This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Joy or Judgment?*

Among the diverse holidays of the Hebrew calendar, Rosh Hashanah suffers from a peculiar personality conflict.

On the one hand it is a festival, and as such, it should partake of the festive mood that pervades the other holidays as occasions for feasting and celebration. But on the other hand, we experience the Jewish New Year as a solemn day of judgment, on which our destinies as individuals, as a people, and as a species all hang in the balance, pending the verdict of the celestial court.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Abbahu gave poignant expression to this paradox, in the form of a question that was posed to the Almighty by his celestial attendants, who were perplexed why the Jews do not intone the Hallel on Rosh Hashanah as they do on the other holidays:

"The ministering angels said before the Holy One: Master of the universe, why do Israel refrain from song on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? He replied to them: Is it conceivable that when the king is enthroned on the seat of judgment, and the records of those who will live or perish lie open before him--that Israel should be singing before me?!"

Alongside our awareness of terrifying judgment, there is no shortage of traditional sources that portray the "days of awe" as times of good cheer, when we are jubilant in the confidence that our merciful father in heaven will accept our repentance, and he will hear our appeals with loving forgiveness.

The dual nature of Rosh Hashanah has been reflected in recurrent controversies over what should or should not be included in the day's prayers.

The Amidah service for most festivals contains a special section that is usually known by its opening Hebrew word "Hassieinu." This passage expresses cheerful holiday sentiments such as: "bestow upon us the blessing of your sacred times for life and peace, for joy and gladness."

In most current rites, the Hassieinu section is omitted on Rosh Hashanah. In earlier times, however, many congregations included it in their New Years prayers just as they did on the other festivals. This was the case in the Land of Israel and in other communities that followed its customs. The Hassieinu was also retained in the Rosh Hashanah service compiled by the ninth-century Babylonian scholar Amram Gaon whose order of prayer served as the cornerstone for most subsequent Jewish prayer books.

As we advance farther into the Middle Ages, we encounter increasing opposition to prayers that portray Rosh Hashanah as a joyous occasion. It was reported that Rav Hai Ga'on, the revered leader of the Babylonian academy of Pumbedita, favoured excising from the service the words "holy festivals for gladness and sacred seasons for joy." Expressions like gladness and joy might be suitable for the other holidays, but not for the solemnity of the Day of Judgment.

In European Jewish communities as well, a controversy flared up around the recitation of the Hassieinu paragraph in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. The ancestors of Ashkenazic Jewry had settled in France and the Rhineland from communities that followed the rites of the Land of Israel; and hence we should not be surprised to read reports that Jews in that region originally included it in their festival liturgy. An eleventh-century responsum addressed to the Mainz community from Rabbi Eliah ha-Kohen, head of the Academy of Jerusalem, and his son Ebiathar expressed indignation that anyone would dare to challenge that time-honoured tradition. A similar sentiment was voiced by Rabbi Menahem ben Makhir who invoked precedents from the Jerusalem Talmud and from more recent teachings of the religious authorities in the holy land.

What had once been the prevalent custom in France and Germany was called into question in the eleventh century, as the authority of the Babylonian Talmud became more firmly entrenched.

Advocates of both policies were able to produce proof texts from the Bible and Talmud to buttress their positions. Rashi's teacher Rabbi Isaac Hallevi of Worms abolished the recitation of the Hassieinu in his community on the rather technical grounds that it contained a reference to "holy times," a concept that appears in the Torah in connection with the pilgrimage festivals, but not Rosh Hashanah. However, opponents of the change were able to adduce their own proof texts to the contrary, such as Leviticus 23:4 where a similar expression appears in a setting that refers to all the festivals, including Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Other commentators found fault with the expression "bestow upon us...the blessing" at the beginning of the Hassieinu. The formula echoes the scriptural passage (Deuteronomy 16:17): "every man shall give as he is able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God which he has given you." That verse, they noted, appears in a passage that is concerned with the three pilgrimage festivals, and not with Rosh Hashanah.

A different argument, based on the same biblical text, pointed out that the blessings in question were traditionally equated with the pilgrimage offerings. Those sacrifices were not offered on Rosh Hashanah and hence there was no good reason to mention them in the New Years prayers.

The debate was not always confined to technicalities and proof texts. A French scholar whose views were recorded in the Mahzor Vitry grappled with some of the fundamental philosophical roots of the issue when he contended, "blessings and joy have no associations with Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur at all." The day is a somber one not only from the perspective of the creatures who are waiting in trepidation to hear their fates for the coming year. The Almighty himself is unable to experience true joy as long as he is faced with the prospect of having to issue an unfavourable verdict against his children. For this reason, it is inappropriate, and just plain wrong, to insert expressions of rejoicing into our prayers. As for the precedents that earlier authorities cited from the Jerusalem Talmud, they carry no weight now that the Jewish people have accepted the Babylonian Talmud as their ultimate authority on matters of religious practice.

The author of this discussion took an aggressive stance against his opponents, dismissing them, in the words of Ecclesiastes (2:14), as "the fool who walks in darkness." Yet the passion that is so evident in his discourse indicates that the matter must have been a live and contentious issue in the synagogues and academies of his generation.

Over the ensuing years, the elimination of the Hassieinu prayer from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy in France and Germany was accomplished with remarkable alacrity. While this can be viewed as part of the general struggle between the Babylonian and Israeli rites, there were additional factors that influenced the process. For instance, it coincided with the rise of the ideology of German Pietism (Hasidut Ashkenaz) whose devotees adopted a very austere and ascetic religious outlook. Eventually, this fundamental disagreement over the religious character of Rosh Hashanah came to be perceived as just one more instance of divergent liturgical customs.

Hopefully, all those attempts to emphasize the sober aspects of Rosh Hashanah will not eradicate every last trace of optimistic celebration, or prevent us from wishing one another a happy and blessed New Year.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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