Is There a Mitzva to Rejoice on Rosh Hashana? by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


The Torah (Devarim 16:14) commands us to rejoice on Yom Tov, “Vesamachta Bechagecha.”  In this issue, we will explore the question of whether there is a Mitzva to experience Simcha on Rosh Hashana or not.  This is a challenging question, since on one hand we are terrified of the fact that Hashem is judging us on this day but, on the other hand, the Ashkenazic custom to greet each other with wishes for a “Gut Yom Tov” on Rosh Hashana might indicate that there is a Mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Hashana.  We will see how the traditional authorities grappled with this question.  Our discussion will be based on an essay written by Rav Betzalel Zolti (who served as the chief rabbi of Jerusalem) on this topic (Mishnat Yaavetz Orach Chaim 50).  We will present the dispute between the Rishonim about this point, an analytical basis for this dispute, five ramifications of the dispute, a possible proof for one side of the dispute, and a somewhat new analysis of the dispute.

The Dispute – Rambam vs. Hagahot Maimoniot

There are at least two passages in the Rambam that demonstrate that the Rambam believes that there is a Mitzva of Simcha on Yom Tov.  In Hilchot Chanukah 3:6, the Rambam explains why we do not recite Hallel on Rosh Hashana (or Yom Kippur).  He explains “these are days of Teshuva, awe, and fear and not days of excessive joy.”  Accordingly, although Rosh Hashana is not a day of excessive joy, it is a day on which there is some measure of joy.  Moreover, the Rambam writes (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:17), “The seven days of Pesach and eight days of Sukkot along with the other Yamim Tovim are all forbidden to have fasts and eulogies occur on them; and one must be happy and joyful on these days.”  The “other Yamim Tovim” must refer to Shavuot and Rosh Hashana.  The Rambam (ibid. 6:18) writes that Simcha includes the eating of meat and drinking of wine.

On the other hand, the Magen Avraham (introduction to chapter 597) cites the Hagahot Maimoniyot who writes that one should not eat meat or drink wine on Rosh Hashana.  This authority must believe that there is no Mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Hashana, because part of the Mitzva of rejoicing on a Yom Tov is eating meat and drinking wine (see Pesachim 109a). 

Analysis of the Dispute

Rav Zolti offers an explanation of this debate.  He writes that the debate emerges from a dispute regarding the fundamental nature and scope of the Mitzva of Simcha on Yom Tov.  Tosafot (Moed Katan 14b s.v. Asei Deyachid) associates the Torah obligation to rejoice on Yom Tov with the consumption of Korbanot (Shalmei Simcha) that are offered as part of the Mitzva of Aliya Leregel that we are obligated to perform on the Shalosh Regalim.  In the absence of the offering of the Shalmei Simcha, the Mitzva of Simcha is merely rabbinic in nature.  According to Tosafot, argues Rav Zolti, the scope of the obligation to rejoice on Yom Tov cannot apply on Rosh Hashana, since there is no obligation to offer Shalmei Simcha on Rosh Hashana.

The Rambam, however, believes that the biblical obligation to engage in Simcha extends beyond the obligation to offer and consume Shalmei Simcha.  The Rambam (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:17-18) writes:

A person is obligated to be happy on these days, he, his children, his wife, his grandchildren, and all those who have joined his family, as the Torah states, “and you shall rejoice on your holiday.”  Even though the Torah is referring to the obligation to offer and consume Korban Shelamim (the Shalmei Simcha), included in this obligation to rejoice is for a person and his entire family to rejoice in the manner that is appropriate for him.  How is this practiced?  One distributes parched grain, nuts, and delicacies to the children.  One purchases, depending on what he can afford, clothes and beautiful jewelry for the women in the family.  The men eat meat and drink wine, as there is no rejoicing without meat and wine.

We see that the Rambam believes that the Torah obligation of Simcha on Yom Tov extend beyond offering and eating the Shalmei Simcha.  Thus, according to the Rambam, the obligation to rejoice can encompass Rosh Hashana even though Shalmei Simcha are not offered on this holiday.

Five Ramifications of the Dispute

The dispute between Tosafot and the Rambam has at least five significant ramifications.  One is whether it is permissible to fast on Yom Tov.  The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 597:1) writes, “we eat, drink, and rejoice on Rosh Hashana and we do not fast.”  The Rama (ibid. 597:3) cites the opinion of the Terumat Hadeshen (number 245) that it is a Mitzva to fast on Rosh Hashana.  Moreover, the Taz (ibid. 597:1) cites the Kol Bo who notes that some authorities believe that one should fast on Rosh Hashana.  The Magen Avraham (597:3) cautions, though, that all agree that it is forbidden to fast during the night of Rosh Hashana.  The Shulchan Aruch clearly adopts the approach that there is a Mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Hashana and thus one should not fast on Rosh Hashana.  The authorities that permit or encourage fasting on Rosh Hashana seem to believe that there is no Mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Hashana.

