to repair, tears of overwhelming joy over the privilege to stand before Him, the immensity of the mission He gave us, and the holy soul with which He has endowed us. This weeping on the day of judgment causes inner joy and pleasure, because it expresses the truth, and leads to improvement and blessing. These two aspects of Rosh Ha-shana – holiday and teru’a day – are expressed through the teki’ot and the teru’ot.

[1]. It is written, “Smash them (tero’em) with an iron mace; shatter them like potter’s ware” (Tehilim 2:9). The word tero’em indicates breaking. Similarly, we read, “The earth is breaking, breaking (ro’a hitro’a’a). The earth is crumbling, crumbling. The earth is tottering, tottering” (Yeshayahu 24:19). Finally, “They shall lay waste (ve-ra’u) to the land of Assyria with the sword” (Micha 5:5), meaning they will smash the land of Assyria (Rashi).

03. The Beginning of the Year

The Sages disagree about when the world – or more precisely when the first human – was created. R. Yehoshua maintains that it was the first of Nisan, as the Torah refers to Nisan as the first month. R. Eliezer maintains that it was the first of Tishrei. This disagreement reflects the hidden character of Rosh Ha-shana, which leads to a dispute about what happened on its date. The Rishonim explain that both opinions are correct: God thought about creating the world on the first of Tishrei, and actually created it on the first of Nisan. The disagreement is about which day we should consider primary: the day that God, as it were, thought of creating the world, or the day He actually created it (Rabbeinu Tam). The Sages tell us that we follow R. Eliezer in practice, which is why the Rosh Ha-shana prayers read: “This day is the beginning of Your works, a commemoration of the first day” (Rosh Ha-shana 27a and Tosafot ad loc.). In any event, all agree that God judges His world and creates the new year on the first of Tishrei. This is why it is called “Rosh Ha-shana” (literally, the head of the year), as everything which happens in the course of the year is a result of what happens then.[2]

The halakhic significance of Rosh Ha-shana as the “new year” pertains to the dating of contracts, counting years for Shemita and Yovel, and separating terumot and ma’asrot. We shall now explain.

Every contract must be dated, as it must be clear when the obligations it entails begin; pre-dated contracts are invalid. The first of Tishrei is the new year for documentary purposes (Rosh Ha-shana 8a). During the times of the Amora’im and Ge’onim, contracts were dated according to the Seleucid era (minyan shtarot). At the end of this era, Jews began dating documents from the world’s creation. This is the current practice for all contracts, including marriage and divorce documents.

Likewise, when the years are counted to determine Sabbatical and Jubilee years, the year begins in Tishrei (Rosh Ha-shana 8b). We are also commanded to separate terumot and ma’asrot from the produce of each year; one may not tithe from the produce of one year for the produce of another, as we read: “You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field” (Devarim 14:22). Rosh Ha-shana is when the new year begins for this purpose (Rosh Ha-shana 12a).[3]

[2]. At first glance, it would seem more reasonable for Rosh Ha-shana to be the first day of the first month (Nisan), but in fact, Rosh Ha-shana is the first day of the seventh month. Maharal explains that this actually makes perfect sense, since the seventh is always holy. We see this with Shabbat, Shemita, and many other important sevens (Ḥiddushei Aggadot on Rosh Ha-shana 10b, commenting on Vayikra Rabba 29:11). Taking Rabbeinu Tam’s approach one step further, we can suggest that while the world was actually created in Nisan, every year it takes seven months before the Jews can appreciate its deep significance. Accordingly, God judges His creations on the first of Tishrei, which is referred to as Yom Ha-zikaron, corresponding to the time the world was created in thought. Rosh Ha-shana was established on the day of man’s creation even though this did not take place until the sixth day, because humankind is the main purpose of creation (Shlah, Toldot Adam, Beit Yisrael §1).

[3]. The year to which vegetables are assigned is determined by when they are picked, while the year to which grains are assigned is determined by when they have reached a third of their full growth. This also has implications for whether one must take ma’aser sheni (on years 1, 2, 4, and 5 of the Shemita cycle) or ma’aser ani (on years 3 and 6 of the Shemita cycle). While the year for vegetables and grains begins with Rosh Ha-shana, for fruit trees it begins with Tu Bi-Shevat. That is, on Tu Bi-Shevat, the age of the tree is incremented by one.

The parameters of the mitzva of orla are a bit different. We are commanded not to eat a tree’s fruits during its first three years, and the fruits of the fourth year are to be eaten in purity in Jerusalem. These years are counted from the first of Tishrei. For example, let us say that someone planted a tree on the fifteenth of Av. It takes two weeks for a tree to take root. After taking root, the tree is alive for an additional month before Rosh Ha-shana. These six weeks are the minimum amount of time necessary for the tree to be considered to have completed a year, so Rosh Ha-shana marks the beginning of its second year. Two more years must pass before its fruits are no longer deemed orla. However, since the new year for trees is Tu Bi-Shevat, one must wait from Rosh Ha-shana until Tu Bi-Shevat to eat the fruits. The fruits themselves are assigned to a year based on when they blossom (SA YD 294:4).

According to tradition, the first year of minyan shtarot corresponds to the year Alexander the Great became emperor (MT, Laws of Divorce 1:27), in 3449 from creation (312 BCE). This was the conventional dating system in the Seleucid Empire. It was in use throughout the latter part of the Second Temple era, and Jews used this system until medieval times. In fact, some Yemenite communities still record this date in ketubot. For more on the laws discussed in this section, see R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Ha-mo’adim Ba-halakha, Rosh Ha-shana, section 2.

04. Celebrating with Clothes and Food

While Rosh Ha-shana is a yom teru’a and a day of judgment, it is also a sacred occasion, which we are commanded to sanctify though food and drink and honor with nice clothes (Sifra, Emor 12:4; Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:7). Half the day should be devoted to God, as on Shabbat and holidays. However, since the prayer services are very long on Rosh Ha-shana, they reduce the time available to study Torah, though it is important that prayer and study together amount to at least nine hours (as explained in Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:5-6).

Based on textual similarities in the Torah’s description of the various holidays, the Gemara concludes that the holidays share several features (Shevu’ot 10a), and just as there is a mitzva to rejoice on the three pilgrimage festivals, so too, there is a mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Ha-shana by eating meat and drinking wine. It, too, is therefore called a “festival,” as we read: “Blow the shofar on the new moon, the covered moon for our festival day” (Tehilim 81:4).

However, since it is also a day of teru’a and judgment, the level of happiness is not the same as on the rest of the festivals. This is why in the Amida we do not add the phrase “festivals for rejoicing, holy days and seasons for joy” as for other festivals (SA 582:8), nor do we recite Hallel. The angels asked God about this: “‘Why don’t the Jews sing [Hallel] before You on Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur?’ He replied: ‘Is it conceivable that the King is sitting on the throne of judgment with the books of the living and the dead opened before Him, yet the Jews burst into song?’” (Rosh Ha-shana 32b; Arakhin 10b; SA 584:1; see Peninei Halakha: Festivals 2:7).

