Immediately following each set of shofar blowing during the Rosh HaShana service, there is an attached prayer which, although very short, is directly connected with the basic theme of the day – one can even say it is a summary of the meaning of Rosh HaShana in a few sentences. And in fact, even when there is no actual blowing of the shofar, this prayer is still recited as part of the service.
The prayer begins with a few words that are not easily understood even by Hebrew speakers, and are not easy translatable into any other language: ha-yom harat olam. This is a poetic and profound view of this particular day which is called here a “day of gestation.” This day is considered, in a certain way, as the day in which things are happening, like in pregnancy: there is a child there; it is not born yet, no one knows how it will be, but we all know that there is a child there.
In this sense Rosh HaShana is considered to be not only, as the prayer later says, the Day of Judgment, but also the day in which all that will happen and be revealed in the coming year is already there, only in a hidden form. This day contains, then, in a secret form everything that will happen in the following year; but for the time being nothing is known and we are waiting – full of expectations and also of worries and fear – to see what will happen.
We know that that basic essence of the year, which now is a mystery, will be revealed to us in real life in different ways: in unpleasant days as well as in joyful and successful ones. All that is wrapped, so to speak, in the first day of the year, will eventually manifest itself as the year unfolds – for the world, for the nations, for the individual.
Praying on Rosh HaShana is therefore praying about an unknown entity which as yet is a mystery. We know that whatever our plans are, there will be events: some of them stemming from the past, others completely unknown, some that we look forward to and others that we dread.
The blowing of the shofar, which is enigmatic and equivocal, contains a complex message: it is a mixture of joy and triumph with worrying and crying. And after the blowing of the shofar we have a moment’s hush, after which we say this prayer that speaks about what is to be in the future. Indeed, in some of our sources the voice of the shofar is said to be like the cry of a woman in labor: with the pain, the joy, the expectation. And that is why we say in this prayer that Rosh HaShana is a day of gestation, of pregnancy, a day that contains everything – although we do not know what it is.
This opening is followed by a less poetic yet clearer statement: “Today He will bring to judgment all the creatures of this world.” Rosh HaShana is the universal Day of Judgment: not only for the Jewish people but for all of humanity, and in an even broader way – for all the creatures of the world, whose fate is decided on this day for death or life, success and joy or failure and sorrow. All of that is encapsulated in the notion that on this day, everybody and everything is judged.
This description of the day and its holiness, which also explains why it is the first day of the Days of Awe, is then followed by a little prayer which says that we, all of us, can be judged either “as children or as slaves.” These definitions, however, are neither absolute nor permanent, but rather depend upon our behavior and our way of life. We can be considered children, with the particular compassion that children get, or we can be seen as subjects who have duties to fulfill and are judged according to their achievements. And since we are not certain about our status, we say this two-fold prayer: “If [You look at us] as Your children, have mercy and compassion for us as a father has for his children.” Or You can judge us as slaves. Possibly we were not very good children, and surely not very obedient slaves. But surely we can pray – not because we have a right to revoke the sentence, but because we still can ask for mercy, even as a slave can ask for mercy, rather than beatings.
All of us, then, in whatever capacity we are, just ask for Your compassion, for a positive verdict, even if we didn’t behave properly and possibly deserve punishment. One thing we can do is to ask the Judge to take into account what we have already suffered, to consider that we are so far from being perfect, that we do wrong by mistake, or due to lack of understanding, and in short – because we are human beings. In this short prayer, then, we ask the Almighty not to judge us according to His objective measures of justice, but according to the extent to which we are beloved by Him – or just because we are His creatures. We ask Him to consider our frailty, our so very limited life-span, and surely our partial understanding, and so, to dismiss us just with a warning rather than a punishment.
We therefore turn to God with the adjectives that are most appropriate to this the day: Ayom, Kadosh; You are above everything, You are the source and holiness to Whom we must all look with awe and also be connected, on all the levels of our existence. But precisely because God is infinite and beyond all measures of understanding, His Holiness is not only remote but also something that is nourishing us and penetrates our souls, even when we are not very much connected with it.
A version of this essay first appeared in Arutz Sheva in 2014.