(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine. Original photo: NASA / WMAP Science Team)
Navigate to Belief section

Can God Be Tricked Into Forgiving Unethical Behavior?

Talmudic rabbis set out to debate the religious calendar, and wind up talking about religious sincerity

Adam Kirsch
May 28, 2014
(Photoillustration by Tablet Magazine. Original photo: NASA / WMAP Science Team)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

This week’s Talmud reading began with a historical question that is at the same time a cosmological one. At the beginning of Tractate Rosh Hashanah, we learned that for certain purposes the first day of the year is the first of Nisan, while for others it’s the first of Tishrei, which is when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. But which of these, the rabbis wonder, is the day on which God created the world? Rabbi Meir believes that it was Nisan, while Rabbi Eliezer opts for Tishrei; and each supports his position by a reading of the Torah’s creation story.

When the world was first created, we learn in the first chapter of Genesis, God said, “Let the earth bring forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit trees yielding fruit after its kind.” Now, the month in which crops come to harvest is in the fall, so “you must say that this is Tishrei,” Eliezer explains. But Yehoshua reads the verse differently, saying that we should be looking not for the month when crops are fully grown, but the month when they begin to be visible. This, of course, happens in the spring, so the world must have been created in Nisan.

Regardless of which answer you accept, the very fact that such a question could be asked tells us a great deal about how the rabbis understood time. For us, it would make no sense to ask on what date the Big Bang took place, because time itself only came into existence with the universe. There was no spring or fall when the universe began, because these are names we give to earthly seasons, and the universe existed long before the earth did. The rabbis, on the other hand, think of the earthly calendar as something preexistent in the mind of God. For them, earthly time is absolute time; when they say that the first of Nisan (or Tishrei) is the first of the year, it is because that date is the anniversary of the beginning of time. Why else would God pick that date to observe the New Year?

In general, the rabbis demonstrate a love of calendrical tidiness, which leads them to decide that virtually all the important events of biblical history took place on the same dates. “Rabbi Eliezer says: In Tishrei the world was created; in Tishrei the Patriarchs were born; in Tishrei the Patriarchs died; on Passover Isaac was born; on Rosh Hashanah Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah were remembered by God and conceived; on Rosh Hashanah Joseph came out from prison,” and so on, down to the coming of the Messiah, which will take place in Tishrei as well. Rabbi Yehoshua is similarly symmetrical, though he believes that all these things happened and will happen in Tishrei, which he holds to be the first month of the year.

The rabbis justify these datings with ingenious, if not rigorously logical, readings of the Bible. How do we know, for instance, that the Patriarchs died in the same month they were born—indeed, as the Gemara goes on to claim, on the same day of the month? Well, in Deuteronomy Moses says on the day of his death, “I am one hundred and twenty years old today.” “Today,” the rabbis observe, must mean that the date of his death was the same as the date of his birth. This would be in keeping with another verse, in Exodus, in which God promises, “The number of your days I will fulfill”: This means fill them up exactly, in round years. And if Moses was granted this sign of divine favor, surely Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would receive it as well?

Even more remarkable is the reasoning that demonstrates that Isaac was born on Passover. Here the evidence is verbal: In Genesis, the angel that informs Sarah that she will become pregnant says that he will come “at the appointed time,” using the Hebrew word, mo’ed, that is also used for the major festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. What the rabbis do not address is the glaring fact that, in Sarah’s time, these festivals had not yet been instituted; indeed, the Exodus from Egypt, which Passover commemorates, had not yet taken place! Yet here, again, the rabbis imagine the Jewish calendar as something that exists in the mind of God, so that certain dates are hallowed even before they officially become holidays. “The land was ours before we were the land’s,” said Robert Frost in “The Gift Outright”; the rabbis believed that Passover was ours before we were Passover’s.

The Gemara’s discussion of the first mishna in Tractate Rosh Hashanah extends all the way through page 15—an unusually long stretch of commentary. It is with the second mishna, on Rosh Hashanah 16a, that the rabbis turn their attention to the holiday’s spiritual significance. On Rosh Hashanha, we say every year, God inscribes us in the Book of Judgment, and on Yom Kippur he seals the judgment. During those 10 intervening days, Jews are supposed to pray urgently for God to judge them mercifully and not to write them down for a death sentence. That is why this period is known as the Days of Awe.

You don’t have to think about this system for very long, however, before some serious problems present themselves. If God only judges us during 10 days out of the year, why do we pray to him on the other 355 days? It would be pointless, it seems, for a sick person to pray to God for healing, if God had already decided whether that person would live or die the previous Yom Kippur. By the same logic, if God seals our judgment for the coming year on Yom Kippur, does that mean that repentance subsequent to Yom Kippur is useless? And if I commit a sin in March and die in April, does that mean I am not being punished for the sin I just committed, but for the previous year’s worth of sins, which God had judged me for last September? If so, do we ever get punished for the sins we commit in the last year of our life?

It is thanks to considerations like these that the rabbis begin to back away from the whole Days of Awe concept almost as soon as they establish it. “All are judged on Rosh Hashanah and their sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur,” Rabbi Meir says. But Rabbi Yosei says, “A person is judged every day,” and Rabbi Natan goes even further, holding that “a person is judged every hour.” Immediate judgment is more emotionally and morally satisfying than once-a-year judgment, and it does away with some of the latter’s paradoxical results.

Rabbi Yitzhak offers another revision to the standard theory when he introduces the idea that, while God does issue sentences on Yom Kippur, he can be induced to cancel them later. “A person’s sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions,” he explains. Three of these actions are just what we would expect: Giving charity, praying, and changing one’s behavior can all induce God to give us a second chance. But surprisingly, Yitzchak also believes that changing your name can also alter your fate; and others add changing your place of residence. This seems almost like trying to trick God, as if he—or, perhaps, the Angel of Death—wouldn’t be able to figure out where you were if you left town or adopted an alias. If there is a element of superstition here, however, the Gemara also offers sound biblical precedents. After all, Sarai was able to conceive a child after she changed her name to Sarah, and Abraham was not made a great nation until he left the land of his birth.

Later, however, a baraita is cited that seems to dispute Rabbi Yitzchak’s theory of repentance. “If one repents between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he is forgiven; if he does not repent … then even if he later brings as offerings all the rams … in the world, they do not forgive him.” How can we reconcile this strict line with Yitzchak’s more lenient one? “This is not difficult,” the rabbis decide. For an individual, the sentence issued on Yom Kippur is indeed irrevocable; but for a whole community, even late repentance can induce God to change his mind.

Finally, on Rosh Hashanah 17b, the rabbis make clear that asking God for forgiveness is not always enough; if you have wronged another person, you must seek that person’s forgiveness as well. Rabbi Yosei explains this point with a parable about a man who borrows one hundred dinars from a friend and takes an oath by the life of the king that he will repay the money. When the time comes and he defaults on the debt, he begs the king for forgiveness for breaking an oath made in the royal name. “For my insult I forgive you,” the king replies, “but you must still go and appease your friend.” Even sincere prayer, the Talmud insists, is no substitute for ethical behavior.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study,click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Join Us!

Become a member and unlock exclusive access to events, conversations with Tablet personalities, and more.