Many cultures have New Year’s days. But those are typically celebratory, not ‘days of judgement’. In today’s world people sometimes struggle with the concept of judgement. Wouldn’t everything be better if we were a little less judgemental?
More philosophically, would it not make sense for judgement to take place at the end of the year rather than at the beginning? Surely judgement should be judging what we have done? And if it is a day of judgement should this not be a day when we try to say sorry for what we have done wrong? This, after all, is the theme of Yom Kippur, a day just 10 days from Rosh Hashanah. Why do we do no apologising on the day of judgement? Come to think about it, if there are to be two days, one of apology and forgiveness, and another of judgement, should we not do the apologising and atonement day first in order to merit a better judgement?
These questions make one thing one thing obvious: the judgement of Rosh Hashanah clearly is not the conventional judgement that we are familiar with in human courts. It is not a judgement about our acts in the past. It is something else altogether. So what is the day actually about? What is it that we are trying to achieve? And how are we meant to go about doing so?Before being able to understand the nature of judgement, we need to ask more broadly: what is the nature of the day itself? It is to this question that we must now turn, and it appears to be at least as enigmatic.
A Day of Joy and Tears
Take any day of the Jewish calendar and it clear what the mind-set is meant to be. Even a person with limited Jewish knowledge understands that days like Sukkot, Pesach, Chanukah and Purim are times of rejoicing and celebration. Days like Tisha B’Av are times of sadness and mourning. But what about Rosh Hashanah? On the one hand it is the Jewish New Year and we eat festive meals, on the other hand it is referred to as a Day of Judgement which invokes unease, anxiety or trepidation. Which is it?
Part of the problem is that the Torah itself does not explicitly tell us much about Rosh Hashanah. All that we have is a few brief verses mostly teaching about the extra Temple service but nothing more than that.
The first Rosh Hashanah that is given rich description occurs in the book of Nehemiah when the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon were allowed to return to Israel to rebuild their homeland and the Temple in Jerusalem. The eighth chapter of Nehemiah describes the great national gathering that took place on ‘the first day of the seventh month’ (i.e. Rosh Hashana) . The people had spent decades in exile in Babylon and had not had national autonomy. They may have kept some of their own laws and customs but it was different now. Now they had returned home. Now they were independent from imperial control. They were able to be a nation under the sovereignty of God Himself; to follow His Torah. So the people assembled ‘as one person’, and asked their leaders to read to them from the Torah. For the entire morning, from sunlight to midday the Torah was read.  The people listened to every word and where things were unclear the elders explained and interpreted it.  It was a day when the people effectively coronated God as King over them once again and accepted His law in full.
One might have expected it to be a day of celebration, but in fact the people’s first instinct was apparently to cry. The leadership had to appeal to the people:
‘Today is holy to Hashem God. Do not mourn, and do not cry’ - for the people were all crying… so [the leaders] said to [the people] ‘go and eat great foods, drink sweet drinks, and send out food portions to anyone who is lacking, for today is holy to our Master. Do not be depressed, for the love of Hashem is your strength!’ 
So it seems from the book of Nehemiah that to be fearful and even to cry is indeed a natural response on Rosh Hashanah, and yet it is to be overridden by a more powerful force: the love from God to man.An echo of the dichotomy is found in Midrashic sources with a practical halachic consequence: how we ought to dress on Rosh Hashanah.
‘Ordinarily when people face [severe] judgement’ says the Midrash, ‘they would come in blackened clothes, wrapped in mourning, with uncut hair and nails - for they would be in dread at the unknown verdict.’ Apparently in days of kings and their courts who could kill or torture at will and with no appeal, a person standing in the dock over life or death simply could not function days or weeks in advance. ‘Not so Israel,’ continues the Midrash, ‘they come wearing white laundered clothes… groom their hair… and eat drink and rejoice on Rosh Hashanah, convinced that a miracle will be performed for them!’
The Midrash raises difficulties. Something miraculous is unexpected. If being saved is guaranteed, then it cannot be called a miracle. If it is not guaranteed, then how do we dress with such confidence?More problematic than that is the Talmudic teaching that we are never allowed to reply on miracles.  How can that be squared with the Midrash?
An even deeper problem is that if the miracle somehow is guaranteed then why relate to it as a day of judgement at all? Why the sombre prayers? Why the Shofar? And so forth. The Talmud phrases the question differently: why do we not say Hallel - the Psalms we sing to celebrate salvation?  The great 16th century Polish halachist, Rabbi Shlomo Luria, asks a similar question: why do we not wear the coloured clothing of true celebration? The answer to both was identical: ‘could it be that the books of life and death are open before us and you celebrate?’ The implication seems baffling. If the judgement is serious enough that we cannot go for full-blown celebration, then how can we be ‘convinced the miracle will be done’? And if we can be confident in being saved then why can’t we celebrate?
