October 27, 2020 |

The Moment of Creation

Beginnings can be tricky. How do you really know what came first? Was it the chicken or the egg? If you go back enough generations, will you find the original chicken? Or the original egg? How do you know when something really began? When does a zygote become a baby, or when is a human being "made"? Who was the first person to really discover gravity, or calculus? When did Zionism, or the Enlightenment, begin? Historians and philosophers of ideas like to look for those first glimmerings, but also for the flowerings, those moments when an idea or event that has been incubating for eons finally bursts forth. Lots of little technological and conceptual steps had to be taken before the pieces of a personal computer could be assembled, but once all the tumblers clicked into place, the world was never the same. As they say in the movie "Inception", where does an idea REALLY come from?

The problems of beginnings plague Judaism as well. A particularly striking example confronts us with the holiday of Rosh Hashana, often described as the Jewish New Year. It is a funny time for a new year, since we are about to go into fall, when everything dies[1]. Moreover, it is odd that we don't call it a "new year", but rather the "head" ("rosh") of the year. The word "reishit" (first) or "techila" (beginning) or even chadasha (new) would have been more apt. Also, the mishna identifies FOUR "heads" of the year, depending on what area of life you are referring to. Finally, though we count the years of the world (this year will be 5771) from Rosh Hashana, the month in which it falls (Tishrei) is known as the SEVENTH month, which hardly sounds "new."

However, we know that the world was created on Rosh Hashana and therefore, it makes perfect sense to commemorate the creation at this time by celebrating Rosh Hashana, right? Wrong. Or, well, maybe not.

First of all, Rabbinic tradition (in the midrash) pinpoints the day of creation as exactly six days BEFORE Rosh Hashana! The world was actually created on the 25th day of the Elul (the previous month). What, then, was created on Rosh Hashana? Human beings. Adam and Eve. This actually makes a lot of sense for a few reasons. First of all, human beings are the cornerstone of creation and the proxies for God as caretakers of the world. The world was not finished until its most important inhabitant was placed within it. Second, it changes the emphasis of Rosh Hashana from creation to kingship (human beings accepting God as their king) and from celebration to judgment (for Adam and Eve sinned and were judged on the very day they were created.) Hence, Rosh Hashana is a commemoration of human beings being created and a reenactment of the original Day of Judgment in which Adam and Eve were banished. We hope and pray that our verdict comes out better.

Second, complicating this discussion is a Rabbinic argument over a seemingly important fact, one we might have thought was already settled. On what day was the world created? Above, we said that it was the 25th of Ellul. However, that is only one opinion, that of Rabbi Eliezer, who says it was created in the month of Tishrei[2]. But according to Rabbi Yehoshua, it was created in Nissan, or right around Pesach time. It seems a little hard to believe that we Jews cannot even agree on what season the world was created, but that's how it is.

Now, we could just say that Rabbi Yehoshua's inconvenient opinion that the world was created in Nisan is wrong and that we voted it off the island. Certainly, we celebrate Rosh Hashana, which seems to indicate that we think the world was created now. Also, in the liturgy, we say after every shofar blowing "today is the birthday of the world" ("hayom harat olam") and, in the section of Rememberances (Zichronot), we say "this is the day of the beginning of Your actions, a memorial of the first day."

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. There is a fair amount of evidence (too technical to go into[3]) that seems to indicate that we actually pasken (that is, decide the law) according to Rabbi Yehoshua, i.e. that the conclusion of the Talmud and the later authorities is that the world was created in the spring, not the fall! Even the authoritative early 20th century Halachic work, the Mishna Berura (Orach Chaim 592:5), suggests that perhaps the world was created in the spring[4].

Where does this leave us? Should we start celebrating Rosh Hashana in the spring? Should we change the prayers? Should we do a massive recall of Rosh Hashana greeting cards? Perhaps not.

When this matter was brought up by the Talmud (you see, it's not a "new" problem) in Rosh Hashana 27a, Rabbeinu Tam[5] advanced an innovative and interesting solution:

"...these and these are the words of the living God[6]. One could say that in Tishrei, God decided to create [the world], but did not [actually] create it until Nisan..."

