Rabbi Eliezer taught: the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul… This implies that Adam was created on Rosh Hashanah. In the first hour [of that day] the idea arose [in the Divine mind to create humankind]… in the ninth [hour Adam and Eve were] commanded [not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge], in the tenth [hour they] transgressed the commandment, in the eleventh [hour they were] judged, and in the twelfth pardoned by the blessed Holy One. The blessed Holy One said to Adam: “This will be a sign for your descendants. Just as you stood before me in judgment on this day and were pardoned, so too will they stand before me to be judged on this day and be pardoned.” — Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 23:1
There are two central myths associated with Rosh Hashanah. One is the tradition that the world was created in the month of Tishrei (see TB Rosh Hashanah 10b). The other is that God judges the deeds of all people on the first of Tishrei (see, for example, Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2). The midrash cited above from Pesikta d’Rav Kahana merges both myths into one story, but makes the judgment myth primary. It anchors the judgment in the creation story, but in order to do so must move the beginning of creation into the month of Elul, which runs counter to earlier rabbinic traditions that claim that the world was created in Tishrei.
This favoring of the judgment myth over the creation myth has served as the dominant trope of our Rosh Hashanah traditions until today. Think, for example, of how many times the themes of sin and repentance and reward and punishment appear in the liturgy in comparison to the theme of creation.
It may, however, be time to rethink this preference. My teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, has spoken many times about the importance of bringing the creation myth back to the center of our religious life. This is especially significant in a generation struggling with an environmental crisis, for which we are largely responsible. As Rabbi Green writes:
The celebration of creation, so central to the psalmist, calls out for revival in our day… the urgent need to transform human behavior in relation to the environment will be best supported by a religious life that returns to the Psalmists’ consciousness of our human place within (not above) the great symphony of creation (Arthur Green, Radical Judaism, p. 99).
I am not suggesting that we replace the judgment liturgy of Rosh Hashanah with creation psalms. Rosh Hashanah, understood as “Yom Ha-Din” (Judgment Day), is an ancient, deeply rooted and profound tradition. But Pesikta d’Rav Kahana offers us the possibility of reframing Rosh Hashanah’s focus on judgment by setting it in the context of the creation story. In order to do this we would have to take the 25th of Elul more seriously, marking it in some significant ways.
Interestingly, we do have at least one tradition of celebrating the 25th of Elul as a special day. In the book “Leshon Hahamim,” the highly regarded 19th century mystic and legalist Rabbi Yosef Hayyim of Baghdad (popularly known as the Ben Ish Hai) implores his readers to approach this day with great care. Among his prescriptions is immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath), submerging our bodies six times to reflect the six days of Creation.
The Ben Ish Hai continues:
Do not fast on that day. On the contrary, have meals with bread and meat both at night and during the day, say the blessings over food with great intention and eat sweet things. Give a great deal of charity on that day. You or your spouse should light five candles that night, corresponding to the five lights of [Divine] hesed (love), as it says, “God saw that the light was good” (Genesis 1:4).
The image of five lights is derived from the fact that the word “light” (or) is mentioned five times in the biblical story of the first day of creation, in Genesis. Creation is often understood in our tradition as God’s primordial act of love, as is often taught in relation to the verse, “The world is established upon love” (Psalm 89:3). In Jewish mystical teachings, hesed is associated with the first day of creation, symbolized by light (which is “good”). We recall God’s great love and enact this divine virtue by showing our concern for others by giving tzedakah (charity).
The Ben Ish Hai then proceeds to offer two other rituals for the day. The first is actually a ritual for the whole week. He proposes reading the verses from the Torah about the first day of creation on the 25th of Elul, the second on the 26th and so on. He also offers many prayers to be said around the recitation of the biblical verses, most referring to mystical notions of the spiritual infrastructure of the world.
The second ritual (also surrounded by several prayers) involves chanting the letters of the Hebrew alphabet 27 times (corresponding to the Hebrew alphabet’s 22 letters, of which five have different forms when used at the end of a word). This practice derives from the widespread notion in classical Jewish sources that God used language to create the world (see the nine references to “Let there be” in the Genesis story), and even more directly from Jewish mystical sources that describe the Hebrew letters as the building blocks of the universe.
For those of us interested in reclaiming the centrality of the creation story for Rosh Hashanah, it could be exciting to think about how we might mark the 25th of Elul. This year the 25th of Elul begins on Friday evening, Aug. 30. I want to make make a modest ritual proposal, based on the teachings of the Ben Ish Hai: When setting out candles to mark the arrival of Shabbat, add five candles (or set out a total of five) to signify each of the days of creation that proceeded the emergence of humankind.
Take a moment before or after reciting the blessing over the Sabbath candles to reflect on the wonder of creation, and to recommit to living more consciously as but one part of an amazing and interconnected planet.
Rabbi Ebn Leader is a faculty member of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA.