Zichronot: Asking an Omniscient God to Remember
The Priestly calendars describe the holiday that we now call Rosh Hashanah in two places.It is mentioned in the Holiness Collection calendar in Leviticus 23 as well as in the earlier Priestly sacrificial calendar in Numbers 29, and the two use similar though not identical wording to describe the day:
במדבר כט:א וּבַחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ מִֽקְרָא קֹ֨דֶשׁ֙ יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֔ם כָּל מְלֶ֥אכֶת עֲבֹדָ֖ה לֹ֣א תַעֲשׂ֑וּ י֥וֹם תְּרוּעָ֖ה יִהְיֶ֥ה לָכֶֽם׃
Num. 29:1 In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.
ויקרא כג:כד דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ יִהְיֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן זִכְר֥וֹן תְּרוּעָ֖ה מִקְרָא קֹֽדֶשׁ׃
Lev. 23:24 Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.
What does the enigmatic phrase zichron teruah mean?
- The NJPS here renders it as “commemorated with loud blasts”;
- Everett Fox in the Schocken Bible renders it more literally as “a reminder by (horn) blasting,”
- Robert Alter as well translates the Hebrew noun זִכְרוֹן with an English noun: “a commemoration with horn blast.”
- Jacob Milgrom has given this festival the evocative name of “the festival of alarm blasts.”
God Remembering and Forgetting
Milgrom asks the obvious question concerning our passage: “For whom is the reminder, Israel or God”? He answers that the blasts are meant to remind God. This comports well with biblical theology. A Psalmist, for example, can pray:
תהלים כה:ו זְכֹר רַחֲמֶ֣יךָ יְ֭-הוָה
וַחֲסָדֶ֑יךָ כִּ֖י מֵעוֹלָ֣ם הֵֽמָּה׃
Ps 25:6 Remember (z.k.r) Your compassion O YHWH, and Your faithfulness for they are old as time.
כה:ז חַטֹּ֤אות נְעוּרַ֨י וּפְשָׁעַ֗י אַל תִּ֫זְכֹּ֥ר כְּחַסְדְּךָ֥ זְכָר לִי אַ֑תָּה לְמַ֖עַן טוּבְךָ֣ יְ-הוָֽה׃
25:7 Do not remember (z.k.r) my youthful sins and transgressions; in keeping with Your faithfulness, remember (z.k.r) what is in my favor, as befits Your goodness, O YHWH.
This desperate psalmist uses the root ז.כ.ר, “to remember,” three times in two verses. The plea fits well with the typical biblical notion that God may forget and remember, and sometimes needs reminding.
At times, God spontaneously remembers without outside nudging. For example, in Genesis 8:1, in the midst of the flood:
בראשית ח:א וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת נֹ֔חַ וְאֵ֤ת כָּל הַֽחַיָּה֙ וְאֶת כָּל הַבְּהֵמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּ֖וֹ בַּתֵּבָ֑ה וַיַּעֲבֵ֨ר אֱלֹהִ֥ים ר֙וּחַ֙ עַל הָאָ֔רֶץ וַיָּשֹׁ֖כּוּ הַמָּֽיִם׃
Gen 8:1 God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided.
God similarly remembers (ז.כ.ר) Rachel (Gen 30:22) and Channah (Hannah; 1 Sam 1:19 [see v. 11]), and gives them a child.
God Is Reminded
Other biblical texts suggest that God needs reminders, and that humans serve as agents of this reminding. For example, Samson, needing one final infusion of strength so that he might topple the Philistine temple (Judg 16:28), calls out to God:
שופטים טז:כח וַיִּקְרָ֥א שִׁמְשׁ֛וֹן אֶל יְ-הוָ֖ה וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱ-הוִֹ֡ה זָכְרֵ֣נִי נָא֩ וְחַזְּקֵ֨נִי נָ֜א אַ֣ךְ הַפַּ֤עַם הַזֶּה֙ הָאֱלֹהִ֔ים וְאִנָּקְמָ֧ה נְקַם אַחַ֛ת מִשְּׁתֵ֥י עֵינַ֖י מִפְּלִשְׁתִּֽים׃
Judg 16:28 Then Samson called to YHWH, “O Lord YHWH! Please remember me, and give me strength just this once, O God, to take revenge of the Philistines, if only for one of my two eyes.”
