What Exactly Gets Weighed on Rosh Hashanah?

Last week we began our exploration of Rosh Hashanah, examining the complex nature of the day. Our journey led us to discover that each Rosh Hashanah invites us back into the Garden of Eden. For two days we stand with God deciding what type of ‘Adam’ (human) we will be. The question being asked is: what type of existence do we envision for ourselves. It is the most important question of our lives, and it is something we focus on every year for the two days of Rosh Hashanah.

We are now ready to turn back to the nature of the judgment itself…

The Scales of Judgement

One of the best known Talmudic depictions of Rosh Hashanah is that of the scales. Our good deeds are weighed against the bad. In the reformulation of this idea in the words of Rambam (Maimonides):

‘Every single person has merits and corruption. One whose merits exceed their corruption is a tzadik (a positive, righteous person), and he whose corruption exceeds their merits is a rasha (a negative person); if both are evenly balanced, they are beinoni (in between).….even as a person’s acts are weighed at the time of their death so are the merits and corruption of each and every person weighed on the holy time of Rosh ha-Shanah. One who is found righteous is sealed for life; he who is found negative is sealed for death, and the ‘in between’ are suspended until the Day of Atonement, if they repent they are sealed for life, if not they are sealed for death.’

Rambam, Laws of Repentance 3:1-3

As with so much of Rosh Hashanah, this enigmatic depiction raises many questions. But it turns out that this judgement contains within it the key to unlocking the nature of the day and what we are trying to achieve.

First the questions. 

One obvious one is that the depiction does not seem to bear out with reality. We do not see bad people dropping dead on Rosh Hashanah. At the same time, during any given year plenty of righteous people die. This is not a new problem or development. It was as clear an issue in the days of Rambam and indeed of the Talmud as it is today.

Another problem is that if it really means that on Rosh Hashanah everyone’s judgement is determined except for one whose good deeds balance their bad ones; then how many people could possibly fit that category? What is the statistical likelihood of anyone anywhere ever ending up with an even scale? And if indeed it applies to virtually no-one, then what would the purpose of Yom Kippur be? 

But the simplest question, and the one that turns out to hold the key to unlocking everything else is this. Where have we ever seen any judgement like this that seems to work on aggregate totals? Throughout Torah it seems clear that every positive act is to be rewarded, and every negative is to be punished. The greatest if all men, Moshe, is punished for striking a rock instead of speaking to it. Surely if you put all the good that he did on a scale it would infinitely outweigh any bad? Conversely, when the wicked Queen Isabelle dies her hands are preserved ‘because she used to dance with her hands to bring joy to the bride and groom. Her scales would doubtless have tilted decidedly to the negative, and yet that does not eliminate the reward for the good that she did. The message is clear: every act will be rewarded or punished appropriately. So what are the scales measuring?

Several commentators arrive at the same inescapable conclusion: these scales are not weighing what we have done; they are weighing who we have become as a result. Rambam, after all, does not use the words ‘mitzvot’ - good acts - nor ‘aveirot’ - bad acts. Instead he uses the words ‘zechut’ and ‘avon’. ‘Zechut’ is typically translated as ‘merit’. You cannot do a ‘merit’. ‘Merit’ is what happens as a result of what you have done. 

More deeply, the word ‘zechut’ is rooted in the word ‘zach’ which means ‘purity’. The better we act, the purer we become. Conversely the word ‘avon’ relates to the word for ‘corruption’. The scales do not weigh the acts we have done. They will all be dealt with individually. Yom Kippur exists for that judgement. Rather the way how pure we have become versus how corrupt we have become. That is the nature of the judgement of Rosh Hashanah. 

Put slightly differently, the question of Rosh Hashanah is not: ‘what have you done?’ But ‘who are you?’, ‘what are you living for?’

It is, in effect, an echo of the garden of Eden: ‘are you living for God? For the Creator and for His creation? Or are you living for yourself?’ There are different voices within us and the scales hangs in the balance. All that we have done throughout the year helps to shape who we are and what we value. The day of Rosh Hashanah and its service tries to help us tilt the scales decisively towards the meaningful life; the Godly life. 

Rosh Hashanah is not at the end of the year because it is not a judgement of the acts that we have done over the past year. That judgement will come. But that is for Yom Kippur, not Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah is at the beginning of the year because it asks us who we are and what we are living for. It helps us set the tone, the vision and the direction of the year ahead. 

The question man was asked in Eden was ‘what is it you are living for?’ But there was another question, one that God was asking, and one that we are asked every single year. It is the ultimate question of judgement: ‘why should I create you at all?’ 


No Right to Life

Judgement is always probing and asking. It seeks justice and justification. Do you have a right to this particular object or entity? What is someone else claims it is theirs and you have no right to it? 

But the judgement of Rosh Hashanah is radically different. We are in the dock, so to speak, face to face with our own Creator who is asking us to justify our existence. ‘Why should I give you another year of life?’ 

Face to face with our Creator we are soon struck by the icy realisation that we have no right to life vis a vis God. What possible answer could we give? Even if we behaved well, even if we commit to behave better, there is simply nothing that could compel God to continue creating us. 

Even the angels have no ‘right’ to exist. ‘The angels tremble, gripped by fear and dread, and they declare “here is the Day of Judgement”!’

To face such a question is to erode the securities that allow us to believe in the inevitability of life. It is to be vulnerable to our core. For it seems that there is, indeed no answer.

But there is. There is one answer we can give. The only possible answer. We say, ‘God we have no right to live. We cannot demand that You give us another year. But we ask You for it, not because we want it but because You do! You have a Will for a world; You have a plan for creation. I want to live for Your Will, for Your plan. Your dream is my dream; Your vision is my vision.’

In the prayers, in every Amida, each silent prayer, we add in a line towards the end of the first blessing: ‘Remember us for life… and write us in the book of life for Your sake, God of life…’[1]

It is the power of this question, and the dawning realisation that we have no right to be here that was frightening enough to make the Israelites cry in the days of Nehemiah. It is frightening enough that it prevents us from wearing the coloured clothing, or singing the Hallel. The books of life and death are open indeed. 

It is this reason that it needs a miracle for us to exist. If we have no right, then existence is not a given. But it is a miracle we can ‘rely on’ because the miracle is that God Wills it, and the more we can align our vision with His, the more we can be confident that the miracle will occur.

So the challenge of Rosh Hashanah, the only question it asks from us, is whether we really can hand our will over to God; whether we really can let go of self-centeredness, whether we really can be a force for healing, of Israel and all mankind. 

A part of us wants to say yes, a part of us wants to say no. The scales are weighed. Some are able to decisively commit one way or the other. Many, or perhaps most, are torn. The verdict is not totally determined. They need to work through what they have done and arrive at Yom Kippur.


Living Forever

But there is one question still unanswered by all of this. Why indeed do those who commit to the deepest self-centred evil not drop dead? And why do those who commit fully to Godly living not live forever? 

The Tosafos, the medieval Franco-German Talmudists, answer by saying that ‘life’ and ‘death’ refers to the world to come.[2] 

Like so much of our Rosh Hashanah study, at first glance that may not seem satisfying. After all, if all that is happening is that each Rosh Hashanah a decision is being made as to our eternal status, could that not simply be overturned the next year? Surely the only status that matters is the very last Rosh Hashanah? 

When we ask for life, we are actually asking for much more than another year to live on planet earth. Death is inevitable and another year of delaying the inevitable is hardly worth requesting. Instead we are asking for the opportunity to live lives that touch eternity itself. 

There are many cultures, religions and philosophical systems that believe in a ‘world to come’. For the vast majority of those, the ‘world to come’ refers to life after death - a disembodied soul in a non-physical world. When the word is used in Jewish sources it almost invariably refers to the state of humanity at the end of history - a return to the state of Eden. To be sure there are many Jewish sources that discuss an afterlife. But it is hardly spoken about in the written Torah and occupies very little discussion in the Talmud. The ‘world to come’ on the other hand, occupies far more space in prophetic vision and throughout Jewish philosophy. Ultimately even life after death culminates in a ‘resurrection of the dead’ 

The reason is that many cultures and religions believe that the world as a whole is fatalistically determined to fail. Some believe that a miraculous salvation may be brought to bring the world to perfection. Most believe that individuals can be salvaged and earn a high level in an afterlife. Jewish thought believes in a ‘world to come’ because Jewish thought believes in history. We believe that history itself will not fail; rather the sum total of all human choices will itself produce the most indescribable perfection at the end.

Apart from being optimistic, the concept of a perfected history has a radical and profound impact on the way we view our everyday lives. If we believe in a world that can fail, then we believe that our ordinary actions have no real impact. We might still want to perform religious commands, if only because they score us points and help us get a nice afterlife. But that would be all.

The Jewish view of history is that it will succeed; that the sum total of human choices will lead to the perfected final chapter. In effect it is a view of history as a story being co-written by God and by man. God ensures that the final chapter will pick up every thread and deliver whatever twist is needed to reveal the stunning tapestry that was hidden all along. Our job is to write all the previous chapters; to produce and to sew the threads into place. Every positive choice we ever make ripples across history in ways we cannot even fathom. The world to come has no new threads. No new choices are made. What there is the story of all our choices, and a revelation of how each one made the magnificent end come about.

To be written in the ‘book of life’ means to be offered a starring role in the next chapter. To be written in the ‘book of death’ means to have no role in the next chapter. That is what the Tosafot mean when they interpret the life and death of the scales. Evil people may not drop dead on Rosh Hashanah. They may still walk the earth and experience success. But if they have been written out of the book of life for the year then whatever happens, when we reach the end of history and look back on their lives will have no link to the end. They will not have made any contribution that can be traced to the end. They will be a forgotten irrelevance. On the other hand, the fully righteous who are immediately written in the book of life may or may not live long. But their lives will lie at the focus of the great story. Their every move will have the potential to shape history. They will be infinitely significant forever. 

That is what Rosh Hashanah decides. The book of history is a book about God and a book about humanity. Each year the roles are being assigned. The resources of the world are being redeployed. Those who are living for themselves, no matter how many observances they may keep, will have no role in the story. Their good acts will be rewarded separately. But the scales of significance have tilted decidedly to their non-existence as far as the story is concerned. Those who have committed their lives to living for others and living for God become central core components of the story. They are written in the book of life forever. 

How are we to attain such a level? How can we ensure that we are to be written into the ‘book of life’? How can we harness the opportunity of Rosh Hashanah in order to maximise the meaningfulness of our own lives?

A significant part of the answer lies in the prayer service of Rosh Hashanah. It is to this that we turn our attention in the third and final part of this essay, next week.


[1] Amida, first blessing, special addition for the ‘ten days of repentance’.

[2] Rosh Hashanah, 16b, sv. Venechtamin

- September 10th 2020

About the Author

Rabbi Daniel Rowe Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country. Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".  Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.

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