By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

By Rabbi Yair Hoffman

Rosh Hashanah is coming, the day of judgment for the entire world. Jews and gentiles are all judged on this day. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 16a) tells us, “All pass in front of Him in judgment like sheep …”

All Jews are commanded in the 613 mitzvos. Yet the overwhelming majority of Jews are not Torah-observant. According to a 2013 survey of the Pew forum, 90 percent of American Jews are not observant. They do not keep Shabbos or the laws of kashrus. They are quite removed from the ideals of dveikus — cleaving to Hashem and imitating His Divine attributes. In Israel, the situation is only slightly better. There, 80 percent are not observant.

How are they to be judged? In other words, what are the criteria by which the vast majority of Jews are judged upon on this day?

The Rosh Hashanah davening includes the words, “On Rosh Hashanah, it is written and on Yom Kippur it is inscribed, who shall live and who shall die…” Remarkably, all of us are judged on this day in a trial of capital punishment. And yet most of us are entirely ignorant of the laws upon which we are judged. How can this be?

Judging With Equity

The tacit assumption we must make is that Hashem will judge everyone with equity and fairness. Indeed, if we carefully examine the last few pesukim in the 96th chapter of Tehillim, we see the following:

“The inhabited world will be established so that it will not falter; He will judge peoples with equity. The heavens will rejoice and the earth will exult; the sea and the fullness thereof will roar. The field and all that is therein will jubilate; then all the forest trees will sing praises. Before the L-rd, for He has come, for He has come to judge the earth; He will judge the inhabited world justly and the peoples with His faith.”

As a Kidnapped Child

There is a concept known as “tinok she’nishbah” — that Jews who were not privileged to have been exposed to the beauty of Torah and of Shabbos are considered like those who were kidnapped as children and do not know better.

By this criterion, if Hashem takes into account the non-exposure to Torah-true Judaism of the overwhelming majority of Jews, this would mitigate the judgement.

View of the Poskim

The Rema (Y.D. 159:3) defines a tinok she’nishbah as one who does not know of the Torah of Israel at all. How do the poskim understand this?

Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, (I.M. O.C. I #33) writes that it is difficult to place all Shabbos violators in this category as there are many who have seen and heard about religious Jews and the Torah. Rav Vosner in his Shevet HaLevi (Vol 9 7:14) follows the same line of reasoning as Rav Feinstein, zt’l.

The Chazon Ish, however (Y.D. #2:16), states that in our times every Shabbos violator is considered a “tinok she’nishbah” like a child who was kidnapped and is not to blame for his lack of knowledge. He is therefore considered to be shogeg, an inadvertent violator.

Backing up this idea of the Chazon Ish was a ruling issued by Rav Nissin Karelitz to Rav Dunner, a rav in Bnei Brak, regarding a fascinating question. A kollel man was blowing shofar at the Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikvah. As he emerged from the hospital on the main street holding his shofar, four individuals emerged from a vehicle and requested that he blow shofar for them since it was Rosh Hashanah. What should he have done? Rav Karelitz answered that they have the status of a tinok she’nishbah and he should have blown for them. He added that perhaps the call of the shofar will spark them to pursue Torah earnestly.

What Is the Yardstick?

Does that mean that those who have not been exposed to Judaism get a free pass? Or is there another criterion by which non-observant Jews are judged?

This author would like to suggest that no one gets an entirely free pass— and that there is a strict criterion of judgment for everyone. Otherwise, the Gemara in Rosh Hashanah 16a would be entirely irrelevant. So what is that strict criterion upon which everyone is judged?

The answer is middos, or character traits, a very critical component. This can be seen from many pesukim in the Torah.

Let’s go back to Avimelech and Avraham Avinu. Avraham arrives in town and the first question posed to him is, “Is this woman your wife; is she your sister?” What happened to basic etiquette? Generally speaking, he should be asked about food, drink, and lodging. Not so, in this case, points out the Gemara in Bava Kamma 92b. “He should have learned but he did not learn,” observes the Gemara.

Learn what, however? Rashi explains that he should have learned derech eretz. “Manners maketh man,” as the saying goes. And manners are essential. The Talmud states that, yes, Avimelech deserved punishment for the breach of manners.

Avimelech had no further insight into Torah than the 90 percent of non-observant Jews in America, and yet he was strictly punished.

The Vilna Gaon writes (see Even Sheleimah 1:2), “The essential life of man is constantly to strengthen in developing middos, for if not, of what purpose is life?” This is also written in his commentary on Mishlei 4:13.

Perhaps the idea of character and virtue being the critical component of judgement for those not exposed to Torah can be seen from the words of the Alter from Slabodka. In Sichos HaSabba (Vol. II page 645), the Alter’s comments on the verse in Iyov (5:7) “Adam l’amel yulad, Man is born to struggle hard …” are cited. The classic understanding of the term “struggle” is within the context of developing character. He notes that it does not say, “Man is born to struggle in Torah.”

For the Torah-Observant As Well

This is not to negate the fact that we are all commanded in the observance of all of the 613 mitzvos, or that gentiles are commanded in the seven Noachide laws. There is no question that our judgement is strongly predicated upon our dedication to Torah and to the observance of the 613 mitzvos. The shofar is blown from the Shulchan and not the Amud in order to remind the heavenly court of the merit of our Torah study. Yet, we are judged by the middos criterion as well.

There is a popular term now, the meaning of which indicates an easy shortcut. The word is “hack.” My rosh yeshiva, zt’l, once quoted his father, who quoted the Alter, who quoted Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm about a “hack” that Rav Yisroel Salanter once revealed on Rosh Hashanah that will get you through with a pass. He said that if one commits himself to the study of Mussar in order to improve his character, that alone will get one through the day. n

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at


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