The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16b) states in the name of Rabbi Keruspedai in the name of Rabbi Yohanan,, “Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: one for the completely wicked, one for the completely righteous, and one for the intermediate people. The completely righteous are written and sealed for life; the completely wicked are written and sealed for death; the intermediate people are held in abeyance from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement): if they merit they are written or life, if not they are written for death.”
The obvious objection to this statement is that the world does not seem to operate this way. Righteous individuals may pass way at a young age and people that appear to be wicked may live a long life. Surprisingly the Talmud accepts Rabbi Keruspedai’s statement at face value and does not attempt to modify or explain it. What is even more surprising is that Maimonides who is known for his direct and rationale approach to Torah quotes this statement without explanation as follows (Laws of Teshuva -Returning to Hashem 3:3), “(On Rosh Hashanah) if one is found righteous; his (verdict) is sealed for life. If one is found wicked, his (verdict) is sealed for death. An intermediate’s verdict remains tentative until Yom Kippur. If he repents, his (verdict) is sealed for life. If not, his (verdict) is sealed for death.
There are many answers to this objection as follows:
- This statement only applies to the completely righteous or completely wicked (Sefer Hinuch Chapter 311). Therefore, with respect to this statement, almost all people would be considered as between these two extreme and thus deemed intermediate. However Maimonides did not mention this qualification of “completely” which would limit this statement to a very small minority. Rather his ruling would apply to the righteous or wicked which would include many more people.
- We cannot judge who is completely righteous or wicked, this is left to Hashem. Maimonides accept this view (ibid 3:2).
- The definitions of completely righteous or completely wicked do not refer to the person’s overall moral standing. Rather these terms refer to Hashem’s judgment of the person on Rosh Hashanah. According to this view, the term “a completely righteous individual” means that Hashem judges this person favourably even though they may have sinned during the year. Similarly “a completely wicked individual” is judged unfavorably even though they have performed many mitzvoth during this year. This judgment is determined by Hashem and is influence by many factors (e.g. merit, destiny, and divine will) as will be explained in this article. This view also agrees with point 1 that completely righteous are judged for life and the completely wicked for death. (Rabbi Nissim of Gerona (Ran) – 14th century Talmudic and halachic authority on Rosh Hashanah 16b). By contrast, in the judgment of the hereafter the terms righteous and wicked are literal and refer to a person’s merit or lack thereof.
- The definitions of life and death or completely righteous and wicked of the above statement are not literal and must be explained in terms of other texts from the Talmud. For example, life and death may be metaphors for physical blessing (e.g. heath, wealth, and family situations or lack of this blessing, respectively). Even these blessings or lack of them are conditional upon moral standing as explained in point 2 of the theodicy section where the righteous may suffer and the wicked prosper (Rashba 14th century Talmudic and halachic authority).
This article will focus on the fourth point because the first two answers detract somewhat from the impact of this statement. According to the first answer this statement would only apply to a few people (i.e. completely righteous or completely wicked) while the intent of the Talmud is teach everyone about the Day of Judgment. According to the second answer the definitions of righteous and wicked become somewhat vague while the implication of this statement seems to correspond to our understanding of these terms. Otherwise the Talmud should have defined these terms through a debate. The third answer does not see to follow the straight meaning of the text where the terms righteous and wicked apply only to this judgment and not to life in general.
(Note: Of course the author does not have the audacity to find fault with the above explanations which are provided by classical Talmudic commentators. Rather the article informs the reader of the difficulties with these explanations.)
This article will focus on the definition of life and death with respect to Rabbi Keruspedai’s statement by examining several sources from the Talmud with associated commentaries to precisely define life and death within the context of the Day of Judgment.
Many of the commentators on the Talmud link the judgment on Rosh Hashanah to the judgment at the end of one’s life as described in Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16b, “The completely righteous are written and sealed immediately for eternal life. The completely wicked are written and sealed immediately for purgatory (Gehinnom). The intermediate people descend to purgatory, suffer, and then ascend to eternal life, according to the school of Shammai… According to the school of Hillel the intermediates are spared the trip to purgatory.” Here the terms completely righteous or wicked may be literal or with respect to this judgment. By comparing the language of these two judgments one can conclude that there is a connection between judgment in this world and the world to come. In fact the next source emphasizes this connection by attempting to explain the method of divine justice.