So Rosh Hashanah does appear to be drawing us into a multifaceted arena in which is genuinely frightening and yet powerfully uplifting. It is a day whose judgement is strong enough that could be cause for tears if not for an overriding ‘love of Hashem’ which turn it into a festival. Yet even after the ‘love of Hashem’ and the ‘miracle’ the celebration is mitigated by the sense of life and death that hangs in the balance. How are we to make sense of the apparently contradictory nature of the day?
Every Jewish calendar date revisits a transformative moment in the story of Israel. Except Rosh Hashanah. The first ever Rosh Hashanah was the sixth day of creation. Most children could tell you the basic story. The soul of life, Adam, was placed in the garden, divided into male and female and given a choice: eat from the tree that gives life, or a tree that brings death. Adam chose the forbidden fruit and was expelled from the garden into the world as we know it today: a world of decay and death, or pain and suffering.
That is the child’s version. The real story is vastly deeper. It is the story of you and me and every human being in this world. It is the story of how the world looks from the perspective of its creator. The Hebrew word ‘Eden’ is one of the Biblical words for time.  The Garden of Eden is not a place in space or in time. It is all of space and all of time.  The Hebrew word ‘Adam’ does not mean one homo sapien wandering around. The word refers to all of humanity as what was at first one unified soul that was divided into male and female. The purpose of creation was that the soul of humanity should become one again. It should learn relationships. And then it should become one with its Creator.
Instead it made the fateful choice to try to become the centre of reality. To try to become a god. In doing so Adam chose self-centred living over God-centred living. A self-centred life is driven by the pursuit of power, honour, lust and greed. It is characterised by arrogance, jealousy, intolerance, dishonesty and self-pity. Outwardly the self-centred person can be charming and alluring. Or they may be controlling. But they are always trying to manipulate the world around them to serve their visions and desires.
A God centred life is driven by the desire to serve the world, to do what is honourable, to be loyal, to love and to be appreciative. It is characterised by humility, sharing, tolerance, honesty and accepting and taking responsibility. Outwardly the God centred person may be warm and lively, or they may be reserved and deep. But they are always trying to do what God wants from them in each situation.
When Adam chose self-centeredness, then Adam could no longer be one soul representing all of humanity. If all of Adam wants to be the centre, then there can be no centre. There can only be billions of individual pieces, each of which believes it should be the centre.And so the broken pieces of Adam are expelled from the ‘Garden of Time’ and are scattered throughout history. You and I and everyone else are one of those pieces. Our work in this world is to repair this world one relationship at a time. To restore Adam-kind to being one, and to return Adam to God. It is to recreate the Garden of Eden and to make the right choice. Our lives are torn, between the God centred voice and the self-centred voice. The latter speaks louder. The reward it offers us is typically sooner and often overwhelmingly intense.
And yet we also have a deeper voice. It may often be tuned out by the rage or lust or fear of self-centeredness. But it is there nonetheless. This is the voice that we try to access on Rosh Hashanah. We articulate the dream of becoming one once again with all of humanity, unified and integrated, to make this world, once again, shine with the perfection of the Garden of Eden.
May the whole world come together as one, to do Your Will wholeheartedly
Every year Rosh Hashanah invites us to take a step out of our ordinary lives and a step into the world of Eden. Every year we revisit the moment of the creation of humanity. Each of us will be asked the deepest question of all: what are we living for? Which tree do we wish to eat from? Do we want a life that is self-centred or God centred? It is these questions that form the great depths of the judgement of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah offers us nothing less than the opportunity to recreate ourselves for the year ahead.
This is the first important clue to unravelling the mystery of the day. It is a day when we step outside of our ordinary lives, and so to speak step back into the Garden of Eden. We step into the laboratory of creation, where the key question is: should we be created or should we not? Are we living for the vision of God? The vision of the oneness of Adam before the sin? Or are we living for ourselves and for the broken world of Adam after the sin?
These questions strike at the heart of our being and the depths of our soul. They may arouse the tears of the people in Nehemiah’s time, but also the joy of touching the depth of our soul and the beauty of who and what we really are at the core of our being.
We are now ready to return to the questions we started with and to explore the nature of the judgement of the Day of Judgement, and to discover its profound mechanism for awakening a new self-deep within.
Chochmas Shlomo, commentary to Shulchan Aruch OC 581:4
See eg. Eccl. 4:3, see also related forms eg. Gen.18:22. The usage is preserved in Modern Hebrew time-related words such as ‘odenu’ and ‘adayen’
There is a longstanding debate amongst commentaries as to whether the Garden of Eden is a physical place on earth or something entirely transcendent of earth. See Ramban to Gen. ch.2 for discussion. However according to R.Moshe Chaim Luzzatto Daas Tevunos, even in a ‘physical’ Garden of Eden the ‘body’ would actually be equivalent of a ‘soul’ today. In other words it is a trans-physical realm that represents reality totally differently
Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country.
Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".
Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.