Question: A basic Jewish belief is that everyone ultimately will be judged. This final judgment is called din v’cheshbon, judgment and reckoning – see Avot 3:1. What is the difference between these two terms? What is din and what is cheshbon?
Answer: The Gaon of Vilna is reputed to have defined din and cheshbon as follows: Din is the judgment for the sin committed. Cheshbon is the reckoning for the time lost while the sin was being committed – time that could have been used to perform mitzvot. Thus, cheshbon deals with loss of potential. The person who complains about the lack of sufficient time for performing mitzvot is reminded about the time he wasted while sinning.
Rav Shlomo Kluger (Magen Avot) maintains that din refers to judgment regarding mitzvot and aveirot while cheshbon is the reckoning for excess in matters that are permitted in principle, such as food and drink. The Torah does not provide maximum limits for permitted items. Yet, a person may be judged to be gross or crude for indulging too much.
Some note that the sequence in Avot 3:1 seems backwards. Presumably, a cheshbon, a reckoning of the merits and sins of a person, comes before a din, a judgment based on that assessment. Why, then, does the tanna in Avot place din before cheshbon?
The Baal Shem Tov is said to have contended that reckoning actually takes place second. It takes place in Heaven after a person is shown someone who committed a sin similar to his own and passes judgment on that person.
How so? The most notable example is that of King David and the prophet Nathan. After David sinned by taking Batsheba as a wife, Nathan told him the following story: There were two neighbors. One was very wealthy and owned thousands of sheep. The other was quite poor; his sole joy was a pet calf. He played with it, slept near it, and shared his meals with it. One day, a guest came to the wealthy neighbor. Instead of slaughtering one of his numerous sheep, the wealthy man stealthily entered the poor man’s home, took the pet calf, and slaughtered it.
When David heard this story, he became enraged at the immoral behavior of the wealthy man and declared that he deserved a very harsh punishment. Nathan then asked the king how his behavior differed from the wealthy sheep owner’s. David had, after all, taken Batsheba away from her husband Uriah even though he had thousands of women available to him.
The Baal Shem Tov said that all men, like David, are shown people who performed their own sin in different form. They are then asked to pass judgment on them. Whatever judgment they pronounce on their fellow man another is assigned to them.
And this is why din precedes cheshbon. First a man passes judgment on another person in this world. Later, in the world of true judgment, there is a cheshbon, a reckoning based on the very judgment that he issued. (See Iyyunim BePirkei Avot by Rabbi Heshel Ryzman.)