The Proper Rosh Hashanah Greeting

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by R. Gil Student

I. Have a Good Year

Many people greet each other on Rosh Hashanah with blessings for a good year, “Shanah tovah.” 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 “Tikaseiv be-shanah tovah, 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-shanah tovah tikaseiv, 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-shanah tovah tikaseiv ve-seichaseim, may you be written and sealed for a good year.” As he points out, the greeting included in the 1557 Machzor Ma’agalei Tzedek is similar — “Tikaseiv ve-seichaseim le-shanah tovah.” However, the Vilna Gaon (Commentary, ad loc.) disputes the addition of the word “techaseim, sealed” because it does not reflect what actually happens on Rosh Hashanah. Later prayerbooks differ on this. In his Siddur Beis Ya’akov, Rav Ya’akov Emden (18th cen., Germany) follows Rema, as does Dr. Seligmann Baer in his Siddur Avodas Yisrael (published 1868). Siddur Otzar Ha-Tefillos (published 1909) follows Magen Avraham. The Artscroll and Koren Machzorim for Rosh Hashanah follow Magen Avraham also. There are two important Talmudic passages that underlie this discussion.

II. Signed, Sealed, Not Delivered

The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 16a) quotes a baraisa which accords with the view of the Mishnah: “It is taught in the school of R. Yishma’el: At four times of the year the world is judged: On Pesach concerning grain; on Shavu’os concerning fruits of the tree; on Sukkos they are judged on water; and man is judged on Rosh HaShana and his sentence is sealed on Yom Kippur.” According to this baraisa, we are judged on Rosh Hashanah and that judgment 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 teshuvah). 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 HaShana: 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 HaShana 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 R. 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, 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.

III. This World and the Next

In contrast, Tosafos (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 Tosafos, 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.

What about the previous passage? Tosafos (Rosh Hashanah 16a s.v. ke-man) discuss praying on Rosh Hashanah for good health. It sounds like they consider the previous passage to refer to this world. The Vilna Ga’on (ibid.) explicitly states that 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 Tosafos, when we say in the U-Nesaneh 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 Tosafos 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.

IV. Creative Greetings

Another option is to wish people that they be written and sealed for a good year but not immediately. According to Ramban, this is an appropriate blessing for Rosh Hashanah because the righteous are written and sealed on that day. According to Tosafos, the sealing of the judgment does not take place until Yom Kippur so we cannot wish that it happen immediately. However, we can wish that in the near future they are written and sealed for a good year.

Rav Avraham Danzig (19th cen., Lithuania; Chayei Adam 139:5) says that the proper greeting is “Tikaseiv ve-seichaseim 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-shanah tovah, 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 Tosafos 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 “kesivah va-chasimah 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 kesivah va-chasimah tovah for this world and the next.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

2 comments

  1. DavidBFreedman

    Thank you. Excellent article.
    Please note: “Dr. Seligmann Baer in his Siddur Avodas Yisrael (published 1868)” — No, that is a common mistake. If you look at the book, it is called Seder Avodas Yisrael.

    • Thank you for that correction. The edition I have says “Siddur Avodas Yisrael” on the cover, which the publisher made, but on the title page it says “Seder Avodas Yisrael.” I had not noticed that difference before.

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