Theodicy – Berachot 7a
In fact the Talmud (ibid.) asks the time honoured question in the name of Moses, “Why do some righteous suffer and some prosper? Why do some wicked prosper and some suffer?” It seems that the divine judgment is random because it does not appear to follow a person’s moral standing rather both righteous and wicked seem to experience the same fate (i.e. prosper or suffer). The Talmud (ibid.) provides the following answers based upon one’s past, present, and future:
- Past – The judgment depends partially upon one’s ancestors. The righteous who prosper are the descendants of righteous people (i.e. father or earlier generations). In turn the righteous who suffer are the descendants of wicked people. The same applies for the wicked who prosper (i.e. righteous ancestors) and suffer (i.e. wicked ancestors). However this answer does not take into account the person’s own actions, hence the next answer.
- Present – The judgment partially depends upon one’s own actions. The righteous that prosper are completely righteous. In turn the righteous who suffer are not completely righteous and suffer in this world as a cleansing to enter the world to come without defect. In addition Hashem may judge a person according to his or her potential. Therefore even a person who appears righteous may be judged more harshly than another because he or she failed to realize their potential. Of course only Hashem knows the potential of every person and certainly no mortal has the right to attempt to determine another’s potential. Similarly the wicked that prosper are rewarded for their good deeds in this world but are punished for their sins in the world to come (Deuteronomy 7:10). Similarly Hashem may judge an apparent evil person leniently taking into account upbringing, environment, and potential. The wicked that suffer in this world lack good deeds and are punished in both worlds.
- Future – Hashem may also judge a person in term of future events or offspring (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:15.1 also identified as 7:32), thereby withholding immediate judgment. In addition Hashem is filled with mercy and patience (Exodus 34:6) and wants a person to change his ways and return to Hashem. Unlike man, Hashem is not bound by time and will take action when necessary. By contrast mortal man can only take action in his lifetime.
Despite all of these explanations, the Talmud (ibid.) concludes that the decision ultimately rests with Hashem and still appear as a mystery to man. We know for certain that Hashem’s decisions are just, as the verse says (Deuteronomy 32:4), “(Sturdy as a) rock, (Hashem is) perfect in His work, for all His paths are justice; a G-d of faith without iniquity, righteous and fair is He (divine). As Rabbi Yannai says, “It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the (apparent) wicked or the suffering of the (apparent) righteous” (Avot 4:15 and in some editions 4:19).
Definition of Life and death – Berachot 18a and b
The Talmud Berachot provides definitions of life and death beyond the literal meaning of physical life through the following statements:
- “The righteous even in their death are called living (ibid.18a).”
- “The wicked even during their lives are called dead (ibid. 18b).”
From these parallel statements we see that the Talmud considers life in a spiritual manner (i.e. connected or detached from Hashem). Hence the word “life” may refer to this world as well as the world to come. The righteous are considered alive in both worlds. In this world they are connected to Hashem through the study of his Torah and observance of mitzvoth. In the world to come, the righteous sit with their crowns upon their heads thereby enjoying the splendor of the Divine Presence (ibid. 17a). Even in their physical death they live on in this world through their descendants, disciples, and teachings, in addition to their legacy of mitzvoth (e.g. acts of charity, building synagogues, and supporting schools of Torah). By contrast the wicked are detached from Hashem and their physical life has little value in terms of spirituality in this world unless they perform some mitzvoth. As mentioned above (Rosh Hashanah 16b) the wicked at death are doomed to purgatory and therefore are not connected to Hashem in the afterlife. (It goes without saying that we are not in a position to judge who is wicked, except in some extreme cases, and this is left to Hashem to fully assess the deeds of man.)
Life and Death Choices -Tamid 32a
In addition to the general definitions of life and death the Talmud offers advice to achieve a meaningful life. The Talmud (ibid.) records a number of philosophical discussions between the sages of Israel (literally the elders of the south) and Alexander the Great. Alexander asked them “What should a man do to live?” They answered him, “He should kill himself.” He then asked them, “What should a man do to die?” They answered him, “He should enliven himself (i.e. the opposite of the previous answer).” Although the sages answered Alexander in a terse, oracle style which he would appreciate, these statements require elaboration to appreciate their significance.
Clearly the terms life and death do not refer to physical existence, for who in his right mind would commit suicide in order to live? Rather the Talmudic commentators understand life and death in spiritual terms. In this context, life means connected to Hashem both in this world and the world to come (Rosh ibid.). In this world, “killing oneself” means reducing physical indulgences which otherwise take time away from studying Torah and performing mitzvoth, especially helping others. Similarly the term death means detachment from Hashem both in this world and the world to come. In this world excess physical indulgences could even lead to an untimely death from a physical viewpoint in addition to spiritual damage. In a similar vein (Berachot 63b), Reish Lakish says that words of Torah are retained by one who kills himself over the Torah by reducing indulgences. In particular Reish Lakish is an apt example of dedication to Torah because he previously was a war lord and then changed his life after meeting Rabbi Yohanan and became his prime student (Bava Metziah 84a).
