Rosh Hashanna: Blessings & Shofar
What’s this Holiday All About?
Many factors lead to false conclusions and personal loss. Mitzvos that require – what we feel is extra “effort” – or are associated with “discomfort” are often viewed as offering little benefit and are rushed through, forfeiting all possible gain. Prayers are much longer on Rosh Hashanna, and shofar blasts are bereft of meaning to many: they’re just sounds, in themselves offering no ideas. So “What’s the purpose of hearing shofar?” many question quietly to themselves. “What is shofar doing for me?”
On the other hand, God’s universe astonishes all who study it. From the molecular world, zoology and geology, to physics and astronomy…immense wisdom and intelligent systems abound in every corner. So how can this same Creator who created Torah, not have used His same Intellect in forming our mitzvos? The answer, of course, is that the Torah too reflects God’s wisdom…but only when studied, just like all sciences. And Torah is even more abstract. Therefore, prior to Rosh Hashanna, it is essential to our appreciation of this day that we become familiar with the primary Talmudic discussions addressing the mitzvos. Rushing through the blessings and hearing shofar without understanding their purposes would be a shameful loss, while we can in fact gain much from this unique and elevated High Holiday.
Let’s approach our new study of Rosh Hashanna mitzvos with a clean slate, forgetting all preconceived notions…and both hear and “listen” to what the Talmudic Rabbis discussed.
The Mitzvos & the Questions
The two primary mitzvos are 1) hearing (not blowing) the shofar blasts, and 2) reciting the blessings.
Unlike other holidays, the blessings are unique, requiring numerous supporting verses from Torah, Prophets and Writings. Why is this so? Why is such a recitation of numerous verses absent on other holidays?
Additionally, the blessings are composed of three topics: God’s Kingship (“Malchyos”), God’s Remembrance of man (“Zichronos”) and Shofaros, referring to the shofar blasts on Sinai, among other blasts. We are commanded to recite these blessings that include the supporting verses, and to hear the shofar together with these blessings. (We also hear the shofar independent of the blessings.) But why are these three topics central to Rosh Hashanna?
Furthermore, our Rishonim teach that we must recite all three blessings, or none at all! In what manner are these three blessings dependent on the others? Rabbah provides a clue for this interdependence:
“God says, ‘Recite before me Malachyos so you might accept Me as your King; recite Zichronos so your memory might come before Me for good; and with what shall you recite these? With Shofaros’.”
To understand this statement, we must learn the purpose of each blessing independently. And why must the order be in this precise sequence of Malchyos, then Zichronos and then Shofaros?
The Talmud also states that the mitzvah of hearing shofar is preferred over the mitzvah of reciting the blessings. Meaning, if one must choose between two shuls, the first shul he is certain that a minyan is present but has no shofar, and the second shul has a shofar but members might have gone home…he must attend the second shul, regardless of his doubt that he will hear shofar, and the certainty of forfeiting his blessings. What is the shofar’s superior nature? To answer this last question, we turn to the blessing of Shofaros.
This blessing describes the event of Revelation at Sinai: a sound of a shofar waxed louder and louder at this event. Why was a shofar blast needed back then? Was not the primary concern that God give the Torah to the Jewish nation? If so, how does shofar play any role?
What is shofar? It is a loud blast that captures one’s attention. It is an alert or siren. A “signal”. And a signal is that which is a sign to something “other” than itself. Thus, when a fire breaks out, a local firehouse gives a sign of the fire by sounding the fire-horn. When a king enters a room, they sound trumpets to direct our attention to the king, not to the trumpets. And as you read further in this blessing, the Torah has many instances of how God is introduced or accompanied by shofar and trumpets. So we can define shofar as a means of directing man’s attention. But upon hearing shofar, on what are we to now focus?
