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Why Jews Appeal Their Fate for Ten Days Before Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur (or, more properly, Yom haKippurim, “the day of atonements”) comes, for the traditionally observant Jew, as the culmination of a very long process of repentance.

First, the entire month of Elul, which precedes Rosh haShana, is considered most propitious for reflection and repentance, a time when G-d makes Himself even more available than is otherwise the case. This is poignantly hinted in the relationship posited between the Hebrew letters of the name Elul -- אלול -- and the initials of the phrase אני לדודי ודודי לי -- “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine” (Song of Songs VI, 3).

This culminates in Rosh haShana, the awesome yom hadin, the “day of judgment” on which the course of the next year is set based upon your past actions. There then ensues a period known as the ‘Asereth yënei hatëshuva, the “Ten Days of Repentance,” during which we are permitted to appeal the decision made in the Divine Court above. The final decision is rendered on Yom Kippur. One begins to see why this is considered so awesome and consequential an occasion.

One of the central features of the additional, or Musaf, service for this holiday is the recounting of the sacrificial service as it was held in the Temple when it stood, followed by the account of the Ten famous martyrs -- great rabbis who were murdered by the Romans in the wake of the Temple’s destruction and as a consequence of the failed revolt.

One of these was Rabbi Chanina ben Tëradyon. The Talmud (‘Avoda Zara 18a) tells us that he was arrested together with his wife and daughter, and that they, too, were sentenced with him for execution. As they were led out to their fate, the Talmud tells us, tziddëqu ‘aleihem eth hadin; hu amar “HaTzur tamim po‘olo” vë’ishto amëra “É-l emuna vë’éyn ‘avél” (“They justified upon themselves the judgment; he said, ‘The Rock, Whose work is perfect,’ and his wife said, ‘G-d of faithfulness and no injustice.’” Deuteronomy XXXII, 4)

To understand how their example resonates for us down through the centuries, it is useful to recall a famous midrash, very widely quoted, which informs us that G-d’s original intention in the creation of the world was to provide a venue for the middath hadin, “the measure of judgment.”

In its most famous formulation, provided by Rashi in a comment on the first verse in Genesis, this runs: “ … shebatëchilla ‘ala bëmachshava livrotho bëmiddath hadin vëra’a she’éyn ha‘olam mithqayyém vëhiqdim rachamim vëshittëfah lëmiddath hadin.” (“[T]hat at first it arose in thought to create [the world] with the measure of judgment, and He saw that the world does not [thus] endure, and He brought forward mercy and associated it with the measure of judgment.”)

This is the midrash as it is usually quoted; however, in the original source, it goes on to ask how this association is possible: where din is present, there is no place for mercy. If a reward is deserved, in justice it is granted; if punishment is warranted, that too is justice. Mercy plays no role here.

By the same token, what else is mercy but the setting aside of judgment? How can the two be associated?