The Mindset of the Rosh Hashana Musaf

Rabbi Dr. Darrel Ginsberg

Our God and God of our fathers, reign over the entire world in your glory...”

The essential theme that defines Rosh Hashana is the concept of malchus Hashem, God’s kingship over the world. Both – the different tefilos as well as the blowing of the shofar – serve to bring a person to realize and internalize God’s role as Melech Elyon, a concept that is fundamental to Rosh Hashana. Therefore, it would naturally seem imperative to review these tefilos (beyond translating them) and enter into the appropriate mindset prior to engaging in this potentially transformative experience. In doing so, a person would find many instances where the this idea is highlighted in the Torah She’beal Peh, the Oral Law. One relevant example is found in an intriguing piece in the Talmud.

Prior to debating and discussing the specific verses to be included in the musaf of Rosh Hashana, the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 32a) takes up the following:

There should be recited not less than ten kingship verses, ten remembrance verses, and ten shofar verses.

The Talmud proceeds to expand on this, offering the following opinion (due to space limitations, only the first of the subsequent three opinions will be analyzed):

To what do these ten kingship verses correspond? — R. Levi said, To the ten praises that David uttered in the book of Psalms. But there are a large number of praises there? — It means, those among which occurs, Praise him with the blowing of the shofar.”

The chapter of Tehilim referred to by the Talmud is the final one of the sefer, Chapter 150. The dominant theme of this chapter is the praising of God through musical instruments (3-5):

“...Praise Him with the blast of the horn (shofar); praise Him with the psaltery and harp, Praise Him with the timbrel and dance; praise Him with stringed instruments and the pipe, Praise Him with the loud-sounding cymbals; praise Him with the clanging cymbals.”

Obviously, the Talmud is using the reference to the use of the shofar in this context as the tie-in to the ten verses found in each of the three core Rosh Hashana blessings malchiyos (God's omnipotence), zichronos (God's omniscience) and shofros. Yet, it is but one of the many different instruments listed by Dovid Hamelech in this chapter. Are we to believe the reference to shofar alone is what makes this mention applicable? A more fundamental question can be directed towards the composition of this final chapter. It is interesting that the composer of such incredible and brilliant praises and gratitudes to God chose to end Tehillim with a focus on giving shevach (praise) through musical instruments. One would think the culmination of the sefer would be replete with the greatest of all praises and thankfulness that could be conjured by man. Instead, Dovid Hamelech writes about horns and cymbals and how they are used to praise God. Why choose to end the sefer in such a seemingly anticlimactic manner?

It is also quite interesting that the Talmud devotes such effort to understanding what the overall quantity of verses refers to. After all, the essential concepts of Rosh Hashana would seem to emerge from the recitation and comprehension of the verses themselves. The fact that there happen to be ten should be of little import. In fact, strictly speaking, if someone merely recited one verse, he would still fulfill his obligation.  Why all this attention?

It could be the Talmud is introducing a theme that is part of the character of the malchiyos, zichronos and shofros. Knowledge of this theme serves as a prerequisite of sorts, a necessary component in order to successfully engage in this tefila. Of course, the next question is what exactly is this theme?

As mentioned above, Dovid Hamelech saved the last chapter of Tehillim for praising God through musical instruments, rather than composing ideas and thoughts. What does this teach us? It could be that while Dovid Hamelech expressed so many important ideas throughout Tehillim, the final culmination of the effort had to reflect one crucial yesod --the inherent limitation in mankind’s ability to praise God. Man can spend day and night, even his entire life, composing and offering shevach to God; but at the end of the day, his limitation as a created being, and his inability to truly understand God, creates an inherent defect in offering complete and appropriate praise to God. Therefore, at the end of Tehilim, the culmination of all the praise to God is described through musical instruments. This does not mean that playing the instrument is the shevach in and of itself. Rather, Dovid Hamelech is telling us that the human mind can only go so far in formulating praise of God. We can only verbalize so much and we turn to the instrument to demonstrate this limitation. The use of the instrument, the sound it makes, reflects this very concept. This ties in to the concept of the shofar. It is not that the shofar is some sort of magical horn. Instead, it reflects the limitation in our ability to praise and thank God, the sound that emanates from the shofar encompassing the idea that we require extensions of our natural selves to accomplish the task. This theme, the inability of man to ever adequately praise God, is a necessary part of the process of tefila. And it would therefore seem to be a fundamental prerequisite in the comprehension of malchus Hashem, God's kingship. 

This concept takes a pivotal role in the structure of tefila on Rosh Hashana precisely due to the unique nature of the musaf. The musaf on Rosh Hashana for the individual involves a tefila unlike any other throughout the year. Its structure, its content and its overall themes are exclusive to this day. Engaging in such a tefila is a tremendous opportunity for a person. At the same time, it can be dangerous, offering that same person a sense confidence in his ability to completely praise God, and truly understand God’s kingship. The Talmud is guiding us to a critical thought process necessary to avoid this potential over-confidence, clearing potential obstacles in our declaration of God as the Melech Elyon the Supreme King.