Composing Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment

The main source in rabbinic literature for Rosh Hashanah serving as a day of judgment is a mishnah that describes this holiday and the three pilgrimage festivals as “periods of judgment.” By comparing this Mishnah with teachings attributed to R. Akiva, we can trace how this idea evolved in the tannaitic period and how this mishnah reshapes it.


Rosh Hashanah

A Day of Trumpeting: Rosh Hashanah in the Torah

What are the origins of seeing Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment?[1] The Torah’s brief presentation of the festival observed on “the first day of the seventh month,” known to us as Rosh Hashanah, is almost entirely devoid of details clarifying the meaning and purpose of this holiday. The Torah refers to the festival as “a day of teruah (trumpeting)” (Numbers 29:1) and as “zikhron teruah,” a “commemoration – or memory – of trumpeting” (Leviticus 23:24). This could mean many things.

The sounding of trumpets in the Bible expresses a variety of emotions, including joy (Psalms 98:6) and fear (Amos 3:6). Memory here, if it refers to divine memory,[2] may refer to God’s mercy (Genesis 8:1), loyalty to the covenant (Exodus 2:24), or administering stern judgment (Hoshea 7:13). Indeed, many of these themes appear in the verses of Zikhronot (commemorations) and Shofarot (trumpeting with the shofar) recited in the mussaf service on Rosh Hashanah.

A Day of Judgment: Rosh Hashana in Rabbinic Judaism

Traditionally, the zikhron teruah of Rosh Hashanah is interpreted as relating to a Day of Judgment when God remembers and reviews all human activity, while the “trumpeting” is understood either as announcing the moment of judgment or as a plea for tempering the judgment with compassion.[3]

The conception of Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment was likely influenced by its occurrence ten days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It may also have roots in Second Temple literature.[4] However, the idea of Rosh Hashanah as Judgment Day did not become the predominant understanding of Rosh Hashanah until it was expressed in the Mishnah.

The Four Periods of Judgment: A Composite Source

The majority of m. Rosh Hashanah’s first two chapters are devoted to discussing the sanctification of the New Moon, the linchpin of the rabbinic calendar. However, the first chapter opens with a brief introduction to the festival of Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah (1:1) begins by listing four “new years,” and establishes the first of Tishre as the most significant of the four. The Mishnah (1:2) then continues with an additional list of “four” times of year, including Rosh Hashanah among four “periods of judgment” (pirkei din):

בארבעה פרקים העולם נדון:
At four periods the world is judged (niddon):
בפסח על התבואה
On Passover regarding (‘al) grain
בעצרתעל פירות האילן
On Shavuot regarding (‘al) fruit of the tree
בראש השנה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבני מרון
On Rosh Hashanah all who enter the world pass before Him as a battalion[5]
שנאמר: היוצר יחד לבם מבין אל כל מעשיהם (תהלים ל”ג, טו)
as it says: “Who creates together their heart, scrutinizes all their actions.” (Psalms 33:15)
ובחג נידונין על המים
And on Sukkot we are judged (niddonin)   regarding (‘al) water.

On Rosh Hashanah: Scrutinized but not “Judged”

The judgment that takes place on Rosh Hashanah is presented differently from the judgment described regarding the other three “periods” – the three pilgrimage festivals. The verb “judged” (niddon) is used in the introductory sentence of the mishnah and carries over to the first statements: “On Passover (when the world is judged) regarding grain, on Shavuot (when the world is judged) regarding fruit of the tree.” The mishnah then repeats the verb “judged” for Sukkot, because it is preceded by a lengthy sentence that breaks up the flow.

Notably, the description of Rosh Hashanah, does not relate to the verb “judge.” This discrepancy is underscored by the enigmatic way in which Rosh Hashanah’s “judgment” is described – using a metaphor of a commander surveying his troops. This in turn is supported by a prooftext whose connection to Rosh Hashanah – as well as to the metaphor – is not readily apparent.[6]

We can begin to account for the anomalous statement about Rosh Hashanah by studying how this Mishnah was put together.

The Three Festival and Rosh Hashanah: A Composite Parallel in the Tosefta

Support for the composite nature of this mishnah emerges from a parallel preserved in the Tosefta (a third century CE tannaitic compilation),[7] which records a ritual designed to achieve divine favor on each of the Mishnah’s four festivals on which judgment is passed. Although Rosh Hashanah is not explicitly named in this text, it clearly is being discussed (t. Rosh Hashanah 1:12):[8]