The reader may ask, “This is an interesting explanation, but where do we find in scripture, either directly or through allusion, that the dead are called living?”
Jacob Alive – Taanit 5b
When describing the passing of Jacob, the Torah states Genesis (49:33), “He (Jacob) expired and was gathered to his people.” However the Torah did not actually use the term “died” as was the case for Abraham and Isaac (ibid. 25:8 and 35:29). Therefore Rabbi Yohanan maintains that Jacob did not die (in a physical sense) even though the Torah relates that he was embalmed, mourned, and buried (ibid. 50:2, 50:10-11, and 50:13, respectively) . He cited the verse (Jeremiah 30:10), “Do not fear, Jacob, My servant,” said Hashem, “and do not be dismayed Israel; for I will save you from afar and your descendants from captivity.” Thus the prophet equates Jacob with his descendants this implies that just as his descendants live on, so does he. Rabbi Yohanan meant that Jacob lives on spiritually in this world because his offspring, the 12 tribes and their descendants, maintain his heritage even though he died in a physical sense. By contrast Abraham begot Yishmael and Isaac begot Esau who are not considered Israelites and to some extant indicate a death to these forefathers. Hence we see that the Talmud uses the terms life and death in a metaphorical sense referring to attachment and detachment from Hashem and his Torah and with respect to descendants.
Moses Alive – Sotah 13b
In a similar vein the Talmud (ibid.) records an opinion that Moses did not die based upon a word and concept association (i.e. the word ‘there”) which occurs in two verses (i.e. Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 34:6). In the former verse the Torah states, “He (Moses) remained there with Hashem for 40 days and 40 nights … and He (Hashem) wrote on the Tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” In the latter verse the Torah says, “Moses, the servant of Hashem, died there in the land of Moab.” Hence the Talmud concludes that just as the first verse indicates that Moses stood in the service of Hashem so in the second verse, after his death, Moses stands in the service of Hashem. In addition the latter verse calls Moses the servant of Hashem implying in a homiletic sense that he is still serving Hashem. (The literal meaning of this verse is that Moses died physically and the phrase “servant of Hashem” refers to Moses in his physical life).
Again we can understand this word association as referring to the spiritual state of Moses as being alive because his teachings of the Torah reverberate throughout the world, especially the book of Deuteronomy which Moses wrote himself with the approval of Hashem (Maharal based on Megillah 31b). In addition Moses continues to serve Hashem in the afterlife and can intercede on behalf of the Israelites to mitigate divine decrees. For example, Tosafot on Sotah 14a cites a Midrash Aggadah which states that every year on the anniversary of the sin of Peor (Numbers 25:1-3), the negative forces of Peor attempt to ascend to heaven and recall the guilt of the Israelites. Moses, with his great merit, prevents this ascent and thus serves the Israelites and Hashem, even in his physical death.
The above explanations relate to one’s moral standing in terms of reward and punishment as well as the words “life” and “death”. However one must also consider destiny as a factor which is determined by Hashem at birth and how this destiny interplays with merit.
Lifespan – Yevamot 50a
The reader may ask, “How can there be a judgment of life and death for most people on an annual basis? Is not the lifespan of a person determined at birth, as the verses states (Ecclesiastes 3:2), “A time to be born and a time to die” and (Exodus 23:27), “I shall fill the number of your days?” In fact the Talmud (ibid.) and Ecclesiastes Rabbah (3:4) answer this question through a dispute between Rabbi Akiva and the sages. The former holds that one’s lifespan is preordained for each individual before birth. If one deserves then Hashem completes his allotted lifespan. However if one is not deserving, then Hashem reduces the lifespan. The sages hold that if a person deservers, then Hashem adds years to the original lifespan. If one does not merit this extension, then Hashem maintains the allotted lifespan. If one does not deserve, then Hashem will reduce the lifespan. In this case of reduction, Rabbi Akiva and the sages agree. This reduction may result from physical factors (e.g. improper diet, lack of exercise, substance abuse, and excess stress) or spiritual factors according to the judgment of Hashem. Hence on Rosh Hashanah, according to both opinions, we pray that out life is not shortened by our mistakes. According to the sages we also pray for an extension of our lifespan if we are meritorious. The Raavad (12th century commentator on Talmud and Maimonides), commenting on Maimonides Laws of Teshuva – Returning to Hashem 3:2, explains the judgment of the three books in terms of this lifespan consideration (i.e. adding, maintaining, or decreasing from the allotted lifespan) on an annual basis.
