Home » David Werdiger, Religion and Jewish Thought

Maintaining the Rosh Hashana Intensity

September 16, 2009 – 8:09 pm17 Comments

applesBy David Werdiger

Despite the daily reminders during the month of Elul, Rosh Hashana has a way of creeping up on us, and before we know it, the festival is upon us. The shul service is a lot longer than usual, with lots of extra liturgy, so maintaining intensity throughout is a huge challenge for some. I don’t know how people cope with this. I often find myself going through the motions, and only being particularly inspired by a small number of segments of the service.

In order to tell you about one of them, I have to digress briefly with a Talmudic story. In a section discussing the events surrounding the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud (Gittin 56a) relates as follows:

Shortly before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai smuggled himself out of the besieged city of Jerusalem and gained an audience with Vespasian. Rabbi Yochanan entered and said: “peace be upon you, King”, to which Vespasian responded: “you deserve to be killed on two counts! Firstly, I am not a king, and secondly, if I am a king, why didn’t you come sooner?”

Rabbi Yochanan took leave to answer the second question first, and explained the political environment in Jerusalem, and therefore why he was unable to visit sooner. As he finished speaking, a messenger came in to report that the Nero had died, and that Vespasian was now indeed the new Emperor. This answered Vespasian’s first challenge. Vespasian was suitably impressed, and agreed to grant Rabbi Yochanan and the scholars the city of Yavneh, thus facilitating the continuity of Torah study (see a more detailed account here).

During the period from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, some parts of prayer that are recited regularly through the rest of the year, gain a deeper or more solemn meaning.  One of my favourites is the declaration of ‘HaMelech’ early in the service. Usually, on every Shabbat and Holydays, the liturgy reads “the King who sits on His lofty and sublime throne”. For Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we delete one letter, and change the meaning  to: “the King sits …” in the present tense, reminding us that God is metaphorically sitting in judgement right now.

My machzor has a little note before this section. It relates the story of the Chassidic Rebbe, Reb Aharon of Karlin, who once, when reciting these words on Rosh Hashana, fell into a faint. After the service, they asked him after what happened, and he told them that as he was about to say these words, he contemplated the aforementioned story in the Talmud, where Rabbi Yochanan is challenged by Vespasian: “If I am a King, why did you take so long to visit?”

Applying this to the relationship between himself and God, the King of Kings, he said to his chassidim: “I can understand how Rabbi Yochanan could answer Vespasian’s question, but when we call God our King, can we answer the same question?” This part of the service is an intensely humbling moment, and never fails to send shivers down my spine.

Wishing everyone a Ketivah v’Chatima Tova – may you be written and sealed for a good year!

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  • That’s very nice: thanks for that! I was reading about the Hevra Kadisha only the other day, in order to find information about Reb Zusye and his brother, the “Noam Elimelech”. Never read of Reb Aharon’s teachings before, but this is an interesting one.

    I’m going to be really boring and say that my favourite part of the liturgy is ונתנה תוקף (U’Netaneh Toqef). I just love the raw power that it possesses: it never fails to get me worked up!

    Wishing you a Shana Tova…

  • Ahhh, Reb Zushe! One of my favourites.

  • Chaim says:

    I also get lost in the time and many many words… Sometimes just sit and read the english..

    The Reb Aaron of Karlin was sort of at the extreme of ChaGaS chassidim – very emotional. Something that is lacking sometimes in our often too rational and intellectual emphasis and approach. Sometime “the simplicity” is most moving and powerful if you can stop and appreciate it.

    Me – I love the Tishrei niggunim….. end up singing them all year.

    One thing taught: Why are we having festive meals one the day of judgement. Why not fast and sit in sack clothes.. Because of last weeks Parsha we learn “we are standing here today” – today Rosh Hashana. Still standing because of the knowledge and faith that Hashem will always wind up judging us for the good. That is why we have the festive meals- we are confident on our vindication and “absolution”.

    K’siva V’Chasima Tova!

  • frosh says:


    I must admit that is often been of curiousity to me that Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippur are not in reverse order.

  • frosh,

    Only after accepting God as our King (RH) can we feel truly obliged to repent (YK).

    There is certainly a bit of a paradox in RH being both a solemn day of judgement and a festive day. Some have a custom not to drink liquor or smoke on RH as these activities are not consistent with the mood of the day.

    I reckon the best fast day of the year is Tzom Gedalia, which immediately follows four huge Rosh Hashana meals.

  • Really, Chaim? I don’t know if I’d describe him at the extreme end…

    If you think about his circle (Zusye, Elimelech, Levi Yitzchak – even the Maggid himself), how many of them would you not describe as ChaGaT? The only one in their midst who intellectualised Hassidism as a system was the brilliant Schneur Zalman, and it is only in the context of his philosophy that such a thing as ChaGaT even exists at all. I don’t think that the Karliner Rebbe was extreme in his emotional piety. On the contrary, I think Schneur Zalman was extreme in his logical rationalism! Very surprising for a Hassidic Rebbe at the time, but what’s unsurprising is that he should have built such a large and educated following as a result of it!

