The “head” of the year


Believing in the gift of absolute limitless


By: Dovid Samuels

Rosh Hashanah literally means the head of the year. All of the characteristics of Hashem in the way He conducts Himself with this world correspond to the limbs of our body. It is perhaps for this very reason that we have the limbs that we have in our bodies, to have some sort of physical way of relating to otherwise illusive spiritual concepts. It is no mere coincidence that Rosh Hashanah is called the “head” of the year. If it was just to illustrate chronology, it would have been called something like “the beginning” of the year. Rosh Hashanah is as different to the other festivals as our heads are to the other limbs of our bodies.

In understanding the nature of this chag and the power it holds, we need to first understand what a “head” is.

The difference between a head and any other limb is massive. Every other limb is basically limited. Our legs can transport us, and raise us higher, but only as far and as high as the leg itself is capable of. If the leg is one metre long, it cannot raise you higher. There is a limit to how much a human hand can do, as there is with an arm and any other limb. The head, on the other hand, has the ability to experience, to a larger degree, without limitations.

Our nose can smell scents from very far away, our ears can hear through walls, and our eyes can see stars thousands of kilometres away. More than this, our imagination, in our heads, is almost completely unlimited in its creativity. Our minds are even capable of attaching to ideas which are far removed from our physical experiences, like forming a knowledge of our Creator, as the Rambam writes[1]: A person who thinks with his intellect about Hashem is cleaving to Him.

For this reason, we refer to the beginning of the year as rosh – the head. Just like the limbs of a person are incomparable to the unbridled ability contained within the head, so too Rosh Hashanah is a day of limitless potential and ability. The reason for this is because this was the day of the creation of the world (although Rosh Hashanah was really only the creation of the first man, this was, in essence, the purpose for the creation of the entire world).

In order to understand who the first man – Adam HaRishon – was and with what powers he was bestowed, one has to look at him on the day he was created. The day when man was created provided every possibility and every power in his ability, forever. We are taught[2] that he stood on earth and reached the heavens, and that he could see from one side of the world to the other. Obviously this is not just describing his physical build, but his spiritual potential too. After that initial day of creation, man began to descend in greatness, both physically and spiritually.

Everyone has his own potential. A strong man can lift more than a weak man. It is no wonder, then, that Adam HaRishon, with all his massive potential, was able to destroy the entire world with one negative action. Every sin in history is a result of the first sin by Adam, and our job is to repair the damage done through that act. On the other hand, if he would have refrained from sinning, he would have brought a perfection to the world that would have achieved the purpose of all creation. Our world would have looked completely different. It would have been paradise, literally. On Rosh Hashanah, we relive the experience of our own creation. We become expressions of that primordial potential we had on the very first day of our creation. We, like Adam, have the potential to destroy the world, or to build it. On this lofty day, man, mere flesh and blood, can do the impossible. We can stand in shul, blow a ram’s horn, and make Hashem stand up from His throne of Judgement and sit on His throne of Mercy.[3]

There are certain traits present in Hashem that describe His actions. We call Him “Merciful” and “Gracious”. Chazal[4] teach us that just as He is Merciful, so must we also be merciful. This means that we have an ability to, in some way, describe and define Hashem’s behaviours, and to emulate them. One property of Hashem which we can hardly even fathom is His ability to create something out of nothing – yesh m’ayin – or ex nihilo. Such was Hashem’s creation of the world: universes, from absolutely nothing! As the law of the conservation of energy states, as is relevant to human beings: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another. In other words: something from something. Hashem is obviously not bound by this law. Another characteristic of Hashem that we cannot fathom is His endless limitlessness – ein sof.

In truth, these two properties are actually intrinsically linked. Hashem’s ability to create something from nothing is the expression of His limitlessness. Chazal[5] give an example of the impossible: to fit an elephant through the eye of a needle. Utterly impossible, we all agree, but what makes this impossible? In what way are we lacking that this is impossible for us? The answer: we cannot create something from nothing. We are limited by the natural reality of this world, with time and space and laws of nature, where a needle eye cannot house an elephant. But were we to possess the ability to create something from nothing, being free from the laws and limitations of this already existing world, we could create a reality where an elephant can fit through the eye of a needle. Limitless potential! This ability of Hashem to create yesh m’ayin is a sign of His absolute limitlessness. This expression of limitlessness is symbolised by the head – the rosh – because, as we said above, it houses senses and abilities which are, in comparison to the other limbs of the body, limitless.

