My close friend Lewis posed a difficult problem regarding the upcoming holiday of Rosh Hashannah. It concerns the shofar: which shofars are nullified or permitted, and why?
He quoted Maimonides’ three cases:
Case #1) a stolen shofar may be used, since the status of “stolen” inheres only in the physical substance of the shofar and not the sound, and it is the sound with which we fulfill our obligation;
Case #2) one used in idolatrous practice: it should not be used, yet if one does use it, one still fulfills his obligation; and
Case #3) one belonging to a city destined to be burned, due to idolatrous practice may not be used, and if used, one does not fulfill his obligation. The reason being that it is “lacking any measure of the object” (casuti michtas shiura). This requires clarification: in what way is this shofar any “less”?
Case #1 is clear: ‘sound’ per se cannot have a status of being “stolen”, and one’s performance of a mitzvah of hearing the blast with a stolen shofar is not compromised. Since one cannot “steal” a sound, the mitzvah carried not ill status, and is a recognized valid performance. Yes, the shofar was stolen, but the shofar is not the “object of mitzvah”. Rather, the sound is the object of mitzvah, the “cheftzah shel mitzvah”. So although I might be corrupt in stealing, this act of thievery is divorced from the entity of a shofar blast. This shofar blast is the object of the mitzvah, through which I fulfill my Torah obligation, and this blast is untainted with any status of “thievery”. I may then fulfill my obligation with this stolen shofar.
Case #3 is a bit more abstract, but understandable. A city destined to be burned is much akin to a vase descending from a rooftop. Normally, when I destroy an object, I owe the owner its worth. Not so when the object is inevitably en route to its destruction, as is the case with this vase. So if I shatter this specific vase, I owe the owner nothing – the vase is already considered “destroyed” in Jewish law, in halachik terms. So too is the case with the shofar of a city destined for burning: it is already viewed as “destroyed” an lacks a status of “existence”. Yes, I see it and touch it, but according to God’s Torah laws, which override physical reality, this shofar, for all intents and purposes, is not in existence.
Imagine all the spherical and circular objects you see: planets, tires, baseballs, and grapefruits, et al. They are all ‘designed’ by God. Now, what came first: the blueprints for your house, or the physical house? The former of course! Same thing here: the circular object you witness must exist subsequent to the blueprint, or the abstract concept of “circle” God created first to be applied to real objects. Before the physical world existed, there was a blueprint, or abstract idea of “circle” from which God applied this shape to all objects embodying “circle”. We learn that the non-physical (metaphysical) world of ideas is superior to the physical world: it came first and defines the physical world, but primarily, it is essential for the physical world. This essentiality makes the world of idea more ‘real”. Jewish law is the abstract world of ideas and truths, and it too may define what is literally, more real.
The difficult case is case #2, the idolatrous shofar which should be avoided, but whose sound is acceptable once used. Case #1 of the stolen shofar carried no initial prohibition to “avoid” usage: one may outright blow this stolen shofar to fulfill his obligation to hear the shofar blasts. Not so regarding the shofar of idolatrous use: one must initially “avoid” usage, but if used, one fulfills his obligation. What is this quasi status?
Rashi states the idea: an object used in idolatrous practice possesses a prohibition from gaining any pleasure. Hence, if one uses a shofar of idolatrous practice, he violates this prohibition. If so, why does he still fulfill the mitzvah? The answer is because “mitzvah” does not fall under the category of “acts of pleasure”: “mitzvos lav lihanos nitnu”, “mitzvah was not given for pleasure”, but for our perfection. This being so, blowing and hearing the shofar is not partaking of this idolatrous shofar in a “pleasurable” sense, and therefore the prohibition not to “gain pleasure” cannot apply to the act of mitzvah. Therefore, we are told not to use it in “any” fashion, even to initially lift it, which must precede blowing it. But if one did in fact blow it and hear the sound for a mitzvah, the entity of mitzvah carried no status of “idolatry”, and is valid.
This might be equated to a lawyer who is fired for having violated the law. Although he has failed in the capacity of a lawyer, if he become an architect, his status as “invalid” in law, plays no role when designing homes. He is as valid as any other architect. We see that a status of “invalid” applies to a capacity, and not the person. The very same person functioning now in a new capacity, carries not invalid status. The same holds true for the idolatrous shofar: although invalid for “pleasure” since it served in idolatrous libations for example, if one uses it for a new capacity of mitzvah – which is not a “pleasure” – the invalid status in inapplicable. One should not use it since lifting is a use, and is a violation of “using idolatrous objects”. But once being blown for a mitzvah, the idolatrous status is inapplicable.