Composing Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment

The Mishnah states there are four Rosh Hoshanah’s and periods of Judgment. How is the 1st of Tishre different?

Dr. Rabbi Avraham Walfish

 Abstract: 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.

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:

בפסח                  על התבואה

בעצרת                 על פירות האילן

בראש השנה          כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבנומרון

שנאמר: היוצר יחד לבם מבין אל כל מעשיהם (תהלים ל”ג, טו)

נידונין    על המים

At four periods the world is judged (niddon):

On Passover                regarding (‘al) grain

On Shavuot                 regarding (‘al) fruit of the tree

On Rosh Hashanah     all who enter the world pass before Him as a battalion5

as it says: “Who creates together their heart, scrutinizes all their actions.” (Psalms 33:15)

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 –

הבא עומר שעורין        בפסח,        שהו פרק שעורין,  כדי שתתברך לכם תבואה

הבא חטים בכורים        בעצרת, שהוא פרק אילן,        כדי שיתברכו עליך פירות אילן

הבא ניסוך המים        בחג,
כדי שיתברכו עליך מי גשמים

אמרו לפני מלכיות זכרונות ושופרות –

כדי שתמליכוהו עליהם

כדי שיבא זכרונכם לטובה לפניו

כדי שתעלה תפלתכם בתרועה לפניו

R. Akiva said: The Torah said –

Bring an omer of barley        on Passover        the period of barley    so that the grain will be blessed for you.

Bring first fruits of wheat      on Shavuot     the period of trees        So that the fruit of the tree will be blessed for you.

Bring the water libation        on Sukkot        So that the rainwater will be blessed for you.

Say before me the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot [benedictions] –

So that you will coronate Me over them

So that your memory will come before Me for good

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.

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.

ר’ יוסה אומר: אדם נידון בכל יום, שנאמר: ותפקדנו לבקרים (איוב ז’, יח)

All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and their decree is sealed on Yom Kippur – the words of R. Meir.

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.

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


Rabbi Dr. 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. 

