The Day of Judgement [1]

The portrayal of Rosh Hashanah as a "Day of Judgement" dominates the liturgy and customs of the holiday season. As the tradition perceives it, between the New Year and the Day of Atonement God sits in judgement over all mankind to determine our fates for the coming year.

This symbolism is drawn upon to great effect by the authors of the piyyutim, the liturgical poems composed to enhance the statutory prayers of the season. The Jewish people, alongside the rest of humanity, are depicted as standing in a divine court-room, pleading for mercy.

If judged according to the merits of our case, we all deserve punishment. Our only hope is to persuade God to suspend the laws, or to remind him of outstanding favours owed to our forefathers.

In describing the atmosphere of the court, the rabbis and poets based themselves upon settings that were familiar to them. The court-room is of course a well-trodden venue of Talmudic Judaism and provides a wealth of details that can be elaborated in sermons and piyyutim.

No Lawyers

It is therefore most surprising to find that the court scenes that appear so prominently in rabbinic midrash and prayers as models for God's judgment of mankind are, for the most part (for reasons that are not entirely evident to me), not Jewish courts at all, but Hellenistic and Roman ones.

This fact becomes clear when we look at some of the procedural terms that are mentioned. In many of the texts, we read of debates between a sanegor and a kategor--a prosecuting and defending attorney. These are none other than the synegoros and kategoros of the Hellenistic judicial system.

In our sources the position of kategor is often filled by angels, who are believed to hold a mild grudge against the Jews for usurping Gods special favours. The job of sanegor is likely to be held by the Hebrew Patriarchs, by personified representations of the "Congregation of Israel," by a person's virtuous deeds, etc.

Thus, in a well-known talmudic discussion, the rabbis explain why a shofar cannot be fashioned from a cow's horn because "the kategor cannot serve as sanegor;" that is to say, the cow's horn, which holds incriminating associations with the Israelites' worship of the Golden Calf, cannot properly perform its designated function of arguing the Jews' case before the divine tribunal.

Actually, the traditional Jewish court does not permit the use of lawyers at all (though the office of "rabbinic pleader" has developed in recent years in Israel). The talmudic sources, which were familiar with the Roman court system and its susceptibility to persuasion by mellifluous rhetoric, warned the Rabbis, "Do not act like the professional pleaders" (orkhei hadayyanim). It was the judge's job to get at the truth, without its being packaged by a professional.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
Nevertheless, one of the favourite High Holy Days hymns uses the same expression to designate God himself as El Orekh Din--the God who presides over judgement.

Military Metaphors

The Mishnah also resorts to imagery taken from Roman military life when it compares God's judgement of humankind to a commander reviewing his troops: "All the denizens of the world pass before him like a numeron (regiment)."

The terminology, taken from the vocabulary of the Roman legions, was unfamiliar to some of the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, who took it to refer to a flock of sheep being counted by the shepherd. In this version, it entered the haunting poetry of the "Untanneh Tokef" prayer.

A conventional sign of a victorious soldier was his return bearing in his hand a baian, a palm-frond. The midrash saw in this Roman custom a fitting analogy to the Jewish taking of the lulav on Sukkot, a few days after the judgement of Yom Kippur:

Consider two parties who go to trial before a king, and no one but the king himself knows which was declared victorious. In the end, it is evident that the one who emerges holding the baian was the victor.
Another version of this passage uses the metaphor of a triumphant chariot-racer being decorated with a wreath. So too, Sukkot is a celebration of our favourable judgement on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Justice and Mercy

By building upon the imagery of the Roman judicial system the midrash was able to contrast imperfect human justice with the ideal of God's judgement.

On the one hand, unlike a mortal judge, God is not subject to error, corruption or bribery. But on the other hand, unlike most worldly judges, God's justice has the advantage of being tempered by compassion. The human being can implore God not to decree according to the standard of law, but to temper his decision with the measure of mercy.

In later midrashim the qualities of divine justice and mercy were no longer depicted as merely ways in which God judged His creatures, but were transformed into personalities in their own right, fulfilling the roles of kategor and sanegor in the celestial court, supplying God respectively with reasons for condemning or acquitting His creatures.

God on Trial

A feature which has typified Jews' relationships to God from as far back as Abraham and Moses is that God can be argued with and persuaded to change his mind.

The selichot petitionary prayers recited at this time of year, in addition to expressing a contrite recognition of our sinfulness and powerlessness before God's will, are often characterized by an aggressive "bargaining" posture. The authors "remind" God of the suffering to which we have been subjected and of the merits earned by our righteous ancestors, and ask that these factors be counted to our credit.

This pious familiarity before God, who is perceived not only as a judge but also as a patient and forgiving father, was taken to extremes by the famous Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev.

Known as the "Sanegor of Israel" for his insistence on always seeing his fellow Jews in a favourable light, Levi Yitzhak is said to have challenged God one Rosh Hashanah to a lawsuit--a din Torah. God, he argued, had no right to prolong Israel's exile when other more sinful nations were allowed to live in peace and prosperity.

A grim variation on this story is recounted by Elie Wiesel in his Holocaust memoir Night, and later formed the basis for his play "The Trial of God." On Rosh Hashanah, from the depths of their sorrow and despair, the inmates of Auschwitz called God to judgement and condemned him for allowing such evil and suffering in His world.

Both stories, that of Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev and that of the Auschwitz inmates, end in the same way. After declaring God's guilt the accusers rise to recite the Kaddish--the proclamation of God's sovereignty over the universe.

The point is a profound one: For the Jew, it is possible to argue against God, but not to live without him.

May all our judgements during the coming year be favourable ones.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication: JFP, Oct. 31 1991.