Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur: When is the Jewish Judgment Day?

In the Talmud, there are arguments among the early sages whether there is one judgment day or many judgment days for mankind. 

 MOSHE REMINDS us throughout the book of Devarim that every choice we make matters.  (photo credit: JON TYSON/UNSPLASH)
MOSHE REMINDS us throughout the book of Devarim that every choice we make matters.
(photo credit: JON TYSON/UNSPLASH)

“At four times the world is judged: 

On Passover concerning grain; 

On Shavuot concerning fruits on a tree; 

On Rosh Hashanah, all creatures pass before Him like [bnei maron], as it is stated: ‘He Who fashions their hearts alike, Who considers all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15);

And on the festival of Sukkot they are judged concerning water.”

– Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:2 (translation: Sefaria)

“At four times the world is judged: On Passover concerning grain; On Shavuot concerning fruits on a tree; On Rosh Hashanah, all creatures pass before Him like [bnei maron], as it is stated: ‘He Who fashions their hearts alike, Who considers all their deeds’ (Psalms 33:15); And on the festival of Sukkot they are judged concerning water.”

Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:2

 Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash) Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur act as an anchor for the Jewish people. (credit: David Holifield/Unsplash)

How many judgement days are in Judaism?

From childhood on we are taught that the world is judged on Rosh Hashanah. What is less known is that in the Talmud, there are arguments among the early sages whether there is one judgment day or many judgment days for mankind. 

Rabbi Meir asserts that the entire world (grain, fruit, mankind, water) is judged on Rosh Hashanah, and its sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yossi, however, says something drastically different. A person is judged every day. Rabbi Natan argues that a person is judged every hour on the hour.

Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Natan reflect a fundamental truth about the way we live our lives, very much in line with Moses reminding us throughout the Book of Deuteronomy that every choice we make matters and that we stand accountable for our actions on any given day and at any particular hour. However, the majority opinion reflects the sentiment that Rosh Hashanah represents a particular time of judgment, with Yom Kippur standing at the end of 10 intense days of introspection and heightened awareness of our culpability for our actions toward God and toward one another.

Returning to the Mishna, everyone who comes into the world passes before God like “bnei maron.” The Talmud wonders what this term means. Three suggestions are made that intertwine with one another to give deeper meaning to the experience of standing before God.

The first suggestion is that bnei maron are kivnei imarna, which in Aramaic means a flock of sheep. This calls to mind the vigilance of the shepherd and his ability to care for the sheep as individuals and as a flock. Yet the shepherd must also sternly rein in those who try to leave the flock, which is bigger and more significant than each separate sheep. The idea seems to be that just as a shepherd can distinguish the needs of his individual sheep, so, too, God sees our needs.

The second, in the name of Reish Lakish, suggests bnei maron is a narrow and steep path with a sharp drop on each side meant for only one person to pass over at a time. The image is one of vulnerability and danger. A person is exposed and alone, there is no one or nothing to buffer him as he passes on his or her individual journey in front of God for judgment. In this interpretation, the individual is not part of a flock or greater community.

The third example, in the name of Samuel, cites soldiers in the army of King David. Soldiers are individuals but also function necessarily as part of a greater whole. In a successful army, there is a sense of responsibility on the part of the collective for the individual; soldiers look out for one another. However, there is also by necessity absolute discipline, obedience and submission to a higher authority. 

With this image, there is a sense of movement from the flock of sheep watched over by the shepherd to the solitary person walking on the path of his or her life back to a solider in an army. Here the specific army cited, that of King David’s army, brings this final example to a more particularistic place than the Mishna assigned it. We have arrived at a grouping specific to the nation of Israel. 

THIS SECTION of Talmud concludes an ongoing discussion about the role of the individual versus the community regarding prayer and judgment.

The overarching conclusion is that the individual has a specific window – between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – during which to pray for a good year. However, whatever decree is issued on Yom Kippur cannot be undone.

In contrast, the community has no such limitations. Any time the community turns to God, there is an opportunity to rip up a terrible judgment.

Taken together, it seems to me, the bnei maron interpretations are an excellent summation of this interplay between individual and community. 

On one hand, we stand in prayer and face God, each with our own specific name and story. At this time of year, we are enjoined to focus deep within ourselves and confront our actions in the past year with regard to our relationship with God and with one another. 

However, there is comfort in knowing that even after the gates swing shut following Ne’ila, when we allow ourselves to join together as a community, we become more powerful and are able to petition God with our heartfelt prayers at any time. ■

The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies along with courses on sexuality and sanctity in the Jewish tradition.