אמר ר’ עקיבא: אמרה תורה –
R. Akiva said: The Torah said –
הבא עומר שעורין בפסח, שהו פרק שעורין, כדי שתתברך לכם תבואה
Bring an omer of barley on Passover the period of barley so that the grain will be blessed for you.
הבא חטים בכורים בעצרת, שהוא פרק אילן, כדי שיתברכו עליך פירות אילן
Bring first fruits of wheat on Shavuot the period of trees, So that the fruit of the tree will be blessed for you.
הבא ניסוך המים בחג, כדי שיתברכו עליך מי גשמים
Bring the water libation on Sukkot, So that the rainwater will be blessed for you.
אמרו לפני מלכיות זכרונות ושופרות –
Say before me the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot [benedictions] –
מלכויות, כדי שתמליכוהו עליהם
Malkhuyot, So that you will coronate Me over them
זכרונות, כדי שיבא זכרונכם לטובה לפניו
Zikhronot, So that your memory will come before Me for good
שופרות, כדי שתעלה תפלתכם בתרועה לפניו
Shofarot, So that your prayer will ascend before me with trumpeting

Here again we find that the practices of the three festivals differ in language and content from those of Rosh Hashanah. Moreover, as opposed to the Mishnah, the Tosefta even departs from the calendrical sequence of the festivals in order to present the similar format of the three festivals consecutively, leaving Rosh Hashanah, expressed through a different format, as a stand-alone and concluding unit. This form-critical analysis suggests that the Tosefta is also a combination of disparate sources; this conclusion is further supported by matching each of the two parts of this Toseftan baraita to close parallels recorded elsewhere in tannaitic literature.

The Tosefta’s Two Sources

The first part of the Tosefta appears verbatim at t. Sukkah 3:18, where it concludes a lengthy treatment of the water libation with R. Akiva’s comparison of the offerings brought on the two other pilgrimage festivals with the water libation.

The second part of the Tosefta also appears nearly verbatim in the tannaitic midrash Sifre Bemidbar, following homiletical derivations of Rosh Hashanah’s Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot.

אם כן מה ראו חכמים לומר מלכיות תחילה ואחר כך זכרונות ושופרות? אלא המליכהו עליך תחילה ואחר כך בקש מלפניו רחמים כדי שתזכר לו ובמה בשופר של חירות
If so [= inasmuch as both above-cited tannaim derive the Malkhuyot prayer from a verse written after those verses from which Zikhronot and Shofarot were derived] why did the Sages place Malkhuyot first and afterwards Zikhronot and Shofarot? First make Him your king, and afterwards request His mercy so that you will be remembered before Him. And through what? Through the shofar of redemption. (Sifre Bemidbar, Piska 77)

The redactor of Tosefta Rosh Hashanah has conflated two sources and attributed them to R. Akiva. While one source details the agricultural blessings which the Temple offerings on the three pilgrimage festivals are designed to elicit, the other explains the order of the three special benedictions recited on Rosh Hashanah.[9]

Two Forms of Religious Practices

In terms of religious significance, the two sources describe rituals that are quite different. The first describes Temple rituals performed physically with concrete aims – seasonal offerings brought before God, rewarded (hopefully) by the divine blessing of agriculture. The second describes the more abstract service of the synagogue and is devoid of any connection to agriculture. Instead, God is worshiped verbally, not to achieve a particular concrete result, but to make Him “mindful,” as it were, of our special relationship with Him.

Motivations for the Composition: When is Humankind Judged?

What motivated the Toseftan redactor (and, in its own way, the Mishnah) to conflate these two seemingly disparate sources?

An important clue is provided by the subsequent passage in the Tosefta, which presents a fundamental argument among three leading disciples of R. Akiva about the timing of mankind’s judgment:

הכל נידונין בראש השנה וגזר דינו נחתם ביום הכפורים – דברי ר’ מאיר.
All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and their decree is sealed on Yom Kippur – the words of R. Meir.
ר’ יהודה אומר: הכל נידונין בראש השנה וגזר דינו של כל אחד ואחד נחתם בזמנו: בפסח על התבואה בעצרת על פירות האילן בחג על המים וגזר דינו של אדם נחתם ביום הכפורים.
R. Yehudah says: All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and the decree of each is sealed at its time: on Passover – regarding grain, on Shavuot – regarding fruit of the tree, on Sukkot – regarding water, and the decree regarding man is sealed on Yom Kippur.
ר’ יוסה אומר: אדם נידון בכל יום, שנאמר: ותפקדנו לבקרים (איוב ז’, יח)
R. Yose says: Each person is judged every day, as it says: “You examine him every morning” (Job 7:18). (t. Rosh Hashanah 1:13)

This section of the Tosefta indicates that in this period no consensus existed among the disciples of R. Akiva regarding the existence of four judgment festivals. R. Meir describes a rather time-bound judgment and decree process taking place from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kipper; R. Yehudah separates the judgment on Rosh Hashanah from the decrees sealed during the three festivals; while R. Yose speaks of a constant judgment. Before understanding the relationship of this text to the mishnah and tosefta passages we have been studying, let us first consider the religious ideas that may lie behind the tannaitic controversy.

