An Analysis of the Torah Readings for Rosh haShanah
By Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom
THE TANNAIM: TWO OPINIONS
The Mishnah (3rd or 4th chapter of Megillah - depending on which version you
are looking at) lists the special Torah readings for each of the holidays
and unique days during the year. Regarding Rosh haShanah, the Mishnah states:
"On Rosh haShanah, we read "And on the seventh month, on the first of the
month..." (Vayyikra 23:24 ff.)"
The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) cites a second Tannaitic opinion as to what
should be read on that day (at this time, there was still only one day of
On Rosh haShanah, we read "In the seventh month" (Vayyikra 23)..."others"
say [we read] "and God remember Sarah" (B'resheet 21)... (BT Megillah 31a)
The second alternative - to read about the story of Sarah's miraculous birth
at the age of 90 - is a bit disarming of a choice. All of the other
"special" readings focus around either the laws pertaining to that day (e.g.
the Sukkot readings focus on the offerings of each day, as well as the full
treatment of the calendar) or of an explicit historical reference (e.g.
Pesach and the Exodus story).
What connection is there between the story of Sarah's birthing Yitzchak at
an advanced age and the "Day of Remembrance" (Rosh haShanah)?
The conventional understanding is that the Sarah association is based on the
Gemara in Rosh haShanah (11a), which states that both Sarah and Hannah were
"remembered" on Rosh haShanah. (see, e.g., commentary of Ran to Megillah ad
There are, however, several problems with this explanation - as will become
clear when we look into the Gemara to discover the roots of our practice
vis-a-vis the Torah reading on the two days of Rosh haShanah.
THE GEMARA: THE "TWO DAYS" SOLUTION
The Gemara, in assessing how to "resolve" these two opinions, makes a
startling statement. We would normally expect the Gemara to "compromise"
and assign each of the readings to one of the days - let "the seventh month"
reading take place on the first day and "God remembered Sarah" take place on
the second day (or vice-versa).
This is, by the way, exactly how the Gemara (ibid) resolved a dispute
regarding the reading on Shavuot - now that there are two days (outside of
Israel), we "fulfill" one opinion on the first day, and the other on the
Regarding Rosh haShanah, however, the Gemara does not take this "path of
Now that there are two days, on the first day we follow the "others", on the
next day, "And God tested Avraham..." (B'resheet 22)
Where did the "Akedah" (binding of Yitzchak) story come from? Why is it
suddenly introduced into the range of possible readings here?
Keep in mind that the first two opinions were rendered by Tannaim - and it
is highly unlikely and somewhat enigmatic for the Gemara to "overrule" a
Tanna, especially when both opinions could have been maintained!
Besides the difficulty with this Gemara, there is an additional problem with
the "God remembered Sarah" reading, based on the way that we practice.
The text of the Sarah-Yitzchak-Hagar-Yishma'el story is 21 verses long -
which is enough for a complete reading, even if Rosh haShanah falls on
Shabbat. Why then do we read the rest of Chapter 21 (vv. 22-34), detailing
the covenant between Avraham and Avimelekh? What relevance does that story
carry for Rosh haShanah?
To sum up:
We have two questions about the reading on Rosh haShanah:
a) Why is the Tanna's opinion ignored in favor of the "Akedah" story?
b) Why is the Avraham-Avimelekh story also read?
To this, we could add a third question:
c) What is the significance of the Akedah story to Rosh haShanah? (keep in
mind that according to the Midrash, that terrifying event took place on the
date that would eventually be Pesach - in the spring - and not in the fall).
Regarding this final question, there is no question that the ram, brought in
place of Yitzchak, is associated with Rosh haShanah (the Shofar) - but,
again, is that enough to justify "overruling" the first Tanna (and the only
opinion cited in our Mishnah) as regards the reading?
REEVALUATING THE "OTHER'S" OPINION
We generally assume, as mentioned above, that the association between the
story which begins with Sarah's miraculous conception and birth and Rosh
haShanah lies at the beginning - in that she was "remembered" on Rosh haShanah.
There is another way to understand the association - one that is not
subject to the challenges raised above.
