Pesach , Shavuot , Sukkot , Sh'mini Atzeret and Yom Kippur are described in great detail in the Torah. Their purpose and procedures, motifs and motivation, laws and history are clearly spelled out. Yet one can search the entire Chumash without finding mention of Rosh Hashanah .
"And in the seventh month on the first of the month, shall be a day of rest. It is a sacred holiday for remembrance, the sounding of the ram's horn" (Leviticus 23:23). We must blow the shofar , we must rest and we must conduct the special temple service. But this is all done on the first day of the seventh month, on the day of remembrance, not at the beginning of the year on Rosh Hashanah . How is it, then, that we all know this holiday as Rosh Hashanah ? Further complicating the issue is the fact that, in the Mishna , our Sages enumerate four different Rosh Hashanahs ; one for kings, for animals, for trees and "our" Rosh Hashanah , the one for years. Doesn't it seem odd to have four Rosh Hashanahs ? How can each year start at four different times? While it is true that we often distinguish between a fiscal year and a calendar year, traditionally, Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a real new year; it's not just some convenient convention. Thus, we wish each other a good year, a custom that is recorded in the code of Jewish law known as the Shulchan Aruch .
A closer examination of the name Rosh Hashanah may shed light on this strange paradox: the celebration of a New Year starting on the first of the seventh month. In actuality, Rosh Hashanah does not mean "the beginning of the year". The correct term for the beginning of the year would be Hatchalat Hashanah . Rosh Hashanah literally means "the head of the year". Just as the brain controls the body, Rosh Hashanah is the trigger point for the year. Without the literal and figurative rosh (head), the body cannot function and life can't continue. Similarly, it is on Rosh Hashanah that our fate for the entire year is determined. When the brain ceases to function the patient dies; and when we do not awaken spiritually on Rosh Hashanah , atrophy sets in. But as we all know, the most important function of the rosh is to think-to send messages to the rest of the body, telling it how to act. Rosh Hashanah is the time to think, to reflect, and to receive the signals from G-d that tell us what to do. Just as the central nerve centre controls the rest of the body, Rosh Hashanah is the central part of the year. It is not surprising that it falls at the exact midpoint of the year. This is the optimal time for review, reflection and renewal.
Before any project begins, there is a lot of excitement and hope; but unless we take time to check our progress against our goals, we are likely to miss our targets. Of course, if we wait too long for the review process, change will not be possible at all. Thus, the midpoint of the year is the time to analyze how we've been doing, and how we can rectify those areas of weakness. Has our degree of integrity been impeccable, or do we view ethics as expendable? Has our Torah learning lagged, or do we study seriously? Have we davened with enough devotion, or are our prayers pitiful? Has our home been a center of hachnasat orchim ? Have we been absorbed in anger or guided by gentleness? And are we satisfied with the status quo or do we aim for accomplishment?
It is no coincidence that Shanah comes from the same root as the word leshanot, to change. The new year is the opportunity to change for the better. Furthermore, we should expect that Rosh Hashanah would fall during the seventh month. In Jewish numerology, the number seven represents completeness, the finishing of a cycle; examples include Shabbat on the seventh day, the sabbatical year, the seven days of Pesach , and the seven weeks leading to Shavuot .
When we wish each other a Shana Tova , we do not mean that the year is just beginning. Rather, from our perspective of the midpoint of the year, we wish that the year is going as planned. And if it is not, there is still time to make changes. As we look forward to the second half of the year, let us truly examine our direction in life and make sure our compass is pointed upwards.