Counting Sheep On Rosh Hashanah


When I had trouble falling asleep as a child, my parents would tell me to count sheep. It didn’t work very well; I generally gave up on counting well before sleep overtook me. Now, as a parent of young children, I don’t have trouble falling asleep– I conk out the moment my head hits the pillow, before the first sheep can rear its wooly head. But sometimes when I sit at my desk in the daytime struggling to write, the cursor flashing on the blank screen as I fight off despair, I try counting sheep, hoping that if I stay there a little longer, something will come. 

With the High Holy Days approaching, we think of God as a counter of sheep. The U’netaneh Tokef (“Let us speak of the awesomeness”), the medieval liturgical poem recited at the climax of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, describes the entire people of Israel passing before God like sheep:

As a shepherd herds his flock,

Causing his sheep to pass beneath his staff,

So do You cause to pass, count, and record,

Visiting the souls of all living,

Decreeing the length of their days,

Inscribing their judgment.

The image is resonant of the Biblical commandment of Maaser, whereby every Jew is obligated to give one-tenth of one’s produce to God. The ninth chapter of the Mishnah in Bechorot describes the procedure for tithing animals. Each year after the first of Elul, just before the High Holy Day season, the shepherd must bring his animals into a shed with a small opening so that only one can go out at a time. He passes his staff over each sheep as it exits the shed, counting them one by one. When he gets to the tenth, he marks it with red chalk and says, “Behold, this is the tenth.” The counting is an essential part of the tithing process; the Mishnah stipulates that if the shepherd merely takes out ten lambs from a flock of one hundred, the tithe is invalid. Each and every sheep must pass under the shepherd’s rod, just as each and every person passes before God during the Days of Awe.

By comparing human beings to sheep, the U’netaneh Tokef emphasizes both our commonality and our individuality. Each of us is part of a flock, and in that sense we are as indistinguishable from one another as sheep. But if we really were all identical, why would God examine us one by one? The fact that each of us must pass before God means that each of us receives our own divine judgment. In the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah (1:2), where this image first appears, the rabbis teach, “On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the world pass before God like B’nei Maron, as it is written, ‘He Who creates all their hearts as one, Who understands all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15). God creates all of humanity, but each person is evaluated individually. 

Yet we are not just docile sheep in God’s eyes. The Babylonian rabbis understood the Mishnah’s phrase “Bnei Maron” as referring to a flock of sheep, but for rabbis in the Land of Israel, the phrase was understood as a geographical reference to Beit Maron, a steep mountain where someone standing at the summit could observe all those ascending (Rosh Hashanah 18b). These images suggest that although we are ultimately at God’s mercy, we are also individuals with the agency to engage in the difficult uphill work of preparing ourselves spiritually to appear before God at the climax of the Jewish calendar. 

This uphill climb is the work of striving to nurture the unique divine spark inside ourselves so that we may contribute to the world in a way that only we are able. For most of us this does not comes easily, and it often feels like a battle against competing impulses. No surprise, perhaps, that the Talmud also offers a militaristic interpretation of B’nei Maron as a reference to soldiers in King David’s army. Indeed, the term B’nei Maron comes from numeron, which is Greek for a legion or cohort. From this perspective, we are not vulnerable sheep but brave troops marching rank and file, trying to stay in line with the divine command. 

God The Creator – And Writer

Whether the image is sheep or soldiers, we file before God so that the Almighty can take note of each of us. This taking note is quite literal in the sense that the U’netaneh Tokef imagines God “recording” and “inscribing” our judgement. The next line connects God’s role as the counter of sheep with God’s role as a writer:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,

And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.

How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,

Who shall live and who shall die.

God spends Rosh Hashanah recording the fate of each of us, dictating who will live and who will die, and how those fated to die meet their end: Who by fire and who by water, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, and so on. 

It seems that God counts sheep for the sake of writing. Only by counting each of us can God decide upon and record our fates. With the holiday liturgy dominated by images of God as father and God as king, we may fail to note that being the Creator is also about being a writer, inscribing the fates of all human beings after considering them one by one.  

