As we have seen (section 1 above), blessing and judgment are linked, for when God bestows life upon the world, He also passes judgment upon it, determining who will be granted life and blessing, and who will not. Since God recreates life on Rosh Ha-shana for the next year, it is the primary time of judgment for the whole world.
Thus, the Sages state, “On Rosh Ha-shana, all of humanity pass before Him like sheep, as we read (Tehilim 33:15), ‘He who fashions the hearts of them all, Who discerns all their doings’” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). They also state: “Just as a person’s earnings are determined on Rosh Ha-shana, so are his losses” (Bava Batra 10a).
Even though judgment primarily takes place and is inscribed on Rosh Ha-shana, it is sealed on Yom Kippur. Therefore, the days between them are a time for repentance and prayer to improve the judgment. R. Meir states: “All are judged on Rosh Ha-shana, and the verdicts are sealed on Yom Kippur” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). Similarly, the Sages state: “All of a person’s earnings are determined between Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur” (Beitza 16a).
Even though the judgment is sealed on Yom Kippur, in exceptional circumstances it is still possible to improve or annul it until Hoshana Rabba and Shemini Atzeret. This is because the angels responsible for carrying out sentences receive their instructions then, so it is the final stage of the yearly judgment (Zohar III 33b; Peninei Halakha: Sukkot 6:1).
While Rosh Ha-shana is the general day of judgment for the entire year, the Mishna states that the three festivals are days of judgment for particular features. On Pesaḥ, judgment is passed about grain; on Shavu’ot, judgment is passed about fruit; and on Sukkot, judgment is passed about water (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). Since holy days are a conduit for divine blessing to descend to the world, there is consequently judgment then associated with the blessings they convey. The timing of the holidays reflects natural processes. Sukkot is at the start of winter (the rainy season in Israel), so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of water. Pesaḥ is when crops grow, so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of the crops. Shavu’ot is when fruit begin to grow and ripen, so it is the conduit for the blessing and judgment of fruit. In other words, on Rosh Ha-shana the general fate of water, crops, and fruit is determined, while the detailed judgment is reserved for later: water on Sukkot, grain on Pesaḥ, and fruit on Shavu’ot (Peninei Halakha: Festivals 1:2).