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?

In his comment at the end of Deuteronomy XXXII, 4. Rashi says of this concept of tzidduq hadin (“justification of the judgment”):

All justify upon themselves His judgment, and so it is fitting and upright for them, He is just and upright according to His creatures, and it is fitting to justify Him.

This, in my humble opinion, is the point of the midrash’s answer to its own question: It is certainly fit and proper for us to beg for Ha-Shem’s mercy, knowing as we do those places in which we have fallen short of deserving justification ‘al pi din, as pure justice would have it. This is the purpose, after all, of the ‘asereth yëmei hatëshuva. The din was decreed on Rosh haShana, and we now have ten days to argue our appeals.

Be that as it may, it is critical that we bear in mind that no matter what is in store for us, as we say in Yiddish, der Eybishter firt zayn velt: “The Al-Mighty runs His world.” Whatever happens, it is just and justified. The proper attitude is to accept that fact. If there is din down below, if we accept the justice of the decree, then it is possible for rachamim to flow from Above.

If we now go back and examine the verse which was used by Rabbi Chanina and his wife to justify the din, we note that the preceding verse reads: “When I call out the name of Ha-Shem, ascribe greatness to our G-d.” A perusal of rabbinic literature finds numerous halachoth associated with these words.

Without going into the technical details, the common thread between these diverse laws is that each involves one or more people responding to something said by another, as if the verse is to be read: “When I call out Ha-Shem’s name (e.g., in making a blessing) you respond by making a statement glorifying G-d.” Thus, the Rabbis attach great importance to answering amen when someone else makes a blessing: “Greater is the one who answers ‘amen’ than the one who makes the blessing” (Bërachoth 53a), and the Zohar (II, 78a) tells us that one of the qualities of this word is “that it encompasses two Divine Names.” This is accomplished by reference to the gimtariya or numerical value of the word amen, 91, equivalent to the combined values of the Tetragrammaton (26) and the name Ad-nai (65).

As has been noted before in these columns, the Tetragrammaton is associated with the measure of mercy, and the name Elo-him with judgment. It should be noted that Ad-nai, too, is associated with judgment, being derived from the same root as din.

Moshe’s exhortation to us to glorify Elo-heinu, “our G-d,” when he calls out Ha-Shem tells us that it is up to us to recognize the essential unity of the two, and therewith the shittuf (“partnership, association”) between din and rachamim. To justify the din is to acknowledge that Ha-shem is Elo-heinu, our Judge who exercises legitimate adonuth, “lordship,” over the world.

We realize that the answer to the question “Why me?” when we are confronted by adversity rests with us. It is the only way to draw down rachamim from the world which is entirely rachamim, our stated and hoped-for goal on the Day of Atonements.