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Rosh Hashana


The Judgment of Rosh Hashana: Are You Doing Your Job?

Based on Sifsei Chaim, vol. I, p. 71, by Rav Chaim Friedlander, zt"l, Mashgiach of Ponevezh

MISHNA: At four periods in each year the world is judged Rosh Hashana all human beings pass before Him (G-d) as sheep before a shepherd, as it is written (Tehillim 33:15): "He who has fashioned all their hearts understands all their works."

Gemara: The Tana of our Mishna is in accordance with the school of R. Yishmael of the following Braisa: At four periods is the world judged: on Rosh Hashana man is judged, but the sentence passed upon him is sealed on Yom Kippur, and our Mishna speaks of the opening of judgment only (and not the final verdict). (Rosh Hashana 16a)

Chazal are seemingly quite straightforward in this statement. Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment and on that day everyone under the sun is judged. Everyone's fate is not sealed, however, until Yom Kippur. This is the common understanding and has been incorporated into our Machzor for the Yomim Nora'im in the tefilla Unesana Tokef. But if we turn the page in the gemara, we find different seemingly contradictory statement:

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana: one for the absolute resho'im (utterly wicked), one for the pure tzaddikim (wholly good), and one for the beinonim - the average class of people. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed and sealed for life; the entirely wicked are at once inscribed and sealed for death; the average class are held in the balance from Rosh Hashana till Yom Kippur; if they prove themselves worthy they are inscribed for life, if not they are inscribed for death.

According to R. Kruspedai, only the average undecided people have to wait until Yom Kippur. The tzaddikim and resho'im are judged and their fate is sealed right away on Rosh Hashana. This appears to disagree with the mishna above.

Moreover, this statement of R. Kruspedai doesn't sit well with us. Tosefos asks the obvious question. How can R. Kruspedai state that tzaddikim are immediately inscribed in the Book of Life? Don't we see tzaddikim dying after Rosh Hashana. And how can he state that resho'im are immediately inscribed in the Book of the Dead. Don't we see many resho'im passing through many Rosh Hashanas, enjoying long lives and dying on their beds at a ripe old age?

Tosefos gives us a very cryptic answer. This statement of R. Kruspedai is not talking about judging people for what is going to happen in Olam Hazeh, in the here and now. It is talking about Olam Haba. The tzaddik is inscribed in the Book of Life of the Next World, and the rosha is inscribed for death, he will have no Olam Haba. The Mishna, however, which doesn't distinguish between tzaddik and rosha and states that everyone is written down on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur, is discussing the judgment about Olam Hazeh, This World.

Again, the problem is obvious. Aren't people judged for their portion of the Next World after they pass on? According to R. Kruspedai a person is judged every year if he is going to get Olam Haba. So when he finally gets upstairs and stands in front of the Beis Din Shel Ma'ala, I guess he's only judged on the few months that transpired since last Rosh Hashana. That doesn't make any sense at all.

The Ramban and the Ran and other commentaries don't accept Tosefos' explanation and give their own. However, the perush of the Gra in the Shulchan Oruch states that we follow Tosefos. The Rema (Orach Chaim 582:9) writes that on Rosh Hashana we have the minhag to bless each other that one should be written down for a good year. No mention is made of being sealed. The Gra comments that this is based on the Mishna in Rosh Hashana that everyone is inscribed on Rosh Hashana for the coming year. We do not wish him a blessing to be sealed for a good life; that does not happen until Yom Kippur. This, writes the Gra, follows the opinion of Tosefos.

The Gra, in his Likutim (compilation of his annotations) takes this even further. The Geonim added four insertions to the Shemoneh Esre during the Yomim Nora'im; two additions at the beginning, zochreinu lechaim, and mi chomocha, and two at the end, uch'sov lechaim tovim, and b'sefer chaim. You will notice that the first two just mention life - chaim. We do not ask for a good life - chaim tovim. The last two add the word "good," we ask to be written for a good life - chaim tovim. The Gra explains that this also is in conjunction with the opinion of Tosefos.