R. Yose: A Constant Judgment

R. Yose denies any special period of divine judgment. This would seem to be supported not only by scriptural verses, such as Job 7:18 (“You examine him every morning”), but also by theological commonsense. An omniscient and righteous God is expected to constantly observes and judge human behavior. This would motivate the religious individual to aspire to “שויתי ה’ לנגדי תמיד – set the Eternal always before me” (Psalms 16:8).[10]

R. Meir: Special Periods of Judgment

Diametrically opposite R. Yose is the opinion of R. Meir, who confines divine judgment to one annual ten-day period, between Rosh Hashanah, when the “judgment” is rendered, and Yom Kippur, when the judgment is “sealed.”

In presenting divine judgment as an annual event, R. Meir may be reacting against the idea that daily, perpetual judgment contributes positively to maintaining a continuously high level of religious awareness, fearing the serious risk of routinization and loss of potency. R. Meir thus prefers a defined period of time in which the event of judgment appears on center stage, fraught with significance and pathos.[11]

R. Yehudah: Combining Regular and Temporal Judgment

R. Yehudah’s view maintains elements of each of his two disputants. R. Yehudah agrees with R. Meir that judgment is confined to specific times, maintaining power and freshness. However, he subtly alters this idea in a way that incorporates something of R. Yose’s position. While the sealing of the decree regarding humans occurs on Yom Kippur, the decrees regarding agricultural bounty, are sealed at different times of year, each one at its appointed natural season. And while the initial decrees regarding agricultural bounty are included in the all-encompassing judgment of people on Rosh Hashanah, the sealing of these judgments occurs when they become concrete present realities.

R. Yehudah as the Source for the Mishna and Tosefta’s Compositions

R. Yehudah’s view thus provides us with a clear rationale for conflating the judgment of the three pilgrimage festivals with the judgment of Rosh Hashanah, found in both the Tosefta and Mishnah.[12] Rosh Hashanah represents for R. Yehudah divine judgment as a narrowly-defined calendrical event (like R. Meir) and the pilgrimage festivals present divine judgment as an ongoing situation conditioned by the realities of mundane existence (along the lines of R. Yose). Together, these two types of judgment produce a balance between the religious need to provide a specific time of year devoted to people’s awareness of standing in judgment before their creator alongside an awareness that God judges humanity throughout the year.

The Sources of R. Yehudah’s Idea

R. Yehudah would seem to derive these two ideas of judgment from two discrete sources. The likely source for associating the pilgrimage festivals with judgment is R. Akiva’s explanation of their agricultural offerings.[13] Presumably, the Tosefta’s citation of this tradition here reflects R. Yehudah’s understanding of R. Akiva in this vein.[14]

The idea of Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment may be related to the Mishnah’s citation of Psalms 33:15,  “Who creates together their hearts, scrutinizes all of their actions,” (Psalms 33:15),[15] which may constitute a source for the notion of a time-limited Rosh Hashanah judgment. The homily implicit in this prooftext is that of a connection drawn between the creation of humanity (“Who creates together their hearts”) and the scrutiny of actions in the second part (“scrutinizes all their actions”). According to the rabbinic tradition that humankind was created on the first of Tishri,[16] the day which annually commemorates the creation of the human heart is also the day when God judges what actions this heart has led each individual to perform.

The Tosefta (1:12) pairs R. Akiva’s explanation of the festival offerings with an anonymous explanation of the Rosh Hashanah benedictions in such a way that two distinct threads are preserved. However, in t. Rosh Hashanah 1:13, R. Yehudah fully combines the two disparate tannaitic sources, weaving them together into a coherent web concerning judgments and sealing of decrees.

Putting the Pieces Together in the Mishnah

The Mishnah rearranges the material to follow the calendar (Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, and Sukkot), but does not spell out how the judgment of people (“all who come into the world”) and the judgments regarding agricultural bounty interact.[17] It does make clear, however, that the judgment of people on Rosh Hashanah differs from the judgments regarding the natural world in its unique experiential quality.

The judgments on the festivals focus squarely on the immediate agricultural outcome, while on Rosh Hashanah, people experience the scrutinizing gaze which God directs towards His creatures. The Mishnah’s metaphor evokes soldiers who know that their lives hang in the balance, and are entirely dependent upon their obedience to their commander. The shofar blasts express people’s awareness of their precariousness in the face of the divine judging gaze, and this awareness in turn may serve as a way of achieving divine favor.[18]



Dr. Rabbi Avraham Walfish received his B.A. in philosophy from Yeshiva University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Talmudic Literature from Hebrew University, writing his dissertation on Literary Phenomena in Mishnah and their conceptual significance. He received semicha from Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, and has taught in many institutions of Jewish learning, including Drisha, Pardes, Matan, and Bar Ilan University. Currently he teaches at Herzog College in Alon Shvut, at the Hesder Yeshiva in Tekoah, and heads the M.Ed. program in Talmud and Jewish Thought at Jerusalem College for Women (Michlala). Most of his publications deal with literary interpretation of Mishnah and other Talmudic works, and his literary commentary on tractate Berakhot will soon be published by Tvunot Press.