Rosh HaShannah: A Tale of Two Beginnings ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

The Mishnah teaches that on Rosh Hashana all the inhabitants of the world pass before G-d like the animals of a corral, and G-d passes judgement over the entirety of creation. In this way Rosh Hashana is considered the Day of Judgment (Yom ha’Din). However, Yom Kippur is also called the Day of Judgment. This begs the question: What is the difference between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur if they are both called the Day of Judgment?

Nachmanides explains that Rosh Hashana is the day of din be’rachamim (judgment in mercy) and Yom Kippur is the day of rachamim be’din (mercy in judgment). This cryptic distinction must be further clarified before we can fully understand how Nachmanides resolves the issue. In this essay we will focus on explaining why Rosh Hashana is the day of din be’rachamim, leaving our discussion about Yom Kippur for a different time.

As you probably know, Rosh Hashana (literally, “the Head of the Year”) marks the beginning of the New Year. However, besides serving as the first day of the New Year, Rosh Hashana has another role: It is the beginning of the month of Tishrei; it is like Rosh Chodesh. Rosh Hashana is both the beginning of a moon-related time (a month) and a sun-related time (a year). It is the first day of the year and the first day of the month. In this way Rosh Hashana represents the beginning of two cycles. Thus, it is the nexus of two opposing systems — of the sun and of the moon. The conflict between these two forces is highlighted by the concept of a solar eclipse, whereby the moon can block the light of the sun (a rare phenomenon which Americans experienced this year on Rosh Chodesh Elul).

As is well-known, the Jewish calendar is neither solar nor lunar, but is rather a synthesis of both forms of keeping time. The months of the Jewish calendar are lunar-based because they are tied to the appearance of the New Moon, and the years of the Jewish calendar are comprised of twelve or thirteen such months. The year of the Jewish calendar roughly follows a sun-based system because the movement of the sun determines whether the year will have twelve or thirteen months. The purpose of adding a thirteenth month is to synchronize the seasons of the solar year with the lunar months. This intercalated month compensates for the discrepancies between the amount of days in twelve lunar months and the amount of days in one solar year. (Nowadays, we add a thirteenth month at set intervals: In a nineteen-year cycle, years 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, and 19 have thirteen months, while the rest have only twelve.)

When we talk about the sun and the moon, there is an interesting dynamic which they represent. The sun and moon represent the concepts of “he who gives” and “he who receives”. The sun represents the idea of giving, as the sun gives off light, while the moon does not radiate from its own light. The moon inherently does not illuminate anything. Rather, the light that comes from the sun, reflects off the moon, and bounces into our eyes. It is really sunlight which appears to be the light of the moon. So the moon is not a giver: the moon is a receiver.

Another difference between the sun and the moon is that the sun always appears the same — it always looks like the same circle up in the sky. This is also characteristic of the giver. The giver constantly and reliably gives; there is no fluctuation or instability. In contrast, the moon plays the role of the receiver. Depending on the time of the month, there may sometimes be more of the moon visible, and sometimes less. In the beginning of the new month the new moon is but a small, barely-discernible sliver of white, but as the month progresses the moon waxes and waxes until it reaches its apex at the fifteenth of the Jewish month. At that point, the moon is visible as a full circle. Afterwards, it wanes smaller and smaller until the end of the month, when it finally disappears and restarts its cycle with the advent of the next month.

In short, there are two major differences between the sun and the moon. Firstly, while the moon’s image fluctuates throughout the month, the sun’s remains stagnant and consistent. Secondly, the moon epitomizes the concept of the receiver, while the sun represents the giver.

In an esoteric way, the relationship between the sun and the moon can be looked at as a parable for understanding two seemingly conflicting methods by which G-dinteracts with the world. There are essentially two basic ways in which He manifests His presence in creation: There is din (justice or judgment) and rachamim (mercy). The Kabbalists may sometimes use other terms to express these ideas: duchra and nukva — male and female, respectively in Aramaic — whereby the male force personifies the giver and the female force, the receiver; mashpia and mekabel (influencer and influencee), and others. But the meaning is always the same. What are these concepts of din and rachamim that G-d uses in running the world? How does He use these two opposing methods to run the world?

