Happy Birthday, World

Posted on September 5, 2018 by Jay Lavroff

As the last hot days of summer pass, Jews around the world prepare for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, literally translated as the “head of the year,” occurs on the first and second days of Tishri. Referred to in the Torah as Yom HaZikaron (day of remembrance) and Yom Teruah (day of sounding of the shofar), the observance is instituted in Leviticus 23:24-25. God tells Moses that “in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts [of the shofar]. You shall not work at your occupations; and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Eternal.” Rosh Hashanah is one of four new years in the Hebrew calendar. The other three are the new year for kings and festivals on the first of Nissan; the new year for tithing of cattle on the first of Elul; and Tu B’Shevat, the new year of the trees, which takes place on the fifteenth of Shevat.

Prominent in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the reaffirming of God as our sovereign and a solemn self-examination, reflecting on our lives and repenting for our misdeeds committed during the prior year. God judges each of us, and as is repeated throughout our worship, on Rosh Hashanah that judgment is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. But what exactly is it that we are observing on Rosh Hashanah? During the service, the phrase hayomharatolam—“this is the day of the world’s birth”—is read or sung many times. The Talmud tells us that this is the day creation began, for as Rabbi Eliezer said, “in Tishri the world was created” (Rosh Hashanah 27a). In Bereshit we are told that human beings were not created until the sixth day. It is the appearance of a person with free will, who will love and honor God, that has caused scholars to opine that the “birthday of the world” refers to the anniversary of the entire universe, including humankind, and our acceptance of God’s dominion and judgment.

On our own birthdays, we don’t simply turn the calendar. We reflect on the good things we have accomplished; we look ahead to what we might do better in the future; and we share the happy observance with family and friends. Other days of the year are often not so cheery. The world is a complex, challenging place. Sometimes it takes all of our strength and perseverance to get through to the next day. So on Rosh Hashanah, let’s all take time to celebrate the birthday of the world God has created for us. Let us appreciate that world and contemplate how to improve it. And let us enjoy the blessing of being part of a community that is bound together by love, hope and reason.

L’shanahtovah—A happy, healthy and sweet New Year to all.

Jay Lavroff

Originally published in the September-October 2018 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.