The Mishnah on our daf teaches that the world is judged on four occasions during the year:
- On Pesah a heavenly decision is made with regard to the year’s grain
- On Shavuot the world is judged regarding the fruits of trees
- On Rosh HaShana all living creatures are brought before God for judgment
- On Sukkot a decision is made about the amount of water that the world will receive that year.
Both the early and later commentaries discuss how the decisions made on grain, fruit and water relate to the general judgment made about every person on Rosh HaShana. The Ran suggests that the heavenly judgments about food and water relate to the entire world, while the rulings handed down on Rosh HaShana relate to the individual and how much he or she will receive from that amount. The Rema MiPano explains that the general ruling is made at the beginning of the year, on Rosh HaShana, but that every person is judged again at certain points of the year (or, according to Rabbi Yosei in the Gemara, every day) to see if the original ruling is still appropriate at this time and how the person should receive it.
The Ran suggests that most of these dates of judgment are derived from the Temple sacrifices that are brought on those holidays that refer specifically to these different natural resources. The idea of Rosh HaShana as a day of judgment stems from the passage in Tehillim 81:5, which is understood to be a reference to Rosh HaShana, and discusses it as a time of “statute” and “law.”
Our Gemara is the source for the famous image of three books opened before the Almighty on Rosh HaShana, where the tzaddikim – the righteous – are signed and sealed for life, the resha’im – the evil-doers – are signed and sealed for death and the beinonim – the middling, or average people – have an opportunity to add to their good deeds until a final decision is made on Yom Kippur. The commentaries struggle with the symbolic language of this story. Rashi suggests that the Gemara does not mean to discuss righteous and evil people, rather those who have been chosen for life or death in the upcoming year. The Rashba, on the other hand, believes that the story really does talk about righteous and evil people, but that “life” refers to a share in the world to come, and does not guarantee that they will live out the year in this world.