But can we really think of God’s writing in the same terms as we think about human authorship? Rabbinic literature is no stranger to such analogies. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it,” the Talmud states on several occasions. This phrase is generally a prelude to a difficult theological concept which the rabbis try to root in a biblical verse. Since the concept has a basis in the written text, the rabbis argue, it has legitimacy no matter how brazen or outlandish it may seem. For instance, the rabbis in tractate Rosh Hashanah (17b) cite a biblical verse to prove that God wrapped God’s self in a prayer shawl and showed Moses the order of the prayer service. And so invoking this rabbinic phrase, I venture to make my own difficult theological claim, rooted in the imagery of the Unetaneh Tokef: The Creator is a writer, yes, but the writer is also a creator. The writer uses words to create worlds, just as God spoke the world into being during the six days when the world came into being. Creation through language is not a one-time event but the enterprise of all writers and poets throughout time. 

The notion of the poet creating a world through language lies at the heart of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Kublah Khan,” a poem about words and worlds and the struggle to write. In his preface, Coleridge explains that he wrote the poem one night after he fell asleep reading about Xanadu, the palace of the Mongol ruler Kublah Khan. He woke with a poetic vision of the palace, which he set about writing down, but he was interrupted by a visitor from Porlock and forgot the lines. The poem seeks to depict the glory of Xanadu while also capturing the poet’s despair at his inability to recreate that “stately pleasure dome” in words, including the damsel who appeared in his vision of the palace:

Could I revive within me 

   Her symphony and song, 

   To such a deep delight ’twould win me, 

That with music loud and long, 

I would build that dome in air, 

That sunny dome! those caves of ice! 

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry “Beware, beware!”

The poet wishes that he could revive the symphony he heard and recreate the vision of the palace he saw in his dream, so that he might make domes and caves out of the airy immateriality of language. He knows that words can have a dangerous world-creating power – the type of power that makes people cry out “Beware, beware!” But the vision fled and the words eluded him, so the poem remained merely, as Coleridge put it, “a fragment.” 

Coleridge was devastated that he could not put his vision of the palace into language. He longed to recover the dream of the dome and the cave, but it proved as evanescent as a passing shadow, a vanishing cloud, a fleeting dream. But he captured that failure in language, and his own shortcoming became an inspiration for generations of writers. A century and a half later, the American poet Stevie Smith confessed in “Thoughts on the Person from Porlock” that she herself longs to be interrupted when writing:

I long for the Person from Porlock

To bring my thoughts to an end,

I am becoming impatient to see him

I think of him as a friend,

Often I look out of the window

Often I run to the gate

I think, He will come this evening,

I think it is rather late.

I am hungry to be interrupted

For ever and ever amen

O Person from Porlock come quickly

And bring my thoughts to an end.

Imitating The Creator

Often I’m also hungry to be interrupted so that I might do anything but write. I distract myself for hours—and sometimes even years—by translating and editing other people’s articles and books instead of writing my own. It is so much more satisfying and gratifying to help other people build their pleasure domes, and besides, my own poetic visions often seem hazy and fleeting amidst the sleep-deprived fog of parenting young children. I am convinced, like Coleridge, that I will be unable to revive them within me. But then each year, when Rosh Hashanah rolls around, I beat my breast for failing to nourish the divine spark within me. 

Before Rosh Hashanah, God translates our actions into our destinies for the coming year. The way we act this year determines our fate in the coming year, and so when God writes us in the Book of Life, it is in some sense an act of translation. And it is an act of editing as well. On Yom Kippur God seals us in God’s book. The fate God decrees on Rosh Hashanah is re-considered during the Ten Days of Repentance. For ten days, God revisits and edits what God wrote on Rosh Hashanah before giving it the final seal on Yom Kippur. “Were it not written, it would be impossible to say it” – but it is written that we must be holy because God is holy, and the rabbis explain that God’s actions should be a model for our own. Even as a translator and editor – let alone as a counter of sheep – I am imitating the Creator.  

According to the rabbis of the Talmud, the world was created on Rosh Hashanah. As we proclaim in the liturgy of the day, “today is the birthday of the world.” And so it seems appropriate that on Rosh Hashanah we think about what it means for us to be creators, and what prevents us from engaging in creative work. God knows what is in our hearts, but sometimes what is in our own heart eludes us, and it becomes all too easy to run away from the difficult work of identifying what we were uniquely meant to contribute to the world.  May the one who creates and understands all hearts teach me to understand my own, so that I might begin again. 

Ilana Kurshan, a native New Yorker living in Israel, received the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for her memoir, “If All The Seas Were Ink.”

is the author of "If All the Seas Were Ink," published by St. Martin's Press.