In the first two insertions in Shemoneh Esre, we ask to be written down for life, everlasting life together with the tzaddikim. Afterwards, as we approach the end of Shemoneh Esre, we ask to be inscribed in the Book of good life and peace. This is a request for a good life here and now.

In order to understand this position of Tosefos, we turn to Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzato (Ma'amar Hachochma).

The way of Heaven is to follow the same model as this world. When a court has to issue a verdict on someone, first they decide: is he a good person or not? After deciding what he is, they issue the specific ruling what is going to happen to him. The same thing happens on Rosh Hashana. First, Heaven decides the spiritual status of a person. Is he to be inscribed in the Book of the Living, or the Book of the Dead. The middle class, the average person or beinoni, is left hanging to determine if he will do teshuva or not. The second judgment on him is the verdict regarding what is going to happen to him this coming year, will he have a good year or not. So we see that there are two cases against the person, one regarding his standing in Heaven, and the second regarding his future down here.

In the Heavenly Court, they first decide as to which group one belongs: with the tzaddikim or the reshoim. This literally means that they write him in the book of the living, the tzaddikim. The rosha, however is pushed aside and written in the Book of the Dead, for a rosha is considered as if he is already dead. The average person, the beinoni, is not written down immediately. He is given a chance to do teshuva. Therefore his din is left hanging; he is, literally, standing there hanging and waiting until the final decision on Yom Kippur. This is our tefilla at the beginning of the Amida: write us in the Book of the Living.

There is another verdict that has to be handed down: all the decrees regarding what happens to a person during the coming year. It could be that even a tzaddik will suffer to atone for his few sins, or perhaps he will prosper. So too a rosha. Perhaps he will prosper and receive his reward in this world (Hashem doesn't want to see him in the next world). Or perhaps his wickedness is such that he deserves his just rewards now and will suffer or perish.

Once that is decided, they hand down the specific judgment on him. All these judgments are consequences of the first verdict, is he to be considered among the tzaddikim or the reshoim? Nevertheless, we daven that whatever the verdict of first judgment was, still, we should be blessed with "good life," chaim tovim.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zt"l (Michtav Me'Eliyahu vol. II p. 67), writes that free will can be divided into two categories, specific and general. Every minute, every second of a person's day he has free will to decide what he is going to do. From the time he wakes up and says modeh ani until he goes to bed saying shema Yisroel, he is making decisions. That is his specific free will.

There is another form of free will that is of a totally different nature, it has the ability to change his spiritual standing entirely. This is his general free will. For example: a person is about to choose whether to go learn in a yeshiva or go out to the professional world. This decision will affect his future, his family's future, and future of all his descendants. This fateful decision should be taken extremely seriously and with advice from the greatest rabbis available. However, even after he makes up his mind and enters his new course of life, he will continue to have free will and will continue to make decisions. Let's say he decided to go to yeshiva. Even there he will be faced with daily decisions: to sit down and learn or go out for a walk, etc. Nevertheless, these decisions will not change his status, he is still a ben yeshiva. They are slight movements within his category. Even if he fails in his nisyonos, he has not fallen to a new category, he is still in an institution of Torah, and the people around him will encourage him. He still has the chance to study. This is not true of one who leaves yeshiva entirely and goes out to the world of business. He is in a totally different state of affairs. He has gotten off at the exit and is on a different highway.

On Rosh Hashana one has the choice to seal his status for the coming year. His whole year depends upon his decision and choice. Of course, even during the course of the year he will have ups and downs. But they will be within the framework of that position where he stood on Rosh Hashana. Therefore, on Rosh Hashana we occupy ourselves with basic spiritual issues: we declare Hakadosh Baruch Hu the King of Creation and daven that his kingship should be revealed to the entire world. There is hardly a mention or tefilla regarding this material world. The thrust of our tefillos are for the Kingdom of Heaven. This was designed to raise our awareness and our aspirations and ideals. On Rosh Hashana we have to jump up to the pinnacle of spiritual ambition and strength. Our job this day is to concentrate on making Hakadosh Baruch Hu our King and in that way to be written in the Book of the living. When we have some connection to Olam Haba, we are called alive, while the reshoim who live only in this world, are called dead.

