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THE METER CONTINUES TO RUN

by Eyal Feiler    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 32b) records an interesting story told by Rabbi Avahu. He relates that the angels asked Hashem, "Why is it that your servants do not praise you with song (referring to the Hallel prayer service) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?" Hashem replied, "It would be inappropriate for the Jewish people to sing praises while I sit in judgment with the Book of Life and Book of Death open before me."

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The Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 32b) records an interesting story told by Rabbi Avahu. He relates that the angels asked Hashem, "Why is it that your servants do not praise you with song (referring to the Hallel prayer service) on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?" Hashem replied, "It would be inappropriate for the Jewish people to sing praises while I sit in judgment with the Book of Life and Book of Death open before me."

While the portrait of the Divine books of judgment is perhaps one of the most well-known and often discussed images of the days of awe, this answer offers more questions than answers. What are the Books of Life and Death? Does the Book of Death list those who will die in the coming year, or those who have already passed away? One would think that the Book of Death corresponds with the Book of Life. Just as the Book of Life lists those who merit another year in this world, the Book of Death contains a corresponding list of those who will exit this world in the upcoming year.

Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, one of the greatest Torah scholars and leaders in Lithuania at the beginning of the 19th century, offers a different approach. He suggests that the Book of Death contains a list of those who have already died. If this is so, then why are those who have died subject to evaluation on their past deeds each year? Those who died have already received their judgment! Furthermore, people that are no longer in this world cannot perform mitzvot, nor can they transgress.

Rabbi Yitzchak Lapranti, in his work Pachad Yitzchak, explains that those who passed away are indeed judged, not on their past actions but on the present ramifications of their past deeds. For example, Mr. X may inspire Mr. Y to observe Shabbat, or offer him advice for developing kavanah (concentration) during prayers. Long after Mr. X dies, he will continue to receive reward as Mr. Y observes Shabbat. Each time Mr. Y prays with the additional intensity inspired by Mr. X's words, Mr. X also receives additional merit. Mr. X's reward is compounded further as Mr. Y's family, inspired by Mr. Y, also observe those same mitzvot. Thus, Mr. X's deeds live on long after he has died, and he receives rewards for actions performed by others in this world even though he may be in another. It is a sobering thought that the converse is also true.

According to this interpretation of the books of judgment, one who influences other people in a negative way faces the consequences long after he has died. Thus, each year, those who are in the Book of Death are reevaluated on the legacy that they have left in this world, and their fates are reviewed once again based on this year's happenings.

The concept of an ongoing judgment explains a difficult Mishnah at the beginning of the third chapter of Ethics of Our Fathers: "Akavia ben Mahalalel says: Consider three things and you will not come into the grip of sin: Know whence you came, whither you go, and before Whom you will face a judgment and a reckoning of your deeds." Usually, an evaluation or reckoning must precede the judgment in order to make a fair decision. Yet here, the judgment comes first. Based on the explanation above we now have an alternative understanding. The judgment is based on the person's actions during his lifetime. However, the reckoning continues long after he has died.

Our rabbis tell us that angels exist for specific tasks. Once they complete their assigned task they cease to exist. Thus their roles are limited and they do not recognize that actions continue to reverberate and have ramifications long into the future. It is understandable that they posed the question of singing to Hashem since they do not see the results of their actions. We, however, have a multi-dimensional existence. Our actions have much greater impact. Sometimes we can clearly observe the fruits of our labors, while other times we do not. However, the books of judgment remind us that our own actions have great ramifications long after we are gone.

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Adapted from the Sefer Hegyonei Halacha by Rabbi Yitzchak Mirsky, a contemporary Torah scholar in Israel.

Eyal Feiler, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta and Yeshiva University, writes from New York City.

You are invited to read more Rosh Hashanah articles.

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