We can compare this to the case of two philanthropists: Two people donate tremendous amounts of money. The first man does not care to whom he gives money: he simply gives out an indiscriminate amount of cash to all and sundry. The second philanthropist also gives money — perhaps even the same amount or more — but he requires any recipient to undergo a thorough vetting process. They must submit an application, meet with him, and explain to him their cause. Then, depending on how much he believes in their cause and what he feels is appropriate, he will give them a donation. The amount, of course, is based on what he feels the individual coming to him deserves. What is the difference between these two philanthropists?

The difference is in their focus: the first philanthropist focuses on the giver (i.e. himself) because it does not really matter to him who the receiver is and what he wants. He is simply giving away donations whether or not the receiver deserves it. With the second philanthropist, the focus is on the receiver: does he deserve a donation or not, exactly how much, et cetra.

With this in mind we can understand the difference between din and rachamim: Certainly, every element of creation needs a constant flow of influence from G-d in order to continue to exist, but sometimes G-d might temporarily stop his influence or curtail it. Which way do we want G-d to act with us? Sometimes He acts with what we call rachamim, in which the focus is on the giver (i.e. Himself), and He gives an influx of His good to the world without any questions asked. But when He focuses on the receiver (i.e. us), that is called din, and under that rubric He also gives — but He also examines whether or not the receiver deserves His Divine influence, how much he deserves, when he deserves it, et cetra.

As mentioned above, the sun, as the never-changing celestial body that emanates light, represents a focus on the consistent, reliable giver. Conversely, the moon suggests a focus is on the receiver, for when the focus is on him, the flow of goods can fluctuate depending on what the receiver truly deserves, just like the image of the moon fluctuates throughout the month. These two ideas of din and rachmim meet on Rosh Hashana. It is the meeting point of the solar year and the lunar month — the marriage of the sun and the moon, the rachamim and the din. It is truly the best of times and the worst of times.

In different places in the Bible we use different words to denote Gd. Sometimes He is known by His four-letter ineffable name (referred to as the Tetragrammaton) — what we might colloquially call “Hashem”, literally “the Name”. And sometimes, we refer to Him as simply Elokim, “G-d”, or ha’Elokim “the G-d”. Tradition tells us that when encounter His four-letter name, it alludes to His mode of acting through rachamim, while the word Elokim refers to God as the Divine judge who metes out din. In fact, the word elohim sometimes appears in the Bible as a word that means a human judge. When we refer to Him as Elokim we mean to conjure His role as the ultimate Judge of creation.

The contrast between these two characteristics is accentuated in Psalms 47 — the chapter of Psalms that we read seven times before blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashana. That passage discusses the universal recognition of G-d’s sovereignty, and one verse reads, “Elokim ascends with the teruah, Hashem, with the voice of the shofar”.

There are two types of sounds that the shofar makes on Rosh Hashana: a tekiah is a simple straight sound, while a teruah, on the other hand, is comprised of multiple short blasts together (there is a halachic uncertainty regarding whether they are 3 longer sounds, 9 shorter sounds, or 3 longer sound followed by 9 shorter sounds). A tekiah is one straight, consistent sound, while a teruah is a composite of several broken-up, fragmented sounds. In this way, the tekiah represents the concept of rachamim, because when the focus is on the giver, there is a consistent stream of giving. The teruah is related to the Aramaic word rauah, which means broken (like the expression that appears in the Talmud sulam rauah, a ladder with broken rungs). It represents din because it is not a constant flow, but is separated and fragmented depending on whether the receiver deserves to receive or not. The teruah focuses on the receiver. We especially associate Elokim with the teruah because Elokimrepresents the din aspect of G-d’s administration of the world, while tekiah is associated with rachamim, so it is linked to the name Hashem.

