What is Judaism’s approach to New Year’s resolutions?

  • TaliResolutions
It’s a New Year, and you may feel the need to start afresh, make a list of “New Year’s Resolutions” or simply promise yourself to do better or work harder. What does Judaism say about this?
by TALI FEINBERG | Sep 14, 2017

While it may first appear as a secular custom, making “resolutions” has roots in Judaism. “Elul is the month that leads up to the Jewish New Year, and it is the month in which Jews are supposed to be involved in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul - our spiritual preparation for the New Year.

It is a time to look inside ourselves and engage in the process of teshuvah - usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “turning” - we seek to turn toward wholeness in our relationships with others in our lives, with G-d and with our true selves,” writes Rabbi Robyn Frisch on the Interfaith Family Network blog.

“When I make my resolutions in the month of Elul, unlike in December, my resolutions aren’t about being thinner, healthier, wealthier and happier (not that I would mind any of those things).

“Instead, I make resolutions about how I will relate to my family, friends and community and how I will engage in the world. I contemplate not just my physical wellbeing, but more important, my spiritual wellbeing,” she writes.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in the US, says his January 1 resolutions - which often revolve around losing weight or actually taking his leave days - are “trivial” compared to those he makes during the Yamim Noraim.

“If I break the secular resolutions, in some ways I’m disappointing my understanding of myself,” he says. “If I break the High Holiday resolutions, I am disappointing my relationship with G-d, the commitments I make in G-d’s name, and I am disappointing my community.”

But sometimes these spiritual goals can be overwhelming. “Promises, promises, promises. As Rosh Hashanah approaches, I always find myself making promises,” writes Elana Mizrachi on

She resolves this by pointing out that the sages of the Talmud tell us that when a person tries to grab a lot, they end up with nothing, but when they try to grab a little, they end up getting it.

For example, Abraham told his guests that he was going to bring them a glass of water and some bread to eat. He didn't make them any big promises that he would bring them a glass of wine and a gourmet meal. His words were small, but his actions were big.

“He ran into his home and asked Sarah to help him. They made cakes, brought cream, milk and a lavish five-star meal to their guests. Say little, do a lot, was Abraham's motto.

So, start small, and you can always build from there. A tiny gesture like giving a small donation to a cause that means something to you, or popping in to an old-age home to bring cheer to the residents, can go a long way to fulfilling your spiritual resolutions. advises five ways to stick to your Rosh Hashanah Resolutions: Firstly, like the advice above: focus only on today. Don't worry about having messed up in the past. It's over and you can change and grow today.

And don't worry about the future; you're not there yet. Just take it one day at a time. As it says in the Torah: "You are all standing today before G-d" (Deut 29:9).

Secondly, develop a strategy. You can't do a complete overhaul of your entire life all at once. Break it down into manageable baby steps that you're confident you can keep to and will lead to results. The simpler the better. Each small step you take in the right direction, is monumental!

Thirdly, “Make it happen automatically.” If there's a way to create a situation that almost forces you externally to do what you know deep down is the right thing to do, you stand a much greater chance of getting the job done.

“For instance, if you decided you should be giving R200 a month to charity, arrange with your bank to automatically send this sum to the organisation of your choice on a certain day every month.

“If you want to increase your amount of Torah learning this year, get a study partner. Knowing that someone is counting on you to be there and learn, increases the chances that it will happen.”

Fourthly, say it out loud. This is one of the 48 Ways to Wisdom, mentioned in Ethics of the Fathers (Avot, 6:6). Speech is a uniquely human characteristic. It is the way we translate a spiritual thought into a physical reality. Articulation makes an idea real. It also forces you to focus on what the words mean and achieve clarity and inner resonance with the concept.

When it comes to our Rosh Hashanah goals, it's easy to think highly idealistic thoughts, but they may not be practical or concrete until we verbalise them.

Once you articulate clearly what you truly desire to accomplish and how you plan to achieve your goals, you get to know yourself better: what are your blocks and obstacles, and you stand a much greater chance of bringing potential into actuality.

Finally, involve a friend. A spouse, friend, confidante or mentor can help you keep track of your goals, motivate you, and check in with you on a daily, weekly or monthly basis so that you have the support you need to achieve your aspirations.


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