Therefore, there is a mitzva to serve two festive meals, one at night and one during the day, and joyfully consume meat and wine. However, Rishonim write that a person should not eat to satiety on Rosh Ha-Shana, so that he does not come to act frivolously. Rather, he should stand in awe of God (SA 597:1). We see that the meals on Rosh Ha-shana should be better and more joyful than those of Shabbat, but not as lavish as those of the pilgrimage festivals.

Similarly, there is a mitzva to wear nice clothes and to wash them before the holiday. However, we do not wear our nicest clothes as we do on the other festivals, because of the fear of judgment. Some have a custom to wear white on Rosh Ha-shana (SA 581:4; MB ad loc. 25). One whose hair is too long and looks disheveled must get a haircut in honor of Rosh Ha-shana. One who is normally clean-shaven must shave before Rosh Ha-shana (SA 581:4).

The dual nature of Rosh Ha-shana can be learned from Ezra the Scribe, who, in addition to encouraging the people to repent, instructed them to rejoice on Rosh Ha-shana, as it is a day consecrated to God. Early in the time of the Second Temple, when the Jewish community in Eretz Yisrael was becoming established after returning from the Babylonian exile, many of the simple people did not observe mitzvot properly. On Rosh Ha-shana, Neḥemia the political leader and Ezra the spiritual leader gathered the nation together, men and women, to inspire them to repent. Ezra read from the Torah, starting in the morning and continuing until midday, explaining the Torah and mitzvot to them. When the listeners understood that they had sinned, they were inspired to repent, and they began to mourn and cry. Ezra and Neḥemia emphasized that it was a day to rejoice in addition to repenting:

“This day is holy to the Lord your God; you must not mourn or weep,” for all the people were weeping as they listened to the words of the Torah…. “Go, eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks and send portions to whoever has nothing prepared, for the day is holy to our Lord. Do not be sad, for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.” The Levites stilled the people, saying, “Hush, for the day is holy; do not be sad.” (Neḥemia 8:9-11)

Ezra and Neḥemia instructed the people to eat delicacies and drink sweet drinks in fulfillment of the mitzva of eating meat and drinking wine. Additionally, this would serve as a good omen for abundance and sweetness for the entire year (Rosh, Rosh Ha-shana 4:14). “Then all the people went to eat and drink and send portions and make great merriment, for they understood the things they were told” (Neḥemia 8:12). They understood that God was not interested in punishing them, but rather was happy with their repentance.

Nevertheless, in the times of the Ge’onim and Rishonim there were pious and wise people who fasted on Rosh Ha-shana. It stands to reason that given the tribulations of exile, they felt the need to identify with the pain of the Shekhina. How could they joyfully eat on the day of judgment while the Shekhina was in exile? They wished to facilitate a more profound repentance by indulging in certain ascetic practices in the hopes of neutralizing evil. In practice, though, the accepted halakha is that even during the bitter days of exile, there is a mitzva to have festive meals on Rosh Ha-shana, and it is certainly forbidden to fast.[4]

[4]. As we have seen, the Gemara (Shevu’ot 10a) compares all holidays to one another, Ezra instructed the people to rejoice on Rosh Ha-shana (Neḥemia 8:9-12), and the Mishna mentions that on Erev Rosh Ha-shana, the people slaughtered a large number of animals for the holiday. Yere’im §227 and Responsa Maharil §128 therefore maintain that there is a mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Ha-shana. This is why Rosh Ha-shana cancels the mourning periods of shiva and shloshim (SA YD 396:6). Sha’agat Aryeh §102, Yafeh La-lev 2:1, and other Aḥaronim agree that there is a mitzva to be happy on Rosh Ha-shana.

In contrast, others maintain that since Rosh Ha-shana is not a pilgrimage festival and no shalmei simḥa are offered on it, there is no specific mitzva to be happy then. However, since it is a sacred occasion, when it comes to honor (kavod) and pleasure (oneg) it is similar to Shabbat. This is the opinion of Maḥzor Vitri §322; Yam Shel Shlomo, Beitza 2:4; SAH 529:5-6. They base themselves on the fact that in the Rosh Ha-shana Amida, we do not say “festivals for rejoicing, holy days and seasons for joy.” (True, there are some Ge’onim who say that we do recite “festivals for rejoicing” in the Amida, but they are not followed in practice, as pointed out by R. Hai Gaon; Rambam; Rosh, end of Rosh Ha-shana; and SA 582:8.)

Rambam writes (MT, Laws of Yom Tov 6:17) that there is a mitzva to rejoice on all the festivals, including Rosh Ha-shana. However, elsewhere he writes that the joy of Rosh Ha-shana is not as intense (MT, Laws of Ḥanuka 3:6). Similarly, Sefer Ha-aguda states that people should eat and drink and rejoice, but should not eat to satiety, so that they will feel lacking and thus stand in awe of God. This is also the position of Shulḥan Arukh (597:1) and many Aḥaronim. We see that there is an obligation to drink wine and eat meat on Rosh Ha-shana, but not in as great quantities as on other festivals. If, however, one prays with the proper awe, and afterward wishes to fulfill the mitzva of joy to the utmost and to eat and drink in quantity as on other festivals, it would seem that he may do so, since many Rishonim and Aḥaronim permit this, in accordance with Ezra’s instruction to rejoice greatly.

Some Ge’onim maintained that it is a mitzva to fast on Rosh Ha-shana (Otzar Ha-Ge’onim, Beitza 4b), and some Rishonim did so, as recorded in Or Zaru’a 2:257. It is reasonable to assume that they agreed that there is a mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Ha-shana, and that they did so at night. Nevertheless, they felt that it was proper to fast during the Ten Days of Repentance because of the anguish of the Jews in exile. They felt that this would be permissible even on Shabbat and Rosh Ha-shana, just as it is permissible to fast on Shabbat or festivals following a bad dream. Many other Ge’onim, including R. Sa’adia and R. Hai, forbade fasting, and Shulḥan Arukh cites their view (597:1). There is an opinion that someone who fasted once on Rosh Ha-shana is obligated to continue this custom for the rest of his life, even if he fasted only because of a bad dream. If he chooses to eat, he endangers his life (Sefer Ha-agur). Shulhan Arukh cites this as well (597:2-3), although Kol Bo and R. Yitzhak Tyrnau in his Sefer Ha-minhagim say that one does not have to take this into account. Rema writes that someone who is not worried about this may eat on Rosh Ha-shana in subsequent years, as long as he does hatarat nedarim. This is the position of MB ad loc. 9 and the general custom.

05. Confidence and Joy Explained

“For what great nation is there that has a god so close at hand as is the Lord our God whenever we call upon Him?” (Devarim 4:7). Tur (581:4) elaborates on this verse:

What nation is like this one, which knows the character (i.e., the ways and judgments) of its God? The way of the world is that a person facing judgment wears black, wraps himself in black, and lets his beard and nails grow, because he does not know what the outcome will be. But Israel do not do this. They wear white, wrap themselves in white, shave their beards, cut their nails, eat and drink, and rejoice on Rosh Ha-shana, because they are confident that God will perform a miracle for them.

At first glance, we can ask: How can we be so confident that God will perform a miracle for us and that we will be vindicated? We see with our own eyes that many people die every year, and many others get hurt or fall ill. Clearly, they experienced no miracles.

