Rosh Hashanah has a dual identity. It is a day of hope and celebration on which we look towards the future (which is why we don’t confess on Rosh Hashanah), and it is also a day on which each of us are described as passing by God like sheep to be judged (as expressed by the fact that we don’t sing Hallel). As Rabbi Immanuel Bernstein explains, it is a day ‘of optimism and anticipation’ which is both ‘serious and happy’.
However, Erev Rosh Hashanah is something else. According to the Midrash Tanchuma (on Vayikra 23:40), Erev Rosh Hashanah is actually the beginning of our judgement process and it was customary in Ashkenazic communities to fast on Erev Rosh Hashanah (see Tur, Orach Chaim 581). In fact, based on this Midrash it would seem that Erev Rosh Hashanah can be compared to Yom Kippur in terms of its spiritual efficacy (see Beit Yosef on Orach Chaim 581). Though the custom of fasting on Erev Rosh Hashanah is nowadays barely known, it is appropriate to use Erev Rosh Hashanah effectively through studying Torah or performing good deeds (see Nitei Gavriel, Rosh Hashanah p. 127).
Nonetheless, some years ago I read about a fascinating Erev Rosh Hashanah custom of the great Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz who would go to the foot of the Mount of Olives to visit Yad Avshalom, the Tomb of Avshalom.
Avshalom was the rebellious son of King David who in his later life turned against his father and it was during his lifetime that when ‘Avshalom constructed for himself a pillar, for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the Monument after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Avshalom’s Monument’ (Shmuel II 18:18).
The top of this large tomb is shaped as a cone and we are told that there was actually a carved hand atop this structure representing Avshalom’s hand. However, it isn’t there anymore, and legend has it that Napoleon fired a cannon which knocked it off because of his disdain for a son who would rebel against his father. But why did Rabbi Shmuelevitz visit this monument on the eve of Rosh Hashanah?
The answer is that despite Avshalom having pursued his father to kill him, when Avshalom died King David sobbed, crying ‘O my son Avshalom, my son, my son Avshalom! would I had died for you, O Avshalom, my son, my son!‘’ (Shmuel II 19:1). According to the Talmud, King David cried out over Avshalom eight times which brought him out of seven levels of Gehinom and into the next world.
But why did King David cry so much for this son who had caused him immeasurable distress? To my mind, the answer is found in the words from Sefer Tehillim )103:13) that we recite on Rosh Hashanah: כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים רִחַם ה’ עַל־ יְרֵאָיו – As a father has mercy on sons, the Lord show have mercy on those who fear Him. King David had mercy on his son even though he had rebelled against him and threatened his life, and this is why Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz used to visit Yad Avshalom.
Every Erev Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Shmuelevitz would stand by this monument built by a rebellious son whose father had mercy on him and he would beg God saying ‘just as King David had mercy on his rebellious son, please G-d have mercy on me despite all the sins I have performed this year!’.
Ultimately, one of the key messages on Rosh Hashanah is that God is not only our King but also our Father, which is why Rabbi Shmuelevitz visited this unusual place to ask God to have mercy on him for the coming year.