Whether we like it or not, the days are upon us when the sky begins to show more moon than sun. The shorter days mean the predictability of the Hagim, the High Holidays. And while Judaism does not have us worship either the sun or the moon, Judaism has had a long-standing relationship with the moon. It started centuries ago, with Rosh Hashana. The predictability of the holiday commencing the Jewish New Year was not always a given for Jews in the past. During the rabbinic period- specifically the Mishna- the Jewish New Year was determined by the central rabbinic court in Jerusalem.
But it wasn’t rabbinic power that decided when the first of Tishrei would be, or any other month for that matter.
How was the new month determined?
Through any individual who sighted the moon and made the trek to Jerusalem to declare that he had witnessed a silver sliver. Based on his account, including detailed and rigorous stipulations, the new month was proclaimed by the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. In fact, declaring the new month is the first mitzvah in the Torah the Jews received as a nation, upon their exodus from Egypt. Determining their own time helped them move away from the mentality of a slave, who has no control over his time, to a liberated and empowered individual and collective.
On Rosh Hashanah, Man declares his own time. He is the arbiter of his choice and destiny. In fact, the traditional celebration of Rosh Hashana for two days is a nod to the disagreement between two ancient witnesses, each sighting the moon at different times. The two-day celebration is testament to the power of Man over nature.
This power of Man’s ability to determine the month and, therefore, his own destiny, is extended even further to an unusual rabbinic exception. In rabbinic Judaism, a woman is not qualified to be a witness. With one exception: A woman can be witness to her own monthly, bodily changes and she is to be taken for her word as a witness to this personal account. Halacha [Jewish law] cannot challenge her. This empowerment of a woman to determine the start and end of her physical month or cycle, and therefore to determine her ability and timing to conceive, mirrors how God understands the placement of time on Rosh Hashanah for both man and woman. In fact, our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, which we often sing, further attests to this: “Today is the birthday of the universe,” “Hayom Harat Olam,” the day God birthed the world.
In birthing the universe, God endowed Man and Woman the power to determine both time and humanity. The male witness determines our control over time, our calendar; the female witness determines the continuity of humanity. Both empowered. Each establishes a month.
Yet when we look at the prayers and rituals of Rosh Hashanah, they have nothing to do with human power and rather everything to do with human smallness. We spend much of the day in prayer. Every prayer calls us to recognize God’s power, to submit to His power. We blow the shofar, an act that attests to human limitations. How do we resolve this dichotomy, or irresolvable tension? We are empowered to determine a holiday but it is that very holiday that asks us to submit to a Higher power.
Although the Jewish sighting system was abolished sometime in the fourth century, when the Jewish calendar was established, I believe Rosh Hashanah remains a powerful reminder to Man of a reciprocal power, a shared power. We stand in this dual place every time we vote in a democratic election. Anyone who has lived through an authoritarian government or a tyrannical period, and then has come to live in the West, understands the concept of reciprocal power. The individual is able to submit to the democratically elected power, not out of fear, but rather because the democratic government honors each individual’s power and dignity, and in turn asks each individual to honor his government’s power.
By giving Man power over the institution of time, and to woman the institution of procreation, God is not just the authoritarian birther of the universe, the one to be feared. He is the one who has granted us the ability to find our own power. And only once Man feels his own power, understands his own power, can he then submit himself to a Higher Power, to something that is larger than oneself. This is what Judaism asks of us on Rosh Hashana: to recognize our own power in order to then submit to a Higher Power.
Perhaps this unity of powers is the ultimate meaning of imitate deus, imitating God, of living “bezelem elokhim.” Perhaps this is what the liturgy means when we sing “Hayom Harat Olam,” the day God birthed the universe and Mankind’s power, but also His. For without Mankind finding its power in order to reflect the divine’s mission of social justice, what is the Higher Power, but sitting in a vacuum, a celestial echo chamber of sorts?
The power balance that is highlighted in the New Year becomes the lead into the Days of Awe. During these days, Man is asked and is able to self-reflect specifically because of this delicate tango of empowerment and submission. Feeling empowered enables us to forgive others, while submitting to a Higher Power enables us to be the recipient of forgiveness. At the pinnacle of the Days of Awe, culminating at the end of Yom Kippur, we blow the shofar in what seems like a final act of submission, only to continue the balance by commencing the post Yom Kippur with the blessing of the sighting of the new moon. Thus, guaranteeing that Man must always know his power in order to acknowledge a Higher Power.
Temima Goldberg Shulman is a writer based in Passaic, N.J.
We are empowered to determine a holiday but it is that very holiday that asks us to submit to a Higher power.