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Parshat Haazinu

Traditional Judaism believes that the rabbis of all ages are transmitters of a tradition that was given by G-d to Moshe on Mt. Sinai. However, saying that every rabbinic statement is a divine truth is an extreme overstatement. Moshe received a complete and detailed religion but over long periods of time certain details were forgotten. Through biblical exegesis and logical inference these points were painstakingly recreated, but not without disagreement.

R' Avraham Ibn Daud wrote the following in his Sefer Hakabbalah (pp. 3-4):

Now should anyone infected with heresy attempt to mislead you, saying: "It is because the rabbis differed on a number of issues that I doubt their words," you should retort bluntly and inform him that he is a "rebel against the decision of the court" and that our Sages never differed with respect to a commandment in principle, but only with respect to its detail. For they had heard the principle from their teachers but had not inquired as to its details since they had not waited upon their masters sufficiently. As a case in point, they did not differ as to whether or not it is obligatory to light the Shabbat light. What they did dispute was "with what it may be lighted and with what it may not be lighted." Similarly, they did not differ as to whether we are required to recite the Shema evenings and mornings. What they differed on was "from when may the Shema be recited in the evenings" and "from when may the Shema be recited in the mornings." This holds true for all of their discussions.

It should not be surprising to the experienced student of Mishna or Talmud that there are disputes. However, a careful scholar will note that these are only regarding minor issues but that there is unanimous agreement on the major underlying ideas. Being unanimous, though, there is little need to for the Talmud to emphasize them. Thus, the beginning student might be confused and believe that there is little about which the Sages agreed. That could not be further from the truth. It is therefore good practice upon studying a talmudic debate to first clarify about what the disputants agree before proceeding to their disagreement. This will help the student recognize the widespread agreements about the oral tradition.

Judgement at Four Times

The Mishna on Rosh Hashana 16a tells us the following:

At four times the world is judged. One Pesach for grain; on Shavuot for fruit of the trees; on Rosh Hashana all the world's inhabitants pass before Him like sheep... ; on Sukkot we are judged for water.

G-d judges the actions of the world and, based on people's merits, determines how the next year will be. Will the fruit be plentiful? Will there be a lack of water, a drought? But does G-d really need to set aside specific times to judge the world? No. However, for our benefit He acts in a way to which we can relate. It helps us manage our expectations and behavior. As every manager knows, creating specific dates and deadlines helps people complete their tasks. G-d's assigning specific dates for judgement enables us to annually work on improving ourselves before a precise date. It is for this reason that there are specific times during the year for judgement.

But the question begs itself why, if people are judged on Rosh Hashana, are they further judged on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot? If a person's year is determined on Rosh Hashana, what more is decided on the other judgement days?

There are many answers offered to this question. R' Chaim Friedlander explains in his Siftei Chaim (Moadim, vol. 1 p. 95) that on Rosh Hashana it is determined, among other things, how much financial success a person will have during the year. However, exactly how that success will manifest is decided at different dates. A person can have plenty of food but still suffer from a drought. Likewise, a person can have plenty of cheap water but not be able to afford food. On Rosh Hashana it is determined whether the year will be excellent, moderate, terrible, or any of an infinite gradations in between. But on the other days it is determined how this will be applied.

Judgment Days

The Gemara quotes the following baraita that contains a disagreement over when people are judged:

Everyone is judged on Rosh Hashana and their judgement is sealed on Yom Kippur, these are the words of R' Meir. R' Yehuda says: Everything is judged on Rosh Hashana and their judgements are sealed each at its times &emdash; on Pesach for grain; on Shavuot for fruits; on Sukkot for water; man is judged on Rosh Hashana and his judgement is sealed on Yom Kippur. R' Yossi says: Man is judged every day... R' Natan says: Man is judged every hour...

The Gemara concludes that our Mishna follows R' Meir that every man and everything is judged on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur.

We must ask, though, that if there is a debate over when man is judged does that not show that the Sages had no tradition about this and were just inventing views? This question is based on a fundamental error in methodology. Before we rush to analyze the disagreement we must first take note of to what the different opinions agree. Every view agrees that G-d judges man both on his fate and on his material need for fruit, grain, and water. Furthermore, no one seems to dispute the process of judgement and the sealing of judgement. Also, all of these rabbis blew shofar on Rosh Hashana, fasted on Yom Kippur, and prayed for divine mercy on both days. These are all undisputed traditions.

R' Yechezkel Landau in his Tzelach on Rosh Hashana (ad loc.) writes that everyone agrees that Yom Kippur is the day of atonement and the day on which man's judgement is sealed. On this, no one dissents. Because of the importance of Yom Kippur, the nine days preceding it, starting with Rosh Hashana, are set aside for repentance. The only question is whether Rosh Hashana is merely the beginning of preparation for Yom Kippur or also a day of judgement in its own right.

Everyone agrees that man is judged by G-d at some point. However, traditions are sometimes lost and it is no longer clear what the original tradition was regarding when man is judged. As an attempt to recreate this tradition the Sages analyzed biblical verses and our traditional holiday liturgy. However, there was no conclusive proof and there was therefore debate on this subject. This one point is where the tradition was partially lost. But this certainly does not imply that there was never a tradition on this or that all traditions have been lost.

Judgement for Both Worlds

There is a restatement of the Mishna with important differences on Rosh Hashana 16b:

R' Krospedai said in the name of R' Yochanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana &emdash; one of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous, and one of the in-betweens. The completely righteous are immediately written and sealed for life. The completely wicked are immediately written and sealed for death. And the in-betweens wait from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur. If they merit it they are written for life and, if not, they are written for death.

According to R' Yochanan, on Rosh Hashana the completely righteous are written for life and the completely wicked for death. But do we not see in our own lives that wicked people live longer than a year and sometimes righteous people die? One could simply answer that these people only appear to be wicked or righteous but are not completely so. They, therefore, fall into the category of in-betweens. (For a more complete treatment of this subject see R' Aryeh Kaplan's Handbook of Jewish Thought, vol. 2 ch. 20.)

Tosafot (sv venechtamin) answer differently. They suggest that when R' Yochanan refers to life and death he means life and death in the world-to-come. The completely righteous are immediately written for life in the world-to-come while the completely wicked are written for death in the world-to-come.

But this answer seems difficult. Why would G-d judge a person every Rosh Hashana for his place in the world-to-come? Shouldn't that be done after a person dies? This seems, after a superficial reading, to be a desperate attempt to save a Gemara that contradicts reality.

However, this is all explained further in the Tosafot HaRosh. Sometimes G-d will punish a righteous person in this world for his few sins so that he will not have to be punished in the world-to-come. And sometimes G-d will reward a wicked person in this world for his few good deeds so that he will not be rewarded in the world-to-come (see Handbook of Jewish Thought, ibid.). Thus, in order for G-d to determine what will happen to someone in the upcoming years in this world He must decided whether this person will "live", i.e. be rewarded, in the world-to-come. Only after this is determined can G-d decided what will happen in the next year. Maybe this person will "live" in the world-to-come and must therefore have a bad year as punishment for his few sins. Granted, people change over time and the final decision on a person's place in the world-to-come is made after one's death. but G-d must judge each person based on his actions up to that point and, if at that time, it seems like someone will be punished in the world-to-come for his unrepented sins then he must be rewarded in this world for his good deeds.

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Contributor(s): Gil Student
Last revised: 10/13/02
© Aishdas 2002