Rosh Hashanna is different than all other holidays. It is not a mere date on the calendar recalling isolated events, albeit stupendous events with God’s miracles. Rosh Hashanna has a greater theme. It recalls the purpose of man’s existence, to recognize the Creator; the One who created and governs our lives…and will determine our fate this year, and always. Although Rosh Hashanna is a yearly event, it is not something to be considered yearly, but it must permeate the entire year, and our entire consciousness. Perhaps this is why we do not celebrate the New Month on New Years…it is greater than the calendar. And so great is this day, Torah contains numerous verses throughout each book of Torah, Prophets and Writings as God’s existence and relation to us as King dominates all other notions. This repetition is intended to impress us with the vital theme of God’s Kingship and Remembrance of man. These verses are recited in our Rosh Hashanna blessings, as no holiday demands such focus, like the High Holidays.
Sinai & Shofar
So vital was God’s gift of Torah, that he sounded a shofar at Mount Sinai. This event – over all others – was central to His purpose in creating mankind. For man, without a guidebook of perfection, is not God’s plan. He created man so we might all use the intellect that He endowed our species alone. This intellect should be used to marvel at creation and Torah, and ultimately arrive at an awe of, and love for the Creator. The shofar was sounded at Sinai for this very reason; to alert us to the central roles that Sinai and Torah play in our lives. Thus, understanding Sinai is central to understanding shofar.
This explains why Rabbah said we must accept God as King, and seek His remembrance of us, through shofar. For both, our acceptance of God as King and His remembrance of our lives must be summoned by a siren – the shofar – that we realize the gravity of these ideas.
We must first accept God as King, before it makes sense to ask for His remembrance, and a good verdict for the coming year. Shofar must accompany this process of realizing the King and seeking His positive decrees. Malchyos, Zichronos and Shofaros: all three, or none at all. For without accepting God as King, we will not seek Him to grant a verdict. Altrenatively, once we do accept Him as King, we must then qualify this acceptance by seeking Him alone to decide our fate. Shofar underlines these two blessings by highlighting their urgency, via a warning blast.
We must also add that true “kingship” is not for a single term. This compromises the nature of a king. If God were not eternal, this rejects His “exclusive” nature as God of the universe. God – by definition – is He who is self-sufficient for the universe, for all time, and controls all. Nothing else exists that is responsible for this universe, but He alone. This explains why our prayers include praises for God from Genesis, through the future gathering of exiles, and eternally. His eternal reign is part of the true definition of God.
Rabbah taught: “God says, ‘Recite before me Malachyos so you might accept Me as your King; recite Zichronos so your memory might come before Me for good; and with what shall you recite these? With Shofaros’.” We learn that we must return to our senses and retain a focus on the reality that we only exist due to God. He runs all; He is King. Our fate is in His hands alone, so we seek His remembrance of our lives. We call an alert to these truths via shofar, the method God used to call our attention to His gift of Torah, so we might use this one life for its true purpose. Shofar echoes the blasts of Sinai. It recalls man’s purpose, which is synonymous with God’s will. And the shofar will again be heard when God reveals Himself in the messianic era. For then again, and in a greater measure, will God be known by the entire world. Man’s purpose will be clear. Sinai’s message will once again ring loud and clear.
Why are shofar blasts of greater importance than the blessings? I refer to Rabbi Ginsberg’s fine explanation in this issue. Man is incapable of composing praise of God commensurate with His true nature. Thus, as a wise Rabbi taught, King David concludes Tehillim with instrumental praise, as human praise always falls short of what God deserves. To indicate man’s inability to grasp God and praise Him accurately, King David uses instruments to conclude his thoughts, as a way to say, “I cannot begin to accurately describe Your greatness, God, so I will use instruments instead”. The shofar is included in that last Tehillim as it too shares this idea. Shofar blasts indicate God’s indescribability, a true idea that obscures man’s feeble attempts at praising God.
We might also suggest that hearing – not blowing – the shofar is the mitzvah, since it is a signal to something else. Thus, the act of “blowing” is not the signal, but the alert “sound” is the mitzvah. We are alerted to the ideas of the day.
I conclude citing Rabbi Ruben Gober: Endorsing the truths contained in these blessings and through listening to the shofar, may we all become worthy of God’s good decrees this coming year. Kasiva vChasima Tova.