Rosh Hashanah / A Last-minute Effort to Balance the Scales

Yakov Z. Meyer
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“Feast of trumpets I,” by Aleksander Gierymski , 1884
“Feast of trumpets I,” by Aleksander Gierymski , 1884
Yakov Z. Meyer

As the High Holy Days draw near, a person is expected to repent for all the sins committed in the course of the year that is ending and to undertake to refrain from such untoward behavior in the coming year. It is commonly thought that these actions enable a person to start the new year with a clean slate – that is, without shouldering the burden of the previous year’s sins.

While this “bookkeeping” myth has been ridiculed and scorned by Christian critics of Judaism, traditional Jewish sources support it. As Rabbi Akiva says in his noted parable in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Everything is placed in pledge, and a net is spread over all the living. The store is open, the storekeeper extends credit, the account-book lies open, the hand writes, and all who wish to borrow may come and borrow. The collection-officers make their rounds every day and exact payment from man, with his knowledge and without his knowledge. Their case is well founded, the judgment is a judgment of truth, and ultimately, all is prepared for the feast” (Pirkei Avot 3:16).

At this time, God tallies all of a person’s sins, and when the day of judgment arrives, God weighs them in order to determine the individual’s fate. The sages clearly saw the annual judgment day as an event whose verdict was in strict compliance with the criteria of law and justice. Although no one knows what the individual verdict of the heavenly court will be until the sentence is passed and implemented – this situation does not prevent the wheels of divine judgment from moving each person to atone for the previous year’s sins as Rosh Hashanah approaches.

A different view of heavenly justice emerges from a number of passages in the Talmud: “Rabbi Judah, citing Rabbi Shalom, offered this commentary: Just as the amount of food we will be able to acquire during the upcoming year is determined on Rosh Hashanah, what we will lack is also decided upon at that time of year. If we are judged to be worthy, then our situation will be, ‘Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry’; however, if we are judged unworthy, our situation will be, ‘and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?’ (Isaiah 58:7)” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, p. 10b).

Citing Rabbi Shalom, Rabbi Judah makes no mention of the reason for the heavenly rulings involving either an abundance or a shortage of food for each person in the coming year, because he is not interested in the issue of reward and punishment. The issue at hand in this passage is not the reason behind God’s decision regarding the fate of each and every individual, but rather the fact that man’s fate is determined in advance and that he is pronounced either “guilty” or “not guilty.”

The statement cited here is further developed in the following story, which appears later in the Talmud: “… as was the case in the story of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s nephews [i.e., his sister’s sons]. Rabbi Yohanan saw in a dream that they were destined to lose 700 dinars. He persuaded them to give money to charity so that, in the end, they were left with only 17 dinars. When the eve of the Day of Atonement arrived, emissaries were sent by the emperor to arrest them. Rabbi Yohanan told them: Don’t worry. You will forfeit only 17 dinars. They asked him: How did you know that? He replied: I saw you in one of my dreams. They then asked: Why did you not tell us this? His answer was: I wanted you to perform the good deed of giving charity for altruistic reasons and not for practical ones” (Bava Batra, p. 10b).

A person’s fate is determined by God as the year ends and is not revealed to any mortal. Dreams are the only conduits by which information is transmitted from heaven to earth. A person in possession of that knowledge can effectively use it. For example, had Rabbi Yohanan’s nephews known that they were destined to lose 700 dinars that year, they would have taken the preventive measure of giving their money to charity.

By accepting that mode of conduct, they would have fulfilled their obligations as far as the heavenly decree was concerned (in other words, that decree would have been carried out regardless), and they would have incidentally performed the mitzvah of giving charity. However, they were not supplied with that information. In fact, there is no indication that God wanted Rabbi Yohanan’s nephews to “navigate” through the straits of the decree and to perform a commandment along the way. The heavenly decree was signed, sealed and delivered, and its implementation was not to be connected in any way with their conduct; the nephews had to resign themselves to living with God’s decree. No matter what that decision is, a person can find a way of getting around it, giving money to charity and chalking up a good deed in the process.

Rabbi Yohanan, who knows what his nephews’ fate will be, deliberately hides that information from them so that they can make the most of the situation – without knowing that their conduct enables the decree to be exacted as painlessly as possible. Since Rabbi Yohanan deducts 17 dinars from the “account” of the decree’s implementation, the nephews are left with a “debt,” and, before the year ends, the emperor’s emissaries apprehend them. Rabbi Yohanan then comforts his nephews, telling them that the emperor will collect only that paltry sum from them. In passing on this information to them, he reveals the fact that he had a dream about them and their fate, and that he has in essence manipulated their conduct throughout the entire year.

Just as Rabbi Yohanan does not disclose the dream to his nephews until the decree is carried out, God conceals from his children the decrees he has decided to impose on them. If mortals knew on Rosh Hashanah what fate was in store for them during the following year, their actions would be directed toward avoidance of the harshness of the decree, and their conduct could thus not be defined as pure and altruistic, as sincere service of God.

The High Holy Days, which are a period of reflection and soul-searching, grant each action – whether or not it involves the performance of a commandment or not – a unique significance that is not encountered during the rest of the year. The actions performed between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur can earn credit or debit points, are because they are added to either side of the scales of divine judgment, they can help determine a person’s fate in the coming year. Thus, people reflect deeply on their past actions and seek to repent for their sins in an attempt to improve the balance of their good deeds versus their sins before the final divine decree is determined.

As the above story implies, such reflection drains the content from the actions performed during this period and turns them into deeds carried out for practical, not altruistic, reasons. Such is the real problem in the “mechanics” of the High Holy Days.

The theological innovation in the story about Rabbi Yohanan and his nephews lies in the fact that lack of knowledge about one’s fate is regarded not as a marginal phenomenon, but rather as a principal characteristic of the relationship between man and God. In this story, lack of knowledge of the decree to be handed down by the Almighty is not a problem per se; in fact, it is a solution to the vexing question of performance of good deeds for non-altruistic purposes.

This lack of knowledge actually facilitates a person’s rising above petty spiritual “bookkeeping”: When he does not know what has been decreed for him in the coming year and what God’s calculations have been in determining that decree – a person can carry out actions in a direct manner without making any attempt to make a profit on the side. Thus, the fact that God conceals his face from man actually saves man prior to the High Holy Days.

Happy New Year.