Rosh Hashanah: A Day of Judgment

Yael Eckstein  |  September 6, 2021

honey and apples for a sweet new year

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” — Genesis 1:26

At sundown today, my family will join Jews around the world in celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. As these are non-working holidays, these devotions have been prepared in advance for you.

I remember as a child growing up in the U.S. how my parents would let me stay up late on New Year’s Eve so that I could watch the Big Apple drop in Times Square at midnight. The huge crowd counting down “Ten! Nine! Eight…” made me want to be there, celebrating and screaming at the top of my lungs, “Happy New Year!”

But when I think about it now, I wonder about this custom. Why is everyone so happy on New Year’s Eve? What exactly are they celebrating? Is the mere passage of time and the changing of the calendar year really such a cause for excitement and joy?

In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — is a festive time as well, but with a very different mood from what I used to see taking place in Times Square. Jewish tradition teaches that Rosh Hashanah is the day when God, our King, sits in judgment over the entire world. Our New Year is actually a Day of Judgment.

The special prayers for Rosh Hashanah are filled with references to God as King. By emphasizing that God is King, we remind ourselves that we are His subjects, that we are here to serve Him through Tikkun Olam, repairing what is broken in the lives of other people and building His kingdom together.

A Day of Judgment

In the special liturgy for Rosh Hashanah we say, Hayom harat olam, “Today is the birthday of the world.” According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah is not the anniversary of the first day of creation, but of the sixth day, the day that God created Adam and Eve. Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of humanity.

For children, birthdays are all about celebrating. But as we mature, birthdays become a serious time as well. We celebrate, but we also find ourselves reflecting, thinking about where we are in our journey, and where we are going next. Birthdays, in a sense, become a day of judgment about how we are living our lives.

It’s not exactly Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but that’s what grownup birthdays are all about, right?

Your Turn:

Learn more about the High Holy Days when you visit our Learn Center.