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Rosh Hashana

R. Kruspedai said in the name of R. Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana: one for the absolute resho'im (utterly wicked), one for the pure tzaddikim (wholly good), and one for the beinonim - the average class of people. The wholly righteous are at once inscribed and sealed for life; the entirely wicked are at once inscribed and sealed for death; the average class are held in the balance from Rosh Hashana till Yom Kippur; if they prove themselves worthy they are inscribed for life, if not they are inscribed for death. (Rosh Hashana 16b)

Rava said, "We are the beinonim." Abaye answered him, "(If you are a beinoni) you don't give anyone else a chance! (lit. You've left nothing over for the rest of Mankind!) (Brachos 61b)

A person should always view himself (equally balanced) half guilty, and half meritorious. If he performs one mitzvah he is happy for he has weighted himself to the side of merit. If he performs one aveira, woe to him, for he has weighted himself to the side of guilt. (Kiddushin 40b)

During the 10 days of Repentance (Aseres Yamei Teshuva), our life stands in the balance. We should all consider ourselves, at most, beinonim (average people - whose fate is undecided). Rav Kruspedai says that the beinoni's judgement is not finalized on Rosh Hashana. Rather he is left standing there hanging. Moreinu v'Rabbeinu Rav Zeidel Epstein, zt"l, used to say that Chazal are illustrating their point with vivid imagery. We must imagine ourselves standing at the gallows, just like the civil war movies. They put us on a chair, and put the noose around our neck. We are not free. We are standing there sweating, unable to move. If we do teshuva and sincerely take upon ourselves to be better people, then on Yom Kippur they will finish the case and take us down and give us another chance at life. But if we do not do teshuva (sincerely), by Yom Kippur, they kick the chair away and .

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Rosh Hashana

"On Rosh Hashana all the inhabitants of the world pass before him, Kibnei Maron (like those of Maron)." What does the Mishna mean by these last two words "those of Maron"? Here (in Bavel) it is translated as being based on an Aramaic word, "like sheep." Reish Lakish says they refer to "the steps of a narrow mountain path" (i.e., narrow, so that people have to pass by one by one). R. Yehudah, however, said in the name of Shmuel: (They mean) "like the armies of the house of David" (which were numbered one by one). Said Rabba bar Bar Chana in the name of R. Yochanan: "In all circumstances they are surveyed at a single glance. And R. Nachman bar Yitzchak said: Thus also we understand the words of our Mishna: "He that fashioned all their hearts alike" (Tehillim 33:15], i.e., the Creator, sees all their hearts (at a glance) and (at once) understands all their works. (Rosh Hashana 18a)

The commentaries have struggled for centuries to understand these enigmatic statements of Chazal. This gemara is definitely trying to teach us something important that will enable us to understand the judgment of Rosh Hashana. Two beautiful explanations can be found in the sefer Ohr Yisroel (in the section called Kochvei Ohr, sec. 4, written by Rav Yitzchak Blazer, talmid of Rav Yisroel Salanter) and in the Maharal's Chidushei Aggados. However, I would like to offer a different approach to understanding this gemara based upon the above explanation of Rav Chaim Friedlander.

On Rosh Hashana a person is judged to determine who he is spiritually and how he fits into the scheme of things for the coming year. The gemara here is giving us three examples of three different types of people.

The first example is that of sheep. The sheep are herded together into a small pen to be tithed. A narrow gate is opened enabling them to pass through only one at a time. They are counted and every tenth animal is marked to be ma'aser beheima. Sheep have no individuality of their own. Of course everyone gets reward for the each mitzvah he performs. It is one of the 13 Principles of Faith that Hakadosh Baruch Hu rewards every good deed, and punishes for every transgression. However, these people, in their function in the general scheme of things, are merely part of the flock. Their general role is communal and not individual. So too there are people who have no individual position in the scheme of things; they are part of the Klal, part of the Jewish community. The Jewish community as a whole needs them and it is in that position that they serve Creation. The judgment on them on Rosh Hashana (regarding their spiritual status in Hashem's Master Plan) stems not from their individuality but from their being part of the community.

