None of the practices associated today with Rosh Hashanah are biblical. Yet they should be observed for they are very helpful.
The concepts of sin and repentance as a religious experience are not in the Bible; they are post-biblical.
“Sin,” a prime element in Christian theology, is chet in Hebrew, and chet means nothing more than “missing the mark.” The Bible speaks of three categories of wrongs that are not synonyms. There is chet, the misstep. The Bible mentions it 34 times. The second, pesha, occurring 93 times, is a conscious rebellious act such as taking revenge, stealing, and murder. The third avon, cited in 233 instances, is an unintentional act that has harmful consequences.
Understood in this way, it should be clear that misdeeds shouldn’t provoke passive feelings of guilt, recitations, petitioning a pious or holy man or cleric to seek forgiveness for us, and prayers; individuals should ponder what they did wrong, why they did it, take actions that remedy the consequences and assure no repetition by developing new habits. It is like a person shooting an arrow at a target and missing. What does he do? He doesn’t feel “guilt.” He doesn’t seek religious absolution. He doesn’t recite prayers. He realizes his mistake. He shot an arrow but “missed the mark.” He thinks how he can avoid the mistake again, reaches back into his quiver, takes another arrow, and shoots again.
Seen this way, repentance, teshuvah in Hebrew, is a practical endeavor. Repentance doesn’t magically absolve people of wrongs they committed. It’s not abracadabra. Jewish repentance practices remind people to take practical measures to correct their mistakes.
Most people understand repentance and confessions, as they do sacrifices, as pseudo-magical recitations that remove misdeeds, as if words recited during a synagogue service could somehow change the past, erase the slap a husband gave his wife and restore a loving relationship. “I don’t understand why you’re still angry,” the husband wails. “I did teshuvah in the synagogue!” This isn’t the way life works. Maimonides put it this way: teshuvah is when a person decides to abandon his or her past misdeeds, resolves not to do them again, thinks how to correct them, and develops habits to assure they are not repeated.
Biblical law forbids nullification of vows: when a person vows he must keep it. It was only in post-biblical times that rabbis changed the law to allow vow repeals. Four tragic stories showing the inability to annul vows appear in the Bible. Joshua was unable to annul the vow he made to the Gibeonites in Joshua 9:19. Jephthah in Judges 11 led Israelites in a battle and vowed that if he was successful, he would sacrifice whatever met him when he returned home. He probably expected to be greeted by his dog, but his daughter greeted him, and since he could not terminate his vow, he had to sacrifice her. The tale of the tribe of Benjamin in Judges 21 is a third instance; the tribes were unable to nullify their vow not to marry their daughters to men of Benjamin. A fourth example is Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27; even though he wanted to bless his son Esau. Once he uttered the blessing he could not retract it, even though it was a mistaken blessing and he wanted to change it.
What Is The Origin of Repentance?
Neither the term teshuvah nor the concept of repentance as we know it today appear in the Torah. The ancients, Israelites and non-Israelites, believed that what one said, especially vows, as indicated above, or what one did cannot be erased. When an egg is broken, its shards cannot be reassembled. Misdeeds, they thought, are remedied only by punishment.
Scholars suppose that the current idea that people can nullify misdeeds by doing teshuvah developed in three stages. It began around 722 BCE, centuries after King Solomon’s death when his kingdom split in two with Israel in the north and Judea in the south. In that year, the Assyrians conquered Israel and exiled most Israelites from their land. The Judeans who saw the cyclopean catastrophe were convinced that the disaster occurred because of the misdeeds of the northern tribes, especially that many abandoned God and worshiped idols. They knew that they did the same and searched for a way to save themselves, to nullify their wrongs without punishment. It was then that teshuvah began to develop as an idea that repentance can erase prior misdeeds. It was further entrenched after 586 BCE when Judea itself was destroyed by the Babylonians and many Judeans were exiled to Babylon. The final stage began in 70 CE when the second temple was destroyed by Rome, when Jews felt again that their misdeeds caused the destruction and rabbis developed practices which they hoped would rid Jews of wrongs.