Rather, anyone who properly observes the mitzvot of the holiday, accepts the yoke of God’s kingship, and is moved to improve their service of God can be confident of a favorable judgment, because God wants to benefit his creations. The simplest understanding of this is that God will bless us with a good year, as usually happens. But we also know that sometimes, because of a sin’s gravity or the world’s imperfection, God sees that it is best for a person to suffer or die, so that the person refines and corrects his deeds, thus earning true life in the next world. Even though we would like God’s goodness to reveal itself to us in this world without suffering, we have yet to deserve this. Nevertheless, we know that the judgment is for our own good, and we should celebrate it (Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Torah Or §17).

Since God wished the Jews to accrue merit, He established the day of remembrance and shofar blasts as a day of rest and sanctity. A day of sanctity is one on which we abstain from weekday work and worries and manifest the holiness of the day through Torah, prayer, and rejoicing in the mitzva with festive meals. Had we not been commanded to celebrate Rosh Ha-shana, we would likely spend the whole day making personal requests, dreading judgment. This would not help our case. On the contrary, it would harm us, for sin happens when people forget their sacred mission and focus on personal issues. Instead, the sanctity of the day is a vehicle for the Jewish people to manifest God’s kingship in the world. This inspires them to repent out of love, meriting a favorable judgment and a blessed new year.

06. Crowning God King

The primary theme of the prayers on Rosh Ha-shana is crowning God as our king. For this reason, the third berakha of the Amida concludes with “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh” (the holy King) instead of the usual “ha-Kel ha-kadosh” (the holy God). We continue using this alternative conclusion throughout the Ten Days of Repentance. This change is so significant that if one forgets to make it, and concludes with “the holy God,” he has not fulfilled his obligation and must repeat the Amida (SA 582:1; 5:2 below). On Rosh Ha-shana, we add sections to this berakha to pray for God to reveal His kingship:

And so may Your name be sanctified, Lord our God, regarding Your people Israel, regarding Your city Jerusalem, regarding Zion, the dwelling place of Your glory, regarding the royal house of David, Your anointed, and regarding Your place and sanctuary…

Every creature will revere You, and all of creation will bow before You, and they will be bound together to carry out Your will with an undivided heart…

All wickedness will dissipate like smoke when You remove wanton governance from the earth. And You will reign – You, Lord our God, alone – over all that You made, on Mount Zion, the dwelling place of Your glory, and in Jerusalem, Your sacred city.

The conclusion of the holiday-themed fourth berakha in every Amida as well as in kiddush on Rosh Ha-shana is: “King over all the earth, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.” In Musaf, the main prayer of Rosh Ha-shana, during which we blow the shofar, our Sages instituted three central berakhot, each of which comprises an entire section of the Amida: Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot. Malkhuyot, the first of these berakhot, is the foremost of these berakhot and mentions the holiness of the day. It, too, concludes: “King over all the earth, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.” We see that the primary theme of Yom Ha-zikaron is crowning God king. In truth, Zikhronot also relates to God as the King of the world, Who remembers all of His creations. Similarly, Shofarot deals with the manifestation of His kingship in the world by means of the shofar. This is both reminiscent of Sinai and a foreshadowing of the future, for it is the blowing of a great shofar that will gather all the exiles, who will then bow before God in Jerusalem. Our shofar blasts manifest His kingship as well; due to the dread they instill, we stand before Him broken and repentant.

Given our anxiety about the upcoming year, we could have devoted the entire day of judgment to personal prayers for livelihood, health, and everything else that preoccupies people all year. However, the Jews are unique in that their deeper desire is for God’s kingship to be manifest and for the whole world to be repaired and redeemed, even if they will need to suffer to attain that goal. This is the great, awe-inspiring path that the Jewish people have chosen, from the times of our patriarchs and matriarchs, who chose to believe in God despite all the idolatry around them, through the long exile when, despite all their suffering, the Jewish people chose not to assimilate and instead continued to carry the banner of faith and Torah, to establish the world under the kingship of God.

When the Jewish people set aside their sorrows and work for God’s honor and the manifestation of His kingship, God says to the angels, “Look at My dear children, who leave their troubles aside and work for My honor.” This silences the accuser (satan), who wishes to rid the world of the Jews. Thus, Israel is granted a new year in which they will take another step toward repair and redemption. The more we humbly accept God’s rule with fear, joy, and trembling on Rosh Ha-shana, the better and more blessed a year we will experience.

07. Two Days of Rosh Ha-shana

According to the Torah, Rosh Ha-shana is only one day: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts” (Vayikra 23:24; similarly, Bamidbar 29:1). However, in practice we observe Rosh Ha-shana for two days.

To understand why, we must first grasp that all the holidays hinge on the Hebrew calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle. At the beginning of each month, only a tiny sliver of the moon is visible. It waxes until the middle of the month, when it appears full, a complete circle. During the second half of the month, the moon wanes progressively until, at the end of the month, it is invisible to us for about twenty-four hours. It then once again appears as a tiny sliver, and a new month begins. There is a mitzva, practiced in times past, for those who saw the new moon on the thirtieth night of the month to testify before the supreme beit din, and based on this testimony, the beit din would sanctify the month. Since the moon’s cycle is about twenty-nine and a half days, sometimes a month has twenty-nine days and sometimes thirty. (See Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 1:1-2.)

If there was a holiday during the upcoming month, the beit din would immediately send messengers to all Jewish communities to let them know when the new month began. Based on this, people knew when the holiday would take place. However, because these messengers did not have time to reach distant diaspora communities before the holiday, in those communities there was doubt about its date. Therefore, the Sages ordained that holidays in the diaspora should be celebrated for two days (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 9:1-4).

Rosh Ha-shana is the only holiday that coincides with the beginning of a month. When the beit din sanctified the month, it meant that very day was a holiday. Messengers could not set out to let people know when the month was sanctified, since travel outside of the teḥum was now forbidden. As a result, even in Eretz Yisrael, people did not know when Rosh Ha-shana was declared, so they had to keep two days of Rosh Ha-shana on account of this uncertainty.

In Jerusalem, the seat of the beit din, people knew as soon as the month was sanctified, but they could not know in advance which day would be sanctified, as witnesses were accepted, and the month sanctified, only during the day. Therefore, due to uncertainty, the people had to observe the holiday starting the night of the thirtieth of Elul. If witnesses later arrived (on the thirtieth) and testified that they had seen the new moon, the beit din sanctified the month, and it was clarified retroactively that the day was indeed Rosh Ha-shana. The next day was a weekday. If the witnesses did not arrive on the thirtieth, it became clear that the thirtieth was really a weekday and the holiday would be the next day. Thus, when the beit din sanctified the month on the thirtieth, in Jerusalem the holiday was celebrated for one day; when the new moon was sanctified on the following day, two days were observed even in Jerusalem.

