“It is especially important not to use aspirin during the last 3 months of pregnancy,” is the warning on every bottle of aspirin. Why not? “because it may cause problems in the unborn child.” A fetus is obviously more sensitive to the effects of chemicals than a fully developed person. Partly, of course, because of its tiny size but more importantly because it is a developing thing. While a single cell is growing into many-billions of complex cells forming an organism in a matter of mere months it is easily and greatly affected by even subtle stimuli. Bearing this in mind, we can find new insight to Rosh Hashanah and one of its customs but before doing so, let us discuss another scenario where we see the ability of one thing to affect another.
“The Butterfly Effect” is the whimsical name science writers give to the concept of “sensitive dependence on initial conditions,” the idea that beginnings are unusually important. A diversion of a single degree of arc where the arrow leaves the bow – or an error of a single digit at the beginning of a long calculation – can yield a difference of miles, or millions, in the end. For all we know, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings halfway around the world yesterday might have set into motion a hurricane in the Atlantic today.
The most striking butterfly effects take place during formative stages, when much is transpiring with particular rapidity. Thus, the label on the aspirin. The gestation of a fetus, that single cell’s incredible journey toward personhood, is strikingly responsive to so much of what its mother does, eats and drinks. The developing child is exquisitely sensitive to even the most otherwise innocent chemicals because beginnings are formative, hence crucial, times.
Leaving the realm of the microcosm, our world itself also had a gestation period, six days’ worth. Interestingly, just as the initial developmental stage of a child takes place beyond our observation, so did that of the world itself. The event and processes of those days are entirely hidden from us, the Torah supplying only the most inscrutable generalities about what actually took place then. Thus, the Talmudic rabbis applied the verse “the honor of G-d is the concealment of the thing” (Proverbs 25:2) to the days of creation. British astronomer E.A. Milne wrote “In the divine act of creation, G-d is unobserved and unwitnessed.”
Despite our inability, however, to truly know anything about the happenings of creation, to think of those days as a gestational time is enlightening.
Rosh Hashanah is called “the birthday of the world,” but the Hebrew word there translated as “birth” – harat – really means the process of conception/gestation. And so, annually, at the start of the Jewish year, it seems in some way we relive the gestational days of creation. But more: those days are formative ones, the development period for the year that is to follow. Beginning with the “conception-day” of Rosh Hashanah itself, and continuing to Yom Kippur, the period of the early new Jewish year is to each year what the creation-week was to the world of our experience: a formative stage. This lends some insight into a puzzling Jewish religious law.
We are instructed to conduct ourselves in a particularly exemplary manner at the start of a new Jewish year. We are cautioned to avoid anger on Rosh Hashanah itself. And for the year’s first ten days we are encouraged to adopt a stricter measure of Jewish observance and to generally conduct ourselves, especially interpersonally, in a more careful manner than during the rest of the year.
It is a strange law. What is the point of pretending to be on a higher level of observance or refinement of personality when one may have no intention at all of maintaining those things beyond the year’s first week? Perhaps the answer is that things not greatly significant under normal circumstances suddenly take on pointed importance during that week because those days have their analogue in the concept of gestation.
The idea that Rosh Hashanah is so sensitive might explain an ancient custom that appears insignificant and perhaps silly for some. At the meal on the first night of Rosh Hashanah there is a custom to eat foods for sheer pun value—their names are reflective of the hoped-for blessings (such as dipping an apple in honey in hope of a sweet year). They suddenly become valuable in an almost solemn way. These simanim (special foods) would not seem to be a substantial way of ensuring good fortune and are not suggested at any other time of year, but on Rosh Hashanah they suddenly enjoy great prominence.
Might these days, in other words, be particularly sensitive to minor influences because they are the days from which the coming year will develop?
Observance and good conduct are always in season, but Jewish tradition teaches that they have particular power during Rosh Hashanah and the Ten Days of Repentance (the days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur) – that we should regard these days with the very same vigilance and care an expectant mother has for the rapidly developing, exquisitely sensitive being within her.