of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Studies in Jewish religious ideology in the climate of Masorti (Conservative) Judaism

Originally published September 20th 1998 / Ellul 29th 5758 [Rosh ha-Shanah]

Bet Midrash Virtuali

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On four occasions [annually] is the world judged: on Pesaĥ concerning the [success of the] cereal crops; on Shavu'ot concerning the [success of the] fruit crops; on Rosh ha-Shanah all mortal creatures pass muster before Him (as it is said, 'He creates their heart, comprehends all their deeds" [Psalm 33:15]); on Sukkot we are judged concerning water [rainfall during the coming year].


This famous mishnah describes the four times in the year when human fate is decided by heavenly decree: on Passover the success of the cereal harvest, which begins during the festival with the harvesting of the very first Omer [measure] of the new crop. On Pentecost the fruit harvest begins and continues throughout the summer months, concluding around the time of Tabernacles [Sukkot]. On Sukkot the rainfall during the winter months in Eretz-Israel is determined by heavenly fiat. But our main concern in this shiur is that On Rosh ha-Shanah [New Year], according to our mishnah in language which is not at all clear, 'all mortal creatures pass muster before Him'. My translation is based upon the assumption that the text of the mishnah here is corrupted, and that where the Hebrew reads 'kivnei maron', which is virtually meaningless, we should read 'kivenumeron', 'like a regimental inspection'.

It is because of the judgmental aspects of all these festivals that on them, when we take the Torah from the Ark to read from it, we recite the 13 Middot, the 13 attributes of Divine mercy derived from Exodus 34:6, to remind God, as it were, to make a gracious judgment.

The Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 16a] suggests that it is these judgmental aspects of the festivals that lent them some of their most outstanding celebrations during the time of the Bet Mikdash: the offering of the Omer on Pessach, the offering of the two loaves on Shavu'ot, and the offering of a water libation on Sukkot. The Gemara them continues as follows:

And on Rosh ha-Shanah recite before Me Malkhuyyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot. Malkhuyyot in order to proclaim Me your King, Zikhronot in order that I shall remember you for good, and how? - by [sounding] the Shofar.

The passage refers to the three Berakhot of the middle section of the Amidah for Mussaf on Rosh ha-Shanah. These three blessings are called Malkhuyyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot respectively, and they consist of verses from the three sections of Scripture which celebrate the aspects already suggested: God as King, God Remembering and sounding the Shofar. The continuation of the passage in the Gemara suggests the connection between the three Berakhot:

Rabbi Abbahu says, Why do we sound a ram's horn [and not that of any other creature]? - So that I shall recall the Akedah, the almost-sacrifice of Isaac son of Abraham.

It this appears that when our mishnah says that 'all mortal creatures pass muster before Him' on this day, this means that on Rosh ha-Shanah God is conceived as enthroned as Sovereign of all mortal creatures (which is why this day is also called Yom ha-Din, Judgment Day), recalls and reviews all their deeds (which is why in our liturgy this day is referred to as Yom ha-Zikkaron, Day of Remembering or Review), and we sound the Shofar in order to recall the supreme act of faith in the Divine command that is exemplified by the first two patriarchs (which is why this day is also referred to as Yom Teru'ah, a Day of Sounding the Shofar).

The Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 16b] now teaches that

Four things can revoke a person's verdict. They are: Charity, Prayer, Change of Name and Change of Behaviour.

When a person acts charitably towards his fellow-creatures, prays sincerely to God for forgiveness of his sins, and makes a determined effort to change his mode of behaviour he is well on the road to 'turning over a new leaf'. And turning over a new leaf' brings the Gemara to mention the most famous and most pervasive imagery ever coined by human liturgical ingenuity. I quote the Gemara [Rosh ha-Shanah 16b] verbatim and insert my own explanations within square parentheses.

Rabbi Yoĥanan quotes Rabbi Khruspedai: Three books are opened [as it were in heaven] on Rosh ha-Shanah; one of the absolutely wicked, another of the absolutely righteous, and a third of those who are neither [wicked nor righteous, but just ordinary people]. The absolutely righteous are inscribed and sealed for [another year of] life instantly; the wicked are instantly inscribed and sealed for death [during the coming year; the fate of] those who are neither is held in judgment suspended from Rosh ha-Shanah until Yom Kippur: if they achieve [pardon and atonement] they are inscribed for life; if they do not, they are inscribed for death.

