Rosh Hashanah: When Time Travel Is Possible

On the Jewish New Year, the moon – our measurer of time – goes missing. In its absence, we can go back in time to transform the wrong actions of yesterday into mere accidents.

Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran
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Prepare to enter the Jewish time machine.
Prepare to enter the Jewish time machine.Credit: Dreamstime
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Avi Shafran

Prepare to enter, if you will, the Jewish time machine. What H. G. Wells wrote was fiction; this is real.

It isn’t technically a machine, and it doesn’t go into the future, only the past. What’s more, it requires considerably more exertion than pushing buttons or pulling levers. But it does the job, and the results are well worth the effort.

What powers Jewish time travel is the rare but precious fuel called will.

Not any will, of course, but a particularly pure form of the stuff: sincere, wrenching determination to change.

The efficacy of that fuel is revealed in the Talmud, which explains that the process of teshuva, or “repentance,” can transform wrong actions committed intentionally into mere accidental acts. And it goes much further. When repentance is effected not through fear or other less lofty means, but rather through pure love of God, it actually changes sins that were committed with full intent as sins into good deeds.

What a remarkable thought. Violating the Sabbath transformed into honoring it? Eating a cheeseburger into eating matzah on Passover? Engaging in gossip into relating a Torah-thought? It’s more than remarkable; it’s stupefying.

And in effect, what the Talmud is teaching us is that each of us can travel back through time and change the past. In fact, teshuva literally means “returning.” That may be more than a metaphor to repentance as a “returning” to a purer state. It may be hinting to a “return” of a very different sort, to, so to speak, the scene of the crime – in time. And tampering with the evidence.

To human ken, time goes only in one direction, relentlessly forward.

The great Jewish thinker Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner (1906-1980) noted that the term used in Genesis for the role of the sun and moon is memsheles, “dominion” -- implying subjugation. We are, he explained, enslaved by time, unable to control it or escape its relentless progression. Our positions in space are subject to our manipulation. Not so our positions in time.

But, the Talmud informs us that by honestly confronting our misguided actions and feeling pain for them and resolving to not repeat them (the elements of teshuva), we can reach back into the past and actually change it. We are thus, through repentance, freed from the subjugation of time.

A subtle symbol of that escape from the bonds of Chronos may lie in the Rosh Hashanah night sky. Not in what is there but in what is not.

The sun may mark the passage of the seasons, but we Jews are pointed by the Torah toward the moon to identify the months of our years. Not only is that luminary, by virtue of its perpetual renewal, a symbol of the Jewish People, it keeps time for us. The moon, one might say, is the Jewish clock.

And on Rosh Hashanah, the first of the “Days of Repentance,” the moon goes missing. Of all the holidays in the Jewish year, only Rosh Hashanah, which by definition occurs at the beginning of a Jewish month, sports a moonless sky.

We’re missing, in other words, our clock, our reminder of time. Quite fittingly, indeed, as seizing the first days of the new Jewish year to achieve repentance allows us to transcend time.

Rabbi Avi Shafran serves as Agudath Israel of America's director of public affairs and blogs at His most recent collection of essays is entitled “It's All in the Angle” (Judaica Press, 2012).

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