The Sound of a Silent Shofar: The Problem of Rosh Ha-shana that Falls on Shabbat

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Adapted by Rav Reuven Ziegler

Translated by David Silverberg

 

Each year on Rosh Ha-shana, we fervently recite the verse from Tehillim (89:16), "Ashrei ha-am yodei terua," "Fortunate is the nation that knows the blast [of the shofar]." Rashi explains the verse as follows:

"[The Israelite nation is fortunate] in that they know how to APPEASE (leratzot) their Creator on Rosh Ha-shana by blowing [the shofar] and reciting in conjunction with it [the three special blessings of the Mussaf Amida:] Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot."

Rashi draws his explanation of the verse from Yalkut Shimoni (Parashat Emor 645, as well as Parashat Pinchas 782 and Tehillim 840; see also Vayikra Rabba 29, Pesikta De-Rav Kahana 23, and Midrash Tehillim, mizmor 41). The Midrash reads:

"Rabbi Yoshiya said: It is written, 'Fortunate is the nation that knows the blast' - do the gentile nations not know how to sound the blast? How many horns and trumpets they have! Rather, fortunate is the nation that knows how to PERSUADE (lefatot) its Creator by means of a shofar blast. And when? In the seventh month [i.e. Tishrei]."

According to Rashi, when the midrash says the Jewish People "persuade" the Almighty on Rosh Ha-shana, it means that they appease Him by means of the shofar blowing and the accompanying recitation of Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot. If so, then what happens on Rosh Ha-shana which falls on Shabbat, when we do not blow the shofar? How do we appease the Almighty then?

The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 29b) cites Rabba's assertion that as far as Torah law is concerned, we should blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana even if it occurs on Shabbat. The Sages, however, decreed that the shofar not be blown on Shabbat, as one may neglectfully carry his shofar through the public domain (which is forbidden on Shabbat) in order to practice blowing under the tutelage of an expert. The Gemara adds that this same concern prompted Chazal to cancel the mitzva of lulav when Sukkot falls on Shabbat and to delay Megilla reading when Purim occurs on Shabbat.

However, as Tosafot (Sukka 43a) note, there exists a difference in this regard between the mitzva of shofar and that of lulav. After the destruction of the First Temple, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai instituted that the shofar be blown on Shabbat Rosh Ha-shana in every locale where an authoritative Bet Din (rabbinic court) sat. Yet no such provision exists with regard to the mitzva of lulav; Rabban Yochanan never decreed that the mitzva of lulav be performed on Shabbat in a region with a Bet Din. (What's more, during the time of the Temple, the shofar was blown only in the Temple itself when Rosh Ha-shana fell on Shabbat, whereas the lulav was taken on Shabbat everywhere. After the destruction, however, the mitzva of lulav suddenly became more limited than that of shofar!)

Why did Rabban Yochanan draw this distinction between these two mitzvot, if the same concern motivated both decrees? Tosafot answer,

"The shofar, which serves to bring the [favorable] memory of Israel before their Father in Heaven, they [Chazal] did not want to cancel entirely."

Our original question, then, becomes even more pointed: What about us today? Why did Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai not worry about those of us who do not have an authoritative Bet Din nearby? How do we deal with the urgent need for divine compassion? Why, on Shabbat Rosh Ha-shana, are we denied the ability to "bring our memory before our Father in Heaven" by means of the shofar?

One could perhaps answer, very simply, that we observe two days of Rosh Ha-shana, and on the second day - Sunday - we have the opportunity to blow the shofar. However, when all is said and done, we observe the second day of Rosh Ha-shana only as a result of a "sefeka de-yoma" - the uncertainty surrounding the correct day of Rosh Ha-shana. How do we earn God's mercy on the first day of Rosh Ha-shana in the absence of the shofar?

It would seem that the redactor of the Mishna, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi (known as "Rabbeinu Ha-gadol" or simply "Rebbi"), provides the essential answer through his arrangement of the mishnayot in the third chapter of Tractate Rosh Ha-shana, thus setting our uneasy minds at rest. This chapter includes several laws relevant to shofar blowing. Sandwiched in between the law requiring intention for the fulfillment of the mitzva and the disqualification of certain individuals from blowing, a seemingly unrelated mishna suddenly catches our attention:

"'Whenever Moshe held up his hand, Israel prevailed [against Amalek]…' (Shemot 17). Do Moshe's hands make or break the battle? Rather, this teaches you that so long as Israel were looking upwards and subjugating their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were victorious; if not, they would fall. Similarly, we find, 'Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard; anyone who is bitten should look at it and shall recover' (Bemidbar 21). Does the brass snake kill or cure? Rather, when Israel looked upwards and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were cured. If not, they would wither."