The idea that God needs reminding is especially prevalent in Priestly literature. For example, the stones that the high priest wears on the breastplate (חֹשֶׁן) are (Exod 28:29):
שמות כח:כט לְזִכָּרֹ֥ן לִפְנֵֽי יְ-הוָ֖ה תָּמִֽיד׃
Exod 28:29 For remembrance before YHWH at all times
The stones on his shoulders serve a similar function (see Exod 28:12).
Reminding God with Trumpet Blasts
The most suggestive text for zichron teruah, since it associates festivals, remembrance and loud noise, is Num 10:10:
במדבר י:י וּבְי֨וֹם שִׂמְחַתְכֶ֥ם וּֽבְמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם֮ וּבְרָאשֵׁ֣י חָדְשֵׁיכֶם֒ וּתְקַעְתֶּ֣ם בַּחֲצֹֽצְרֹ֗ת עַ֚ל עֹלֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם וְעַ֖ל זִבְחֵ֣י שַׁלְמֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָי֨וּ לָכֶ֤ם לְזִכָּרוֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲנִ֖י יְ-הוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
Num 10:10 And on your joyous occasions—your fixed festivals and new moon days—you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the LORD, am your God.
This text suggests that these blasts remind God to accept the sacrifices so that Israel will be blessed. The zichron teruah in Lev 23:24 likely had a similar function—perhaps even prompting God to bless Israel with rain as the rainy season approaches. Yet, it is unclear why only the festival of the first of the seventh month is singled out for remembrance and horn blasts in Leviticus 23.
Remembrance as a Theme of Rosh Hashanah
This theme of remembrance is also reflected in what was once the main part of the synagogue liturgy. First, the Rabbinic term for this holiday in liturgy, yom hazikaron, is likely related to the biblical phrase zichron teruah, although it has become unmoored from its etymological context (remembrance through or of teruah) and refers to God’s memory of Israel in more general terms.
Second, the Rabbis chose a Torah and haftara reading that specifically relate to God’s memory, namely God’s remembering of Sarah (Gen 21) and Channah (1 Sam 1-2). Most people think that the akedah, the binding of Isaac, which is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, is the central Torah text of the festival, and what we read on the first day, beginning with Isaac’s birth in Genesis 21:1, is an introduction to that frightening yet foundational episode. The Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 31a), however, makes it clear that this is not the case; the akedah is a late development, unmentioned in the earliest sources.
The earlier, Hebrew layer of the Talmud reads:
בראש השנה בחדש השביעי, ומפטירין הבן יקיר לי אפרים,
On Rosh Hashanah [the Torah reading] is “On the seventh month…” (Num 29:1) and the haftarah is “Is Ephraim a dear son to me?” (Jer 31:19).
ויש אומרים וה' פקד את שרה, ומפטירין בחנה.
There are those who say that [the Torah reading] is “God visited Sarah as he had promised” (Gen 21:1), and the haftarah is Channah’s prayer (1 Sam 2).
The later Aramaic layer of the Talmud continues:
והאידנא דאיכא תרי יומי, יומא קמא – כיש אומרים, למחר והאלהים נסה את אברהם, ומפטירין הבן יקיר.
Nowadays, that we keep two days [of Rosh Hashanah], on the first day we follow the alternative opinion, and on the next day [we read] “God tested Abraham” (Gen 22:1) and the haftarah is “The son dear [to me].”
The tradition that we observe, i.e., reading about Sarah and Channah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, is associated with another Talmudic tradition (b. Ber 29a and parallels):
בראש השנה נפקדה שרה רחל וחנה.
Sarah, Rachel and Channah were remembered (lit. “visited”) in Rosh Hashanah.
