Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Nerve Centre of the Year
Some people thrive on irregularity. They love changes in their
schedules - days off; exploring new places and doing new things.
These people often find day-to-day life droll and humdrum; they
constantly await the opportunity to investigate new vistas and
experience new events.
Then there are people like me. I love routine. I thrive on regularity. I
find drastic schedule changes difficult to adapt to. Such people would
gladly do the same thing day in/day out, rarely feeling the need to
"get away" from routine and do something out of the ordinary. For
such individuals, days like Rosh Hashana present a unique challenge.
We are asked to pour tremendous energy and concentration into a
short, 48 hour period. In complete departure from schedule, we
spend most of our day in shul, immersed in prayer. We are told that
these two short days have a disproportionate effect over our entire
year. How is one to understand and adapt to this sudden and drastic
change? How can we gain an appreciation of these days, so that we
may truly utilize them to their full potential?
While Rosh Hashana is indeed the Jewish New Year, the word Rosh
does not mean new. Rosh means head; thus Rosh Hashana is the
Head of the Year. Why do refer to it as the head, as opposed to the
beginning, of the year? If a person has a problem with his feet, his
feet suffer. If his hands are not healthy, his hands hurt. If a person
has difficulty with his brain, his entire body suffers. The brain is not
simply another organ playing its role in the multifaceted creation we
know as the human body - the brain is the nerve-centre of the entire
body. It controls our actions, our movements, even our thoughts and
feelings. While in rare cases doctors may consider amputating a sick
limb, or even transplanting a critical organ such as a liver or heart,
one does not remove the brain.
Thus it would be fair to say that, within the scheme of the human
body, the relatively small brain plays a disproportionately large role.
This is why we go to such lengths to protect our heads. Bicycle
helmets are now required by the law. Broken hands and feet can be
mended; a blow to the brain, G-d forbid, can be life-threatening.
Just like the body has an appendage that plays a central and
irreplaceable role in its function, time also has its "head." Rosh
Hashana is the "Head of the Year." It is the nerve-centre of the Jewish
calendar. While it represents a relatively small portion of the time-
cycle, its effect over the coming year is powerful and immeasurable.
Just like a small irregularity in the brain could have catastrophic
effects on the entire body's function, so too even small deviations and
lapses on Rosh Hashana can cause untold harm to our lives over the
coming year. Is it just? Is it fair that such a short period should have
such a powerful impact? That's not for us to judge. We can only
absorb the fact, and try our best to take advantage of these incredibly
powerful 48 hours.
This concept helps to explain some of the unusual customs and laws
surrounding Rosh Hashana. Commentators quote the Talmud
Yerushalmi that suggests one not rest (during the daytime) on Rosh
Hashana. "One who sleeps on Rosh Hashana will have a sleepy
mazal the coming year." What's the difference, one might ask, if I
have a little nap on Rosh Hashana? I do it every other Shabbos and
Yom Tov! Rosh Hashana is different. It is the "head" of the year. Half
an hour - a small period of time - on Rosh Hashana, may regulate
entire weeks or even months of our coming year, just as a tiny area
of the brain may control critical bodily functions and services.
Commentators even question why we're allowed to sleep at night on
Rosh Hashana! (Luckily for us they rule it permissable.)
Rosh Hashana is steeped in ritual. We eat the head of a sheep or fish
as a symbol of leadership and ascendency. We dip our challah and
apple in honey in the hope of a sweet year. We even avoid sharp,
bitter or pungent foods for the same reasons. While all year long we
would consider such practices superstitious and obsessive, Rosh
Hashana has such tremendous impact on our lives that even small
changes that serve to put us in the right frame of mind (sweet,
positive), and arouse us to prayer and faith, are necessary and
On Rosh Hashana, we are especially meticulous with our prayers.
While all year long we are not particular about the precise
vowelization of some words, on Rosh Hashana we are. "Zochreinu
l'chaim - remember us for life!" While during the year we often
pronounce it "La'chaim," on Rosh Hashana we are careful to say
"L'chaim," because La'chaim sounds too similar to "Lo chaim," which
means "not life." (Mishnah Berurah 582:16) Consider this: If halacha
requires us on Rosh Hashana to be so careful with our prayers, how
much more so must we be careful with what we speak about at our
Yom Tov meals, or during our breaks from prayer or Torah study!
The Talmud (Yerushalmi quoted by Ran) rules that if one blows the
shofar from its wider side, he has not fulfilled his obligation. The
shofar may only be blown from its narrower side. Perhaps this
halacha alludes to the above concept: The voice of the shofar
emerges from a tiny hole, travelling through an ever-widening cavity,
until ultimately it leaves its confines, and its powerful voice fills every
corner of the synagogue, permeating as well the thoughts and
consciousness of all who hear it. So too Rosh Hashana is a small
window to our year, from where our lives emerge, never unchanged,
impacted by these two short days with such great repercussion.
Just 48 hours of time, with so much hanging in the balance. Forty
eight is the numerical value (gematria) of moach - the brain. Rosh
Hashana is the nerve-centre of our coming year. May the Almighty
grant us the sense and the clarity to utilize it to its full potential and
appreciate its impact.
Wishing all our readers and all of K'lal Yisrael a good Shabbos, a
good Yom Tov, a K'siva ve-chasima tova, and a gut gebentsched
This week's publication is sponsored by Mosdos
Bobov of Toronto, in honour of Mr. and Mrs. Ben Tzion
Heitner, on the occasion of the engagement of their
daughter, Sarah Esther. May they see much nachas from
all of their children.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.