The Keriat Hatorah of Rosh Hashana by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

(2004/5764) In this essay, we shall note numerous unusual
features of the Keriat Hatorah for Rosh Hashana. We then
shall postulate that the function of the Torah reading for
Rosh Hashana differs fundamentally from the function of
the Torah readings for other Yamim Tovim. This, in turn,
will enrich our comprehension and appreciation of what we
seek to accomplish with both our Tefillot and Keriat
Hatorah on Rosh Hashana. This essay is an expansion
and variation of a Shiur on this topic written by Rav
Yitzchak Et-Shalom of Los Angeles that appears on
http://www.torah.org/advanced/mikra. My thanks to my
Talmidim at Torah Academy of Bergen County and the
congregants at the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck for
their contributions to the thoughts presented in this essay.
The Unusual Features of the Keriat Hatorah for Rosh
Hashana
The Gemara (Megillah 31a) states:
On Shavuot we read the Parsha that includes
“Shiva Shavuot” (Devarim 15:8-12) and we read
the Haftara from Chabbakuk. Others say that we
read “Bachodesh Hashlishi” (Shemot Chapters 19-
20) and recite the Haftara from the Merkava
(Yechezkel Chapter One). Today, when we

observe two days of Yom Tov, we accommodate both
opinions (and follow the first opinion on the second day
and the second opinion on the first day). The opposite
occurs with the Torah reading of Rosh Hashana. One
opinion asserts that we read from the Parsha of the
Musaf of Rosh Hashana (Bemidbar 29:1-6) and the
Haftara is “Haben Yakir Li Efraim” (Yirmiyahu Chapter
31). The second opinion believes that we read
“VaHashem Pakad Et Sarah” (Sarah Imeinu’s
conception and giving birth to Yitzchak Avinu, Bereshit
Perek 21) and the Haftara is from the story of Chana’s
conception and giving birth to Shemuel Hanavi. Today
when we observe two days of Rosh Hashana, on the
first day we read the story of Sarah Imeinu’s conception
and giving birth to Yitzchak Avinu, and on the second
day we read the story of Akeidat Yitzchak (Bereshit
Perek 22).
The Gemara highlights the difference in resolving the
dispute regarding the appropriate Keriah for Shavuot and
Rosh Hashana. On Shavuot, we accommodate both
opinions, whereas on Rosh Hashana we do not. The reason
for this might be that the function of Torah reading on Rosh
Hashana differs fundamentally from the purpose of the
reading of Shavuot, and indeed, of every other Yom Tov.
A careful examination of Rashi’s comments on this
Sugya (section of the Gemara) seems to point to the same
conclusion. Rashi (s.v. Umaftirin) offers explanations for why
we read the stories of Chana and Akeidat Yitzchak on Rosh
Hashana. We read about Chana, Rashi explains, because
Chana conceived on Rosh Hashana, and we read about
Akeidat Yitzchak so that this story be brought to Hashem’s
attention on the day that He judges us.
Two questions emerge from this comment of Rashi.
First, why does Rashi not offer an explanation for why we
read of Sarah’s conception? The Ran (commentary to the
Rif, 10b s.v. Berosh Hashana Biyom) explains that Sarah
also conceived on Rosh Hashana (see Rosh Hashana 11a),
and thus that section should be read on this day. Why does
Rashi not mention this? The fact that Rashi mentions
Chana’s conceiving on Rosh Hashana but does not mention
Sarah’s leads us to conclude that Rashi did not concur with
the Ran. Rather, Rashi seems to believe that there is a
different reason for the reading of Sarah’s conception on
Rosh Hashana.
Another question can be raised on Rashi’s explanation
for why we read the Akeida episode. The Rambam (Hilchot
Tefillah 13:8) states the function of the Torah reading on
Yom Tov: “On Yom Tov we interrupt the regular cycle of the