Rosh Hashanah is thus remembrance time, which is reflected in the name for the holiday in Rabbinic liturgy, Yom Hazikaron, in the Rabbis’ choice of liturgical readings, Sarah and Channah, and most obviously, in the blessings for the musaf service called zichronot, “remembrances” (m. RH 4:5-6).
Remembering (Only) the Good
Although we ask God to remember in the zichronot blessing, we are not actually asking God to remember everything, both the good and the bad. The Mishnah is explicit about this (m. Rosh Hashanah 4:6):
אין מזכירין זכרון מלכות ושופר של פורענות
We do not reference [verses of] Zikkaron, Malkhut, and Shofar if they are negative.
Instead, we are asking God to use selective memory, a feature that is well-documented in scientific literature, where it is sometimes called “selective forgetting.”
We ask, for example, God to recall our outcry in Egypt, the ancestral covenant, His compassion, Israel’s early loyalty to God—itself a very selective presentation of the wilderness period, and many other positive things in past. By implication, we are asking God not to remember Israel’s past misdeeds, such as the golden calf, the sin of the scouts, and our own personal sins. This request for God to remember only the good seems to conflict with another passage from the conclusion of in zichronot:
כִּי זוֹכֵר כָּל הַנִּשְׁכָּחוֹת אַתָּה הוּא מֵעוֹלָם, וְאֵין שִׁכְחָה לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ
For you have forever remembered all that could be forgotten, and there is no forgetting before your throne of glory.
But religious sentiments are often contradictory, and thus we here pray for an all-remembering God to forget our misdeeds, or at least to overlook them. This request for God to forget comes through most clearly at the blessing in the amidah at the end of the zichronot blessing where we not only suggest to God what it is that should be remembered, but we tell God to be like a human (Birnbaum trans.):
וְתֵרָאֶה לְפָנֶיךָ עֲקֵדָה שֶׁעָקַד אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אֶת יִצְחָק בְּנו עַל גַּבֵּי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, וְכָבַשׁ רַחֲמָיו לַעֲשׂות רְצונְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם, כֵּן יִכְבְּשׁוּ רַחֲמֶיךָ אֶת כַּעַסְךָ מֵעָלֵינוּ.
And may you recall the akedah—the binding—when Abraham our ancestor bound Isaac his son upon the altar, when he conquered his compassion to fulfill your will with a full heart. Similarly, may your compassion conquer your anger against us.
Asking God to use selective memory is an appeal for God to be anthropopathic! Just as Abraham was willing to over-ride his mercy, we pray that God will over-ride the divine desire to be a fair and strict judge, and to be merciful instead.
The depiction of God as remembering selectively is very striking—usually, we think of religion as claiming that people must be God-like, but this prayer insists that God be human-like. God, like a loving parent, should remember the good and overlook—or even forget—the bad.
Praying for God to Forget
This image of a forgetting God or a God that overlooks our faults is helpful in this season where we are asked to take stock, to take repentance seriously. After all—who can repent if we imagine an all-remembering objective deity? What’s the point? We might repent successfully, but can God truly “forget” and neglect the wrong things that we have done in the previous year, and totally erase them from the divine memory?
It is indeed much easier to change our ways if we imagine that God, like us, engages in selective memory—and might be convinced to forget the wrongs we have done in the previous year. So quite ironically, on one level, the real message of the festival’s early name of Yom Hazikaron, “the day of remembrance,” is that we hope that God will indeed forget.
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Prof. Marc Zvi Brettler is Bernice & Morton Lerner Distinguished Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University, and Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Studies (Emeritus) at Brandeis University. He is author of many books and articles, including How to Read the Jewish Bible (also published in Hebrew), co-editor of The Jewish Study Bible and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (with Amy-Jill Levine), and co-author of The Bible and the Believer (with Peter Enns and Daniel J. Harrington), and The Bible With and Without Jesus: How Jews and Christians Read the Same Stories Differently (with Amy-Jill Levine). Brettler is a cofounder of TheTorah.com.
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