By: Yossi Prager
Rosh Hashana is considered a Day of Awe, the result of it being a day of divine judgment. However, a little-known biblical story mandates that it is also a joyous day, for reasons that remain relevant today.
The story begins some 2,500 years ago, on Rosh Hashana in 444 BCE, 70 years after the Second Temple had been completed (see Chapter 8 of the Book of Nechemia). A tall wooden platform was constructed on the Temple Mount, on which the great Jewish leader Ezra read the Torah from early in the morning until mid-day of Rosh Hashana.
This was no simple Torah reading. During the reading, teachers translated it into the vernacular (then Aramaic) for those who didn’t know Hebrew and, according to the Talmud (Tractate Nedarim 37), taught the participants the skills needed to read the Torah on their own. Most radically, according to the Talmud Ezra replaced the actual script in which the Torah was written. In the First Temple period, the Jews used an earlier form of Hebrew script, which you can see on ancient coins and inscriptions from that period. The Jews returned from exile reading a different script for Hebrew and Aramaic. Ezra decreed that henceforth the new Hebrew script would be used for writing the Torah – and you can find the “new” script in every Torah scroll in every synagogue today.
In 444 BCE, Rosh Hashana was the day in which the Torah shifted from being a curriculum for the elite to a text for every Jew. A friend once characterized this change less as the democratization of Torah than as the aristocracization of the masses. Universal Jewish literacy was born – or reborn, as the Talmud tells of earlier periods in which Jewish knowledge was widespread – and every Jew could now become a scholar. That same month, the festival of Sukkot was celebrated, again not just with the mandated Temple sacrifices but with Torah reading.
The Jews’ reaction on that Rosh Hashanah in Ezra’s time is a bit surprising: they cried and mourned. Perhaps they became aware for the first time of the gap between their behaviors and the values of the Torah. The response of the Jewish leaders was immediate. Chapter 8 of Nechemia, verses 10-12, says (Hebrew here):
Go eat rich foods and drink sweet beverages, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, for today is sacred to our God. Do not be sad; the enjoyment of God is your strength…. So all of the people went to…engage in great rejoicing, for they understood what they had been taught.
Rosh Hashana is a day for celebrating the ability of each Jew to use Torah – which now includes rabbinic texts and contemporary works – as a unique and personal portal to God. The unfortunate reality is that too many of our Jewish friends and neighbors have lost the skills Ezra taught us 2,500 years ago. This Rosh Hashana I rededicate myself to personally accessing this portal and enabling more Jews to gain the education necessary for universal Jewish literacy.
Executive Director – North America