This uncertainty about the date fits well with the hidden, concealed character of Rosh Ha-shana. It is also the reason the holiday comes at a time when the hidden moon is just beginning to appear, which is why it is referred to as keseh. Thus we read, “Blow the horn on the new moon, the covered (keseh) moon, for our festival day” (Tehilim 81:4). Our Sages ask, “During which holiday is the moon covered? It must be Rosh Ha-shana” (Rosh Ha-shana 8a).

08. Keeping Two Days Nowadays

According to halakha, when the beit din cannot sanctify months based on testimony, Rosh Ḥodesh is sanctified according to the calculation of the Hebrew calendar. In 359 CE (4119 from creation), almost three hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple, Hillel the Second, the nasi of the beit din, realized that it was no longer possible to sustain the beit din that sanctified the months. He and his colleagues instituted a fixed calendar and, based on it, sanctified all the months until the restoration of the beit din (MT, Laws of Sanctification of the New Moon 8:2; Peninei Halakha: Zemanim 1:3 n. 3).

Seemingly, at that point there was no longer a need to keep two days of Rosh Ha-shana. After all, everyone knew, based on the calendar, when the first of Tishrei would be. However, just as the Sages ordained that those living in the diaspora should continue to follow their custom and keep each holiday for two days, so too, they ordained that residents of Eretz Yisrael should follow their custom and keep Rosh Ha-shana for two days. One might suggest that the fact that it was often necessary to keep two days even when the month was sanctified based on witnesses implies that this is the proper way to observe it.[5] As usual, halakha reflects spiritual reality. Zohar (III 231a) explains that because of the severity of the judgment, the Sages saw fit to add a day, so the judgment contain compassion and thus be mitigated. If Rosh Ha-shana were only one day, the world might be destroyed due to the severity of the judgment.

Furthermore, the reason all holidays must be celebrated for two days in the diaspora is because the people there are living far away from the manifestation of holiness. In Eretz Yisrael, however, where holiness is more accessible, the holiness of the holidays can be absorbed in only one day. This can be compared to a flashlight: When illuminating a nearby location, the light is strong and focused on a small area. In contrast, when it is used to illuminate a distant location, the light is weaker and more diffuse (Derekh Mitzvotekha 114:1). Because Rosh Ha-shana is a day of hiddenness and concealment, two days are needed to absorb its light, even in Eretz Yisrael.

Perhaps we can suggest that the prayers of the first day are primarily directed toward collective matters – that we may merit that God’s kingship manifests over His people, Israel, and over Zion, the dwelling place of His glory, so that every living being will say, “The Lord, God of Israel, is King, and His kingship has dominion over all.” Through this, the whole world will attain blessing and peace. In contrast, in the prayers of the second day (which was established by the Sages), we ask for all these lofty ideals to be realized in our individual lives as well. We ask to be partners in revealing God’s glory in the world in our day-to-day lives, and thus to merit divine blessing.[6]

[5]. Several great Rishonim (Rabbeinu Ephraim and Ba’al Ha-ma’or) maintain that in Eretz Yisrael, Rosh Ha-shana should be celebrated for only one day. Their logic is that people who lived near the court knew when the month was sanctified and thus when the holiday fell out. Since the court theoretically could convene anywhere in Eretz Yisrael, only one day should be celebrated there. In practice, though, the opinion of the decisive majority of Rishonim is that even in Eretz Yisrael, Rosh Ha-shana should be celebrated for two days, because in practice, even when the month was sanctified based on witnesses, in most of Eretz Yisrael two days were observed. Even in Jerusalem, where the court was located, if witnesses did not arrive on the first day, Rosh Ha-shana was observed for two days. True, witnesses almost always arrived on the first day. Nevertheless, since the people had to celebrate two days if the witnesses arrived late on the first day (Rosh Ha-shana 30b and Beitza 4b as explained in the next section), Rosh Ha-shana sometimes had to be observed for two days even in Jerusalem (MT, Laws of Sanctification of the New Moon 8:5; Rosh, Beitza 1:4). Furthermore, the Sages did not want to make a distinction between Jerusalem and the rest of Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, they ordained that two days should be celebrated everywhere. This is similar to the way they ordained that all Jews living outside Eretz Yisrael should celebrate the festivals for two days, even though there were areas where the messengers did arrive before Shemini Atzeret and the last day of Pesaḥ. (See Ramban, Milḥamot Hashem on Rif, Beitza 3a; Rashba, Beitza 5:2, s.v. “amar.”)

[6]. Zohar (Pinḥas 231b) explains that the first day is one of uncompromising judgment (dina kashya), while the second is one of milder judgment (dina rafya). The underlying rationale is clear: The first day is of Torah origin while the second is rabbinic. Sha’ar Ha-kavanot (Derushei Rosh Ha-shana #2) states that the first day is for rectification of the inner ze’er anpin and the second for rectification of the outer ze’er anpin. Ramḥal writes that the first day is a corrective for Leah and for the keter aspect of Raḥel, while the second is a corrective for the ḥokhma aspect of Raḥel (Kitzur Ha-kavanot, Rosh Ha-shana, p. 110). Shem Mi-Shmuel (Rosh Ha-shana 5673, s.v. “ita be-kitvei”) suggests that the first day is one of uncompromising judgment about divine matters, while the second day is one of milder judgment about mundane matters. See the Harḥavot.

09. The Status of the First Day and Reciting She-heḥeyanu on the Second

Nowadays we have a calendar and know when Rosh Ha-shana is. Thus, the first day of Rosh Ha-shana is Torah-mandated, while the second day is rabbinic. This is true for all the holidays in the diaspora as well – the first day is Torah-mandated and the second is rabbinic. Therefore, if doubts arise concerning the laws of Yom Tov or shofar, on the first day we are stringent, following the principle, “When there is uncertainty about Torah law, we are stringent.” In contrast, on the second day we are lenient, following the principle, “When there is uncertainty about rabbinic law, we are lenient.” Thus, the Sages permitted performing burials on the second day of Yom Tov and Rosh Ha-shana, for the sake of the dignity of the dead (SA 526:4; Peninei Halakha: Festivals 7:5). It is also forbidden to prepare on the first day of Rosh Ha-shana for the second day. This prohibition includes cooking, setting the table, and washing the dishes. These laws are the same as those concerning preparing on the first day of Yom Tov for the second day in the diaspora (SA 503:1; Peninei Halakha: Festivals 9:5, 2:12).

However, there are some differences between the two days of Yom Tov celebrated in the diaspora and the two days of Rosh Ha-shana. The two days in the diaspora were grounded in uncertainty as to which day the court had sanctified the month. In contrast, Rosh Ha-shana was sometimes celebrated for two days even when there was no doubt as to its date. This happened when the witnesses arrived in the late afternoon of the first day. In this case, the Sages ordained that their testimony not be accepted lest the beit din sanctify the month without leaving enough time to offer all the holiday sacrifices and to recite the special psalm for Rosh Ha-shana. However, since the first day was worthy of being sanctified, the Sages ordained that the day continue to be observed as a holiday, even once it was decided that it would not be sanctified. Since Rosh Ha-shana sometimes extended to two days due to this law, the Sages called the two days of Rosh Ha-shana “one long day” (“yoma arikhta”).[7]

For this reason, it is unclear whether the berakha of She-heḥeyanu should be recited on the second day. In the diaspora, on the second day of Yom Tov, the berakha is recited; since the second day was established on account of uncertainty, its mitzvot are the same as those of the first day. In contrast, on Rosh Ha-shana, since the two days are considered one long day for some purposes, some say that She-heḥeyanu should be recited only on the first day. In practice, most poskim maintain that the berakha should be recited during kiddush of the second night as well as of the first, and this is the custom. However, le-khatḥila it is preferable to wear something new or to serve a new fruit at the meal on the second night of Rosh Ha-shana. Then all would agree that She-heḥeyanu is recited (SA 600:2). Clearly if a new fruit was on the table during kiddush so as to enable the recitation of She-heḥeyanu, She-heḥeyanu should not be recited again before eating the fruit.

