What are we doing on Rosh HaShanah? What is this holiday about?
These are always good questions to ask about holidays, rituals, or, really, anything we do, but especially for a day like Rosh HaShanah, only minimally described in the Torah, and in such an opaque fashion, yet somehow, a day with remarkable pull on the Jewish people. So many Jews who rarely join communal prayer fill places of worship on Rosh HaShanah. Why? And what are we doing, what should be our theatrical staging mood for this day described in the Torah simply as Yom Teru‘ah, the day of the blast, or wail, presumably of the shofar.
I would like to try to understand the essence of this day by way of one of Judaism’s oldest, most resilient, most beloved and most reviled prayers: U’Netanah Tokef, the early-Musaf journey into fear and trembling, human powerlessness, and the most desperate plea for Divine mercy. This is the poem in which we affirm the sober weight of the day with the conceit that “On Rosh HaShanah they are inscribed and on Yom Kippur they are sealed: who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water, etc.” Especially striking is the poet’s literary framing of this dynamic around a metaphor that casts humans as sheep:
“All that move through the world, You pass before You like sheep.”
Kol ba-ey ‘olam ta’avir lefanekha kivnei maron.
כל באי עולם תעביר לפניך כבני מרון.
“As a shepherd moves his flock, passing his sheep beneath his staff, so do You pass, record, count, and attend to every living soul, assigning each creature’s lifespan and writing their decrees.”
Kevakarat ro‘eh ‘edro, ma‘avir tzono tachat shivto…
כבקרת רועה עדרו, מעביר צאנו תחת שבטו…
What is the function of this sheep metaphor? How does a shepherd pass sheep beneath the staff and what does that teach us about the way in which our lives our evaluated? Is the point simply – simply! – that just as sheep are selected for slaughter, tithing, mating, or continued life based on factors beyond their control and with no regard to their righteousness or wickedness, so, too, our lives our assessed without regard to our merits or faults? Even if this surprising and troubling idea is the point, why are sheep the most direct way to express it? And why does the poet use different terms for sheep in the two lines? Would we even know that “kivnei maron” in the first line means “sheep” if not for the poetic explanatory following line, using the familiar Biblical term “tzon”, and its accompanying terms ro‘eh and ‘edro (shepherd and flock)?
It is likely that this sheep line, strange though it be, is actually the poetic hook of the piece, the origin line that prompted the rest of the composition. Though Unetaneh Tokef is very old and likely dates from even before the Muslim conquest, probably during the Amoraic period (3rd-6th centuries) in the land of Israel, this key line is even earlier, from the canonical bedrocks of Rabbinic Judaism in the Land of Israel, the Mishnah and Tosefta (c. 200 C.E.) The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:2) introduces the association of judgment and Rosh HaShanah, noting that the world receives divine judgment at different seasons for different dimensions:
“At four times the world is judged:
-On Pesach, for the crops;
-On Shavuot, for the fruits of the tree;
-On Rosh Hashanah, all that move through the world pass before [God] KIVNUMERON/KIVNEI MARON as it says, “The One who forms their hearts together, Who understands all their doings” (Psalms 33:15).
-And on The Festival, they are judged for the water.”
Here’s the Hebrew for the line about Rosh HaShanah: כָל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם עוֹבְרִים לְפָנָיו כִּבְנוֹמְרוֹן
Different printed editions and manuscripts of the Mishnah show slight variations as to whether this bolded word appears as one word (as shown here) or two words (as represented in Unetaneh Tokef), and whether the fourth letter is a vav (ו) or a yod (י), which are distinguishable only by a couple of centimeters of extra ink, elongating the foot. The significance of this difference can be grasped upon reading the parallel to this text, in the Tosefta (RH 1:11):
“On Rosh HaShana, all that move through the world pass before [God] NUMERON, as is said: ‘The One who forms the hearts of them all…’ (Psalms 33:15). And it says: ‘Blast at the new month the shofar…’ (Psalms 81:4), and it says, ‘For it is a law for Israel; an ordinance of the God of Ya‘akov’ (ibid., 5).”
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה כָל בָּאֵי עוֹלָם עוֹבְרִין לְפָנָיו נומרון
Our key word here appears without prefixes, just NUMERON (נומרון), easily identifiable as a Latin word, meaning “military battalion”. The idea, then, is that Rosh HaShana is Coronation Day, when we all turn out, get decked out, sound the glorious Shofar, and God reviews us all, together, as one, having created our diverse hearts and minds together, which we celebrate all together, with pomp and solemnity. The Tosefta underlines this point by referring to Psalm 81, the exhortation to sound the shofar, that instrument known throughout the Bible to herald military triumphs and urgent, serious occasions of divine encounter, such as Revelation at Sinai. Sound the trumpets; the Lord is arriving! Stand at attention, everyone!