When we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana every teruah sound has a tekiah sound before and after. The teruah is always sandwiched by a tekiah. The idea behind this is because even though Rosh Hashana has the properties of din and rachamim (for it begins the solar year and lunar month), we strive to “hide” the din of Rosh Hashana. We say in Psalms 81, “Blow the shofar on (the first of) the month, on the hidden part of the holiday.” This alludes to the notion that the Rosh Chodesh aspect of Rosh Hashana is hidden, because we are trying to hide the fact that there is a dinon Rosh Hashana. It is the concealed facet of the holiday. The teruah, which represents din, is something that we want to suppress, so we hide it in between two instances of rachamim — the tekiah before and after. All that is visible from the outside of the sandwich is rachamim, not din.

This idea is known in Kabbalah as mesikas ha’din, “sweetening the din”. This is also the underlying principle at work when we dip the apple in honey on Rosh Hashana. Because honey is sweet it too represents rachamim, so we dip the apple in the honey to make the rachamim component of Rosh Hashana its dominant aspect.

But how does all of this work? Can we just close our eyes to the din of Rosh Hashana and then it won’t affect us? What are we doing by hiding from the din? Whom do we think we are fooling?

The answer, of course, is that we are trying to change ourselves for the better by changing the object of focus. If there is a judgment on us, then we are the object of focus, because G-d looks at us and judges whether or not we deserve His good. We do not want to be the object in focus because then we will almost inevitably be in trouble due to our sins. To resolve this, we do not talk about sins on Rosh Hashana. Instead we focus on G-d and His kingship. Throughout the prayers of Rosh Hashana we continually speak about His greatness, His universal kingship, and how He is so powerful. In doing so we switched the focus from being on the receiver to being on the giver; from being on ourselves to being on G-d. When the focus is on the giver, then the rachamim paradigm is in play, and God will give even without our deserving it. In this way Rosh Hashana is essentially the day of din, but is immersed in rachmim and sweetened on the outside.

Rosh Hashanah: The Shofar’s Blast and Satan’s Crash ~ Yehoshua Steinberg

The Talmud(1) states:


למה תוקעין ומריעין כשהן יושבין, ותוקעין ומריעין כשהן עומדין? כדי  לערבב השטן.

Why (do the Jews) blow the shofar while sitting and (again) blow it standing?

In order to confuse Satan.

The imagery invoked here is that of Satan in his role as prosecutor in the heavenly court. He is tasked with detailing the sins of mankind in order to bring G-d’s wrath upon them.


Three questions on this citation:

  1. What is so confusing about the shofar blowing?
  2. If it is so tough on Satan, why doesn’t he just take a coffee break from prosecuting before continuing? By the time the court reconvenes, the offensive blasts would be long finished!
  3. What is the connection between the sitting and standing and Satan’s internal turmoil?


First, we must understand the significance of the ram’s horn as the means used to confound Satan in the first place. Our Sages(2) explain as follows:


אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: תקעו לפני בשופר של איל, כדי שאזכור לכם עקידת יצחק.

The Holy One, Blessed be He stated: Blow the horn of a ram before me, that I might recall

the Binding of Isaac.


Thus, the reason for choosing the shofar of a ram is to “remind” Hashem of .עקידת יצחק


What exactly happened at עקידת יצחק?


In  בראשית כבwe find Avraham preparing to sacrifice his son Yitzchak. Suddenly an angel stopped him, and Avraham noticed a ram caught in the bushes, which was then substituted for Isaac. But Rashi(3) adds a few details missing from the text:


בקרניו – שהיה רץ אצל אברהם והשטן סובכו  ומערבבו באילנות כדי לעכבו.

“(Caught by) it’s horns”:  for (the ram) had been running towards Abraham, and Satan

entangled and confused it in the brush in order to hold it back.


Here we have Satan attempting to “confuse and confound” the ram from accomplishing its mission of offering itself as a sacrifice in Isaac’s stead. Satan’s strategy apparently includes attempting to entrap and confuse do-gooders, in an attempt to halt their mission.


Rashi’s source is the following Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer(4), but notice the continuation of the story omitted in Rashi’s account:


ר’ זכריה אומר, אותו האיל כשנברא בין השמשות היה ובא להתקרב תחת יצחק והיה סמאל עומד

ומסטינו כדי לבטל קרבנו של אברהם אבינו; ונאחז בשני קרנותיו בין האילנות. שנאמר וישא אברהם

את עיניו וירא והנה איל אחר נאחז בסבך בקרניו. מה עשה אותו האיל? פשט את ידו ואחז בטלתו

של אברהם.