Before blowing the shofar on the second day, Ashkenazic custom is to recite the berakha of She-heḥeyanu, while Sephardic custom is not to (SA, Rema 600:3). When possible, it is preferable for the person blowing the shofar to wear a new garment and have it in mind too when he recites She-heḥeyanu (MB ad loc. 7).

[7]. An egg laid on the first day of Yom Tov may be eaten on Yom Tov Sheni. The egg is prohibited on the first day due to muktzeh, but on the second day, no matter which side of the uncertainty is correct, the egg is no longer muktzeh. If the first day was the true Yom Tov, then the second day is a weekday, and thus the egg may be eaten. If the second day is the true Yom Tov, then the first day was a weekday, and the egg laid on it is not muktzeh. The same applies to fish caught on the first day and fruit that fell from a tree on the first day: None of them are muktzeh on the second day. In contrast, since Rosh Ha-shana sometimes had to be observed for two days even when there was no doubt as to its date, we relate to the two days as one long day. Therefore, if an egg is laid, fish are caught, or fruits fall from a tree on the first day, they remain muktzeh on the second day (SA 600:1). Despite the fact that for these purposes the two days of Rosh Ha-shana are regarded as one long day, we are not lenient when it comes to preparing on the first day of Rosh Ha-shana for the second. In that case, the rules are the same as for holidays in the diaspora: It is forbidden to prepare from the first day to the second, as is explained in SA 503:1. Thus, the two days of Rosh Ha-shana are considered to be one day only when it comes to stringencies, but not when it comes to leniencies (Rabbeinu Peretz, Hagahot Smak n. 10 on Smak §294).

10. Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot

The Musaf service is the most significant of the Rosh Ha-shana services. We blow the shofar during this service, and the Sages ordained that we add the three berakhot of Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot to its Amida. These sections express the unique elements of the day, and through them we can merit a good new year. As God said to the Jewish people: “On Rosh Ha-shana, recite Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot before Me. Malkhuyot to crown Me your King; Zikhronot to invoke your memory before Me; and how is this done? Via the shofar” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). These three sections are one unit. One who is unfamiliar with one of them should not recite the other two either. They also must be recited in the correct order; one who recites them out of order has not fulfilled his obligation (SA 593:1; MB ad loc. 5).

The Sages ordained that each section should consist of ten verses related to the theme of the berakha. These correspond to the ten utterances with which God created the world, the Ten Commandments, and the ten times that the word “halleluhu” appears in the last chapter of Tehilim. Each section begins with three verses from the Torah. These are followed by three verses from the Writings, three verses from the Prophets, and a concluding verse from the Torah. Verses that mention calamities that befell the Jews are not included, nor are Zikhronot verses of an individual, even if they are positive (Rosh Ha-shana 32a-b; SA 591:4-5).[8]

The first berakha includes both the sanctification of the day and Malkhuyot. It begins with “You have chosen us,” the familiar formulation that begins the fourth berakha of every Yom Tov. This is followed by Aleinu – familiar as the concluding prayer of every service – in which we praise and thank God for giving us the privilege of recognizing His reign and pray that all the nations accept the yoke of His kingship. We then recite the ten verses relating to Malkhuyot, concluding with “Shema Yisrael.” Although this verse does not explicitly invoke God’s kingship, it entails accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven. The berakha concludes by asking God to rule over the entire world and draw us near to His worship, His Torah, and His mitzvot. “For You, God, are truth, and Your word is truth and endures forever. Blessed are you, Lord, King over all the earth, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”

In the second berakha, that of Zikhronot, we recount how God remembers His world, all His creatures, and all their deeds, particularly on this day: “This day is the beginning of Your works, a commemoration of the very first day,” on which God judges the world. We pray for God to remember us for good and bring about salvation. We conclude: “Today, in Your compassion, You remember the binding of Yitzḥak for his descendants’ sake. Blessed are You, Lord, Who remembers the covenant.”

In the third berakha, Shofarot, we describe God’s revelation to us on Mount Sinai, which was accompanied by shofar blasts. We pray that we will again experience revelation and shofar blasts announcing the redemption. We conclude:

Blow the great shofar for our freedom, and raise a banner to gather our exiles; bring together our dispersed from among the nations, and gather in our scattered from the ends of the earth. Bring us to Zion, Your city, joyfully, and to Jerusalem, the place of Your Temple, in everlasting happiness…. For You hear the sound of the shofar and listen to its blasts, and there is none to compare to You. Blessed are You, Lord, Who listens to the sound of His people Israel’s shofar-blasts with compassion.

If one is in a place without a minyan, he should neither recite Musaf nor blow the shofar during the first three hours of the day, as that is a time of judgment. Without the merit of the community, we are afraid that he will not be judged favorably. However, one praying with a minyan may pray even during the first three hours, because communal prayers are always accepted. Even if an individual does not adequately concentrate on the prayers, God does not reject them (SA 591:8; MB ad loc. 15; Peninei Halakha: Prayer 2:1-2).

[8]. It is permissible to add more verses. Bedi’avad, if one recited only three verses (corresponding to Torah, Prophets, and Writings or to kohanim, Levi’im, and Yisraelim), he has fulfilled his obligation. In fact, even if he did not recite any verse but simply stated, “Thus it is written in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings,” he has fulfilled his obligation (Rosh Ha-shana 32a; SA 591:4; MB ad loc. 11). The recitation of these berakhot is rabbinically mandated, while blowing the shofar is Torah-mandated. Therefore, we blow the shofar before Musaf. See 4:7 n. 6 below.

11. Prayer and Torah Reading

We do not recite any vidui (confession) on Rosh Ha-shana – neither communal nor personal – because the theme of Rosh Ha-shana is to crown God king over us and the entire world, and to ask for the upcoming year to be a good one, enabling us to reveal the glory of His kingship. It is not appropriate to use this day for our personal self-improvement. That is what the rest of the Ten Days of Repentance are for. It is also not appropriate to mention sins, which diminish the glory of His kingship. There is even concern that mentioning them might strengthen the accusers’ case against us (Zohar II 186a; according to Arizal, in between the shofar blasts one may quietly confess; see below 4:7).

Some maintain that just as we do not recite vidui on Rosh Ha-shana, we should also leave out the lines of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer that mention sin, like, “Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You” (Beit Yosef; Arizal). Others maintain the custom of reciting the entire Avinu Malkeinu, arguing that the lines that mention sin are not confessional but simply note our general state (Rema 584:1; MB ad loc. 3).