Most surprising about this is that he embraces the idea that the world was NOT created in the fall. However, the IDEA of the world was created at this time. Unlike human endeavor, in which thinking you will do something may not lead to action (i.e. new year's resolutions, some wedding vows et. al.), God's decision to create the world was certain[7]. There was no doubt that the world would be created, just that it needed to have a period of 'becoming' before it became. This is sometimes described as a kind of gestation, or pregnancy. In fact, "this is the "birthday" of the world" can be translated as "this is the "pregnancy[8]" of the world."

This is an intriguing way to approach Rosh Hashana. Perhaps we are not standing before God to "change our ways" today or even to turn over a completely new leaf and emerge as a new and better creation. Instead, Rosh Hashana is the time for a mental re-creation of ourselves, a new concept that has to gestate first before it can be born. Perhaps we need to make changes that will grow in utero for some time before they break forth.

Rosh Hashana seems to be a time of decision, of thoughtful consideration about the future. It is a time, as Steven Covey says, to "begin with the end in mind", to plot out the next steps in our lives. From the head of the year, we should use our heads. As God did when creating the world, we should first create the mental image of what we want to do this year and who we want to be. We need to ENVISION what changes we want to make even before we have a prayer of enacting all those changes.

It can be overwhelming to try to change in one day. Every person who has seriously tried to deepen their Judaism knows this. Whether you grew up in a traditional home and are taking it to the next level or grew up with no Judaism at all and are tasting its sweetness for the first time, it can be a daunting task to adopt a new lifestyle with Judaism as a focus. How can you become an observant person all at once? You can't. How can you become a person who embraces a new philosophy of modesty, respect and spirituality overnight? You can't. How can you become a better child, better sibling, better spouse, better person in a day? You can't! Rosh Hashana as a day where everything changes is too ambitious, too unrealistic.

What we must do is mark out a 'road map', a triptych that charts our course and plans for the future. If we take measured steps and plan out plateaus, if we make steady progress and conserve our stamina, we will succeed. What we planned for in Elul will come to fruition in Nisan. Who we wanted to be at Rosh Hashana will be who we are on Pesach.

One of my teachers, Rabbi Pinchas Heyman, himself a ba'al teshuva, once described to me, how he came to keep kosher. He started by eating no non-kosher food between the hours of 11:00 am-12:00pm and 2:00-3:00 pm. After 2 weeks, he added in 10:00-11:00 am and 3:00-4:00pm. Then, he added 9:00-10:00 pm and 6:00-7:00 am. Every two weeks, he added in an hour or two when he didn't normally eat at all. Soon, he started to eliminate his snack times and to eat only kosher snacks. Finally, after a few months, he started to encroach on his meal times until he, after a few months, went on a 24-hour schedule. He began with the idea that he would keep kosher, but his plan of action was incremental.

Let me add one caveat. Not everyone knows who they want to be or where they want to go, certainly not over the long haul. This is fine! You don't need a road map for the next five Rosh Hashanas or even from this one until the next one. This idea says to plan out 6-7 months - from Rosh Hashana to Pesach. When you get to Pesach, you can evaluate where you are again and set up a plan from Pesach to Rosh Hashana.[9]

Just as Hashem planned out a beautiful year, putting the seed into the world in the fall that would blossom forth in the spring, may the fruit of our good intentions this Rosh Hashana be realized as the year goes on. She'techadeish aleynu shana tova umetuka, may we be renewed for a good and sweet year.


[1] Perhaps it is the end of the old year, i.e. the gathering in of the crop that makes this part of the year "new."

[2] It requires further study why he does not say "in Elul" (i.e. the 25th) or on Rosh Hashana, but specifies the month.

[3] One example is the once-every-28-years Blessing on the Sun, which is done in Nisan and presumes that the sun was created then. There are also those who believe that, as mentioned above with respect to Elul, the world was created on the 25th of Adar, six days before 1 Nissan, on which human beings were created. This raises an issue with the date of the creation of the sun as well.

[4] He doesn't actually take a stand, though he quotes the spring second. Many authorities, however, do hold that the world was created in the spring.

[5] He was an eminent Tosafist (commentator on the Talmud, 12th century) and Rashi's grandson.

[6] He is actually referring to the words of the medieval poet R. Eliezer ha-Kallir, who wrote a poem for Rosh Hashana claiming IT was the anniversary of creation and another one for Pesach, claiming that IT was.

[7] See Torah Temima, Genesis 1, note 44.

[8] Or "conception."

[9] This has its own dynamic, to be discussed in the spring J


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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