Penitence Before Judgment

From: Scott in Ireland

Dear Rabbi,

I am uncertain as to why Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, precedes Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance. Shouldn’t we first repent, and then be judged?

Dear Scott,

You ask a very good question. And you are right, repentance should precede judgment. In fact, there are several times during the year when our deeds are evaluated and we are advised to take inventory beforehand. This occurs at the end of cycles in time. For example, one should review and do teshuva at the end of each day before going to sleep; on Fridays, before Shabbat; at the end of the month before the new moon; and during the last month, Elul, before the New Year, Rosh Hashana.

Therefore, the entire month of Elul is opportune for repentance in preparation for the Day of Judgment. During this month, special penitential prayers and supplications are recited, usually late at night or preferably very early in the morning before the daily morning prayers. Sephardim recite these “selichot” the entire month, while the Ashkenazim begin toward the end of the month before Rosh Hashana. [One who is unfamiliar with these prayers should feel comfortable reciting less quantity with more quality, than more quantity with less quality. After all, their purpose is not to pay empty lip service but to stir repentance.] In addition, Ashkenazim blow the shofar (ram’s horn) of Rosh Hashana during the whole month in preparation for the Day of Judgment.

Our Sages taught (Rosh Hashana 17b): “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana, one for the iniquitous, one for the righteous, and one for those in the middle. The righteous are sealed for life, the iniquitous for death, while those in the middle are held over until Yom Kippur. If they repent, they are inscribed for life, if not, for death.” It is for this reason that the intermediary days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are called the Days of Repentance, in which our efforts to do teshuva are intensified. This culminates in what you refer to as the Day of Repentance, but is more accurately translated as the Day of Atonement. This expresses our confidence that by this time every “middle-of-the-roader” has completed his repentance. And G-d, in His great mercy, forgives, inscribes and seals us all for a year of life and blessing.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email