Why did Rabbi Yehuda insert this mishna right in the middle of the chapter, amidst the complex, detailed laws concerning the blowing of the shofar? Perhaps he should have placed this mishna towards the beginning of the second chapter of Berakhot, where the mishna discusses the requirement of "kavana" (intention to fulfill the mitzva) while reciting Shema. Would that not be a more fitting location for a discussion of the great power of one's thoughts and subjugation of the heart? Why did Rebbi wait until Tractate Rosh Ha-shana?

Sensing this difficulty, the Rambam writes in his commentary to our mishna,

"All this is clear in light of what requires mention in our context, and in accordance with the book's purpose."

What does the Rambam mean? How is Moshe's lifting his hands relevant to the laws of blowing shofar? Furthermore, what does the Rambam view as "the book's purpose?"

The answer is that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi saw Jews who viewed the blast of the shofar as laden with some mystical power, a spiritual force beyond our comprehension that arouses Divine compassion. There were those who thought that the shofar blast itself, through some magical power, triggered the Almighty's mercy and led to His favorable judgment of us. Rebbi opposed this view and equated the shofar with Moshe's hands and the brass serpent. The shofar possesses no power beyond that lying within Moshe's hands. Only when Benei Yisrael look upwards and subjugate their hearts to their Father in Heaven do the gates of Heaven open and welcome their prayers. It is THE SUBJUGATION OF OUR HEARTS, which accompanies the fulfillment of the mitzva of shofar, that arouses Divine mercy in our favor.

Appropriately, then, the very next mishna teaches us a fundamental precept regarding shofar: "Whoever is not obligated in this matter may not fulfill the obligation on behalf of the public (i.e. he may not blow for others)." The mitzva of shofar is one of subjugation of the heart, and total subjugation requires a sense of absolute obligation and the unwavering acceptance of the yoke of mitzvot upon oneself. Only an individual bound by the mitzva can fulfill the obligation on behalf of others. A subjugation of the heart which does not derive from acceptance of the burden of mitzvot can never be considered complete subjugation of the heart. As such, it cannot represent others who do possess this full measure of subjugation. The mishna thus teaches us a critical lesson: with regard to shofar, intention to fulfill the mitzva (kavvana latzet yedei chova) must entail more than a formal, technical awareness; it demands nothing less than absolute acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.

When the Romans destroyed the holy Temp, a feeling of depression and despair overtook the Jewish People. After the destruction, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai saw before him a broken, shattered nation whose spirits have been crushed. He realized that the people under his leadership were unprepared for this revolutionary message transmitted to us by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. They desperately needed the concrete expression of the shofar blast to restore their hope. Therefore, even when there were those who discouraged shofar blowing in Yavneh on Shabbat, Rabban Yochanan overruled them and insisted on sounding the shofar (Rosh Ha-shana 29b).

The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 16a) tells us that the sounding of the shofar flusters the satan and frustrates his efforts against us. In truth, it is not the shofar blast itself that rattles the pernicious satan, but rather the accompanying subjugation of the heart. [See Ran, ibid., 3a in the Alfas.] Indeed, this is the message of the midrash: "'Fortunate is the nation that knows the blast' - that knows how to appease its Creator on Rosh Ha-shana." If we refrain from blowing the shofar in deference to the ordinance of our Sages, then we can surely achieve thereby the same feeling of subjugation attainable through the fulfillment of the mitzva of shofar. This type of subjugation of our hearts, even though it is unaccompanied by the shofar, opens the gates of mercy and brings our favorable memory before the Almighty. [See also Meshekh Chokhma, Vayikra 23:24.]

Subjugation of the heart means absolute subjugation. Even the Vilna Gaon's approach to service of God, in which each individual expresses his personal uniqueness (see the Vilna Gaon's commentary to Mishlei 16:4), requires total subjugation, a sense of absolute obligation. This is what the Almighty wants of us, particularly on this day.

As expressed in our prayers and taught by Chazal (Yerushalmi Rosh Ha-shana 4:1), Shabbat Rosh Ha-shana is the "yom zikhron terua" - the day of recalling the blast. This means that on Shabbat Rosh Ha-shana we arouse Divine compassion not by blowing the shofar, but by recalling the shofar blast, by subjugating our hearts to the kingship of God. We conclude the "Shofarot" section of Mussaf with the clause, "For You listen to the sound of the shofar and heed the blast; there is none like You." This means that God listens not only to the shofar, but also to the subjugation of our hearts. Only He, who understands the heart of man and knows his feelings and inner conscience, can truly listen to our sincere submission to His will; thus, "there is none like You."

 

(This sicha originally was delivered on Shabbat, the first day of Rosh Ha-shana 5760 [1999].)