Even though we normally recite Hallel on holidays, we do not do so on Rosh Ha-shana because it is a day of judgment (as explained above, section 4).

There are many changes made in the Amida during the Days of Awe. The most important one is in the conclusion of the third berakha where we substitute “ha-Melekh ha-kadosh” for “ha-Kel ha-kadosh.” One who forgot to incorporate this change has not fulfilled his prayer obligation, as explained below (5:2).

The laws and customs pertaining to the ḥazan are explained above (2:10). The custom to stand when the ark is open, and the admonition not to pray out loud nowadays, are explained above as well (2:11).

As on all the festivals, five people are called up to the Torah (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 2:8). On the first day, we read the story of Yitzḥak’s birth and the banishment of Hagar and Yishmael (Bereishit 21:1-34), and the haftara is the story of Ḥanna and the birth of Shmuel (SA 584:2). This is appropriate, as three righteous women conceived on Rosh Ha-shana: Our matriarch Sarah, mother of Yitzḥak; our matriarch Raḥel, mother of Yosef; and Ḥanna, mother of the prophet Shmuel (Rosh Ha-shana 10b). These women were so exceptionally righteous that they were destined to give birth to children whose souls were radically new. These souls could not be born naturally, which is why their mothers remained barren for so long. It was only through the renewal of Rosh Ha-shana that they could be helped.

Most of the Torah reading, however, tells of the banishment of Yishmael. We can learn two principles from this: 1) Despite the pain it caused, the banishment of Yishmael was not in any way immoral. Had it been, the Sages would not have ordained its reading on Rosh Ha-shana, as they would not have wanted to provide the accusers with material. 2) Especially on Rosh Ha-shana, the day of judgment, it is important to distinguish between the Jewish people and the rest of the nations, who are not willing to accept upon themselves the great and awe-inspiring mission of repairing the world under the kingship of God – just as it was necessary to separate Yishmael from Yisrael.

On the second day we read the story of the binding of Yitzḥak (Bereishit 22:1-24), in order to invoke the merit of our ancestors. We then read a comforting haftara from the Book of Yirmiyahu (31:1-19). On both days, the custom is to take out a second Torah scroll for the maftir reading, whose subject is the holiday offerings (Beit Yosef OḤ 488:2).

12. Symbolic Foods

Everything we do on Rosh Ha-shana has implications for the whole year. Since this is the first day of the year, when life is allotted to every being, every action, word, and thought of the day impacts upon the whole year. This is the meaning of our Sages’ principle, “Symbols are a real thing” (Keritot 6a). That is, symbolic acts have significance; if one performs a symbolic act of blessing at the beginning of the year, it will lead, we hope, to blessing throughout the year.

Based on this, the Gemara recommends that at the Rosh Ha-shana meal, people eat foods that have auspicious implications for the whole year: karti (leek), so that “our enemies may be cut down (yikartu)”; rubya (black-eyed peas), so that “our merits may be plentiful (yirbu)”; tamar (dates), to signify that “our enemies and sins may come to an end (yitamu)”; selek (beet), “so that our enemies may be removed (yistalku)”; and dela’at (pumpkin), which symbolizes blessing, as it is large and fast-growing (SA 583:1). It is also customary to eat apples dipped in honey or sugar water, to symbolize a sweet and good new year, and pomegranates, whose many seeds symbolize our wish for our merits to increase (Rema ad loc.). Many have the custom to eat from the head of a ram or a fish, symbolizing our wish to be the head, not the tail (SA 583:2).[9] It is also customary to eat fish, as they are very fertile and not subject to the evil eye.

Based on this principle, there are additional customs to eat a variety of foods whose names, shapes, or tastes are positive omens for the new year; each community’s customs are based on its languages and the foods that were available to it. When possible, it is good to carry on these traditions.

We do not just eat these foods. Rather, Rishonim say that it is proper to add a short prayer (Yehi Ratzon) before the consumption of each food. For example, before eating dates one should recite: “May it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our fathers, that our enemies come to an end.” Shlah explains that the primary goal of all of these symbolic foods is to inspire us to pray and repent. Every prayer on Rosh Ha-shana has a serious impact on what happens during the course of the year. Therefore, it is proper on Rosh Ha-shana that even eating itself be permeated with prayers for the upcoming year to be good and sweet (Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Ner Mitzva §21).

Many customarily dip the challah on which they recite Ha-motzi in honey or sugar to symbolize our wish for good and sweet year (MB 583:3). Some dip the challah into salt first, but use only a little, so that it will not impair the sweet taste. Others simply leave salt on the table but do not dip the bread in it. Some keep dipping challah in honey until Simḥat Torah. Others do so only on Rosh Ha-shana. All of the customs are legitimate, and everyone should continue with his family custom.

It is customary on Rosh Ha-shana to eat good, fine foods as a good omen for the entire year. Many also avoid eating unripe fruit or preparing sour, salty, or bitter foods (Rema 583:1; MB ad loc. 5). This is the custom of Ashkenazim and many Sephardim (Ḥida; R. Ḥayim Palachi; Ben Ish Ḥai; Kaf Ha-ḥayim 583:18). Nevertheless, many people do eat sharp foods, although since many Ashkenazim tend to eat sweet foods, they are anyway not eating sharp, peppery foods.

There is an Ashkenazic custom to avoid eating nuts on Rosh Ha-shana, because they allude to sin and because they can increase phlegm and sputum and lead to disturbance of the prayer service (Rema 583:2).

[9]. This wish is primarily directed to the Jewish people as a whole. However, some also have in mind the individual, and thus try to ensure that the head of household tastes the head. The idea here is not that everyone should strive to dominate his friends, but rather that each person should give expression to his unique abilities, the area where he excels. Some eat from a ram’s head specifically, to call to mind the merit of the ram offered in place of Yitzḥak at the Akeida.

One who does not want to eat one of the symbolic foods, for example because he does not like the taste, may simply look at it. This is because some maintain (based on the wording of the Gemara in Horayot 12a) that the symbolic foods are meant to be pointed at rather than eaten.

13. The Order of Eating

Some eat the symbolic foods after kiddush but before eating challah. However, the more correct custom is to have the challah first, since halakha views bread as the more important food (Peninei Halakha: Berakhot 9:8). Additionally, if the symbolic foods are eaten before the bread, it is not clear what should be done about a berakha aḥarona (ibid. 3:12).

Therefore, after making kiddush, we wash our hands and make the berakha on the challah (which many dip into honey or sugar, as explained in the previous section). Afterward, we eat the symbolic foods. The berakha of Borei Pri Ha-etz should be recited over one of the fruits, which then covers all the rest of the fruits. The fruits require a separate berakha because Ha-motzi covers only foods that are filling and are an integral part of the festive meal. However, the symbolic fruits are meant to add meaning to the meal rather than being an integral part of it. Therefore, they require their own berakha (ibid. 3:7). Dates should be eaten first and the berakha of Borei Pri Ha-etz should be recited over them (even though eating an apple and honey is the best-known custom), because dates are one of the seven species associated with Eretz Yisrael (and are considered more auspicious than pomegranates as they are closer to the word “land” in the verse that lists the seven species; ibid. 9:9-10). After reciting the berakha, one should eat a bit of the fruit before reciting the traditional Yehi Ratzon, so that there is no interruption between the berakha and the eating.

