In his rush to ascribe religious significance to the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, until her passing was an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Joe Biden and many major media cited a Jewish teaching that simply does not exist.
“It’s been noted that she passed away on Rosh Hashanna,” Biden said about Ginsburg. “By tradition, a person who dies on the Jewish New Year is considered a soul of great righteousness.”
This sentiment was echoed by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in an article by Reuters.
“One of the themes of Rosh Hashanah suggests that very righteous people would die at the very end of the year because they were needed until the very end,” the rabbis was quoted as saying.
And again, this “Jewish tradition” was cited by NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg:
A Jewish teaching says those who die just before the Jewish new year are the ones God has held back until the last moment bc they were needed most & were the most righteous. And so it was that #RBG died as the sun was setting last night marking the beginning of RoshHashanah
— Nina Totenberg (@NinaTotenberg) September 19, 2020
The Forward, formerly known as The Jewish Daily Forward, also paraphrased this alleged Jewish teaching, referring to Ginsburg as a “tzadik”, which translated means “a righteous man”.
“The idea, as I understand it, is this: If God is deciding during the High Holy Days who shall live and who shall die over the next year — inscribing and then sealing us all in the imagined Book of Life and Book of Death — then those who die close to the next High Holy Days are the ones God granted the most time. In this thinking, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was doomed to die during the Jewish year 5780, but nonetheless was allowed to live — and so very fully — almost until the year 5781 began.”
There is no source in Judaism that makes the claim that righteous Jews die at the end of the year. There is, however, a section of the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16b) that gives a similar teaching:
Three books are opened on Rosh HaShana before the Holy One, Blessed be He: One of the wholly wicked people, and one of the wholly righteous people, and one of the middling people whose good and bad deeds are equally balanced. Wholly righteous people are immediately written and sealed for life; wholly wicked people are immediately written and sealed for death; and middling people are left with their judgment suspended from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur, their fate remaining undecided. If they merit, through the good deeds and mitzvot that they perform during this period, they are written for life; if they do not so merit, they are written for death.
Rabbi Yosef Berger, the rabbi of King David’s Tomb on Mount Zion, confirmed that there is no such teaching about passing away on the eve of Rosh Hashanna. But Rabbi Berger emphasized that it is always preferred to speak well of the deceased, even more so during the ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur.
“There is only one true judge,” Rabbi Berger emphasized. “We can bear witness for each other and hopefully, we judge each other to the benefit.”
Rabbi Berger referred to a Jewish tradition of kaf zchut taught in the section of the Mishna called “Chapters of the Fathers.” Sometimes mistranslated as “giving the benefit of the doubt”, this term is more accurately translated as “judging favorably.”The rabbi noted that Ginsburg passed away on the eve of Shabbat.
“There is a tradition that it is a good sign if someone who passes away on the eve of Shabbat. Such a person can enter into Gan Eden (the garden of Eden) without the tribulations of Gehinnom,” Rabbi Berger said.
Ginsburg’s passing has opened up a major political battle. President Trump has already nominated and had confirmed, two Supreme Court justices: Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. With just 42 days until the election, Trump has announced he will choose a justice to replace Ginsburg. Earlier this month, as part of his campaign platform, Trump put out an updated list of more than 40 lawyers he would consider nominating to the Supreme Court if a vacancy arose. The list includes current federal judges, former Trump administration officials and Republican senators. On Saturday, Trump said he would name a woman as his candidate next week.
On Sunday, Joe Biden called on Democrat and Republican lawmakers to block any justice nomination by the President.
“The United States constitution allows Americans the chance to be heard – and their voice should be heard… they should make it clear, they will not stand for this abuse of power,” he said. “I appeal to those Senate Republicans – please follow your conscience, let the people speak, cool the flames that have been engulfing our country,” he said.
“Don’t vote to confirm anyone nominated under the circumstances President Trump and Senator McConnell created. Don’t go there.”