Thinking about the rapidly approaching High Holiday season, it dawned on me that Rosh Hashanah is very different than all the other holidays. The other holidays are very Jewish days, in that they commemorate singularly Jewish events, moments in Jewish history. But as far as I know, Rosh Hashanah does not commemorate any Jewish experience.
Not so fast. There is quite a bit of tangling that must be undone before we rush to say that Rosh Hashanah does not mark a Jewish historic occasion. We’ve got layers of Jewish meaning to unravel. You are correct in that the date of Rosh Hashanah, first and foremost, hearkens back to the universal. It is the day of which we say in our liturgy, Hayom Harat Olam, today the world was created — the event most associated with Rosh Hashanah. The day does not commemorate any specific Jewish event as patently as Sukkot marks the travels in the desert, Hanukkah the miracle in the time of the Hasmoneans, Purim the story of Esther, or Passover the Exodus.
However, hints are everywhere that this day is more than the anniversary of creation. Notice the shofar, ram’s horn, for example — that visceral centerpiece of our service? Its alarming wake-up call urging us to repent also reminds us specifically of the binding of Isaac said to have taken place on this very day — being that a ram replaced Isaac on that fiery altar.
Furthermore, our Rosh Hashanah liturgy reminds us that this is the day on which Sarah, Rachel and Hannah were remembered by God, their barrenness coming to an end, and it is the day that Joseph was freed from slavery. Layers of richness imbued with tradition and significance assign broader Jewish significance, but, all of this Midrashic layering notwithstanding, the essential core event du jour is the creation of the world. That, more than anything, drives the atmosphere of the day and the judgment angle of the observance.
As such, it is a day that we view as a day of renewal in regard to not only the majesty of the Creator, but also our own very human existence. It makes sense that the pronouncing of divine sentence for all mankind is on the very anniversary of their coming into being. Rabbinic literature finely tunes the idea of “today the world was created.”
It seems that Rosh Hashanah is not exactly the day the world was created. The first day of Tishrei is not the day that God pronounced, “Let there be light.” No, no, no — the first of Tishrei according to rabbinic thought is the day human beings were created. Day one of our calendar is, actually, day six of creation. This anthropocentric approach is based on the Midrashic idea that everything created on days one through six were created as if “on hold” until they were “unfrozen” in that Sleeping Beauty kind of way, with the formation of the crown of creation: Human beings.
That was quite the day! Here is how the Midrash in Pesikta Rabbatai details hour by hour what occurred on that primordial day one for Adam. First hour, there was the thought of creating humans, second hour the consultation with the angels, third hour the gathering of the dust, fourth the kneading of the matter, fifth hour the joining of the limbs, sixth hour Adam was stood up, seventh hour came the breathing in of life, the eighth hour Adam was brought into the Garden of Eden, the ninth hour brought the command to not eat of the tree, the tenth hour the infamous eating of the fruit, in the eleventh hour there was judgment, and in the twelfth hour they went forth from the presence of God.
We not only call to mind elements of this primeval day, we reenact them. Most obviously and demonstratively, we envision the judgment; we stand in prayer and recite together plaintively: “The great shofar is sounded; a gentle whisper is heard; the angels quaking with fear, declare: ‘The day of judgment is here to bring the hosts of heaven to justice,’ all mankind passes before Thee like a flock of sheep” — all mankind. We Jews may be the ones standing in a house of worship, but we picture an entire world being judged as was our shared common ancestor, Adam.
But there is more that we have drawn for the Adam experience for our New Year, something subtle, maybe even subversive bedecking of our tables. We take a fruit in hand to declare as a bit of a distraction, “May it be your will that we that you renew us for a good and sweet year.” What we are really saying is, “God Almighty, we take this fruit in hand with Your permission. We hold it up and dip sweetly into honey and beg of You, holder of our fates, to bless us with a year of sweetness.”
We are not that haughty first human, taking that which is not ours. We know God Almighty, that by the grace of God go we. Please accept this recasting of the eating of the fruit of the tree, perhaps it could serve to correct the deeds of our ancestors in the Garden of Eden — a tikkun of sorts for the first misdeed committed by humanity.
But this that was eaten taken illicitly, what was it? It was probably not the classic apple of King James fame. Scholars point out that our Pacific Northwest pride and joy are in fact not indigenous to the Mideast and suggest that perhaps it was an apricot. The text simply says fruit with no further appellation. The Midrash wonders about the fruit as well, asking what was the tree from which of Adam and Eve ate. Wheat? Grapes? The etrog? Fig? There are many suggestions, all extrapolated from Biblical proof texts. Bottom line, why should the innocent fruit be imputed and vilified? It did nothing wrong to be so maligned for eternity, thus the Torah chose to conceal its identity.
As Jews, the universal nature of this day is experienced by us in a uniquely Jewish way. This fruit of the garden has positive potential in Jewish thought. The Garden of Eden need not be eschewed as a place of negativity, a scene of sin — there was also a garden before this eating of the fruit. Kabbalah sees Garden of Eden as “The Field of Sacred Apples” — Tapuchin Kadishin, the place of the Shechinah, the divine presence. The very aroma that Isaac smelled as his son Jacob walked in to receive the blessings.
This aroma is what we are looking for, this otherworldly ambience of humility bowing to receive blessing, rather than grabbing at what is not ours. On this Rosh Hashanah, let us think of the blessings that we can each draw down to the world as we take the bite of that apple, and pray for a sweet New Year.