Rosh Hashana & Shofar

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a commences with a Mishna, which states that the world is judged at four yearly intervals: on Passover for grain; on Shavuos for fruits; on Rosh Hashanah all members of mankind are judged; and on Succos, rain is judged. The Ran raises the obvious question that since man is judged on Rosh Hashanah, this judgment includes ‘all’ of man’s needs, such as fruits, grain and water. As such, separate judgments for each one of these three elements individually is redundant. The Ran answers that the fate of fruits, grains and water are in fact judged in their respective times. However, on Rosh Hashanah, God allots each human his ‘portion’ of these three.

But this still begs the question: is not the very fate of each of these forms of sustenance, for man? So if man’s needs include these three elements, and he is judged on Rosh Hashanah, what is left to be judged concerning these elements at these three yearly intervals? To be clear: man is judged for all his needs on Rosh Hashanah, including what he will enjoy of fruits, grain and rain. So what is God determining on the holidays, which He has not determined when judging every individual person on Rosh Hashanah?

The Ran answers that on the holidays, God decrees what the “world” will receive. Meaning, how many crops and rainfalls will be granted to the “world community”…not the individual. On these three holidays, God determines what the world will receive. While on Rosh Hashanah, God decides what each individual will enjoy of those crops and rainfalls.

But why not determine both the bounty of the world, and every individual’s portion, all in one day? What demands that individuals must be judged separate from crops and rain?

This Talmudic portion addresses God’s two forms of providence: 1) providence of individuals (hashgacha pratiyos) and, 2) providence over the masses (hashgacha klaliyos). We learn that God invites the sacrifices of the masses at three yearly intervals, for these are opportune times for requests, as we will discuss shortly. During these holidays mankind takes advantage of the seasonal needs with more devoted prayer. Such greater devotion results in God’s kinder response. And God’s determination for the nation is meted out not based on individuals, but the status of the majority. But Rosh Hashanah is a time where each individual passes before God, as sheep under the rod.

Adam the First

The Ran teaches that Rosh Hashanah was the day when God passed judgment on Adam, and acquitted him. God then set this day of Rosh Hashanah for mankind to be evaluated and sentenced accordingly, just as Adam had experienced. But why must we follow the day of Adam’s judgment? What need does this satisfy? The Ran taught that God commenced the universe’s creation – Day 1 – on the 25th of Elul. This means that Day 6 of creation, when Adam was created, was the first of Tishrey, or Rosh Hashanah. On Day 6, the Ran says each hour had significance:  Hour 1: God decided to create man. