Questions Answered - Episode One

The “Ask Rabbi Sacks” project

We invited the world to send in their burning questions in time for Rosh Hashanah 2016.
Then we filmed Rabbi Sacks' answers. We share the three compilations videos with you here.

In this first episode, Rabbi Sacks answers the following questions:

  • Why is Rosh Hashanah the only festival to be kept for two days both in and out of Israel?
  • Why does Hashem seemingly make it so easy for us to sin?
  • How you can tell if you have had a successful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?
  • What is the history and meaning of Tashlich?
  • Why do we talk about the fear of God, as opposed to the love of God?
  • What do you see as the main challenge for Judaism in 5777?

Nathan Light:

Hi, Rabbi Sacks.


Hi, Rabbi Sacks.

Nathan Light:

My name’s Nathan. This is my son Sammy. We’re currently living in Edmonton, Alberta, where I am enrolled at the university as a full-time student. Our question is why Rosh Hashanah, of all the holidays, of all the Chaggim in the Torah, is the only one that is kept for two days, whether we’re living in Israel or the diaspora. Why is it the only one that must be followed for two days? We hope to hear an answer. And if we don’t, it’s okay. We wish you a Shanah Tovah.


Shanah Tovah.

Nathan Light:


Rabbi Sacks:

Hi, Nathan. And hi, Sammy! What a sweet person you are. I wish I could come and hug you, but you’re a long way away from me. But to all of you in Edmonton, Shanah Tovah. Now you ask the question, why is Rosh Hashanah the only festival that, even in Israel, is kept for two days?

Well, the answer is very simple, actually. If you work this out, the reason we keep two days in Chutz La’Aretz, outside of Israel, is because the original means of telling people when Rosh Chodesh was, which was done by bonfires originally 2000 years ago, was sabotaged, and the end result is that messengers had to go out. And in those days, it took a long time to reach communities in the diaspora. But imagine now, you are living 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, and it’s Rosh Hashanah. Well, the truth is, as you know, a Jewish month can be short or long, 29 or 30 days. And it all depends on eye-witnesses coming to the Beit Din and saying we saw the New Moon.

Now, imagine the first day of Rosh Hashanah, you’re waiting and waiting and waiting in the Beit Din, in the court in Jerusalem, for eye-witnesses to come. And they haven’t come yet. Well, you won’t know until the end of the day, whether somebody did come. In which case that day was Rosh Hashanah, and the next day isn’t. Or they didn’t come at all. In which case, that first day wasn’t Rosh Hashanah, but tomorrow is.

So you had to wait in Jerusalem in the Beit Din till pretty much the end of the first day before you knew which day Rosh Hashanah really was. And that meant that that knowledge was certain only very late in the day, too late to tell everyone else in Jerusalem which day it was. And that’s because Rosh Hashanah is the only one of the festivals that happens on the first day of a month. So, because of that, the Rabbis decreed that for all time, Rosh Hashanah should be two days even in Jerusalem and should have a specific law of yamah erichtah. It has halachically the status of one day extended for 48 hours because it wasn’t done out of doubt and uncertainty. It was an actual decree because maybe the witnesses would come too late to let people in Jerusalem know. So that’s why it’s done in Jerusalem for two days. It’s why it’s done everywhere else for two days. And frankly, it means that we get twice as much spiritual uplift. So Shanah Tovah to you, and thank you both. Be well.

Jonathan Seidler:

Hi, Rabbi Sacks. My name is Jonathan Seidler, and I live in New York. I’m a recent college graduate. When somebody sins, it’s very easy to do an aveirah, but why would Hashem make it so easy if it’s going to determine your soul’s eternity. So, you know, it’s a big burden that Hashem trusted us with. Why would it be so easy to sin?

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi, Jonathan from New York. Thank you for your question. Why is it so easy to sin? Why did God make it easy to sin?

He actually didn’t. He made it as easy to do good as to do evil. It’s only that if you do a lot of good, that becomes habit-forming in a positive way. And if you do a lot of bad, then it becomes terribly easy to do more bad because evil, too, is habit forming.

God gave us free will. And we’re the only species of life known to us with that ability, because it’s the greatest gift He could give us. If we weren’t free to do good or evil, then we would be no more than 7 billion iPhones or computers programed to sing God’s praises, which would be great for Hashem, but not great for us. I mean, the truth is that freewill is the most important gift He gave us.

And we know perfectly well that pretty much since the beginning of time we have misused that gift. Now think about it. God knew we were going to misuse that gift, and yet still He gave it to us. And that tells me that God has a lot more faith in us than we have in Him. And that is what I take to mind every time I lose faith in humanity.

Look at what’s happening in the world today. Look at what’s happening in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and Libya, Somalia, I mean horrendous places. If you knew all that was going to happen, why did you create humanity at all? But think about it. God took the very, very long-term view. That even if it takes thousands and hundreds of thousands of years, He is convinced that sooner or later good will prevail over evil in human affairs, and we will turn to Him.

Now, if He had that faith in us, then I have faith in His faith in us that eventually we will learn that evil doesn’t only harm our enemies, it harms our friends, and most of all, it harms ourselves. So that’s why we come to shul. That’s why we pray: To make it a little harder to sin and a little easier to do good. Shanah Tovah to you.

Peter Frankl:

Hello? I’m Peter from Sydney. I’d like to know: How do you know if you’ve had a successful Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur? Thank you.

Rabbi Sacks:

Peter from Sydney. Hi, and thank you for your question. How do you know if you’ve had a successful Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? Well, look, the simple answer is there three ways of knowing.

Number one, Isaiah said, Drishu et Hashem b’himatsoh (Isaiah 55:6), [meaning] Seek God when He is near. Now in theory, God is always near because He’s everywhere. But the Rabbi said that refers to the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. In other words, those are not days when God is near to us, but when we are near to Him, so we feel that difference. So one thing you should feel by the end of Yom Kippur apart from being very hungry is to feel somehow or other something spiritual touched you, not for the whole of those many hours, but at least at some time that you are moved and thought, you know what? I sensed the Shechinah or something touched my spirit, whatever it was. You should feel that.

Number two, I think you should feel a whole lot lighter. You know, when you apologise for all your sins and you say “ashamnu bagadnu”, and “al chet shichitanu”, you’ve taken all that heavy weight off your soul. It’s like losing a stone from your physical weight. You feel lighter. You feel brisker. You feel fitter. Your soul should feel a lot less heavy.

And number three, I think you should feel energised because you have dedicated yourself to God for the coming year and asked Him to write you in the Book of Life. And therefore you should know that for the coming year, God is calling on you to do whatever you can to be His ambassador down here on Earth.

One act of kindness, one smile to somebody who’s lonely may just change their lives a little bit. And when you do that, you’re acting as God’s ambassador. People are saying, “Wow, you know what? Those Jews, they’re religious, they gave me a smile, they gave me food when I was hungry.” That is what it is to be a good ambassador for God.

So, you should feel a little bit of spiritual uplift, number two, lighter in your soul, and number three, more energised and focused in your life. I hope you feel all three, but if you feel any of those three you’ll know you’ve had a good Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

May you have a good rest of the year as well. Shanah Tovah.

Aaron Sokolinski:

Hi, my name is Aaron, and I’m a high-school Senior in Boston, Massachusetts. I’d like to know a little more about why we do tashlich on Rosh Hashanah. The idea that we can throw our sins to the fish doesn’t really seem like a Jewish concept. And many of the other explanations I’ve heard sound like they were added once there was already an established custom. Can you explain the meaning of Tashlich and maybe how it got started? Thank you, and Shanah Tovah.

Rabbi Sacks:

Aaron from Boston. Thank you for your question about Tashlich. Look, you’re quite right. You can’t just throw sins away and have the fish go and eat them. And the truth is that many great poskim, many great halachic authorities, especially the Sephardi ones, didn’t like the custom at all. My own great-grandfather thought it was a mistake in custom. It is an odd thing to do.

However, if you think about it, being forgiven is actually quite difficult for you to wrestle with because if you know you’ve been forgiven for a sin, somehow that sense of guilt can still stay with you. What’s changed? I did what I did and I’ve been forgiven, but I still feel bad about it. And therefore in biblical times there was a remarkable ceremony which Maimonides says was really a psychological or psychotherapeutic ceremony, which is that the sins were placed by the High Priest on the si’era hamishtalach, the original scapegoat, that was sent carrying our sins into the wilderness.

Now a goat can’t carry sins any more than the fish can eat them. So the question was, why so? Because you need to feel that the sins have been taken away, some visuals, some motive thing that helps people understand that something has gone. You have to see it go. You have to see the “dustman” as it were carried away. So we lost that si’era hamishtalach and that entire ceremony of the High Priest, when the temple was destroyed in the year 70, and somehow or other that need for some ritual that says something has happened stayed with people. And it took two forms. One was doing Kapporot often with a chicken on the Eve of Yom Kippur, and the other was tashlich on Rosh Hashanah.

