Rosh Hashana, Between Universal and Particular by Rabbi Ezra Schwartz

shofar painting 3

What are we to make of Rosh Hashana?  Is It a Jewish holiday, a day where we as am hanivchar as children of the Ribono shel olam celebrate our closeness to Hashem or our opportunity to rebuild that closeness? Or is Rosh Hashana a day that is not uniquely Jewish; a generic New Year when all of humanity to is intended to self reflect and be reflected on?  In essence both perspectives are true and create a powerful tension which expresses itself  in the tefilla and in our entire approach to the day. 

On the one hand our tefillos on Rosh Hashana are largely universal- we mention how כל באי עולם יעברון לפניו, not only Jews but all humanity passes before Hashem  in single file to receive their designated judgement.  ועל המדינות בו יאמר our prayers are not only for us and for Eretz Yisrael – our land but for all countries.  Our tefillos refer to the entire world, who will fight wars and who will experience peace.  This broad universal scope of Rosh Hashana makes tremendous sense.  After all it is היום הרת עולם the day when mankind was created.  It is therefore not specifically Jewish, but universal.   

Upon reflection however, it is not just Rosh Hashana but the entire month of Tishrei that is universally focused.  Each of the Tishrei holidays contain not specifically Jewish elements.   Yom Kippur has its maftir Yona referring to teshuva of the non-Jewish people of NInveh.  Sukkos has its parei hachag offered on behalf of the nations of the world. As part of the Tishrei sequence Rosh Hashana seems to be of a universal nature.  It is therefore not surprising that  we omit any reference to Rosh Chodesh in our Rosh Hashana davening.  Rosh Chodesh is uniquely Jewish.  החדש הזה לכם refers to the establishment of Jewish time.  Omission of Rosh Chodesh seems to highlight the universal dimension of Rosh Hashana. 

While Tishrei focuses on the universal, Nisan focuses on the specifically Jewish.  What can be more Jewish than Yetzias Mitzraim– the time when we were freed from Egypt and forged our national identity, separating ourselves from the surrounding world. Rosh Chodesh with its specifically Jewish way of marking time is linked to Nissan.  Hachodesh Hazeh lachem– this month of Nissan is the Jewish month.  It is the month when we became a nation and consequently it is when Jewish time began.  It is therefore puzzling that on Rosh  Hashana at the beginning of the Universally focused Tishrei, we recite זכר ליציאת מצרים  in our kiddush and tefilla.  Not only is it unclear how Rosh Hashana connects to Yetzias Mitzaim, but it is even more puzzling that we refer to this most Jewish event- the Exodus from Mitzraim when we became a Jewish nation at a time when universal themes dominate.  What is the connection to Yetzias Mitzraim and what are we to make of it? 

Obviously one may suggest that all kedushas hazeman has its origin in Yetzias Mitraim and for this reason we mention Zecher Lyitzias Mitzraim in kiddush and davening.  However, it is possible that there lies a much deeper connection.   

Radak in his commentary on Tehilim (81:4-6) explains that the shofar sounded on Rosh Hashana harkens back to yetziat Mitzraim.  Immediately after the famous pasuk תקעו בחדש שופר the verse recited time and time again on Rosh Hashana, w read עדות ביהוסף שמו בצאתו על ארץ מצרים.  Radak interprets יהוסף  to refer to all of Klal Yisrael Further on in that same mizmor  David Hamelech writes הסירותי מסבל  שכמו כפיו מדוד תעבורנהRadak amplifying a statement of Chazal in Rosh Hashana 11a explains that the shofar sounded on Rosh Hashana refers to the shofar sounded when we were freed from the hard labor סבל שכמו  in Mitzraim.   

It is widely reported in the name of R’ Chaim there are two elements to slavery; the arduous labor and the derogatory title of slave.  These two aspects of slavery concluded at two separate times.  While we did not lose our slave identity until Pesach, the intense labor of slavery ceased on Rosh Hashana.  The shofar that sounds on Rosh Hashana is effectively the same s the shofar which sounds on Yom Kippur of Yovel– heralding in a time of freedom.    

Of the three brachos unique to the davening of Rosh Hashana two contain universal rather than specific Jewish themes.  Malchios focuses on the end of days when all nations will declare the sovereignty of Hashem ; Zichronos focuses on how hashem remembers all of creation not only Jews.  It is only Shofaros that seems to be specifically Jewish.  Shofaros with its dual themes of the shofar of har Sinai and the Shofar of Mashiach is the most distinctively jewish of all the brachos of Rosh Hashana.  To this we may add that the shofar conveys additional meaning as well.  Shofar heralds in a time of freedom; a time where slave labor abates and we are free to completely emerge as avdei Hashem.   



Rabbi Ezra Schwartz is a Rosh Yeshiva at RIETS and Associate Director of its Semikha program. 


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