Rabbi Zechariah says, this ram was created during the twilight hour (on the eve of the first

Sabbath), and it was approaching (Abraham) as a substitute for Isaac. Samael (Satan) then

stood and distracted (the ram) in order to inhibit its plans, and it was then caught by its

horns in the brush, as is stated, “and Abraham lifted his eyes and behold he saw a ram

caught behind the thistles by its Horns.” What did the ram do? It extended its hoof and

grabbed onto Abraham’s garment.


A particularly resolute ram indeed… even from its helpless entrapment in the thistles, it manages to reach out to Avraham signal its existence.  The animal literally extended itself, albeit ever so slightly, going beyond the call of duty to insure the success of its mission to save Isaac.


Thus, we see Satan attempting to block and distract the ram from its mission of offering itself as a sacrifice, but ironically, it is not the ram that is confounded by Satan, but on the contrary, the Adversary himself who is stymied by no more than a hapless sheep’s paw-extension.


In the following Zohar(5), we find   הקב”ה כביכול turning the tables and using a very similar tactic against Satan himself; where Hashem’s instrument of “distraction” is the shofar, blown on Rosh Hashana:


(משל) לבר נש דהוה רגיז וחגר וזיין גרמיה, ונפק ברוגזיה לקטלא לבני נשא, חד חכימא קם על

פתחא ואחיד ביה; אמר אלמלא לא אחיד בי ואתתקף בי הא קטולא בבני נשא. אשתכח, בעוד

דאתתקפו דא בדא ואחיד דא בדא אצטנן רוגזיה על דנפק לקטלא, נפק לאוכחא. מאן סביל

רוגזא ותוקפא דדינא דההוא בר נש הוי אימא דא דקאים אפתחא. כך אמר קודשא בריך הוא

לישראל בני, לא תדחלון הא נא קאים על פתחא  אבל אזדרזו בהאי יומא והבו לי חילא.

ובמה? בשופר.

This is comparable to a person who became angered and… prepares himself to kill

someone. A wise man stood in the way and stalled him. The (would-be murderer)

turned to the wise man and said, “had you not stalled me, I would have murdered

a person”… thus does Hashem say, to Israel, “my sons, fear not, for I shall stand

in the threshold (to thwart the Accuser). However, hasten on this day and give

me power; with what? With the shofar.


G-d is offering to thwart the destructive designs of Satan, using the latter’s own MO. But Hashem’s trump card is the shofar, a reminder to the Accuser of his own impotence in the face of the self-sacrifice of the primordial ram.


But what is it about the seated and standing shofar blasts that throw Satan for a loop? Maharal(6) has a very simple explanation:


עצם המאמץ לעמד בתקיעות שניות הוא מערבב את השטן.

The very (simple) effort to stand for the second shofar blasts confuses Satan.


A deceptively simple explanation. The slight effort it takes to stand up for a few minutes causes Satan such confusion? Apparently, any extra effort that’s לשם שמים throws Satan into a state of bewilderment from which he can’t always recover – just as the ram’s stretching its hoof to alert Avraham of its existence saved Yitzchak’s life.


We tend to think of Satan as a sophisticated charlatan, armed with a bag full of tried and tested tricks nearly impossible for mere mortals to overcome. But truth be told, Satan has but one solitary destructive tactic, albeit with numerous variations: ערבוב illusion/confusion, another example of which is demonstrated in the following Midrash(7) about Avraham on the way to the Akeida.


א”ל (שטן לאברהם אבינו): זקן, לא שם הייתי כשאמר לך הקב”ה קח את בנך וזקן כמותך ילך ויאבד בן

שנתן לו למאה שנה… כיון שראה שלא קבלו  (אברהם ובנו) ממנו (טענותיו) הלך  ונעשה לפניהם נהר

גדול כיון שהגיע עד חצי הנהר הגיע המים עד צוארו באותה שעה תלה אברהם עיניו לשמים אמר

לפניו רבש”ע עכשיו באו מים עד נפש; אם אני או יצחק בני טובע מי יקיים מאמרך, על מי יתייחד

שמך? מיד גער הקב”ה את המעין ויבש הנהר ועמדו ביבשה.