Symbolic foods whose berakha is Borei Pri Ha-adama do not require a separate berakha. Since they are cooked in the same way as normal vegetables, are filling, and are part of the meal, they are exempted by the berakha of Ha-motzi.

It is customary to recite a Yehi Ratzon before eating each of the symbolic foods. One of the participants recites the Yehi Ratzon out loud and everyone responds Amen and eats.

Some eat the symbolic foods on the first night only (Bnei Yisaskhar, Tishrei 2:11), but many people do so on both nights (Ḥida; Eliya Rabba; Ḥatam Sofer). Some even do so during the daytime meals (Mateh Ephraim 597:4; Ben Ish Ḥai, Year 1, Nitzavim §8).

14. More Symbolic Practices

Since everything we do on Rosh Ha-shana is an omen for the entire year, all should be joyful and confident that God will accept their repentance; all should be loving toward their friends and judge them favorably. One should not get angry at friends, argue with them, or speak badly of them. Apart from the prohibitions entailed by such things, they are bad omens for the upcoming year. (See MB 583:5.)

Since Rosh Ha-shana is a Yom Tov, it is a mitzva to be happy and to make others happy. Therefore, during the meals, everyone should try to make everyone present feel good. This, too, is a good omen for the whole year. (See n. 4 above; Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:11.)

One should not sleep too much on Rosh Ha-shana, as our Sages tell us that if one sleeps on Rosh Ha-shana, his mazal – the angel charged with bringing him good fortune – will sleep all year (cited in the name of the Yerushalmi). Rather, in addition to the obligatory prayers and meals, it is appropriate to study as much Torah as possible. Nevertheless, one should not get too little sleep either, as this can disturb the ability to concentrate during prayer and study. Therefore, someone who is tired after the meal should sleep, to enable him to study properly. Some Torah greats slept on Rosh Ha-shana just as they did on other festivals (Maharam of Rothenburg). In any case, as we have seen (section 4), people should make sure to dedicate half the day to God; prayer and Torah study time should amount to at least nine hours per day.

Some avoid sleeping during the day, in hopes that this will lead to their being energetic and lively for the entire year (Rema 583:2; Mateh Ephraim). However, if someone sits around and wastes time, though awake, it is considered as if he is sleeping (MB 583:9). Most Aḥaronim, following Arizal, write that the main concern is not to sleep before midday (SAH ad loc. 8, AHS ad loc. 4; MB ad loc. 9; Kitzur Shulḥan Arukh 129:20). According to this custom, one should arise at dawn, or sunrise at the latest. If one is concerned that waking up so early will make it difficult for him to focus on prayer or to study properly, he may sleep until close to prayer time, for waking up early, though virtuous, is not as important as being focused when praying and studying Torah.

After Ma’ariv, people say to each other, “Le-shana tova tikatev[i] ve-teḥatem[i]” (“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year”; the bracketed parts are for addressing a woman). Some say that since the judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur, on Rosh Ha-shana one should simply say, “May you be inscribed for a good year” (Vilna Gaon). This greeting is said during the morning as well, but after midday it should no longer be used, as the primary time of judgment is over. It is enough to simply wish people a “shana tova” – a good year. If the person offering the greeting adds additional good wishes, one should reply in kind. One may also reply “same to you” (“ve-khen le-mar”).

Some do not say these greetings on the second day of Rosh Ha-shana, as the primary time of judgment is on the first day. However, most people continue to extend these greetings, as judgment is inscribed on the second day, too (MB 582:25). All these customs are legitimate.

15. Tashlikh

There is a widespread custom to go to a body of water on the first day of Rosh Ha-shana and recite several verses, including “He will cover up our iniquities; You will hurl (tashlikh) all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micha 7:19). For this reason, the practice is referred to as Tashlikh. Over time, many communities added various other prayers and verses.

The custom of reciting Tashlikh began in the Rhineland – the heartland of Ashkenaz – during the medieval era. Over time, the custom spread to Sephardic communities as well, especially after Arizal praised it. However, there is no obligation to recite Tashlikh, and some Torah giants did not observe this custom (Vilna Gaon; R. Ḥayim of Volozhin). Most Yemenites do not say it either. Some Ḥasidim recite Tashlikh on a weekday following Rosh Ha-shana.

Various explanation for this custom are offered. Some say that it is meant to remind us of the dedication of our forefathers Avraham and Yitzḥak; when they were on their way to the Akeida, their path was suddenly blocked by floodwater, which they forded, passing the test (Maharil). Additionally, water symbolizes purity and life. When a person elevates himself through repentance, he is purified and cleansed. It is as if his sins are washed away in purifying waters. Furthermore, Tashlikh includes a petition to God to cast all the accusers created by our sins into the depth of the seas and never be recalled. Some people shake out their clothing when they recite Tashlikh, demonstrating that whatever sins they have committed are external to them, the result of evil influences that we are now shaking off.

Historically, most women did not recite Tashlikh. Some even say that it is preferable for them not to do so, in order to avoid the mingling of the sexes (Elef Ha-magen 598:7). Nevertheless, women who wish to participate may do so.

When there is no natural body of water nearby, it is customary to recite Tashlikh by a well or cistern. Where a sea or stream is visible, even at a distance, some recite it.

16. When Rosh Ha-shana Coincides with Shabbat

When Rosh Ha-shana is on Shabbat, we do not blow the shofar, as explained below (4:9-10).

Some say that if Rosh Ha-shana is on Shabbat we do not recite Avinu Malkeinu because it is inappropriate to pray on Shabbat for weekday needs, using a prayer that was originally instituted for fast days (Ran; Rema 584:1; Maharitz). In practice, Ashkenazim, Yemenites, and some Sephardim refrain from reciting it on Shabbat. Others, however, do recite it even on Shabbat (Tashbetz). Since Arizal also maintained that it should be recited even on Shabbat, this is the common custom among Sephardim. (Regarding Shabbat Shuva, see below 5:6-7.)

One must eat three meals. If it is difficult to have the third meal, whether because people are still full from the earlier meal, or because this third meal would be too close to the upcoming meal (supper of the second day), lunch can be split in two: People can wash their hands, eat a course or two, recite Birkat Ha-mazon, wait for half an hour (during which they can study Torah or take a walk), then wash again and have the second half of the meal. (See Peninei Halakha: Berakhot ch. 12 n. 2.)

When the first day of Rosh Ha-shana is on Shabbat, many of those who normally say Tashlikh on the first day delay its recitation until the second day (Rema 583:2; MB ad loc. 8; see Kaf Ha-ḥayim ad loc. 30-34).

01. The Mitzva to Hear the Teru’a of the Shofar

It is a positive mitzva to hear the blast (teru’a) of a shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, as it says, “In the seventh month, on the first of the month…. You shall observe it as a day of blasts (yom teru’a)” (Bamidbar 29:1), and “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts (zikhron teru’a)…” (Vayikra 23:24).