What happens to theology when you don’t know Latin? It stands to reason that Latin words crept into the Mishnah and Tosefta, composed in the Land of Israel around 200, under the Roman Empire. But pretty quickly, lots of Sages didn’t know Latin, especially in Babylonia, so this simple word — כבנומרון – becomes inscrutable. Maybe that’s not a vav, but just a kind of long yud — כבנימרון — and maybe it’s two words, כבני מרון? We definitely know that כבני/kivnei means “like children of”, or, idiomatically, “like ones who are”. But what’s MARON?
The Babylonian Talmud (RH18a) asks that very question, and we see that all bets were off as to the meaning of this word. Several definitions are listed:
*Rav Yehudah quotes Sh’muel, who maybe knew some Latin, or recalled interpretive traditions about this Mishnah, as saying that it is a military battalion, “like the troops of the House of David.”
*Resh Lakish says that it’s like the ascent to the House of Maron, a steep, narrow pass that can be traversed only one at a time (following Rashi’s comment).
*The anonymous Babylonian editor says that “Here, we translate it as “B’nai Imarna.” That likely means “rebels”, from the Hebrew word, meri, and that’s how Marcus Jastrow translates it in his dictionary. But maybe it’s really the Syriac word Eimruna, meaning “sheep”. That’s definitely how the author of Unetaneh Tokef understood it, and, possibly already influenced by Unetaneh Tokef, that’s how Rashi and Rabbenu Chananel (11th c. France and Algeria, respectively) understood it.
We can say with strong confidence that the historically accurate meaning of the mishna is military battalion, meaning that for the Mishna, the theater of Rosh HaShana is: An impressive, serious, celebration of the great order and majesty of God’s world, and that we’re all a unified body. If we begin to feel alienated, selfish, or inadequate, we are jolted into remembering that God sees all of us simultaneously, as one.  We are all in this together. Sound the shofar, stand at attention, and celebrate the safety, security, and awesomeness of a world with billions of little parts that all work together.
So what do we do with these other interpretations? Are they just wrong? Of course not. The vacuum created from not knowing a Latin word is filled with raw materials from our true, human experiences.
In some respect, at some times, we experience a feeling of Judgment Day for our rebellion, for our bad behavior, retaining the sense of cosmic order as morality determines outcomes, and retaining our agency and perhaps even nobility in walking our own path, with the sense of “Nailed me!” Maybe there’s release, and the sound of the shofar is a siren, or perhaps, our wailing cries as we unburden ourselves from the weight of bad choices.
Or maybe, we know how to get there, and we know that we’re all on the same path, and that there may be hands behind me and a hand above me to pull up, but that ultimately, each of us must traverse life’s path one our own, strenuously, treacherously. That shofar keeps us on pace, reminds us where we’re headed.
And sometimes, we may feel like sheep: that whether we live or die has nothing to do with our choices, that we are wandering through an anonymous existence without agency. How would Judgment Day feel if a loved one in a broken down car asking for help had been killed by a police officer sworn to help? Or if our home burned down in a random electrical fire? Or if we were refugees in a war? Or if a loved one waiting at a red light was hit by a driver texting? Or if we were caught in the throes of depression? That fabulous military review might look like farce, and we might need to express our feeling like sheep, hearing the desperate and varied cries of the shofar.
These true experiences may not be what the author of our Mishna was thinking about, but they reflect equally true alternative, theoretical mishnas.
Prayer is theater, urgently serious theater. We need to cultivate the emotional versatility and the empathy to hold these different stage directions simultaneously, working out a full range of human needs. If I’m feeling up for the coronation day celebration, and am immediately nonplussed by Unetaneh Tokef, I will likely be more drawn to other Rosh HaShana poems (such as “Vekhol Maaminim” or “VeYe’etayu“). If that is my situation, I should not dismiss U’Netaneh Tokef, but embrace it as something authentic for someone in that room who feels stripped of their agency and needs me to bear witness. And who knows? My house might be burning down right now and tomorrow I might be the one who comes to shul feeling judged as a sheep.
All of us sometimes feel helpless, radically alone, and subject to forces beyond our control. All of us sometimes feel accountable. All of us sometimes feel out of breath, climbing the narrow, treacherous ascent on our own. And, hopefully, all of us sometimes feel the amazement that our universe holds together, in order, and that all of us together can give dignified appreciation for that fact. This Rosh HaShana, as we hear the shofar blasts, let’s open ourselves to the fullness of these experiences, and hear the triumph, the regret, the fear, the loss, and the alarm.
Shanah tovah.
With thanks to Rav David Bigman, Avital Morris, and the students of the Hyde Park Teen Beit Midrash.