(Satan said to Avraham on the way to the Akeida): Old man, was I not there when G-d told you, “take thy son” – will an old man like you go and destroy a son given to him in his hundredth year?! When Satan saw that (Avraham and his son) did not heed him, (Satan) transformed himself into a great river. When (Avraham) had traversed half the river, the water was up to his neck. At that moment Avraham raised his eyes to Heaven and said, “Master of the Universe… now the water is threatening my life! If Isaac or I drown, who will fulfill Your word; who will unify Your Name”? Immediately, Hashem blocked the spring, and the river dried up, and they stood on dry land.


Again in the following source (8) depicting how the tragedy of the sin of the Golden Calf came about, Rashi again makes reference to the MO of Satan, עירבוב.


כשעלה משה להר (סיני), אמר להם: לסוף ארבעים יום אני בא בתוך שש שעות, הם סבורים שאותו

יום שעלה בו מן המנין הוה, והוא אמר להם ארבעים יום שלימים, יום ולילו עמו, ויום עלייתו אין

לילו עמו, שהרי בשבעה בסיון עלה, נמצא יום ארבעים בשבעה עשר בתמוז היה, בששה עשר בא

שטן ועירבב את העולם, והראה דמות חשך ואפילה, דמות ענן וערפל  וערבוביא, לומר: ודאי

מת משה, שהרי באו כבר שש ולא בא.

When Moshe ascended (to Sinai), he told (Israel): at the end of forty days I shall arrive

by the sixth hour. They believed that that very day was part of the count, whilst (Moshe)

had intended (the count) to include forty full days (starting on the morrow)… (the

fortieth day according to Moshe’s reckoning was therefore) the seventeenth of Tammuz.

On the sixteenth, Satan came and brought chaos to the world, projecting an illusion of

darkness and obscurity, of dark clouds, fog and confusion, as if to say: of certainty

Moshe is dead, for the sixth hour is upon us and he has not come.


But the Demon’s belief in the weakness of spirit of his victims, of their utter susceptibility to confusion and loss of purpose, is in reality nothing but a projection of Satan’s own feebleness. Satan again and again tries the same confusion and obfuscation tactics, but when given a taste of his own medicine he verily collapses. A few toots of a shofar horn and he utterly loses his bearings.


Furthermore, not only does Satan disappear like a shrinking violet at the first sign of resistance, but Israel’s Ally lends a hand as well(9).


בשעה שהקב”ה עולה ויושב על כסא דין, בדין הוא עולה… ובשעה שישראל נוטלין שופר ותוקעין,

הקב”ה עומד מכסא דין ויושב על כסא רחמים… ומרחם עליהם והופך להם מדת הדין למדת רחמים.

When Hashem ascends to sit on the Seat of Judgment, he ascends with judicial (strictness)…

but when Israel take the shofar and blow it, the Holy One Blessed be He arises from the

Seat of Judgment and sits on the Seat of Mercy… and shows mercy to them,

transforming judgment into mercy.


Thus, Hashem actually follows Israel’s lead; when we get up from our comfortable seats to hear the shofar, Hashem כביכול rises from His Seat of Judgment as well, and moves to the Seat of Mercy. Satan, instead of facing the anticipated judgmental ear, now must make his case in front of Israel’s loving and protective Father, quite uninterested in the Accuser’s rantings. But this only after Israel takes the first step and blows the shofar.


This is a sound explanation of Satan’s confusion, but still in all, Satan remains tasked with prosecuting on the Day of Judgment, and it is this task that we directly undermine by our shofar blowing. What is it about the ram’s horn blasts specifically that leads to the downfall of the Old Serpent’s well-rehearsed accusations?


The following beautiful Rambam(10) tells us of a subtle hint contained in the sudden sounding of the shofar:


אע”פ שתקיעת שופר בראש השנה גזירת הכתוב רמז יש בו כלומר  עורו ישינים משנתכם …

וחפשו במעשיכם וחזרו בתשובה וזכרו בוראכם.

