The Torah Reading for Rosh Ha-Shanah

By Magarik, Larry | Jewish Bible Quarterly, April-June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Torah Reading for Rosh Ha-Shanah


Magarik, Larry, Jewish Bible Quarterly


Why is the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Ha-Shanah Genesis 21, The Lord took note of Sarah? On the first day of Rosh Ha-Shanah, millions of Jews gather in synagogue, and hear the story of how God fulfilled a promise that Sarah would have a child (Isaac), how Sarah persuaded Abraham to exclude Hagar and her son (Ishmael), and how Abraham negotiated with Abimelech over water rights. On the second day of Rosh Ha-Shanah we hear Genesis 22, the following chapter, in which God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice Isaac, whom He then spares.

PUZZLE

Why was Genesis 21, The Lord took note of Sarah chosen as the reading for the first day of Rosh Ha-Shanah? One standard answer is that Rosh Ha-Shanah celebrates the creation of the world, so we read of the creation of the Jewish people. (1) If this was the reason for the selection, a more appropriate Torah reading would be the Creation story in Genesis chapter 1 or 2, or the story of the renewal of the world after the Flood in Genesis chapter 8 or 9.

A midrashic answer (2) is that Sarah conceived Isaac on Rosh Ha-Shanah, but there is no evidence that this Midrash antedated the choice of the Torah reading.

A related explanation is that Rosh Ha-Shanah is about birth. (3) If this was the reason for the selection, there are any number of births to read about in Genesis or elsewhere in the Torah.

Some hold that Rosh Ha-Shanah is about beginnings. If this was the reason for the selection, we could read Genesis 12, The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.'

A traditional answer is that pakad (took note, Gen. 21:1) means "remember," and the Musaf Amidah for Rosh Ha-Shanah contains zikhronot, a series of verses which are "memories." (4) However, the allusion is tenuous. The words pakad and zakhar are perhaps synonyms, but they are not the same. (5) Furthermore, the term va-yizkor is actually used to describe Rachel as being able to conceive (Gen. 30:22), making it a more appropriate reading if this was in fact the reason. It is also not clear whether the liturgy or the Torah reading came first, or why the Torah reading would be dictated by liturgy.

Another possibility is that the real reading for Rosh Ha-Shanah was the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, in Genesis 22. This is currently the prescribed reading for the second day, and its inclusion of a ram caught in the thicket might allude to the shofar, the sounding of which is a central feature of Rosh Ha-Shanah. The preceding chapter, Genesis 21, was perhaps added only as a preface. (6) However, this explanation cannot be accepted.

Rosh Ha-Shanah originally had one day, not two. If the binding of Isaac and the sacrificial ram were the connection, Genesis 22 would have been selected for the first day of Rosh Ha-Shanah, not the second day.

In short, none of these answers is persuasive. Usually, the choice of a Torah reading is fairly clear, but here we are left with a puzzle.

CLUES

According to Leviticus 23:23-25, the first day of the seventh month is a rest day, commemorated by the sounding of blasts. Biblically, the first day of the seventh month is certainly not the "New Year," nor is it a major festival. The Biblical "New Year" was the first day of the spring month later called Nisan, as stated in Exodus 12:2: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

By the era of the Mishnah (around 200 C.E.), the first day of the seventh month was described as Rosh Ha-Shanah, and a tractate of the Mishnah begins by explaining how this day is considered the most important "New Year." (7) Eventually, Rosh Ha-Shanah was considered to be the day of either the creation of the world or the creation of humanity, a day of judgment, the onset of a period of repentance, the coronation of God as King, and the beginning of the Yamim Nora'im ("Days of Awe" or "High Holidays"). …

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