  1.  For an extensive discussion of the post-biblical development of the festival of Rosh Hashanah, especially in Second Temple times, see the previously published TABS essay, “Rosh Hashana: Between Tanach and Mishna.”
  2. The question of whose memory – God’s or humankind’s –is being discussed was debated among medieval Jewish biblical exegetes. I am assuming, along with RaMBaN (=Nahmanides, circa 1194 –1270), that the word zikkaron associated with Rosh Hashanah refers to the evocation of divine memory, and not – as read by Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) and others – to evoking human memory of a religious or theological nature. RaMBaN cogently supports his reading by comparing the memory invoked here by a teruah blast with the “memory” invoked by sounding a teruah on the silver trumpets in Numbers 10:9.
  3. This conception of Rosh Hashanah is featured prominently in the traditional liturgy, especially in the zikhronot section of mussaf and in associated piyyutim. The theme is well-known from Talmudic literature as well, for example in several homilies in Parashah 29 of Vayikra Rabbah (= Pesikta DeRav Kahana 23).
  4.  For possible biblical sources see Yehezkel Kaufman, Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit (Jerusalem – Tel-Aviv 1972), vol. 2, pp. 496-497, and vol. 3, pp. 346-347, pace the assertion by Gedalia Alon, Mehqarim BeToledot Yisrael (Jerusalem 1967), vol. 1,  p. 110, that the idea does not predate the destruction of the Second Temple. Regarding Second Temple literature, Ze’ev Safrai, Mishnat Eretz Israel – Rosh Hashanah (Jerusalem, 2011), p. 309, cites Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities 13:6 as adumbrating this idea, and the language there indeed is intriguingly similar to that of the Zikhronot prayer, but does not clearly indicate the notion of divine judgment. It has further been noted that in Jubilees 6:23-28, the first of Tishre is one of the four “Days of Remembrance” that open the four seasons of the year, and  arguably “remembrance” here denotes judgment. However, Cana Werman has argued that “remembrance” in this passage from Jubilees (and, in her view, this characterizes second Temple literature in general) connotes “recognition of God’s dominion over Nature”, along with human submission to this dominion and the beneficent divine memory engendered by this submission. See Cana Werman and Aharon Shemesh, Legalot Nistarot (Jerusalem, 2011), p. 276.
  5.  Following the text attested to by the best textual witnesses: כבנומרון (like a numeron, a Greek and Latin word denoting a military unit). The standard printed text of the mishnah is כבני מרון (like benei maron), a enigmatic term usually translated (following one of the readings suggested in b. Rosh Hashanah 18a) as sheep. This latter reading has also been enshrined in the most important piyyut of the High Holiday (Ashkenazi) liturgy, the Unetaneh Tokef prayer. 
  6.  The composite character of this Mishnah was noted by Gedalia Alon, Mehqarim BeToledot Yisrael, (Jerusalem, 1967), vol. 1, p. 110. 
  7.  Contemporary scholars have not established a consensus regarding the relationship among different tannaitic texts – Mishnah, Tosefta, tannaitic midrashim. My working assumption, which I think is strongly supported by the texts we are exploring, is what some scholars have termed the “intertextual” model: all the above-mentioned tannaitic texts were formulated and redacted parallel to one another in the same rabbinic circles; hence it is plausible – and in some cases highly probable – that the redactor of one text was familiar with parallel formulations which were incorporated into another composition. 
  8. In the variant of this baraita cited in b. Rosh Hashanah (16a), the statement is attributed to R. Yehudah in the name of R. Akiva (see discussion below). The Erfurt and London manuscripts of t. Sukkah 3:18 (see below) add after “on Sukkot” the phrase “the period of rain.”
  9. It is further clear that, although the Tosefta in Rosh Hashanah appears to attribute the entire baraita, involving all four festivals, to R. Akiva, in fact only the first part of the baraita was originally attributed by R. Akiva, as stated in t. Sukkah 3:18.  The second part, regarding the benedictions of Rosh Hashanah, originates in the opposing school of R. Ishmael (to whom the Sifre Bemidbar is attributed), and very likely was taught by R. Natan (a disciple of R. Ishmael, a generation after R. Akiva). See the discussion by Menahem Kahana, Sifre on Numbers: An Annotated Edition in his commentary to Sifre Bemidbar (Jerusalem 2011), vol. 3, p. 524.
  10.  Notably, the Babylonian amora, Rav Yosef, recognizes the relationship between regular religious acts and the view of R. Yose when he suggests that the effectivity of everyday petitionary prayers makes sense only if we assume, with R. Yose, that divine judgment takes place constantly.
  11.  Regarding R. Yose’s prooftext from Job 7:18, R. Meir presumably would argue that indeed God constantly examines human activity, but that judgment for this activity is not immediate, but rather confined to a defined timeframe when humans are judged for the actions examined over a protracted period of time.
  12.  Even though the mishnah does not mention Yom Kippur and does not differentiate between the original decree and sealing the decree, nevertheless I accept the reading of the y. Rosh Hashanah 1:2 (57a), which identifies the mishnah with the view of R. Yehudah, presumably reading “period of judgment” as including both time of decree and time of sealing and reading “Rosh Hashanah” as the ten-day period that opens the year, thus including Yom Kippur (compare Ezekiel 40:1, “On Rosh Hashanah on the tenth of the month,” and see Yoel Bin-Nun, ZakhorVeShamor (Alon Shvut 2015), pp. 239-240. B. Rosh Hashanah 16a, however, identifies our mishnah with a fourth tannaitic view, cited in a baraita of Tanna devei Shmuel (see discussion of the two Talmudic readings in Lieberman, Tosefta Kifshuta, pp. 1025-1026), and in a similar vein Judith Hauptman, Rereading the Mishnah (Tübingen 2005), pp. 12-14, suggests that the Mishnah redactor has spliced together elements of R. Akiva’s and R. Yehudah’s opinions. Ze’ev Safrai, Mishnat Eretz Israel (above, n. 2), pp. 308-309, argues – unconvincingly, in my view – that the tradition of four periods of judgment dates back at least to R. Akiva (and possibly R. Ishmael as well), and is related to an early tradition (whose antiquity I also find questionable) regarding four new years. See M Rosh Hashanah 1:1, but see my discussion of this mishnah in The Literary Method of Redaction in Mishnah based on Tractate Rosh Hashanah (Ph.D. diss., Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001) {Hebrew}, pp. 51-52.
  13.  In its original context at t. Sukkah 3:18, R. Akiva’s statement may be read without positing any sort of judgment context. He is simply saying that at times when agricultural blessings are seasonally due to be bestowed upon Israel, it is natural to demand of them that they acknowledge their dependence upon God for these blessings as a precondition for receiving them. To use a rough analogy, if a parent, about to give a treat to his or her child, conditions receipt upon saying “thank you”, it would hardly be appropriate to describe this as the parent “judging” the child.
  14.  It would thus appear that R. Akiva’s disciples, R. Yose and R. Yehudah, disagree as to whether their teacher viewed the festivals as periods of judgment. The disagreement among commentators on the Mishnah and Talmud as to whether R. Akiva’s tradition can indeed serve as a source for the Mishnah’s four periods of judgment – e.g., Hiddushei HaRan to Rosh Hashanah 16a (mishnah, s.v. be’arba’ah peraqim), Tosfot Yom Tov to Rosh Hashanah 1:2 – thus echoes a controversy among the disciples of R. Akiva.
  15.  Even though the Tosefta follows up R. Akiva’s tradition with an explanation along similar lines of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah, the rabbinic provenance of these prayers makes it highly unlikely that they are the source for viewing Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment. An alternate homiletical source for Rosh Hashanah as a day of judgment is Psalms 81:4-5, as expounded in T Rosh Hashanah 1:11. Hiddushei HaRan to Rosh Hashanah 16a (mishnah, s.v. be’arba’ah peraqim) suggests that it is learned from the homiletical exposition of Deuteronomy 11:12 in Sifre Devarim Piska 40.
  16. The connection between the divine judgment on Rosh Hashanah and the view of R. Eliezer that humankind was created on Rosh Hashanah is drawn explicitly in the preamble to the Zikhronot prayer, as noted in Vayikra Rabba 29:1 (= Pesikta DeRav Kahana 23:1). 
  17.  Perhaps the Mishnah relies here, as it often does, on the student’s awareness of parallel sources which spell out what it has left vague. Nevertheless, the Mishnah does intimate on a different plane how judgment of humankind is interwoven with the agricultural cycle by providing several intriguing literary links between the four new years and the four periods of judgment, as explained in my article, “Yom Din BeTorat Hatannaim” in B’Rosh Hashanah Yikkateivun (ed. Amnon Bazak; Alon Shvut 2003), pp. 67-71.
  18.  In t. Rosh Hashanah 1:11, the shofar on Rosh Hashanah in Psalms 81:4 announces the judgment (משפט) of verse 5. The idea that the soldier’s awareness of his divine commander serves to achieve divine favor is suggested by striking literary parallels between M 1:2 and M 3:8, where the hearer of the shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah is compared to the Israelite soldiers battling the marauding Amalekites, whose victory is secured by directing their hearts to their Father in heaven.
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