June 11, 2024
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The Proper Rosh Hashanah Greeting

In memory of Michael Laves, z”l, a good friend who always greeted people enthusiastically.

 

Have a Good Year

Many people greet each other on Rosh Hashanah with blessings for a good year, “Shana tova.” Rav Ya’akov Ben Asher, the 14th century German-Spanish author of the Tur, quotes an Ashkenazic custom to greet people on Rosh Hashanah with the phrase “Tikateiv be-shana tova, may you be written in a good year” (Tur, Orach Chaim 582). Rav Moshe Isserles (Rema, 16th cen., Poland; ad loc., 8) quotes this with a minor variation, “Le-shana tova tikateiv, may you be written for a good year.” However, the exact phrasing of this greeting generated debate. While this may seem pedantic, and really any well-intended greeting is fine, the underlying debate is about the theological meaning of Rosh Hashanah. What exactly happens on this important day and how does it affect our futures? Two forms of greeting offer different visions of Rosh Hashanah but there is a third, little-mentioned greeting that serves as a compromise between the opinions.

Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham, ad loc., 8) quotes a slightly different greeting than that of the Tur and Rema. He says the greeting is “Le-shana tova tikateiv ve-teichateim, may you be written and sealed for a good year.” As he points out, the greeting included in the 1547 Machzor Ma’agalei Tzedek is similar—“Tikateiv ve-teichatem le-shana tova.” However, the Vilna Gaon (Commentary, ad loc.) disputes the addition of the word “techateim, sealed” because it does not reflect what actually happens on Rosh Hashanah. There are two important Talmudic passages that underlie this discussion.

 

Signed, Sealed, Not Delivered

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16a) quotes a breita: “At four times of the year the world is judged … Man is judged on Rosh Hashanah and his sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur.” What does it mean for a judgment to be sealed? Procedurally, it seems that changing the judgment is easier before it is sealed. Before it is sealed, you only have to tip the scales by doing more good (particularly teshuva, repentance). After it is sealed, only an extraordinary effort can change the judgment.

While the above passage places the sealing of the judgment on Yom Kippur, the Gemara says on the next page (16b): “R. Kruspedai said, Rabbi Yochanan said: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah: One of the completely wicked, one of the completely righteous and one of those in between (beinonim). The completely righteous are immediately written and sealed for life; the completely wicked are immediately written and sealed for death; and those in between are suspended and waiting from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are written for life; if they do not merit, they are written for death.” According to this passage, judgments for the righteous and the wicked are written and sealed on Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur is only necessary for those in between. Yet, it seems from the prior passage that Yom Kippur is for everybody.

There are two main approaches to reconciling these passages. Ramban (13th cen., Spain; Sha’ar Ha-Gemul), quoted by Rav Nissim of Gerona (14th cen., Spain; Commentary to Rif, Rosh Hashanah 3b s.v. tzadikim), explains that the first passage is speaking about those in between. Those who are judged as completely righteous or completely wicked for the year are written and sealed on Rosh Hashanah. In this case, the judgment is for the upcoming year and the terms “righteous” and “wicked” are used as technical terms and not descriptive of the individual’s overall merits. Righteous here means someone who is judged for life, who has prevailed in the judgment. Even if he has done many bad things, if he is judged to live and succeed in the upcoming year then he falls into the category of “righteous.” Similarly, “wicked” is used here to refer to the outcome of the judgment, even if the individual is a very good person. Everyone has done good and bad things in their life. Sometimes we are rewarded for the good and sometimes punished for the bad. Righteous and wicked here refer to what the upcoming year will bring. In contrast to those who are not judged righteous or wicked—those whose judgments depend on additional repentance and good deeds—are judged on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is only for those in the “in between” category.

 

This World and the Next

In contrast, Tosafot (Rosh Hashanah 16b s.v. ve-nechtamin) explain the second passage as referring to the World-to-Come. On Rosh Hashanah, we are judged whether we will go straight to Heaven (Gan Eden) or Hell (Gehinom). The completely righteous are immediately written and inscribed for Gan Eden (i.e. life) and the completely wicked are immediately written and inscribed for Gehinom (i.e. death). Meaning, based on their actions over the past year, should they receive Gan Eden or Gehinom? Even though this can change in future years through repentance and good deeds, this is their judgment for the World-to-Come as it stands at that point. Those in between righteous and wicked have their judgments written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur. According to Tosafot, every Rosh Hashanah (and for some, Yom Kippur also) is a spiritual checkup for the World-to-Come, an annual performance review that will yield results after your time in this world is over.

The Vilna Ga’on (ibid.) explains that according to Tosafot, the first passage—everyone’s judgment is written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur—discusses our experiences in this world. The second passage—only the judgment of those in between are sealed on Yom Kippur—discusses judgment for the World-to-Come. According to Tosafot, when we say in the U-Netaneh Tokef prayer that we are written on Rosh Hashanah and sealed on Yom Kippur, we are talking about everyone’s judgment for the next year. According to Ramban, this must be discussing only those in between, not the righteous or wicked.

Bringing it all together, Magen Avraham follows Ramban who believes that the righteous and the wicked are judged, written and sealed on Rosh Hashanah. Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah we greet people with a blessing that they be judged as righteous by saying in our greeting that they should be written and sealed for a good year. In contrast, Tur and Rema follow Tosafot that when it comes to this world, no one’s judgment is sealed on Rosh Hashanah. Everyone is judged and written on Rosh Hashanah but their judgment is sealed only on Yom Kippur. Therefore, you should only wish people to be written—not sealed—for a good year on Rosh Hashanah.

 

Creative Greetings

Rav Avraham Danzig (19th cen., Lithuania; Chayei Adam 139:5) says that the proper greeting is “Tikateiv ve-teichateim le-alter le-chaim tovim, you should be written and inscribed immediately for good life.” He includes both writing and sealing but excludes the upcoming year. The phrase “le-shana tova, for a good year” in the standard blessing refers to the upcoming year, a judgment on this world. By omitting that phrase, Rav Danzig makes the greeting ambiguous so it can apply either to this world or to the next world. You are wishing someone a good judgment—written and sealed. If the judgment is about the World-to-Come, according to Tosafot that is appropriate for Rosh Hashanah when the righteous are written and sealed. If the judgment is about this world, according to Ramban it is appropriate for Rosh Hashanah.

Rav Danzig’s ambiguous phrasing satisfies all opinions. It is common in yeshiva circles to wish people a “ketivah va-chatimah tovah, a good writing and sealing.” I believe that this is a variant of Rav Danzig’s compromise greeting that conforms to all views. With that, I wish all readers a ketivah va-chatimah tovah for this world and the next.


Rabbi Gil Student is editor of TorahMusings.com.

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