We are taught[6] that Sarah our matriarch had no womb. It was physically impossible for her to conceive. But after praying, she did. And when did she fall pregnant? On Rosh Hashanah! Only on this special day do we see and attach to the limitless potential of creation, something from nothing! Nothing stands in the way; nothing is impossible. So too for us: if fundamentals of Jewish belief are hard to internalise, if standing in prayer before G-d feels alien, if learning Torah is too hard or daunting for us, if we can’t turn on our hearts to serve Hashem; Rosh Hashanah is the day when there are no barriers, no interferences, and no limitations. The rest of the year we have our limitations and we use what strengths we have to overcome our weaknesses, but on Rosh Hashanah, the “head” of the year, we can not only overcome those weaknesses, we can completely eradicate them and replace them with strengths. We are being told: if it happened to Sarah, it can happen to us!

What is the key to this ability to create yesh m’ayin on Rosh Hashanah? The answer is: the 13 Middos of Rachamim – the 13 attributes of Hashem’s Mercy. Every deterrence that we experience in serving Hashem with all of our hearts stems from the sin of the golden calf. Chazal[7] referred to this sin as a woman committing adultery under her own wedding canopy. For every sin, even the most heinous, one can always place some blame on an outside factor[8]: wine, frivolity, youth, peer pressure. All of these factors might allow the judge to act with a degree of mercy – but a woman committing adultery at her very own chupah! There should be absolutely no room for any mercy in such a case. The Jews after receiving the Torah, on their lofty level, were viewed as an adulteress at the sin of the golden calf. Who could hope for mercy at a time like that?

Hashem presented us with a gift, however, that defied all normative understanding. He offered us a key that opens the door to the centre of the entire world. This world was founded on chesed (kindness[9]) and our proclaiming the 13 attributes of Hashem’s Mercy unlocks something that has been the bedrock of existence itself since the day Hashem created everything: infinite chesed. Those attributes saved us after we sinned at the calf, and they can save us in anything afterwards. This is Rosh Hashanah: a day of limitless mercy and kindness, where nothing is impossible.

For this reason, Rosh Hashanah is also referred to as Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance. When you remember something, a past event is recreated and actualised in the present. When a father has to rebuke his son, he never forgets the good things his son has done. So too when Hashem rebukes us, He always remembers us at our best. Hashem forgets nothing, obviously, but the actualisation of a past event is reserved for the times when we were faithful and good. “I remember the devotion of your youth.”[10] On Rosh Hashanah, Hashem “remembers” all of the limitless abilities of his devoted nation, and it becomes a reality, and an opportunity for us to become greater than seemingly possible.

So, now that we see what unbridled power there is in this holy day and how much we can change, why aren’t we changing? The answer: because we don’t really believe it. A person only prays for what he believes he can receive. An extra arm might be useful, but no one prays for an extra arm, or leg, or eye. But we all need to believe in ourselves, in the limitless power of Rosh Hashanah, and the limitless kindness of Hashem. We can change. We can be better, we can love more, we can serve Hashem with full hearts, with pure minds, and with generosity. If we work at it, and we pray, and we call out the 13 Middos of Rachamim with faith and trust, we can experience the potential of Adam HaRishon before the sin, and we can create in ourselves new abilities, and build a new world.

Taken from a sicha by Rav Shimshon Pincus ztz”l.


  1. Moreh Nevuchim 3:51
  2. Chagigah 12a
  3. Vayikra Rabah 29:3
  4. Shabbos 133b
  5. Bava Metziah 38b
  6. Yevamos 64b
  7. Shabbos 88b
  8. See Sotah 7a
  9. Psalms 89:3
  10. Yirmiyahu 2:2

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