The second example is that of a narrow mountain path. Every one passing by is on his own journey. He passes by alone without the help of others. There are individuals in this world who are on their own path; they have a specific job in the scheme of things. They are judged according to their individual needs, and their individual jobs.

The last example is that of an army about to go to battle. The commanding officer passes by scrutinizing each soldier to determine his task in battle. Will he be sent to the front lines, or stay back in camp? Will he join the tank corps or the artillery? Is he a private or an officer? These decisions will determine what kind of equipment is apportioned to him to properly carry out his job. However, he is not on his own path. He is a soldier in the army carrying out his responsibilities to the king. He is important only in as much as he serves a function as part of the army. He has no individuality. He is a very important part of the army as a whole. So too there are individuals who have made their private lives secondary to their responsibilities to Klal Yisroel. They are soldiers in Hashem's army. They are treated differently then private individuals because they are serving their king. On Rosh Hashana the commanding officer (Hashem) comes to scrutinize each individual to see how he fits into His army. What role will he play in spreading Yiddishkeit and Torah this coming year? Accordingly he will be given the equipment necessary for him to carry out his duties.

"Under any circumstances they are surveyed at a single glance." In addition, however, there is another sort of appraisal made on Rosh Hashana. Hashem examines each individual all at once. He must be seen as a part of the entire universe. His role this coming year must be in total synchronization with everything else. Every individual is seen as part of the greater Master Plan.

As we prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashana we should reflect upon our lives and our role in the larger scheme of things. Are we just sheep, following our Yiddishkeit like everyone else in the flock? Do we go to Shul because everyone goes to Shul? Do we keep Shabbos and Kashrus because that's what everyone else is doing? Then we must realize we are merely sheep in Hashem's flock. We have an important role in general Creation only as members of the Jewish Nation as a whole, and on Rosh Hashana we will be judged accordingly.

Or are we individuals? We make conscious decisions about our Yiddishkeit. Our Torah observance is important to us and we try to improve and follow halacha properly. We keep Shabbos and kashrus and all the mitzvos purposely. We understand the importance of davening and make it our business to go to shul in order to have a good davening. We have to realize that we are traveling alone on our path and will be judged individually according to our personal merits. Now is the time to reflect on the past and take on ourselves to improve in the future.

Or, perhaps, we are soldiers. Hakadosh Baruch Hu has a Master Plan and needs an army to carry it out. We are willing to make our private individual lives secondary to our higher mission. We are dedicated to harbotzas Torah and Mitzvos. We are Klal Mentshen, individuals dedicated to the community. Then we are soldiers in the army. Our judgment on Rosh Hashana will be to ascertain our rank for the coming year. Are we worthy of a promotion or, chas v'shalom, perhaps we have to be demoted? Now, this week before Rosh Hashana, is the time to contemplate on our lives and the role we want to serve in spreading Hashem's Torah.

In addition, we have to realize that there is a greater plan. Hashem is directing the course of Human history to bring it to fulfillment with the coming of the Moshiach. Each person has a role in that plan and on Rosh Hashana he is judged accordingly. His role must fit in to the greater scheme of things, from the beginning of Creation until techi'as hameisim (the revival of the Dead).

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I wish everyone a great Rosh Hashana. May you all be written and sealed in the Book of the Living for a wonderful, prosperous, and healthy New Year.

A Gut Gebensht Yahr!

Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Rabbi Eliezer Parkoff
Rosh Yeshiva
Yeshiva Shaare Chaim.

Rabbi Parkoff is author of "Chizuk!" and "Trust Me!" (Feldheim Publishers), and "Mission Possible!" (Israel Book Shop ? Lakewood).

If you would like to correspond with Rabbi Parkoff please contact him: or 732-325-1257

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