Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are probably the most well-known Jewish holidays. Separated by the Aseret Yimei Teshuva, ten days of repentance, they’re the two holiest days on the Jewish calendar. Rosh HaShanah, which commemorates the creation of the world, is when God judges everyone. The completely righteous are immediately written in the Book of Life; the completely evil are blotted out. In the interim Aseret Yimei Teshuva, those who fall somewhere in between are given the chance to do more good deeds and tip the scales in their favor. On Yom Kippur, we do teshuva (repentance) for all the bad things we did in the past year, and hope that the good deeds we did will redeem us and get our names into the Book of Life.
Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur occur in the month of Tishrei (September-October). Technically, this is the first month of the Jewish year; however, Nissan (April-May) is biblically considered the first month, as the Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt during Nissan. Tishrei is the seventh month from Nissan. The number seven has a lot of significance in Judaism. One reason is because there are seven female prophets in the Bible: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther. Each of these prophets has a unique connection to Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that we must learn from.
Sarah, the first Matriarch, relates to the shofar, the ram’s horn that is blown on Rosh HaShanah. According to Leviticus Rabbah (a commentary), after the Binding of Isaac, Isaac returned home and told Sarah what had happened. Disturbed by the fact that her only child, who she gave birth to at age ninety, was almost killed by his own father; “Thereupon she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts of the shofar.”
We read the story of the Binding of Isaac every Rosh HaShanah. The shofar is made of a ram’s horn, which is the animal that Abraham sacrificed in Isaac’s stead. Sarah’s cries determine the number of times we blow the shofar. This shows us that every family member should have the same opportunities to connect to God during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Mothers and girls over bat mitzvah age shouldn’t be expected to stay home with the children and cook; they should be able to go to synagogue and pray. Fathers and boys over bar mitzvah age should share the responsibility and take care of issues in the home too. That way, everyone gets a chance to connect to God on the holiest days of the year.
Miriam was Moses and Aaron’s older sister. She has a deep connection to water: her name means bitter water, it was in her merit that the Jews had a well of water while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and she led the Jewish women through the Red Sea. She was not always as pure as water, though, since she sinned by speaking lashon hara (evil speech) about Zipporah, Moses’ wife. Just like water is clean and basic, we are all forgiven for our bitter sins and given a clean slate on Yom Kippur: back to the basics. We should learn from Miriam that no one is past teshuva, and we can all achieve a sinless state.
Deborah, the prophet and judge, connects to the mazal (fortune) of the month of Tishrei: scales. According to the Sefer Yetzirah, this is because we are all judged on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, our good and bad deeds compared in a scale. Deborah dispensed justice among the Jews of her generation, judging them from her date tree. We should learn from Deborah that if she was able to judge others, we should all be able to judge ourselves. Part of teshuva, especially around the Aseret Yimei Teshuva, is making a heshbon hanefesh, or thinking back on all of the things we’ve done in the past year. To make up for the bad things we must have done, we should continue to try to tip the scales in our favor and do as many good deeds as possible.
Hannah was the prophet Samuel’s mother. Samuel was the one of the greatest prophets that ever lived: he anointed Saul and David as kings over the Jews, and delivered countless prophesies. His greatness, however, was all due to his mother. Hannah was unable to have children, so she begged God for years, beseeching the Creator to bless her with a child. Her prayers were answered on Rosh HaShanah. (The same is true for Sarah with Isaac.) She composed the Song of Hannah in thanks. Her actions show us that nothing is beyond prayers; if we ask God with the right amount of sincerity, the Holy One, the God of Mercy, will answer all of our prayers.
Abigail was one of King David’s wives, known as an intelligent and beautiful woman. Her name in Hebrew has the letter lamed (which makes the l sound). This shows her connection to Tishrei, as the letter that represents Tishrei is a lamed. The reason for this is because the shape of the letter reaches up, towards the sky (not unlike an l), as if it were longing to return to the source of life above, our Creator. We try to ascend to the highest levels of spirituality and create the closest connection to God possible on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Abigail’s name ends with a lamed. This shows that she went through life constantly trying to improve herself, working hard to reach the highest levels of being one with God. If we just try to copy her diligence, we’ll be set for a happy, sweet new year.
Huldah is one of the more obscure biblical women. She was a prophet during Jeremiah’s time, and prophesied for King Josiah. In addition to having the letter lamed in her name, she was from the tribe of Ephraim, which corresponds to Tishrei. This is because the word ephraim comes from the root word pri, which literally means fruit; it’s used in the verse “to be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28), the first commandment given in the Torah. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are all about rebirth: wiping away the bad of last year, working on making the next year better. Huldah is also known for teaching young women, helping the generations be reborn with Torah knowledge. We should learn from Huldah that we have to take our lives into our own hands and rebirth ourselves, that we have to purposely reach out to God to get closer to the Holy One, especially at this time of year.
Esther is the famed protagonist of the Purim story, who saved the Jews from extinction at the hands of Haman. The holiday of Purim is considered to be even more important than Yom Kippur. The Zohar, the main Kabbalah book, points out similarities between Esther’s approach to Ahasuerus (in order to invite him to a party to expose Haman’s plot) and the Kohen Gadol (High Priest of the Temple) on Yom Kippur. Queen Esther dressed in her special royal garments, fasted, and entered King Ahasuerus’ inner chambers at risk to her life (because he had not called for her) in order to plead for the Jewish people; the Kohen Gadol dressed in special white garments, fasted, and entered the Kodesh Kodashim, the innermost sanctuary of the Temple (forbidden except on Yom Kippur) in order to plead for the Jewish people. If Esther was on the same level as the Kohen Gadol, the only person who was ever allowed into the home of God’s presence, it’s all we can do to try and emulate her.
This Rosh HaShanah, Aseret Yimei Teshuva, and Yom Kippur, it’s essential that we learn from the seven women prophets mentioned in Tanakh (Jewish Bible). They gave us their legacy in order for us to live the best lives we can.