If we understand the second Tannaitic opinion ("others") as relating ONLY to
the birth of Yitzchak - then, indeed, our questions stand. If, however, we
understand the second opinion as relating to the entire narrative of the
birth of Yitzchak, the covenant with Avimelekh and the culmination of
Avraham's life - the Akedah, then we understand the "solution" of the Gemara:
The first opinion is that we read from Vayyikra - a Halakhic section which
details the laws of special times in our calendar - including (among others)
the day of Rosh haShanah. In other words, the focus of the reading should be
similar to that on other holidays - the "practice" of the day.
The second opinion, contradistinctively, is concerned that we read a piece
of narrative - (Chapters 21 and 22 of B'resheet - later on we will address
the significance of these two chapters). In other words, this opinion
maintains that the focus of the reading should be on the "experience" of the
day (i.e. narrative), rather than the "practice" of the day (i.e. legislative).
The Gemara's solution was that, now that we have two days, we accept the
second opinion and divide that reading into two parts - one for each day -
so as to preserve the thematic continuity throughout the two-day holiday.
This already answers the first question - why the first Tanna's opinion was
ignored. There was no solution of "one day this, the other that" such as
the Gemara effects for Shavuot. On Rosh haShanah, there is a basic dispute
as to whether the reading should be legastically-oriented (Vayyikra) or
narrative-oriented (B'resheet). Once the Halakhah decided in favor of the
second opinion - that reading was simply split into two parts.
Now, we have to address the other two questions, which can be combined into
one mega-question: What is the relevance of these two chapters (and now, we
have to include the story of Sarah's miraculous conception and birth) of
B'resheet to Rosh haShanah?
ROSH HASHANAH - THE INDIVIDUAL STANDS BEFORE GOD
Unlike the tenor of the rest of the holidays of Tishri - Yom haKippurim,
Sukkot and Sh'mini Atzeret - Rosh haShanah seems to place the individual and
his/her relationship with God at the core of the experience of the day. Even
though we are crowning God, declaring Him to be King over "all that draw
breath into their nostrils" (from the liturgy) - and this declaration is
made as a community as well as by each individual - the sense of "judgment"
which drives the day is focused on each person as he or she stands alone
before the Creator.
Note the Mishnah's statement about the day:
On Rosh haShanah, they all pass before Him like "B'nei Maron" (Rosh haShanah
1:2; see the Gemara - Rosh haShanah 18a for the various interpretations of
The Gemara explains that this means (regardless of what the phrase
specifically depicts) that each person passes before God - to be judged - as
This is not the experience of Yom haKippurim, where, although each person
confesses his sins before God in a private manner and does Teshuvah to the
best of his ability, much of the focus of the day is on community (note the
oft-repeated "Ki Anu Amekhah" which depicts the relationship between God and
the Jewish people via various real-world analogues).
It is certainly not the same experience as Sukkot - where the focus is
almost totally on the community (and the agricultural seasons). Rosh
haShanah literally "stands alone" as a time for individual reflection,
introspection and solitude - where the individual stands before God in judgment.
When we look through our history, we find that there was only one individual
whose entire life calling approximated that which we experience on Rosh
haShanah. Unlike Yitzchak, who was trained in the "way of God" by his
father; unlike Ya'akov, who had two generations of righteousness and loyalty
to God as a model, Avraham was the true trail-blazer of our national
(pre-)history. In order for him to succeed at his mission, he not only had
to "ignore" his father's lessons (and those of his kinfolk), he had to
actively get up and leave the entire environs of his youth (and middle age)
and follow God's directive to a "Land that I will show you". If there is
anyone whose life is a model for the Rosh haShanah experience, it is Avraham
This would help to explain an enigmatic phrase in the chapter of T'hillim
which is recited 7 times before the blasting of the Shofar (Ps. 47):
"The great of the peoples are gathered together , the nation of the God of
Avraham, for the guardians of the earth belong to God, He is greatly exalted."
Why is God referred to as "the God of Avraham" in this chapter - which is
otherwise devoted to God being crowned via the blast of the Shofar (see infra)?
Again - it is Avraham's path of solitude and isolation which is the one we
must attempt to walk through the Rosh haShanah experience - as will be
"ECHAD HAYAH AVRAHAM"
Although we will look at this in much greater detail in the upcoming shiurim
on Sefer B'resheet (especially Parashat Lekh-L'kha and Parashat Vayera), a
thumbnail sketch of Avraham's life is in order.