However, the original meaning of Tashlich before it became known as Tashlich was the idea that you sense already in Psalm, 137, you remember al naharot bavel sham yashavnu va gam bachinu ke-zachreinu etziyon, [meaning] by the waters of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion. And Yehudah HaLevi already says in the early Middle Ages that Prophets received in Chutz La’aretz, in Babylon. Ezekiel, the Prophet, went to a river because the flowing river reminded them of the flowing of time, and the fact that all rivers eventually meet up in the sea, and they were able to capture a sense somehow of hope, that one day the river would carry them back to Israel, which is the physical return teshuvah which is like the spiritual return of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So the original custom was actually just to go by flowing water. And the idea of casting away crumbs as sins was much, much later.

So I recommend that you go to a river or running water and say all the verses, but you can do without the crumbs. Although of course the fish, and sometimes the birds do appreciate them, but there it is.

It’s a kind of psychodrama that makes one vividly feel that you’ve let go of something that you’d rather not have.

Shanah Tovah to you.

Naomi Cooper:

Rabbi Sacks, my name is Naomi Cooper, and I’m 13 years old and a student at King David High School, Manchester. You kindly invited us to pose any question on Judaism, so here it goes. Why did the Angel say to Abraham that “the fear of God is in your heart”, and why not “love” as this would be a much more gentle image to present?

Rabbi Sacks:

Naomi from Manchester. Hi there, I’m so pleased you’re going to King David. You know, I have a very special soft spot in my heart for that school. Very special school.

So Naomi, you ask a really good question. Why at the binding of Isaac, the Angel say to Abraham, now I know that you are God fearing. Why didn’t he say love? Well, the short answer, Naomi, is God already knew that Abraham loved Him, for heaven sake. Abraham heard Him say, lech-lecha me’artzechah umilodetecha umibiet avicha, [meaning[ leave everything behind and follow Me. That had been done years before. God knew that Abraham loved Him. What He needed to teach Abraham was sometimes you also need a little reverence because too much love can sometimes be damaging.

You see, if we so love our children that we kind of smother them, and we don’t give them space to grow and be themselves, then too much love can be great for us, but not great for them. We have to learn to make a little space for our kids so that they can become themselves.

And what God worried about was that Abraham had waited so long for Isaac, and he loved him so much that he would never give Isaac the space just to be himself, which is not being the same as Abraham, because Abraham was one kind of person and Isaac was another kind of person. So love is not enough.

I used to live, when I was Chief Rabbi, quite near St. John’s Wood, Abbey Road, where the Beatles recorded “All You Need Is Love”. It was a lovely idea, but it isn’t true. Sometimes you need a little justice, as well as love. Sometimes you need a little space. Because too much love can suffocate people. You just need something else. And the Hebrew word for that is yirah which we translate as fear or awe or reverence or respect. But what it really means is love brings you close, but fear makes you a little distant. And God was telling Abraham, you need to be a little distant from Isaac, just a tiny bit so that he can grow up to be himself and make his own special contribution to the story of our people.

I hope that explains it.

Shanah Tovah to you.

Students of Bialik College:

Hi Rabbi Sacks! We’re students from Bialik College in Melbourne, Australia, and we’ve studied a lot of your work. Our question for you is: in the year 5777 what is Judaism’s greatest challenge? Thanks. Shana Tova!

Rabbi Sacks:

Hi there, you tremendously lively students from Bialik College, which is a great school, and I hope you’re enjoying your time there, and they’re blessed by your presence there. What is Judaism’s greatest challenge right now? I think the simple challenge of living our faith with joy.

Do you know how many Jews we are losing? Because they never experienced Judaism as a life enhancing thing? It is so sad. We have the world’s greatest faith, and you can see it by the extraordinary tenacity of Jewish survival. By the incredible creativity of Jews in the modern world. By the fact that Judaism remains the faith that is most open to quest, and that loves argument, that loves intellectual challenge. Here is a faith that answers so problems of the contemporary world: How can we make relationships last, like marriage? How can we ensure that parents and children will have stuff in common that will bond them? How can we avoid becoming slaves to our smartphones?

Do you know what they’ve even invented? Some of them were not religious and some of them weren’t Jewish, Shabbat for iPhones and iPads. There’s a whole group of people out there, near Palo Alto in San Francisco, that have made the decision that for one day in seven, they will switch off all screens.

So here you have Judaism, which is as relevant today as it ever was, maybe even more so. Why aren’t we living it with fervour and with joy and inviting everyone we know to enjoy it with us? You know, we never sought to convert the world, but we can invite our non-Jewish friends to celebrate lighting Chanukah candles, or having apples and honey on Rosh Hashanah, because it’s not only Jews that we wish a good new year too, but it is all humanity.

Let’s go out there and live the faith we love. All the rest is secondary. That is elementary, and you with your enthusiasm could not be better ambassadors. So that’s my challenge to you.

Bless you all. Shanah Tovah.