A new year begins on the evening of September 9, 2018: the first day of the month of Tishrei and the year 5779 in the Hebrew calendar.
… the first of the month1 will be for you a day of complete rest, of zikhron, of horn blasts; a holy convocation. (Leviticus/Vayikra 23:24)
zikhron (זִכְרוֹן), zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן) = remembrance, memorial, record. (Derived from the verb zakhar, זָכָר = remembered, brought to mind.)
Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) is also called Yom Ha-zikaron (“Day of Remembrance”), even though it lasts for two days.2
Who is doing the remembering on Yom Ha-zikaron? And what is remembered?
In the Torah
In the Hebrew Bible, prophets in Deuteronomy through Malachi warn the Israelites to keep God in mind, so that they will obey God’s laws and worship only the God of Israel. When the Israelites forget God and worship other gods, they are punished.3 When times are good, Moses says, the people must remember that their bounty comes from God. (See my post Eikev, Ve-etchannan, & Noach: Who Built It?) In many psalms, the poets remember God when they are suffering, and ask why God has forgotten them.4
God also remembers the Israelites again and again. The bible portrays God remembering the covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with the Israelites who left Egypt, and with all the children of Israel.5 God also remembers individuals; for example, when a long-childless woman finally becomes pregnant, the bible says that God remembers her and opens her womb. The haftarah reading for the first morning of Rosh Hashanah is the story of Channah’s successful prayer for a child.6
In the Rosh Hashanah Liturgy
Just as some psalmists pray for God to remember them, on Rosh Hashanah Jews pray for God to remember us for a good life—and to keep this in mind by writing down the names of everyone who will live for another year in a “Book of Life”. 7
The following sentences asking God to remember us in the Book of Life are inserted in every Amidah (“standing prayer”) during Rosh Hashanah:
In the first prayer: Zakhreinu for life, king who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life, for your sake, God of life! (Avot)
zakhreinu (זָכְרֵנוּ) = remember us, bring us to mind. (An imperative of the verb zakhar.)
In the second prayer: Who is like you, merciful father, zokheir his creatures for life! (Gevurot)
zokheir (זוֹכֵר) = who remembers, who brings to mind. (A participle of the verb zakhar.)
In the fourth prayer: … on this Yom Ha-zikaron. Zakhreinu on it for goodness, God, our God, and commission us on it for blessing … (Kedushat Hayom)
In the sixth prayer: And inscribe all the children of your covenant for a good life! (Modim)
And in the seventh prayer: In the Book of Life, [for] blessing and peace and a good livelihood and good decisions, salvations and consolations, nizakheir and may we be inscribed before you, we and all the people of the House of Israel, for a good life and for peace. (Shalom)
nizakheir (נִזָּכֵר) = may we be remembered, may we come to mind. (The nifil imperfect of the verb zakhar.)
On regular weekdays. Jews traditionally pray the Amidah three times a day, in the morning, afternoon, and evening.8 But during the two days of Rosh Hashanah, we pray the Amidah 18 times!9 And each time, we pray for God to remember us and record our names in the Book of Life.
The repetitions of the Amidah in the morning services and musaf (additional) services also include extra prayers for Rosh Hashanah. The musaf services add three sections of liturgy on Rosh Hashanah themes (Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofars), with quotations from the bible and shofar10 blowing for each section. The section on Remembrance is called Zikhronot (זִכְרֺנוֹת), the plural of zikaron. Its opening prayer includes:
And regarding regions, it is said on [this day] which [region] is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for starvation and which for satiation. And regarding creatures, they are accounted for on [this day] to hazkir for life or for death.
hazkir (הַזְכִּיר) = prompt recollection. (The hifil infinitive of the verb zakhar.)
Then the Zikhronot section mentions instances of God remembering characters in the bible and doing good things for them, most notably when God remembers Noah and makes the flood subside,11 and when God remembers the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and brings their descendants out of Egypt.12
The service leader’s repetition of the Amidah in the musaf service includes not only the three sections with shofar blowing described above, but also a dramatic recitation that begins:
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:
how many will pass away and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die,
who will be cut off [before his time] and who will not;
who by water and who by fire,
who by the sword and who by the beast,
who by hunger and who by thirst …
The list goes on until the declaration: But turning around, prayer, and charity bypass the evil decree!
On Rosh Hashanah we may get into the Book of Life despite our earlier bad deeds, if we sincerely turn around. On Yom Kippur, nine days later, the Book of Life is sealed.
In the Rosh Hashanah liturgy we plead with God to remember us, the heirs of the Israelites, and to grant us life because whatever our past faults, now we are turning around, praying, and doing good deeds.
But before we can beg God to remember us in the Book of Life, we must remember God.
My God, my soul is prostrate;
Therefore ezkarekha. (Psalm 42:7)
I say to God, my rock:
Why have you forgotten me? (Psalm 42:10)
ezkarekha (אֶזְכָּרְךָ) = I remember you. (Another imperfect of the verb zakhar.)
When we feel alienated from our better selves, when we feel that we have not lived up to our own ideals, that we have missed the mark, then we feel alienated from God. Some of us assume God will punish us, even decree an early death; others assume that our alienation is the punishment.
Either way, our personal task is the same as the communal task of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: to make amends with people we have wronged, and to pray for atonement with God. When we remember God (and listen to the inner voice), God remembers us (and the inner voice speaks). Then our lives improve.
Leshanah tovah tikateivu—May you all be inscribed for a good year!
- Leviticus 23:24 specifies the first day of the seventh month. The Hebrew calendar starts counting months in the spring, the first month being Nissan, from the Akkadian word for “first produce”. But the agricultural year begins in the autumn, when fields are plowed and sown with winter wheat before the rain comes. The first month of this year is Tishrei, from the Akkadian word for “beginning”. This is also the time when the first temple is dedicated in 1 Kings 8:2. (See Yael Avrahami, “Why Do We Eat Matzah in the Spring?”, http://thetorah.com/why-do-we-eat-matzah-in-the-spring/)
- Many Jewish holy days are observed for an extra day outside Israel. Rosh Hashanah is the only one that is observed for two days in Israel as well as in the rest of the world.
- g. Deuteronomy 8:19-20, 1 Samuel 12:9, Jeremiah 13:24-26, and Ezekiel 6:9.
- g. Psalms 42:7-10, 44:18-27, 77:2-12, and 143:1-7.)
- g. Exodus 2:24 and 6:5, Leviticus 26:42-45, Jeremiah 14:21, and Psalms 105:8-11 and 42-43, 106:44-5, and 111.
- 1 Samuel 1:10-20.
- The Rosh Hashanah liturgy was codified in the 9th century CE.
- The Ma-ariv service in the evening, the Shacharit service in the morning, and the Mincha service in the afternoon, corresponding to the three times for offerings at the altar in ancient Israel. When one of these services is prayed by a congregation, as on Shabbat and various holy days, the Amidah is traditionally prayed in an undertone first, then repeated out loud by the service leader (with the congregation chiming in).
- On Rosh Hashanah we pray the Amidah twice during each of the three evening services, twice during each of the two morning services, twice during each musaf (additional) service following the morning service, and twice during each afternoon service.
- A shofar (שׁוֹפָר) is a musical instrument made out of the horn of an animal, usually a ram. The tip of the horn is modified to serve as a mouthpiece.
- Genesis 8:1.
- Exodus 2:24 and Leviticus 26:45.