Even though judgment is inscribed on Rosh Ha-shana and sealed on Yom Kippur, one’s behavior during the rest of the year still has significant impact, because the shefa of life allotted on Rosh Ha-shana descends to the world gradually, via Shabbatot and Roshei Ḥodashim. As it manifests, it can be diverted toward good or evil. The principle is that the holy days are meant to draw blessing into the world, each day in accordance with its special character. Accompanying the blessing is judgment, so that the blessing reaches the deserving.
Since the blessing descends via Rashei Ḥodashim, they, too, are days of judgment and thus propitious times for repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. There is a custom among the pious to repent on the day before Rosh Ḥodesh (also known as Yom Kippur Katan). Shabbat, too, is holy and blessed, and through it, blessing extends to the six weekdays. So that this blessing manifests properly, one should repent on Shabbat – albeit out of love, good cheer, and optimism, without pain. Homiletically, the word “Shabbat” is related to the word “teshuva” (repentance).
The bounty that descends through Shabbatot and Rashei Ḥodashim continues its descent via the weekdays, each of which has a special sanctity, for each day manifests something of the divine that is not manifested on any other day. Accordingly, each day a person is judged with regard to the unique shefa of that day. As R. Yose said: “A person is judged every day” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a). In fact, every hour presents a unique opportunity to reveal a certain aspect of holiness, and thus there is an element of ever-present judgment. This is the meaning of R. Natan’s statement: “A person is judged every hour” (ibid.). Because of the blessing and judgment that take place daily, we recite Shaḥarit, Minḥa, and Ma’ariv daily, to improve the blessing and judgment specific to that day.
The judgments passed on Rosh Ḥodesh, Shabbat, and every other day do not alter the judgment inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, for while judgment is inscribed and sealed at the beginning of the year, the way it is implemented is not, and the implementation has significant ramifications, for better and for worse. Consider a national budget; it is passed by the legislature at the beginning of the year, and the government has no authority to alter it. Nevertheless, every minister can determine how it will be distributed, and even bureaucrats have the power to direct funding toward one project or another. (See Berakhot 58a.) Similarly, the deeds done all year can direct the judgment for better or for worse. The Gemara elaborates (Rosh Ha-shana 17b):
What is an example of “for better”? Let us say the Jews were completely wicked as of Rosh Ha-shana, and therefore were allotted only a small amount of rain. Later, they repented. It is not possible to send more rain, for the decree has already been made. Rather, God brings [the rain] at the optimal times, on the land that needs it, depending on the land. [Thus, minimal rains can still bring great blessing.] What is an example of “for worse”? Let us say that the Jews were completely righteous as of Rosh Ha-shana, and therefore a lot of rain was allotted to them. Later, they relapsed. It is not possible to send less rain, for the decree has already been made. Rather, God brings it at the worst times, on land that does not need it [so they do not benefit from the rains].
The ideal sequence is as follows. We repent during the month of Elul, and accept God’s kingship on Rosh Ha-shana, leading to a good initial judgment. We continue to ascend spiritually by repenting on Yom Kippur, leading to a better final judgment. With this momentum, we continue to walk in God’s ways. We absorb the shefa of holiness on Shabbat, holidays, and Rosh Ḥodesh, thus increasing the illumination and blessing present in every day, hour, and minute.
. Sometimes it is impossible to divert judgment for the better because the verdict was so decisive; for example, if so little rain was allotted that even if it is optimized, there will be a severe drought. Nevertheless, a community has the great power that if they repent wholeheartedly and pray to God concerning it, they can tear up even a final verdict (Rosh Ha-shana 17b). An individual cannot completely tear up a verdict, but he can improve it by repenting and crying out to God from the bottom of his heart – such that if there is any possible interpretation of the judgment that would minimize the punishment, it will be minimized. For example, if death was decreed for a person, there is still some leeway. Through his repentance and prayer, it is possible that death will be replaced by poverty, exile, or very humiliating experiences, all of which are compared to death. This is why R. Yitzḥak says, “Prayer is helpful to a person, whether before or after judgment has been rendered” (Rosh Ha-shana 16a and 18a). This means it is admirable and has an effect, even though it does not invalidate the judgment (Ran and Maharal ad loc.). There is a tradition passed down by the house of King David that “even if a sharp sword is resting upon one’s neck, one should not stop praying” (Berakhot 10a).