Not only did Avraham have to leave his comfortable and familiar environs in
order to receive God's blessing - but the demand for repeated isolation and
separation from loved ones was the hallmark of his life.
A brief chart will clarify this:
Chapter - Separation from...
12- Father's house, birthplace, land
12- Sarai (see Ramban here - it's fascinating!)
16- (temporarily) Hagar (carrying his seed)
20- Sarah (again!)
21- Hagar & Yishma'el
22- (almost) Yitzchak
As you can see, every step of his life was marked by separation from family
- from parents, from his wife (four times, counting Hagar twice), from
children (twice - and nearly a third time) and from his beloved nephew.
Note also that every one of these separations is accompanied by an increased
(see 12:2-3; 13:2; 13:14-18; 16:10; 17:5-8; 20:14-16; 21:20; 22:17-18).
In other words, it is when Avraham demonstrates this tragic heroism - the
ability to leave everything near and dear for the sake of God and for His
promise - that he succeeds.
We can now understand why a segment of the life of Avraham is appropriate to
read on Rosh haShanah (the 11 chapters which make up the bulk of the
"Avraham narrative" comprises too much text for the purpose). Why then this
part - why Chapter 21 (the birth of Yitzchak, the exile of Hagar and
Yishma'el and the covenant with Avimelekh) and Chapter 22 (the Akedah)?
RASHBAM AND THE AKEDAH
In order to understand the particular relevance of this section of the
narrative to Rosh haShanah., we turn to an ancillary question posed by the
Rishonim on the first verse of Chapter 22:
It came to pass after these matters...
This introduction seems to indicate not only a juxtaposition in time between
the (upcoming) Akedah and the events just mentioned (the covenant with
Avimelekh) - but also a causal relationship. To wit, it seems that the
covenant had something to do with the Akedah.
Rashbam (R. Sh'mu'el b. Me'ir, 12th century France) suggests that the Akedah
was, indeed, a Divine (punitive) reaction to Avraham's signing of the
covenant. His reasoning is that since the land of P'leshet (present day
Ashdod south to Azzah) is part of the Land which God promised to give him,
God was angry at Avraham for signing a pact of mutual non-aggression (which
is either unnecessary or makes it impossible to properly take the Land.)
Rashbam suggests, based on the Midrash, that the reason that we were later
unsuccessful in wresting that part of the Land from the P'lishtim was due to
this earlier covenant.
I would like to suggest a slight variation on Rashbam's approach - which
will also support the rationale for reading specifically these three
sub-narratives on Rosh haShanah.
Avraham's entire path was to be tread on alone; since he was truly "The
Lonely Man of Faith". Every time that he tried to become attached to a
family member, that loved one was (almost?) taken away - if not permanently,
at least for a time.
Now that Avraham and Sarah had their own child (and God approved of sending
Hagar and Yishma'el away), it seems that Avraham started "banking on" his
future. Note the wording of the covenant with Avimelekh:
"Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me or
with my offspring or with my grandchild..." (21:23 - these are Avimelekh's
words). Since Avraham agreed to the oath, it seems clear that he (now) felt
in a position to be able to make promises about the future and about future
This led to the Divine response of the Akedah - "You think that Yitzchak is
yours, is so surely going to be here that you can make covenants and oaths
regarding his loyalties???" asks God,;
"Take your son, your only son, the one that you love....Yitzchak!" (22:2).
The inspiration to be found in these lessons is a microcosm - and the apex
- of Avraham's spiritual adventure. When he finally gained the beloved son
of his old age with Sarah, he immediately was called to exile his other,
beloved son (see Rashi on 22:2); when he felt confident that he could
pinpoint the one through whom God's promises would be realized, he made an
agreement and projected that son's future. At that point, God called him to
reject that future and to place all of his faith in God - not in allies, not
in this son or the other - but only in God.
That lonely path, the one blazed for us by Avraham, is the one we must each
walk when we face God on Yom haDin - the day of Judgment.
We are doubly blessed:
We have the reserves of Avraham's strength on which to draw to enable us to
stand alone, if atremble, before the Throne on Remembrance Day.
Our second blessing is that we are not confined to that path; as we leave
the path less taken and join the communal "celebration" of Yom haKippurim,
approximating Yitzchak's offering - and then join the entire House of
Ya'akov in the Sukkah (hint: B'resheet 33:17).