A second ramification regards a dispute that is recorded by the Rosh towards the conclusion of his commentary to Masechet Rosh Hashana.  The argument is whether the phrase “Vatitein Lanu Moadim Lesimcha Chagim Uzmanim Lesasson et Yom Hazikaron Hazeh” (“and You have given us holidays on which we rejoice, festivals and times for jubilation, this day of remembrance”) should be incorporated into the Tefillah and Kiddush of Rosh Hashana.  Only if one believes that there is a Mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Hashana is the phrase of Moadim Lesimcha relevant. 

A third ramification might be the dispute whether to say the prayer of Tzidkatcha Tzedek at Mincha when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat.  Sephardim follow the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 598) that one should recite Tzidkatcha and Ashkenazim follow the opinion of the Rama (ibid.) that it should be omitted.  The Rama believes that since Rosh Hashana is a Yom Tov it should be omitted just as it is omitted on any other festive occasion.  Similarly, we have mentioned the Ashkenazic practice to greet others on Rosh Hashana by saying “Gut Yom Tov,” which signifies that Ashkenazic tradition accepts Rosh Hashana as a day of rejoicing.  The Shulchan Aruch does not subscribe to this approach.  We should take notice that the Shulchan Aruch and the Rama appear to contradict their aforementioned ruling regarding fasting on Rosh Hashana.

A fourth ramification might be the dispute recorded in the Mishna (Moed Katan 19a) whether Rosh Hashana cancels the Shiva and Shloshim mourning periods.  The reason why Yom Tov cancels Shiva and Shloshim is that the Mitzva of Simchat Yom Tov and Aveilut are utterly incompatible (see Moed Katan 14b).  The opinion that believes that Rosh Hashana does not cancel Shiva or Shloshim apparently believes that there is no Mitzva of Simcha on Rosh Hashana and thus mourning is appropriate on Rosh Hashana.  The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 399:6) rules that Rosh Hashana does cancel Shiva and Shloshim observances.

I heard from Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (in a Shiur he delivered at Yeshiva University in September 1985) that a fifth ramification might be the question debated in the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 26b) regarding the shape of the Shofar that we blow on Rosh Hashana.  One opinion believes that the Shofar should be bent (which is the accepted view) since the more one is bent (i.e. subservient to the Creator) on Rosh Hashana the better.  The other opinion believes that the more upright (i.e. confident) one is during Rosh Hashana the better.  Rav Soloveitchik suggested that the opinion that one should be confident on Rosh Hashana is more compatible with the opinion that there is a Mitzva to rejoice on Yom Tov.

A Proof that There is a Mitzva to Rejoice on Rosh Hashana

Rav Zolti marshals a passage from Berachot 49a to support the Rambam’s view that there is a Mitzva of Simcha on Rosh Hashana.  The Gemara presents the formulas to recite on Shabbat and Yom Tov if one forgot to recite the appropriate addition in Birchat Hamazon for Shabbat and Yom Tov, and realized the error immediately after completing the Beracha of Bonei Yerushalayim.  The formula for Shabbat notes that Shabbat is designated for Menucha, the formula for Yom Tov notes that Yom Tov is intended for rejoicing, and the formula for Rosh Chodesh notes that the day is for remembering.  Rav Zolti observes that the fact that there is no separate formula for Rosh Hashana indicates that Chazal regard Rosh Hashana to be included with other Yamim Tovim in the Mitzva of Simcha.  The fact that we accept the opinion that Rosh Hashana cancels Shiva and Shloshim also demonstrates that there is an element of Simcha on Rosh Hashana.

Rav Zolti defends the authorities that believe that there is no Mitzva of Simcha on Rosh Hashana by saying that these authorities must concede that there is some degree of rejoicing on Rosh Hashana.  We have mentioned that the Magen Avraham asserts that all agree that one may not fast during the night of Rosh Hashana.  Rav Zolti explains that this is because all agree that there must be some element of rejoicing on Rosh Hashana.  One might add that all agree that there is muted joy on Rosh Hashana as demonstrated by our omission of Hallel on Rosh Hashana, our practice to use a bent Shofar, and the Sephardic practice to recite Tzidkatcha when Rosh Hashana occurs on Shabbat.  Thus, we have significantly narrowed the gap between the opinions that we cited at the beginning of our essay.  It seems that the dispute is not a broad one but a matter of emphasis, namely, to what extent is the Simchat Yom Tov muted on Rosh Hashana, for example, that we might tolerate or even encourage fasting on Rosh Hashana or describe the day as a time of joy.  


It seems to be accepted that there is a Mitzva to rejoice on Rosh Hashana.  Similarly, it is accepted that the Simchat Yom Tov of Rosh Hashana is diminished because our fear of God’s judgment.  However, Rishonim seem to dispute to what extent is the Simcha on Rosh Hashana diminished by our fear of God’s judgment.  Let us pray that Hashem will judge all individuals, the Jewish People, and the world favorably this Rosh Hashana.

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