This essay about Rosh HaShanah explores the concepts of din and rachmim, and the interplay between the two. It will also give the reader a new meaning to the word “honeymoon”.
Rosh HaShanah (literally, “the Head of the Year”) marks the beginning of the New Year, but also has has another role as the beginning of the month of Tishrei. So Rosh HaShanah is both the beginning of a moon-related time (a month) and a sun-related time (a year) and represents the beginning of two cycles.
The Jewish calendar is neither solar nor lunar, but a synthesis of both forms of keeping time. The months of the Jewish calendar are lunar-based because they are tied to the appearance of the New Moon, and the years of the Jewish calendar are comprised of twelve or thirteen such months. The year of the Jewish calendar roughly follows a sun-based system because the movement of the sun determines whether the year will have twelve or thirteen months. The thirteenth month is added tocompensate for the discrepancies between the amount of days in twelve lunar months and the amount of days in one solar year.
The sun represents the idea of ‘he who gives’ because the sun gives off light. By contrast, the moon inherently doesn’t illuminate anything. It is really reflected sunlight which appears to be the light of the moon. So the moon represents the concept of ‘he who receives.’
In an esoteric way, the relationship between the sun and the moon can be looked at as a parable for understanding two seemingly conflicting methods by which God interacts with the world. There are essentially two basic ways in which He manifests His presence in creation: There is din (justice or judgement) and rachamim (mercy). What are these two concepts really all about, and How does God use these two opposing methods to run the world?
We can compare this to the case of two philanthropists: Two people donate tremendous amounts of money. The first man does not care to whom he gives money, he simply gives out an indiscriminate amount of cash to all and sundry. The second philanthropist also gives money—perhaps even the same amount or more—but he requires any recipient to undergo a thorough vetting process. They must submit an application, meet with him, and explain to him their cause. Then, depending on how much he believes in their cause and what he feels is appropriate, he will give them a donation. The amountbased on what he feels the individual coming to him deserves. What is the difference between these two philanthropists?
The difference is in their focus: the first philanthropist focuses on the giver (i.e. himself) because it does not really matter to him who the receiver is and what he wants. He is simply giving away donations whether or not the receiver deserves it. With the second philanthropist, the focus is on the receiver: does he deserve a donation or not?, Exactly how much does he need, etc
With this in mind, we can understand the difference between din and rachamim: Sometimes, He acts with what we call rachamim in which the focus is on the giver (i.e. Himself) and He gives an influx of His good to the world without any questions asked. But when He focuses on the receiver (i.e. us) that is called din and under that rubric, He also gives—but He also examines whether or not the receiver deserves it and how much to give him, etc.
As mentioned above, the sun, as the never-changing celestial body that emanates light, represents a focus on the consistent, reliable giver. Conversely, the moon suggests the focus on the receiver, because the flow of goods can fluctuate depending on what the receiver truly deserves, just like the image of the moon fluctuates throughout the month. These two ideas of din and rachmim meet on Rosh HasShanah. It is the meeting point of the solar year and the lunar month—the marriage of the sun and the moon, the rachamim and the din. It is truly the best of times and the worst of times.
In different places in the Bible, we use different words to denote God. Sometimes He is known by His four-letter ineffable name (referred to as the Tetragrammaton)—what we might colloquially call Hashem, literally “the Name”. And sometimes, we refer to Him as simply Elokim, “God”, or ha-Elokim “the God”. Tradition tells us that when encounter His four-letter name, it alludes to His mode of acting through rachamim, while the word Elokim refers to God as the divine judge who metes out din. (The word Elohim sometimes appears in the Bible as a word that means judge.) When we refer to Him as Elokim, we conjure His role as the ultimate judge of creation.
The contrast between these two characteristics is accentuated in Psalms 47—the chapter of Psalms that we read seven times before blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh HaShanah. That passage discusses the universal recognition of God’s sovereignty and one verse reads, “Elokim ascends with the teruah/ Hashem, with the voice of the shofar”.
There are two types of sounds that the shofar makes on Rosh HaShanah: . A tekiah is one straight, consistent sound, while a teruah is a composite of several broken-up, fragmented sounds. In this way, the tekiah represents the concept of rachamim, because when the focus is on the giver, there is a consistent stream of giving. The teruah is related to the Aramaic word rauah, which means broken (like the expression that appears in the Talmud sulam rauah, a ladder with broken rungs). It represents din because it is not a constant flow, but is separated and fragmented depending on whether the receiver deserves to receive or not. The teruah focuses on the receiver. We especially associate Elokim with the teruah because Elokim represents the din aspect of God’s administration of the world, while tekiah is associated with rachamim, so it is linked to the name Hashem.
When we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, every teruah sound has a tekiah sound before and after. The teruah is always sandwiched by a tekiah. This is because even though Rosh HaShanah has the properties of din and rachamim , we strive to “hide” the din of Rosh HaShanah. We say in Psalms 81, “Blow the shofar on [the first of] the month/on the hidden part of the holiday.” This alludes to the notion that the Rosh Chodesh aspect of Rosh HaShanah is hidden because we are trying to hide the fact that there is a din on Rosh HaShanah; it is the concealed facet of the holiday. . All that is visible from the outside of the shofar ‘sandwich’ is rachamim, not din.
This idea is known in Kabbalah as mesikas ha-din, “sweeting the din”. We are trying to change ourselves for the better by changing the object of focus. If there is a judgement on us, then we are the object of focus because God looks at us and judges whether or not we deserve His good. We do not want to be the object in focus because then we will almost inevitably be in trouble due to our sins. To resolve this, we do not talk about sins on Rosh HaShanah, instead we focus on God and his kingship. When the focus is on the giver, then the rachamim-paradigm is in play and God will give even without our deserving it.
In this way, Rosh HaShanah is essentially the day of din, but is immersed in rachmim and sweetened on the outside.