Life Experiences – Moed Katan 28a
Here the Talmud indicates that not only is the lifespan of a person determined at birth, even the number of descendants and his wealth are similarly determined at birth. Rava said, “Length of life, children (i.e. number of descendants) and livelihood do not depend on merit, but rather upon fate (מזל).” This fate is determined by Hashem and may be correlated to some degree with astrology. However astrology cannot overrule Hashem’s plans for a person if one deserves. In this sense astrology is a potential indicator or a secondary cause. Rava now proves his point, “Rabba and Rav Hisda were both pious sages; each would pray for rain (and because of their great merit) rain would fall.” However their life experiences were significantly different, depending upon fate and not on merit, as shown in the following table:
|Lifespan (in years)
|Barley bread (food scarcity)
|Fine flour (even for dogs)
Here the reader may ask, “If so, what is the purpose of praying on Rosh Hashanah if these experiences are independent of merit?” There are many answers to this question and this article will provide some of them here:
- With a great merit it is possible to change destiny (Tosafot ibid. based on Shabbat 156a). However the same Tosafot also notes that in some cases one cannot change destiny. For example Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was a very pious man whose merit sustained the world even though he lived in dire poverty. Once his wife complained that she could no longer tolerate poverty and asked her husband to pray for divine relief. Hashem answered his prayer with a leg of a golden table. However he saw in a dream that this gift detracted from his share in the world to come and asked Hashem to take back the gift and thereby remain in poverty (Taanit 25a). Hence we see that the matter of destiny ultimately rests with Hashem and not merit alone.
- Even if one cannot change destiny, one can pray for mercy to achieve the original destiny and avoid a reduced lifespan caused by certain failings (Yevamot 50a).
- We pray to Hashem because it is a mitzvah in itself, without regard to reward (Avot 1:3).
Nature and Nurture –Eduyot 2:9
This destiny does not operate independent of nature and environment but rather includes nature and nurture. The Mishna in Eduyot 2:9 states that a father gifts to his son beauty, strength, wealth, wisdom, and lifespan. Hence some of the attributes mentioned in Moed Katan (i.e. lifespan and wealth) are determined by the father. Maimonides on this Mishna explains that these gifts apply in the majority of cases, either through DNA (nature) or upbringing and environment (nurture). However a divine decree could override this natural tendency as the Talmud (Niddah 16b) states that at the point of conception Hashem decrees whether this person will be mighty or weak, wise or foolish, and wealthy or poor. However righteous or wicked is in the hands of the person and not by decree.
Livelihood is it Merit or Destiny? – Kiddushin 82a
Here the Talmud discusses the issue of livelihood and selection of a profession. The Talmud also remarks that in every profession there are (relatively) poor and wealthy people. For neither poverty nor wealth is the direct result of a profession. Rather all is in accordance with one’s merit. The Talmudic commentators are somewhat puzzled by this statement since the Talmud, in Moed Katan as discussed above, says that livelihood is dependent on destiny and not merit. Tosafot (ibid. 82a) equates destiny with merit but many commentators disagree with this interpretation and assert that destiny and merit are different. Maharsha (ibid.) explains that the Talmud indicates that through merit one can change destiny. However this statement is also disputed as discussed above. The commentator Iyun Yaakov explains that a great merit cannot easily change all three factors (i.e. lifespan, number of descendants, and livelihood) but may change one of them, especially livelihood which does not involve changing nature. However the case of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa shows that even livelihood cannot always be changed through merit. The author would like to add the following points, explaining merit with respect to destiny in reference to livelihood:
- Integrity – Even with a limited livelihood as a result of destiny, a person could increase his livelihood through integrity (i.e. merit), either as an employee or self-employed, without changing nature. People will naturally appreciate his moral standing and result in increased opportunities (i.e. win-win).
- Industriousness – Similarly a person can improve his lot by using his talents in a judicious manner, along the lines of the vernacular,” Work hard and work smart.”
- Psychological – Even if a person cannot overcome his destiny in a monetary sense, he can increase his satisfaction with life following the advice of Avot 4:1 “Who is rich? One who is content with his lot.”
Based upon the above Talmudic sources we can conclude that the definition of life and death with respect to the context of the three books are as follows:
- Life and death are not literal but refer to the blessings of life (i.e. health, wealth, and family situations).
- Life means attached to Hashem and death means detached from Hashem. In this manner the definitions of life and death apply to this world and the afterlife but are not literal in a physical sense.
- The physical blessings of life are determined by one’s destiny. However one can fall short of this destiny by inappropriate actions, physical or spiritual. Each Rosh Hashanah, Hashem examines a person’s actions to determine if the destiny should be maintained or even reduced. In addition with great merit one can even overcome this preordained destiny.