  • Chaim says:

    You are right -extreme may not be the right word. And I apologize, I was actually thinking of Reb Avraham of Kalisk anyway.

    Reb Shlomo of Karlin was the chief critic (lived in close proximity) of Schneur Zalman for his “new” intellectual approach as opposed to Reb Nachum of Chernobyl, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Reb Zusia of Anipolia, his brother Reb Elimelech [of Lizhensk] who were more “supportive”. But technically if you divide the Chassidim – Shneur Zalman was on his own.

    Most of the Torahs of the Rebbes of Karlin /Stolin (Main text: Beis Aharon) revolve around three nekudos: 1) simcha 2) not to desire levels of ruchnius which are higher than where one is holding ) 3) not to fool oneself.

    Your last line… Do you really have a chip on your shoulder or am I misinterpreting it? I do agree Lubavitch is not but there is no excuse for the chassidim.

  • Chaim says:

    I put this on the wrong article: [Editor’s note: That’s ok, thanks for letting us know. We have removed this part of your comment from the other article. Shanah Tovah.]

    P.S. I know you are not a R. Ginzburg fan.. but a nice talk given by him on the topic (note I am talking about R. Shlomo of Karlin here):


    Also my last sentence got cut off: I do agree Lubavitch is not what / where it was 100- 200 years ago it and there is no excuse for this for the chassidim.

  • Simon,

    Interesting that the Mezricher Magid directed the Alter Rebbe to write a Shulchan Aruch, pushing him in a direction away from the Chassidic leaders of the time, and perhaps in this way planting the seeds for the intellectualisation of Chassidism that resulted in Chabad.

    Oh BTW, this Karliner story comes from the Chabad machzor (which was compiled by the Alter Rebbe).

  • Chaim, you misinterpreted my last line. I was indicating the fact that Schneur Zalman did develop a highly educated following. Chabad has an incredible intellectual pedigree: Schneur Zalman, the Tzemach Tzedek, the Rebbe Rashab – to whom we really owe Chabad Hassidut in the first place, and the current Rebbe. All (from what we are given to believe) dynamic leaders, and all great scholars. What is more, Chabad Hassidim had an amazing reputation as scholars of both halakha and Hassidut, right into the twentieth century.

    If Chabad’s reputation has dropped away or turned around in the last 50 years, that’s only because too many people are complacent. Feeling that their pedigree is such that the movement has already earned its reputation, people are getting lazy. I don’t know precisely when the emphasis shifted from serious discourse to farbrenging and putting tefillin on people in the street, but I think it’s having a detrimental effect.

    Of course, this only goes for the reputation that Chabad have. There are many solid institutions of Lubavitch learning, and there are still plenty of serious Lubavitch scholars who engage solidly with the literature. Ginzburg, who you mention, is certainly one of them. I don’t dislike the man as much as I may have made it sound: I just don’t like the way he drums himself up as an expert in particle physics and Kabbalah as well. He is certainly, however, an expert in Chabad Hassidut.

  • Chaim says:

    Got it and agree with complacency and misplaced priorities.

    In some ways I guess whether to Chabad’s detriment or not is debatable on the grand scale of things – the movement became so focused on Kiruv at a definite cost to its scholorship. Also there are so many “Lubavitcher” who have had no or little yeshivah education at all.

    Many Lubavitcher would see this as mesiras nefesh… I believe the Rebbe would have expected this to be on top of learning not instead. Tefillin on the street was supposed to be strictly Friday afternoon unless you are on a bus and meet a Jew (A chabadnik should always carry his tefillin with him).

    Fabrengens too should have their place and time. There have been very few that I have been to that were worth the time…

    What is interesting is that the previous Rebbe and even earlier ones would bemoan how far their Chassidim had fallen compared to previous generations..

  • TheSadducee says:


    Additionally the Besht would probably be bemused by the fact that many of the Chassidic religious don’t seem to have had gainful employment either – they seem to do a lot of study but not alot of manual labour/work aside from it – vastly different from his own personal experience.

  • Chaim says:

    PS Simon

    I do not know if you have heard of David Solomon (http://www.inonehour.net/)

    He is a scholar even by your standards in Kabbalah, Jewish History and philosophy. His talks on history particularly 18th century are “brilliant”. Would recommend them.

  • David Solomon from Perth? Brother of Marcus?

  • Chaim says:

    TheSadducee – I agree although that is not limited in the slightest to Chassidim. In Chabad for instance staying on Kollel past two years is really not done. You go out and get a job whether as a Rabbi, teacher or any other.

    Shneur Zalman in particular was very vocal about Jews leaving the cities and being self supportive in rural communities.

    It used to be “the great” would sit in Yeshivah and learn supported by their in-laws… I guess many people these days considers themselves great and welfare became our ….

  • Chaim says:

    Yes David from Perth – great speaker…

  • ariel says:

    I feel strange because I agree with everybody here…

    David Solomon is great, I went to several of his lectures in Israel last year. He has a depth of knowledge having learnt in a variety of yeshivot including Chabad and Merkaz HaRav.

    Saducee: you’re point about the Besht is likely accurate.
    In fact the Ari-z”l instructed his students to learn half a day and work the other half…

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