Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur

For the week ending 8 September 2018 / 28 Elul 5778

The Conception of the World

by Rabbi Shlomo Simon
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Rosh Hashana is perhaps the most enigmatic of all of the Holidays in the Torah. The other Holidays are a celebration of some event: Pesach the departure from Egypt; Shavuot the culmination of the period between departing Egypt and receiving the Torah; Succot the commemoration of the Clouds of Glory with which G-d provided us protection in the desert; and Yom Kippur the forgiveness of our sins, principally the sin of the Golden Calf. Rosh Hashana, however, doesn’t commemorate an event in the history of the Jewish People. In fact, it doesn’t commemorate any historical event at all.

Tractate Rosh Hashana (10b) records a dispute between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer regarding when the world was created. Rabbi Eliezer is of the opinion that the world was created in Tishrei (more exactly, it began on the 25th of Elul and culminated with Adam’s creation, seven days later, on the first of Tishrei). Rabbi Yehoshua, however, holds that the world was created in Nissan. This debate was not limited to the Chachamim. The Gemara records that non-Jews also debated this point. They agreed with the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua that the world was created in Nissan. The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 12a) concludes that we calculate all tekufot (seasons) from Nissan, in accordance with the ruling of Rabbi Yehoshua, implying thereby that the world was created in Nissan. An example of this is Birkat Hachama, a prayer recited every 28 years in Nissan when the sun is in the same position as it was on the fourth day of Creation.

Accordingly, we might wonder: Why do we celebrate Rosh Hashana in Tishrei, and not in Nissan, like Rabbi Yehoshua’s ruling?

This question is highlighted by the Gemara in Rosh Hashana 27a: “Rabbi Shmuel bar Yizchak says: According to whom do we pray today (on Rosh Hashana) that ‘Today is the beginning of His works, a remembrance of the First Day’? According to whom? Like Rabbi Eliezer, who said that the world was created in Tishrei.”

Rabbeinu Tam reconciles the two opinions by stating that they are both correct. He explains that it “occurred” to G-d to create the world in Tishrei, but that He actually did it in Nissan. While Rabbeinu Tam does not explain the Creator’s reasoning, Midrashim speak about G-d’s wanting to create the world in din (strict judgment), but saw that the world couldn’t exist if held to such a standard. He therefore created the world in the month of Nissan, which is the month of Mercy, and not Judgment, the trait represented by Tishrei.

However, there are difficulties with this approach. How does G-d — the Omniscient Being — think about something and then reject it because it won’t work? He obviously knew everything beforehand. And why do we celebrate the creation of the world on a date on which it was not created?

We say in the Rosh Hashana davening after the Shofar-blowing: “Hayom harat olam.” Many render this line in English as, “Today in the birthday of the world,” which would be in accord with the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. However, the correct translation of “harat” is “conception or pregnancy,” which is more aligned with the idea expressed by Rabbeinu Tam.

Yet, the question remains: Why celebrate the “conception” in Tishrei and not the “birth” in Nissan? And, furthermore, why should the time from conception to birth be six months?

If Kain and Hevel were conceived by human beings and were both born on the sixth day of Creation, the same day that their parents were created, why should there be such a time lapse for G-d’s creation of the world from conception to reality?

Another question is: Why did G-d use language to create the world? He doesn’t need language to create worlds. His thought is quite sufficient.

One might therefore propose that He actually created the world in Tishrei when he “thought” to, and also created the world in Nissan when He spoke the words of Creation. Just as the Light that He created on the first day was stored away for the righteous to enjoy in the World to Come, so too He “stored away” the world he created in Tishrei — the world of Judgment — for the World to Come. This is the world which we pray for on Rosh Hashana. In fact, all of our prayers on Rosh Hashana are centered around the desire to bring the Mashiach, and that all mankind should unite in the recognition of the Kingdom of Gd. These are not prayers for our success in the material world or prayers of thanks for deliverance from Egypt. They are prayers to bring the Ideal World, the world created in Tishrei.

The Shofar underscores this idea. It is a wordless prayer produced from the carotene of a dead animal. The horn, even in the lifetime of the ram, has no nerve endings and is thus impervious to pain. It could be viewed as representative of time before Creation, when there was no pain or suffering of a physical life and no language. Our quintessential prayer on Rosh Hashana is deep, pure and wordless, representative of a time before physical Man was created and only our neshamot (souls) were populating the perfect world of Judgment that G-d created in Tishrei, and where Rabbi Akiva, all of the other Tannaim and all of our great ancestors wished to dwell. That is the world we pray to return to on Rosh Hashana.

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