weekly Torah readings and we read about the holidays.”
This fits with the enactment of Moshe Rabbeinu (recorded in
Megillah 32a) that we should study relevant matters of the
holiday on each holiday: the laws of Pesach on Pesach, the
laws of Sukkot on Sukkot, etc. Accordingly, why do we read
the Akeidat Yitzchak drama on Rosh Hashana if it does not
describe and characterize the holiday of Rosh Hashana?
Where else do we find that the Keriat Hatorah constitutes
either an expression of Tefillah or supplement to Tefillah?
Incidentally, we should note that the Ran in his
commentary to the Rif seems to be aware of this difficulty,
and explains that the reading of the Akeida is intended to
explain our practice of blowing specifically a ram’s horn on
Rosh Hashana (see Rosh Hashana 16a). Rashi, though,
does not state what the Ran writes, and we must
contemplate the reason for this.
Finally, we should question the relevance of the
Avraham-Avimelech well story (recorded in the second half
of chapter twenty one of Bereshit) to Rosh Hashana?
Indeed, the narration of the conception and birth of
Yitzchak occupies twenty-one Pesukim, which suffices for
even seven Aliyot when the first day of Rosh Hashana
occurs on Shabbat. There does not appear to be any
procedural need to read more in the Torah than of the
conception and birth of Yitzchak on the first day of Rosh
Hashana. How does this Avimelech story fit into the
themes of Rosh Hashana?
The Unique Function of the Torah Reading of Rosh
Hashana
All of these questions point to the conclusion that
the purpose of the Torah reading for Rosh Hashana
fundamentally differs from the purpose of the Torah
readings for the other Yamim Tovim. On every other Yom
Tov, the purpose of the Torah reading is to read about a
relevant theme of that Yom Tov. However, it seems that
the purpose of the Torah reading of Rosh Hashana is to
supplement our Tefillot to Hashem on this awesome day.
According to this approach, we read the story of
Sarah Imeinu conceiving not because this event occurred
on Rosh Hashana. Rather, we read it because it is part of
the story of the Akeidat Yitzchak.
The Rambam in Moreh Hanevuchim (3:24)
describes the lessons of Akeidat Yitzchak. The first
lesson, he writes, is to demonstrate the profundity of
Avraham’s commitment to Hashem. Hashem demanded
the most difficult sacrifice that He could demand from any
human being.
“A childless man who profoundly desired to have
children to create a new nation who finally has a
child after having given up hope of having a child
has unbounded love and attachment to his child.
Despite all this, Avraham’s love and fear of
Hashem outweighed his attachment to his child.”
The Radak (Bereshit 22:1) articulates an approach
similar to that of the Rambam. This is not surprising, as
the Radak was heavily influenced by the Rambam’s
philosophy.
It is necessary to read the story of the conception
and birth of Yitzchak to fully grasp the depth of the feelings
that Avraham Avinu had for his son. For example,
Avraham Avinu consented to Hashem’s order to free
Yishmael and Hagar in order to insure Yitzchak’s status as
his sole spiritual successor (see Rav Elchanan Samet’s
Iyunim Beparshiot Hashavua pp. 41-51), underscoring the
level of commitment that Avraham Avinu had for Yitzchak.
Avraham Avinu clearly loved Yishmael dearly (as is
evident from the Torah and highlighted by Rashi to
Bereshit 22:2 s.v. Et Bincha), and yet he “sacrificed” (i.e.
freed) Yishmael for Yitzchak’s benefit.
The Avraham-Avimelech well story places the
hopes and dreams that Avraham Avinu had for Yitzchak
Avinu in perspective. Rav Yitzchak Et-Shalom notes that
Avraham makes a treaty with Avimelech that applies to
their respective children, grandchildren and great
grandchildren. Avraham seems to assume at this point

