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Is there a mitzvah to rejoice on Rosh HaShana?

Elul 5783 | September 2023


Rosh HaShana is a strange day that sometimes seems at odds with itself. We celebrate as we coronate God, Master of the universe and we tremble in fear knowing that we are being judged. We spend hours standing bowed in prayer and supplication, then we go home to sit and feast. It’s a chag (holiday), but it’s not a regel (pilgrimage festival). What mindset should we have on this day? Should we be joyful or reverent?

The problem of Hallel

We don’t say Hallel on Rosh HaShana, even though it meets the halakhic criteria to do so. According to the Talmud we recite Hallel whenever melakha (creative work) is prohibited and there’s a mussaf offering that differs from the previous day.[1] Rosh HaShana has both.[2]

So why don’t we say Hallel? Rabbi Abahu teaches that the ministering angels asked the same question. God answered, “Is it possible that a King sits on the throne of judgment with the books of life and books of death laid open, and Israel should sing praises before Me?!”[3] Rabbi Abahu does not tell us who decided we shouldn’t say Hallel on Rosh HaShana, but his story makes it clear that this decision came from the people and God agreed.

Eat and drink and rejoice… in moderation?

Even though it’s a Day of Judgement and the praise of Hallel is deemed inappropriate, Shulkhan Arukh rules that fasting on Rosh HaShana is prohibited; we “eat and drink and are rejoice… but they should not eat until they are full so they do not become lightheaded, and their faces should portray reverence of God.”[4] Mishna Berura explains that even though it’s Yom haDin, the Day of Judgement, the psalm refers to Rosh HaShana as a chag – a festival – and the Torah tells us “v’samakhta b’chagekha,” rejoice in your festival.[5]

Similarly, the book of Nekhemia tells us of a Rosh HaShana in the early days of the Second Temple when the fledgling community gathered to hear the Torah – and were moved to tears. Ezra, Nekhemia, and the Levites tell the people, “Go and eat delicacies and drink sweets and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is holy to our Lord. And do not be sad, for rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength.”[6]

Arukh HaShulkhan also brings a beautiful aggadta from the Jerusalem Talmud:[7]

“The way of the world is that a man who knows that he will be judged wears black and wraps himself in black and grows out his beard, because he does not know how the judgment will turn out. But Israel is not like this. Rather, we wear white and wrap ourselves in white and shave beards and eat and drink and rejoice knowing the Holy One, blessed be He, makes miracles for them.”

Missing simcha

Of the three pilgrimage festivals the Torah explicitly commands us to rejoice (simcha) on Sukkot and Shavuot, not on Pesach.[8] Nevertheless, the Talmudic sages didn’t question whether there’s a Torah mitzvah to rejoice on Pesach, they simply agree that all three pilgrimage festivals have a mitzvah of simcha.[9]

The verses indicate that the mitzvah of simcha is closely tied to the pilgrimage aspect of these festivals – “You shall rejoice before the Lord your God… at the place where God will choose to establish His name.” The Talmudic sources often connect this simcha with the sacrificial offerings, particularly the chagigah peace-offering, which was split between the altar of God, the Priests, and those who brought it. This mandatory offering provided the pilgrims with meat, which is critical to properly observe the mitzvah of simcha as we learn: “When the Temple exists there is no joy without meat, as it says ‘You shall slaughter peace offerings and eat them there and rejoice before the Lord your God.’”[10]

The Pesikta d’Rav Kahana questions why simcha is or is not mentioned regarding different holidays.[11] Beginning with Pesach, it explains that there is no commandment to rejoice on Pesach because it’s the time people’s produce is judged, and as it is right before the harvest season people are worried about their livelihood.[12] Additionally, our salvation on Pesach involved the death of the Egyptians, and Shmuel taught we only say [full] Hallel on the first day of Pesach because the book of Mishlei teaches us, “Do not rejoice in the fall of your enemy.”

The idea of concern over livelihood and judgment is also the reason simcha is only mentioned once in connection to Shavuot, which happens early in the harvest, but twice with Sukkot – after the pressure of the harvest and trepidation of the High Holidays has passed a person can finally fully rejoice knowing God has given them everything they need. The midrash continues and explains that simcha on Rosh HaShana is not mentioned because our very lives are being judged, and we are more concerned with our lives than our livelihood.

Walking the line

It seems there are some fundamental differences between the simcha of Rosh HaShana mentioned by post Talmudic sages above, and the simcha of the pilgrimage festivals. The Talmud repeatedly mentions there is a Torah mitzvah to rejoice on the pilgrimage festivals and often relates it to the chagiga offering and the closeness to God, both of which are missing from Rosh HaShana.

Perhaps God does not command us to rejoice on Rosh HaShana because the joy is inherently different, we celebrate because we have crowned God as our Sovereign and we have faith in God’s judgment. This type of simcha has to come from us, just as the decision not to say Hallel on Rosh HaShana had to come from us.

We started to note the tension between the different aspects of Rosh HaShana, the awe, reverence, and trepidation on one hand, the simcha and celebration on the other. It seems this tension isn’t reconciled because it’s inherent to the day. We crown God as sovereign – so we rejoice. But since coronation day is also judgment day we stand solemn and reverent before our sovereign. As Rav Soloveitchik explains, “The spirit fears God because it is impossible to exist in His presence. It loves God and runs after Him because it is impossible to exist without Him, outside of Him…”[13]

These aspects are also reflected in our High Holiday prayers. The added mussaf prayers begin with a focus on awe and fear: “So, give Your fear, the Lord our God, on all Your works, and Your dread on everything You created. And all works will revere You, and all creatures will bow before You…” But in the end we pray, “I will bring them to the mountain of My sanctuary, and I will gladden (simachtim) in My House of Prayer…” We should be humble, solemn, and reverent standing in judgment before the transcendent Sovereign of the Universe, but when our Ruler is also our Father – “Avinu, Malkeinu,” “Our Father, our King” – there’s reason to celebrate as well.

[1] TB Erkhin 10b

[2] So does Yom Kippur. Rabbi Abahu’s answer refers to both.

[3] ibid

[4] OC 597:1

[5] Mishna Berura and Arukh HaShulkhan 597:1. Tehillim 81:4.

[6] Nekhemia 8:1-12. Translation based on Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Metzudat David there.

[7] TY Rosh HaShana Chapter 1, 57b

[8] Devarim 16:11, 14, 15.

[9] TY Sukka 4:5; TY Chagiga 1:4; TB Chagiga 8a and 8b; TB Moed Katan 14b; TB Pesachim 109a.

[10] TB Pesachim 109a

[11] Pesikhta Akharita Sukkot

[12] Mishna Rosh HaShana 1:2 teaches that “The world is judged four times a year – on Pesach for produce…”

[13] Rav JB Soloveitchik “And From There You Shall Seek” pg. 68 (the entire book discusses this tension and dynamic). See also Rambam Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 4:12

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.