The Sfas Emes's notes on Rosh Hashana are unusually sparse. Moreover, he
prefaces his notes for 5632, the first Rosh Hashana for which he left us
his notes, with the comment "irbuvei devarim" ("mixed up words"). So it
may require even more than the usual dose of siya'ata di'shemaya (help
from on High) to understand this ma'amar ...
The Sfas Emes begins with a comment on the simanim" (the 'signs'). The
reference here is to the minhag (practice) of eating certain special foods
on the evening of Rosh Hashana, and accompanying them with a heartfelt cry
out to HaShem. The foods selected are foods whose names are merameiz
(allude) to concerns that are inevitably on our minds as we begin the Yom
Hadin (Day of Judgment). For example, we eat karsi (leeks) and ask --
Actually, we should not 'ask'; we should implore: Yehi ratzon she'yikarsu
son'einu!" That is, working with the Hebrew root KaRoS -- to cut down --
we eat some leek and say, "May it be Your will to cut down our enemies! "
(Parenthetically, note two points. First, this practice is not some far-
out chassidische innovation. It is based on a Gemara (Kerisus, 6a); and a
siman (583) is devoted to it in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim. Second, as
you may have noticed, I have translated the word 'minhag' as 'practice' .
Why do I prefer to translate 'minhag' as 'practice' rather than 'custom' --
the word usually used? Because the word 'custom ' implies 'only a
minhag, not something to be taken seriously.' By contrast, the
word 'practice' conveys the authentic meaning of: 'this is what we
Why do we follow this practice of alluding to our this-worldly needs
(e.g., health, wealth, happy interpersonal relations ...) as Rosh Hashana
begins ? The Sfas Emes explains that this practice is in line with the
Zohar's perspective on the meaning of Rosh Hashana. The Zohar tells us
that on Rosh Hashana, the thrust of our prayer should be that all human-
kind accept HaShem as King. Thus, the special Rosh Hashana section of the
Amida begins: "U'vechein tein pachdecha ... " ("May the entire world fear
Why the focus on fear? Because if a person allows himself a bit of
reflection on life, he cannot avoid recognizing how vulnerable he/she is.
This vulnerability comes in multiple dimensions. It may involve, for
example, the secure parnasa (livelhood) that evaporates when the person
is 'let go '; the solid marriage which unexpectedly cracks; the disabling
illness that comes seemingly from nowhere.
Recognizng one's vulnerability, in turn, means recognizing one's total
dependence on HaShem. Thus, in a very matter-of-fact way, fear can be the
first step in developing a relationship with HaShem. I say "first step"
because fear can start a process that ultimately leads to love of HaShem.
Because the main theme of Rosh Hashana is our accepting HaShem as Melech
(King), we address our olam hazeh concerns (concerns that involve this
world) only indirectly, by the "hints" (the remazim) of the simanim. In
doing so, we are making an important statement to ourselves. That is, we
are relegating those concerns to the status of mere auxiliaries or helpers
in our primary avoda. We are also making a statement: that the main item
on the Rosh Hashana agenda is accepting Malchus Shamayim (HaShem's
Thus, the Sfas Emes's ko'ach he'chidush (innovative power) shows us two
new perspectives in explaining the minhag of the simanim. The simanim are
conventionally viewed as simply another venue for placing our personal
requests before HaShem. Moreover, the usual assumption -- taken as a
matter of course -- is that these 'hints' are directed to HaShem.. By
contrast, the Sfas Emes is telling us to view the simanim as a tool for
demoting our personal concerns. As such, we are really addressing our
personal concerns not to HaShem, but rather to ourselves!
The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph by noting that on Rosh Hashana,
HaShem metes out a new measure of chiyus (vitality) to each of us. And He
does so according to each of our desires. In other words, to get it, we
have to want it. The Sfas Emes urges us to prepare ourselves to receive
this new infusion of life for the purpose that HaShem intends -- to give
new life and joy to our avoda.
We move on now to the first ma'amar of 5634. This brief paragraph begins
with a quote from Maseches Rosh Hashana (11a): "BeRosh Hashana batla avoda
mei'avoseinu beMitzrayim. " That is: "On Rosh Hashana, the toil of our
ancestors in Egypt ceased." Rashi comments: "The servitude stopped".
Rashi's remark may imply a broader view -- the cessation of Bnei Yisroel's
psychological subordination to the Egyptians. Let us see how the Sfas
Emes understands this statement of Chazal.
As we know, hester panim (HaShem's concealing Himself from us) is a
prominent theme in the Sfas Emes. Why is this theme is so important?
Because of the great gap between the world as seen by the naked, untutored
eye and the world that the Torah tells us is truly out there. One obvious
example: To the naked eye, the world seems clearly to be leis din veleis
dayan" -- without justice and without a judge. But we know that in
reality, HaShem holds every person accountable for his actions. How can
we deal with this contradiction? By recognizing that we are experiencing
hester panim. As the Torah warned us in advance, in punishment for our
misdeeds HaShem hides His Presence from us.
Where do we encounter hester in its worst, most powerful form? The Sfas
Emes tells us that hester is at its worst in the context of time. That is,
HaShem's Presence. is least discernible in current events. In that
context, the Sfas Emes explains, Rosh Hashana provided our ancestors in
Egypt with a marker in time. Passing a milestone in space conveys the
message that one is traversing a road with a destination. So too, a
marker in time enables a person to see the passage of time as part of a
Rosh Hashana provided Bnei Yisroel with such a sense of history. By giving
our people a milestone in time, Rosh Hashana enabled Bnei Yisroel to see
meaning in the events that they were living. Thus, they were now able to
recognize that they were experiencing the servitude that HaShem had
foretold to Avraham Avinu, And so too they would have the liberation that
HaShem had promised. Before Bnei Yisroel had Rosh Hashana, they had lived
lives that had seemed to be utterly devoid of meaning. Rosh Hashana freed
them from that darkness.
The Sfas Emes explains that more generally, as we make the transition from
one year to the next, Rosh Hashana removes the hester of the previous
year. Thus, looking back, we may be able to see meaning in the flow of
events. But, the Sfas Emes continues, at the same time, a new cloud of
hester descends to engulf the new year. Thus, hester always covers the
present and the future. Note how commonsensical is the Sfas Emes's
perspective. In fact, we are generally clueless about what is happening
now, and certainly about what is going to happen in the future. Being
clueless is not a happy state of affairs. The Sfas Emes continues with a
thought that may seem like a total non sequitur -until we recognize that
he may be trying to cheer us up from that unhappy state. Thus, the Sfas
Emes concludes by telling us how the Radak understood the mitzva of shofar
on Rosh Hashana. The Radak (and presumably the Sfas Emes, who quotes the
Radak with approval) take the shofar of Rosh Hashana to be an echo of the
shofar that was sounded at yoveil; i.e., a time of liberation.
As we approach Rosh Hashana, we should not be discouraged; for we have a
Friend up there. Rashi tells us in Bamidbar, 23:21, we can understand the
word "teruah" as coming from the Hebrew root rei'us -friendship. We can
have that connection in mind when we hear: 'teruah'!