that his future is assured. This emotion is expressed in
Tehillim 30:7: “I thought in good times, that I should
never fall.” For other connections between the
Avimelech story and Akeidat Yitzchak, see Rashbam
(Bereshit 22:1) and Rav Yoel Bin Nun’s essay on this
topic (Megadim 25:44-61). Thus, we see that the
second half of chapter twenty-one is also highly
relevant to the Akeidat Yitzchak episode (especially to
the aspect of the story that we seek to highlight on
Rosh Hashana).
The importance of highlighting the depth of the
challenge of Akeidat Yitzchak to Avraham Avinu lies in
the message we seek to communicate to Hashem on
Rosh Hashana. Many recite the story of the Akeidat
Yitzchak in Tefillah every day in Shacharit, prefacing the
recitation with a plea to Hashem that just as
Avraham Avinu overcame his profound love for
Yitzchak Avinu at the Akeida, so too should Hashem
overcome His anger towards us and treat us with
mercy. It is possible that this is what we seek to
communicate to Hashem on Rosh Hashana with our
Keriat Hatorah. We seek to magnify the depth of the
commitment of Avraham Avinu during the Akeida
incident in the hope that Hashem will, in turn,
increase the depth of the mercy that He will extend to us,
in His judgment of us on this awesome day.
Another objective of the reading of the
Akeida might be to awaken us to perform Teshuva on
this Day of Judgment (similar to the role of the
Shofar as explained by the Rambam in Hilchot
Teshuva 3:4). The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzva 331)
writes that the story of Akeidat Yitzchak should stir us
to emulate the level of commitment that Avraham
Avinu expressed to Hashem during that episode.
Such positive thoughts might influence Hashem to
judge us on the basis of the Mitzvot that He
anticipates that we will do based on the inspiration we
draw from Avraham Avinu.
Yet another lesson of the Torah readings for
Rosh Hashana (which I also believe can be read into the
words of Rashi) is that just as Avraham Avinu
accepted the judgment of Hashem to expel Yishmael and
sacrifice Yitzchak, we also should accept whatever
judgment Hashem metes out for us on this Day of
Judgment.
Conclusion
We see that the Torah readings for Rosh
Hashana differ in a fundamental way from the Torah
readings of every other Yom Tov. On Rosh
Hashana, the readings are part of our Tefillot to
Hashem. They also enhance the depth of our
experience of Rosh Hashana.
Postscript
Mr. Richard Schulz of Teaneck, New Jersey has
suggested another reason for our Torah reading on
Rosh Hashana. He notes that the written Torah
explicitly refers to Rosh Hashana only as the Yom
Terua (the day of sounding the Shofar). The Torah
Shebe’al Peh (the Oral Law) teaches that Rosh

Hashana is also the Yom Hadin, the Day of Judgment.
The Torah reading on Rosh Hashana thus emphasizes the
judgment aspect of this holiday. Similarly, the Torah
reading for Shavuot emphasizes Shavuot as the
celebration of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah), an
idea that is not explicit in the Torah Shebichtav (Written
Law).
One might add (I do not recall the source of this
idea) that this is another reason why on Rosh Hashana we
read of the banishment of Yishmael in addition to the pact
between Avraham Avinu and Avimelech. Hashem judges
(in accordance with Sarah Imeinu) that Yishmael must be
banished (note that in Bereshit 16:5, in the context of
Sarah Imeinu’s struggle with Hagar, Sarah says that
Hashem should judge between her and Avraham). In
addition, both Avraham Avinu and Avimelech judge and
rebuke each other for their respective inactions regarding
Avraham’s water wells. In the end, they make peace with
each other, a theme that is certainly in keeping with the
Torah Shebe’al Peh themes of Rosh Hashana and the
Aseret Yemei Teshuva.

Our Torah readings on Rosh Hashana are an application
of the principle that we find in the Gemara (for example, Rosh
Hashana 19a) that “Divrei Soferim Tzerichim Chizuk,” that one
must strengthen and emphasize the Torah Shebe’al Peh.

Pat Akum, Part One: Varieties of Observance and its Relevance to the Asseret Yemei Teshuva by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

Torah Perspectives on Insurance by Rabbi Chaim Jachter