This idea of Rabbi Khruspedai was, it seems, novel and daring for the rest of the sages, and they try to locate the Biblical verse which might serve as a basis for Rabbi Chruspedai's midrash. Two suggestions are put forward - one of Rabbi Avin and another of Rav Naĥman bar-Yitzĥak.

Rabbi Avin says: What is the verse [which serves as the basis of the midrash]? - 'They shall be obliterated from the Book of Life and shall not be inscribed with the righteous' [Psalm 69:29]... Rav Naĥman bar-Yitzĥak says: From this verse: 'And if not, then blot me out from the Book that You have written' [Exodus 32:32. These are the words of Moses when he asks God to forgive the Israelites, and if He will not do so that he should blot him - Moses - also from "the book that You have written"]...

This liturgical image became the basis for one of the most famous of the piyyutim [poetical compositions] which form a part of the Ĥazzan's repetition of the Mussaf Amidah: U-netanneh Tokef. This is a most dramatic and impressive prose poem. It is reasonable to assume that its author is Rabbi Kalonimus ben-Meshullam, who lived in the German city of Mainz in the 11th century. However, according to legend the piece was composed by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz at the time of his martyrdom. The archbishop of Mainz wished to persuade Rabbi Amnon to become a Christian. Instead of flatly refusing, Rabbi Amnon asked for three days to consider the matter. His conscience immediately pricked him, and when the officers arrived to bring him before the archbishop Rabbi Amnon refused to comply. The Archbishop ordered that he be tortured until he consented to baptism. The following day - which happened to be Rosh ha-Shanah - Rabbi Amnon, covered with blood and on the verge of death, was brought into the synagogue. It was on this occasion that Rabbi Amnon first uttered Unetaneh Tokef, and at its conclusion rendered up his soul to his Creator. Three days later Rabbi Amnon appeared to Rabbi Kalonimus in a dream and dictated the poem to him. Thus runs the legend. Here is a rendition of the piece in modern English:-

Let us now recall the awesome holiness of this day, on which Your Majesty is enthroned in truth. True it is that You fulfill all the judicial functions - judge, prosecutor, assessor, witness, clerk, usher and foreman. You remember things else forgotten. You open the Book of Records and it reads itself: it contains the signature of every human being.

The great Shofar is sounded and utter silence reigns. The angels quake with fear and trembling as they exclaim, 'The Day of Judgment has arrived! The heavenly host is to stand trial, for not even they are innocent in Your eyes!' And the whole of mankind passes muster before You. Just as a shepherd counts his flock by passing them one by one under his crook, so do You count and review every living soul, deciding the fate of every creature.

On Rosh ha-Shanah this fate is written and on the fast day of Kippur it is ratified: how many fetuses shall be created and how many of them shall actually be born; who shall live and who shall die; who at the eve of his days and who before then; who shall die a violent death and who shall die a natural death; who shall die from hunger and who from thirst; who in earthquake and who by ravaging disease; who shall be at ease and who shall be tempest-tossed; who shall become poor and who shall wax rich; who shall become a nobody and who shall become important.

But penitence, prayer and righteousness can blunt the severity of the decree!

Your fame is true to Your Name: it is difficult to anger You and very easy to placate You. For You do not really want the death of the wrongdoer, but rather that he return from his ways and live. Right up to his dying day You wait hopefully, and if he does indeed return You immediately accept him. You created man, so You know his frailty, that he is but flesh and blood. Man's origins are in the dust and his ultimate destination is dust. At the risk of his life he makes his living. He is like an easily shattered jar, like a plant that easily withers, like a flower that soon loses its bloom, like a passing shadow, like a fluttering breeze, like a mote of dust in the air, like a dream that fades on waking.

But You are the truly existent sovereign Deity!

There is no limit to Your years, Your panoply is unimaginable and Your nature impenetrable. Your Name is appropriate to You and You to Your Name. And Your Name is a part of ours!

Le-Shanah Tovah Tikatevu: may all BMV subscribers, we and our loved ones, our neighbours and friends, our compatriots and fellow-citizens - and all our fellow creatures - be inscribed for a happy, healthy and successful New Year.