The word “teru’a” denotes brokenness. Thus, we read, “Smash them (tero’em) with an iron mace; shatter them like potter’s ware” (Tehilim 2:9). The word “tero’em” means breaking. Similarly, we read, “The earth is breaking, breaking (ro’a hitro’a’a). The earth is crumbling, crumbling. The earth is tottering, tottering” (Yeshayahu 24:19). It also says, “They shall lay waste (ve-ra’u) to the land of Assyria with the sword” (Micha 5:5), meaning they will smash the land of Assyria (Rashi). Similarly, Onkelos translates “yom teru’a” as “a day of wailing.”

While teki’a expresses joy and stability, teru’a alludes to brokenness, fear, tears, and radical change. Similarly, God instructed the Israelites in the desert to blow a teki’a on the trumpets when they needed to gather the people, as teki’a expresses joy and togetherness. In contrast, when they needed to go out to war or leave their encampment and move on, they were instructed to blow a teru’a (Bamidbar 10:1-7), for a teru’a represents brokenness, tears over that which is finished but imperfect, and apprehension about what comes next (3:2 above).

So too, on Rosh Ha-shana, which is when the previous year’s life has already been lived, never to return, and the upcoming year’s life has yet to be allotted, people experience anguish over the lost opportunities of the past year and great trepidation in anticipation of the judgment about the upcoming one. We face the accuser, and we do not know who will live and who will die, who will be healthy and who will suffer. God, in His mercy, commands us to blow teru’ot with the shofar and thereby mitigate the judgment, for by accepting His kingship and judgment, we are inspired to repent. Therefore, even though the teru’a is short, it expresses the character of the day. This is why Rosh Ha-shana is referred to as Yom Teru’a – a day of brokenness and tears, fear and trepidation.

Based on a close reading of the verses, our Sages inferred an obligation to hear three teru’ot on Rosh Ha-shana, each one of which must be preceded and followed by a teki’a. The Torah commandment is to hear three sets of teki’ateru’a-teki’a (Rosh Ha-shana 32b, 34a).

The first teki’a of each set expresses the natural uprightness of the soul, as that of small children who have yet to sin and who are still innocent and pure. As a child matures, though, he is exposed to the complexities and dilemmas of this world; he struggles and is tested; he fails and sins. This is expressed by the teru’a, sighing or crying about our character defects and the sins to which we have succumbed. After this, another simple teki’a completes the set. It again expresses goodness and rectitude, but this time it is the goodness that follows repentance and asking forgiveness. Thus, each blast expresses a different part of life: the positive beginning, the struggle with life’s challenges, and the concluding corrective. At the end of all the blasts, the custom is to blow a particularly long teki’a, expressing the ultimate corrective, when all struggling and suffering is over. (See Shlah, Masekhet Rosh Ha-shana, Torah Or §55.)

Even though Rosh Ha-shana is referred to as Yom Teru’a because of the judgment and trembling inspired by the teru’a, we still blow a teki’a before and after the teru’a. This is because, like the positive teki’a, judgment’s goals are positive: to distance us from evil, to lead us to self-improvement, and to grant us ultimate reward (Rabbeinu Baḥya, Kad Ha-kemaḥ, Rosh Ha-shana 2; Akeidat Yitzḥak, Sha’ar 67).

The shofar hints at this duality as well. It frightens us when we hear it, and it simultaneously inspires us to return to our roots, to our basic inner goodness. This is the advantage of a shofar over a trumpet. The shofar’s natural sound expresses the deep desire to return to our roots, to connect with true goodness, and to strive for perfection.

02. Thirty Blasts

As we have seen, the teru’a alludes to sorrow, brokenness, and tears. Over the course of time, however, a doubt arose as to what is the optimal sound of the teru’a. Some congregations blew medium-length sounds, reminiscent of someone sighing (what we now call shevarim). Other congregations blew shorter blasts, like someone heaving with convulsive sobs (what we now call teru’a). Still others blew both types of blasts, imitating a person in pain who starts by sighing and continues with sobbing (what we now call shevarimteru’a). Even though one fulfills the obligation with any of these variations, it can seem to unlearned people that there is a dispute about this matter.

Therefore, R. Abahu instituted that in his city (Caesaria) all three types of teru’ot would be blown (Rosh Ha-shana 34a; R. Hai Gaon). There was another reason for his ordinance: each type of teru’a has a unique value, and it is proper to hear all types of teru’a (Zohar III 231b). This ordinance was then accepted by all communities; ever since, the medium-length blasts are called “shevarim” and the short blasts are called “teru’a.” The order of blowing is as follows: We begin with three sets of tashrat (teki’a, shevarim-teru’a, teki’a). We follow this with three sets of tashat (teki’a, shevarim, teki’a). We conclude with three sets of tarat (teki’a, teru’a, tekia) (SA 590:2).

Since R. Abahu’s ordinance was accepted, the obligation is no longer fulfilled by hearing only one type of teru’a. Rather, one must hear all three types of teru’a. Thus, even though according to the Torah we are obligated to blow nine blasts, nowadays we are obligated to blow thirty: nine for the three sets of tashat, nine for the three sets of tarat, and twelve for the three sets of tashrat.[1]

[1]. Originally, one could fulfill his obligation with any of the teru’ot, as R. Hai Gaon writes in a responsum (Otzar Ha-Ge’onim, Rosh Ha-shana, Teshuvot §117). Many Rishonim cite him, including Rosh (Rosh Ha-shana 4:10) and Ritva (Responsa §29). However, Rambam writes, “Over the course of time and the lengthy exile, we have become uncertain as to what the sound is that the Torah calls teru’a…. Therefore, we do them all” (MT, Laws of Shofar 3:2). We see that because this uncertainty developed, we are required to hear all the possible types. This is also the position of Ramban (Milḥamot Hashem) and Smag (Aseh 42). It seems to me that Rambam and those who follow him might agree that originally, before teru’a was precisely defined, the obligation could be fulfilled by hearing any type of teru’a, as R. Hai Gaon maintains, since all the types express anguish. At some point, however, we began to relate to this as a matter of uncertainty, not just different ways of fulfilling the mitzva. Now that there is uncertainty, the Torah obligation cannot be fulfilled with only one type. Moreover, it seems to me that R. Hai and those who follow him would agree that nowadays we are rabbinically obligated to hear all three types of teru’ot, since R. Abahu’s ordinance has been accepted.

There is still room to discuss whether someone who only knows how to blow a shevarim should recite a berakha before doing so. Those who follow Rambam would certainly say no, as nowadays it is uncertain whether this fulfills the obligation. It is possible that R. Hai and his followers would agree, since the shofar-blower is not following R. Abahu’s binding ordinance. In fact, BHL 593:2, s.v. “ve’im,” states this explicitly. It is also implied by Me’iri (Rosh Ha-shana 34a), who follows R. Hai Gaon but nevertheless writes that nowadays we cannot fulfill the obligation without blowing all three types of teru’a. On the other hand, some say that the berakha should be recited in this case, as the halakha follows R. Hai Gaon and his followers. For further discussion, see Harḥavot.

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