So, today, despite the biblical practices, we can, indeed should, examine our behavior, and change it to better ourselves.
The Thirteen Attributes
A central part of many Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur synagogue services is the recital of the thirteen divine attributes mentioned in Exodus 34:6 and 7, which Jews repeat several times daily. The Jewish Publication Society translates these verses describing God’s mercy: “The Lord, the Lord, God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will not clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation.” The list raises many questions, one of which is: since it is not a prayer, why recite the attributes so frequently during the High Holiday season?
The Talmud states that Rabbi Yohanan understood that God wrapped himself in a tallit, a prayer shawl, acted as a leader of the public prayer service, and showed Moses how to conduct the service of saying the attributes. He told Moses, “Any time Israel acts improperly let them say these words before me and I will forgive them.” Rabbi Yehuda emphasized that the recital never fails; they always remove improper behaviors. This Talmudic statement adds problems. Should we believe that God physically appeared to Moses? Does God wear a tallit? Do rabbis expect us to believe that the recital of these words magically eradicates improper behaviors, without fail? This seems to contradict what is stated above that there is no magical way to erase past misdeeds.
A simple explanation is that the Talmudic statements are sermonic metaphoric hyperbole. God certainly doesn’t make special appearances on earth. God is either transcendental or always present, everywhere.
God is not physical and doesn’t dress up to make stage appearances. The rabbis are narrating a parable to teach that we should correct our mistakes and improve our behavior daily; and the New Year is a good time to remind us to do so. We recite the attributes of mercy to prompt us to realize that the world is good and generally rewards good deeds, and the recitals can lead to insights that improve behavior.
Divine Reward and Punishment
Another central idea of the high holidays is belief in divine reward and punishment. Like most notions held today by many Jews, as well as by Christians and Muslims, this idea is a relatively recent accretion into Judaism: thoughts that are not in the Bible but taken from pagan cultures, such as the need to have faith, and concepts that have become central to the synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, such as divine punishment in heaven or hell for good or bad deeds here on earth.
In his excellent very informative book, “The Sages,” volume 3 page 302, Rabbi Dr. Binyamin Lau makes this clear.
According to the Bible, the reward for doing mitzvot is granted in this world: “that you may fare well and live long.” The Mishna likewise states “Whoever performs one mitzva is rewarded, and his days are prolonged, and he inherits the land. The idea of reward and punishment in another world appears as early as the time of Hillel, a hundred years before the destruction of the [second] Temple [in 70 CE]. “If he has acquired words of Torah, he has acquired the World to Come.”
In a footnote, Rabbi Lau adds that Rabbi Abraham Heschel reveals that “the World to Come was developed in the beit midrash (school) of Rabbi Akiva and does not appear in the sources associated with (his colleague) Rabbi Ishmael.”
However we date the origin, what is certain is that the teaching of otherworldly punishment and reward is a late accretion and its source is most likely Greek culture, for the early years of the first millennium was a period when many Romans who taught Greek thought lived in Israel.
God Keeping Books and Weighing Deeds on a Scale
The concept that God records human deeds in books and that God weighs human deeds on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on scales to see whether the good or bad deeds outweigh the other, notions recorded in holiday prayers, is taken from Mesopotamian pagans. Close consideration of this concept reveals that it demeans God. It depicts God anthropomorphically, as a forgetful being who needs to aid memory by recordings in books, and is not smart enough to tell at a glance whether a person is essentially good or bad. However, like most ideas in the prayer book, if this notion should be understood metaphorically, as a sermon that teaches us to take note of our acts and measure our behaviors and resolve to live a proper life.
Whether a Jew prefers to believe that the holiday of Rosh Hashana was ordained by God along with the way we observe it today, or is willing to accept the scholarly view that they were developed by wise Jewish ancestors to set aside time for us to think about our behavior and decide to stop doing things that belittle us, acts that stop us from growing and being all we can be, the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and its practices should be scrupulously observed, for they will benefit us.