“He obtains his bread by the peril of his life”

On the meaning(s) of Rosh ha-Shanah, and a piece of its liturgy.

As noted above, today is Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year.

Why it’s either Rosh ha-Shanah or the New Year isn’t quite clear, since the Torah merely ordains a holiday on the “seventh month, on the first day of the month,” and specifies blowing the shofar (ram’s horn).

[No, dammit, I won’t tell the hilariously unprintable and politically incorrect shofar joke in this space; go wash out your mind with soap!]

Rosh ha-Shanah” (literally, “the head of the year”) seems to be a later label; perhaps the new name coincided with the renumbering of the months to make the calendar start in the fall rather than the spring, perhaps at the time of the return from Babylon. There seems to be reason to believe that the holiday pre-exists the religion, having been taken over from the worshippers of Ba’al; it is speculated that the Sacrifice of Isaac is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh ha-Shanah precisely because the festival it displaced involved human sacrifice.

Be that as it may, Rosh ha-Shanah is now assigned two meanings: it commemorates the Creation, and it begins the Days of Awe, in which each person’s fate for the coming year is determined: “written” on Rosh ha-Shanah and “sealed” ten days later, on Yom Kippur. Thus its themes are renewal and repentence.

Being allergic to synagogues, I haven’t been to Rosh ha-Shanah services in years, but I’m visiting friends in Philadelphia who had an extra ticket, so I went today. Since I wasn’t up for a five-hour service, I showed up about noon, which left about an hour and a half to go. As it happens, I walked in on a portion of the liturgy that struck me, in English translation, as quite a beautiful poem:


On Rosh ha-Shanah the decree is incscribed,

and on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

how many will go down and how many will arise;

who will persist and who will perish;

who will have length of days

and who will be cut short;

who will die by fire and who by water;

who by the sword, and who by wild beasts;

who by earthquake and who by plague;

who by hunger and who by thirst;

who by strangling and who by stoning;

who will have rest and who shall go wandering;

who will be tranquil and who will be disturbed;

who will be at ease and who will be afflicted;

who will become poor and who will wax rich;

who will be brought low and who will be raised up.

But repenting, praying, and doing right

avert the severe decree.

For according to Thy name, so is Thy praise.

Thou art slow to anger and ready to forgive.

Thou desirest not the death of the sinner,

but that he may return from his evil way and live.

Even until his dying day

Thou waitest for him:

perchance he will repent,

and Thou wilt straightway receive him.

Verily, Thou as Creator

knowest the nature of man,

for he is but flesh and blood.

Man’s origin is dust,

and he returns to the dust.

He obtains his bread

by the peril of his life.

He is like a fragile potsherd,

as the grass that withers,

as the flower that fades,

as a fleeting shadow,

as a passing cloud,

as the wind that blows,

as the floating dust,

yea, and as a dream that vanishes.


To all of you, no matter what you believe or don’t believe, my best wishes for a year full of well-being and well-doing.

V’yimeru, amen.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

4 thoughts on ““He obtains his bread by the peril of his life””

  1. Most things were not usually dated by their exact anniversary dates. The second year of a king's reign, for example, was at one time counted from the new year. Similarly, a one-year lamb was one that had been born before the date designated for selecting lambs (presumably, keeping the birthday of each lamb was overkill).
    Mishna Rosh Hashanna 1:1 explains that there are actually four such 'new years.' The one we just celebrated (the 1st of Tishri) is the new year for the counting of years and the 7-year and 50-years cycles. Other dates are used for counting the age of trees or animals and for king's reigns.

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