The Beginning of Kingship

Renewal of Time

The Talmud defines Rosh Hashana as “Zeh hayom tehilat ma’asekha, zikaron leyom rishon.”

The simple translation of this phrase is “This day, on which Your work began, is a remembrance of the first day.”1 According to the teachings of Hasidism, however, “yom tehilat malasekha, the day on which Your work began,” does not simply mean that on this day the world was created in the past. Rather, this is the day on which the world is created each and every year.

This day is the beginning of the year. It is not that it marks the beginning of a year that is assigned a certain number. Rather, on this day, the year begins as a phenomenon. On this day, the world is created anew.

This conception of Rosh HaShana stems from the notion that creation was not a one-time event. It is a constant process that repeats itself regularly. Creation does not steadily progress. Instead, it has points of recurrence, of renewal of the process from its beginning. This renewal is constant —in every season and at every hour. There is daily renewal with the cycle of sunrise and sunset, monthly renewal with the appearance of the new moon every Rosh Hodesh, and annual renewal on Rosh HaShana.

There is a significant difference, however, between the renewal of the smaller units of time and the renewal that occurs on Rosh HaShana. The constant ongoing renewal resembles heartbeats. Although they are separate and independent of one another, these small renewals appear to be continuous and ongoing because they are a continuity of one movement. This is the constant cycle of time expressed in the very existence of reality. In the language of the Kabbala, this cycle is called “ratzo vashov, advance and retreat.”2

On Rosh HaShana, there is renewal on a higher level. On Rosh HaShana, time not only returns to its starting point; it completely disappears. Last year’s time ended and no longer exists. Last year’s world has come to an end; existence has returned to the pre-world point. From this point on Rosh HaShana, new time is created — a new year is born.

Last year’s world has come to an end; existence has returned to the pre-world point. From this point on Rosh HaShana, new time is created – a new year is born.

Malkhuyot – The Attribute of Kingship

The world that is created at the beginning of the new year is not a direct continuation and obvious corollary to the world of the year prior. Before the world is recreated on Rosh HaShana, there is a return to nothingness, to the Ein Sof before the world’s creation. From out of nothingness and nonexistence, it is necessary to rebuild the relationship between God and the world that is to be created.

The reforging of this relationship takes place through the renewal of the attribute of divine kingship. Thus, Rosh HaShana is a “remembrance of the first day,” the day on which the world was first created as a result of the attribute of kingship.

Kingship can exist only if the king has subjects; it has no independent existence. By its very nature, kingship depends on the existence of an object and on the possibility of communication and relationship with that object. There is a mutual dependence of king and subjects, a dependence so definitive that “there can be no king without a nation.”3

This mutual dependence exists between God and His world as well. Commenting on the verse in Isaiah, “You are My witnesses … and I am God,” the Midrash writes, “When you are not my witnesses, then I, as it were, am not God.”4 If the people do not accept God’s kingship —if the witnesses do not continue to testify — they thereby nullify the King of world.

On Rosh HaShana, the Jewish People are not bystanders to the recreation; they have an integral role to play. Our task is to establish God’s kingship by being the people who acknowledge the king. The prayers and the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShana are the coronation ceremony in which we proclaim God’s rule and our allegiance to Him.

Our task is to establish God’s kingship by being the people who acknowledge the king. The prayers and the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShana are the coronation ceremony in which we proclaim God’s rule and our allegiance to Him.

It seems that many Jews unconsciously sense this obligation even when they are ordinarily disconnected from their tradition. While they don’t participate in prayers and mitzvot during the course of the year, they do so on Rosh HaShana. Our sages explain that there are things that a person does not see, but which his mazal — the root of his soul — does see. On the eve of Rosh HaShana, the souls subconsciously sense that the world is ending, that its final moments are ebbing at year’s end, and that a new year is being born. Even if people do not perceive this as a full-fledged emotional and conscious experience, they have a dim, unarticulated awareness that they, too, must be present at the proclamation that God is king. They, too, must participate in the birth of the new year.


Notes:

1 Talmud, tractate Rosh HaShana 27a.
2 Based on Ezekiel 1:14. See Hagiga 13b; Sefer Yetzira 1:7; Tanya, ch. 41.
3 Sha’ar HaYihud VeHaEmuna, ch. 7: “It is known to all that the purpose of the creation of the world is for the sake of the revelation of His kingship, may He be blessed, for ‘there is no king without a nation’… Only ‘in a multitude of people is the glory of the king.'”
4 Sifre 346.

This essay appears in Change and Renewal, by Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz.