On Rosh Hashanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
— Unetaneh Tokef
This iconic line from the haunting Unetaneh Tokef, recited on Rosh Hashanah, is often understood as a summation of the season: On Rosh Hashanah God judges each person according to their deeds in the previous year. A person’s fate for the coming year — which can be ameliorated by atonement — is sealed on Yom Kippur.
It may surprise some to learn, however, that the Torah does not say anything about judgment, atonement or forgiveness in connection to Rosh Hashanah. The Torah simply says that this festival on the first day of the seventh month is a Yom Teruah (a day for blasting the shofar) and a Yom Hazikaron (a day of memorial) without any further clarification (Leviticus 23:24, Numbers 29:1). The tradition that we are judged by God on Rosh Hashanah is derived from the mishnah that opens today’s daf:
At four times of the year the world is judged:
On Passover judgment is passed concerning grain.
On Shavuot concerning fruits of trees.
On Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before him (God) like sheep…
On Sukkot they are judged concerning water.
This mishnah pegs different kinds of divine agricultural judgments to the three pilgrimage festivals. Passover is when the amount of grain that will grow in the ensuing year is decided while Shavuot is when the fruit harvest is locked in. Sukkot, which comes right before the winter rains, determines how much water will be brought to prepare the soil for the next year’s crops.
But Rosh Hashanah is different — on Rosh Hashanah it is not the land, but we ourselves who are judged. The Gemara now offers an interesting set of expansions on this idea:
It is taught:
Everyone is judged on Rosh Hashanah, and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur, according to Rabbi Meir.
Rabbi Yehuda says: All are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and the sentence for each person is sealed in its own time.
Rabbi Yosei says: A person is judged every day, and not just once a year, as it says: You visit him every morning. (Job 7:18)
Rabbi Natan says that a person is judged every hour, as it is stated: You try him every moment. (Job 7:18)
What an interesting array of opinions! Rabbi Meir’s position is the one we recognize from the Unetaneh Tokef: We are judged on Rosh Hashanah and our fates are sealed on Yom Kippur. But immediately Rabbi Yehuda takes exception: Each sentence of judgment is sealed not necessarily on Yom Kippur, but “in its own time.” (A mysterious and likely lenient view that encourages us to never throw our hands up instead of pursuing atonement.)
Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Natan have a different view, that we are judged constantly, every day or perhaps every hour. Both base their opinion on Job 7:18. And they, too, say nothing about a person’s fate being sealed on Yom Kippur. That idea seems to rest solely with Rabbi Meir.
Rabbi Hisda, who is bothered that these latter two rabbis draw conflicting interpretations from the same verse, says that Rabbi Yosei actually bases himself on a different verse: To make the judgment of his servant and the judgment of his people Israel at all times, as each day may require. (I Kings 8:59) But wherever Rabbi Yosei originally got the idea, it has remained a part of Jewish tradition — it is the reason that we pray daily in the Amidah for the sick and afflicted that they should recover and not die.
So who is right? As you’ve probably already surmised: They all are. As Rabbi Yitzchak comes to remind us:
Crying out to God is beneficial for a person both before his sentence has been decided and after his sentence has been decided.
God can we swayed — and God can always change His mind.
The Gemara wants to have its cake and eat it too. It is accepted, in line with Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda, that the Ten Days of Repentance that starts with Rosh Hashanah is a public and universal time of judgment. Yet, it is equally accepted, in line with Rabbis Yosei and Natan, that one can repent and atone at any time during the year. This duality reinforces the idea that the Torah speaks to us as a nation, as a people fixing public occasions to recognize different religious obligations — especially atonement. However, it also speaks to us as individuals on our own timetable. These two ideas do not contradict, rather, they complement one another.
Read all of Rosh Hashanah 16 on Sefaria.