Although the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana is a Biblical decree, it contains

the following hint: awaken O you slumberers from your sleep! …search your

deeds, repent, and recall your Creator…


That is, the shofar is the quintessential alarm clock, meant to waken us spiritually at the eleventh hour, before it’s too late. Because it ain’t over till it’s over, as Rebbe poignantly reminds us(11):


בכה רבי ואמר: יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת.

Rebbi cried out and said: a person can acquire the World to Come in the span of a single



Indeed, if a person responds correctly to the shofar blasts, he is literally a new person at the end of those five minutes(12).


אמר ריש לקיש: גדולה תשובה  שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות

Resh Lakish says: great is repentance, for even malicious sins are transformed into merits!


If so, the Satan’s entire PowerPoint presentation of Israel’s misdeeds disappears without any backup… on the contrary, every accusation has been transformed into a merit! No wonder why poor Satan’s so confused – an entire year’s work is lost beyond recovery… ironically in the span of that very same moment.


We think of Satan as if he were some sort of a Loch Ness monster ready to chew us up and spit us out when he’s done. But in truth, he’s hardly a match even for the Cookie Monster. The good news for us is that we know all his tricks, and we therefore are potrntially immune to his ubiquitous obfuscation tactics. Indeed, even a hapless sheep has enough fortitude to defeat him with aught but an outstretched hoof.


Furthermore, Satan believes in dividing and conquering, in this case by diverting Avraham’s attention from the ram, which itself was acting as a duty-bound ערב (guarantor) for, and united with, Yitzchak. Hence, there is no more appropriate term for Satan’s confusion –measure for measure– than ערבוב.


What’s asked of us in our own lives is nothing approaching the sacrifice of that ram, let alone that of Avraham or Yitzchak. All that Hashem wants of us is that we take a stand, and determine to sacrifice, once and for all, our own superfluous misdeeds. And just as the innocent ram acquired life eternal through its indefatigability(13), so will we merit redemption through our emulating its determination and blowing the ram’s horn, as the Midrash(14) reminds us:


וישא אברהם את עיניו וירא והנה איל אחר. מהו אחר… א”ר חנינא ב”ר יצחק, כל ימות השנה

ישראל נאחזים בעבירות ומסתבכין בצרות. ובראש השנה הן נוטלין שופר ותוקעין בו ונזכרים

לפני הקב”ה, והוא מוחל להם – וסופן ליגאל בקרנו של איל.

And Avraham lifted his eyes and behold, he saw a ram ‘achar’ – What is ‘achar’?

  1. Chanania b. Yitzchak says, all year long the Israelites are caught up in sin, and

are entrapped in adversity, but on Rosh Hashana they take the shofar and blow

  1. Hashem then recalls them and forgives their sins. So too their ultimate

Redemption will come about through the horn of the ram.


May we be at least as resolute about our New Year’s resolutions as the ram of yore, and thus merit this promised redemption –from iniquity and from oppression- this very Rosh Hashana. All that’s asked of us is not to hit the snooze button when the shofar alarm goes off.





  1. ר”ה טז,א.
  2. שם, שם.
  3. רש”י בראשית כב:יג, ד”ה בקרניו.
  4. פרקי דרבי אליעזר, פרק ל  ד”ה הנס העשירי ויהי.
  5. זוהר ג:יח,ב.
  6. 6. מהר”ל חדושי אגדות ברכות טז,ב.
  7. תנחומא (ורשא) פ’ וירא כב, ד”ה ויאמר אליו.
  8. רש”י שבת פט. ד”ה בא השטן.
  9. ילקוט שמעוני פינחס תשפב:כט ד”ה ובחדש השביעי.
  10. רמב”ם תשובה ג:ד.
  11. ע”ז י,ב.
  12. יומא פו,ב.
  13. פרקי דרבי אליעזר פרק לא: אוֹתוֹ הָאַיִל לֹא יָצָא מִמֶּנּוּ דָבָר לְבַטָּלָה.
  14. 14. בראשית רבה פ’ נו.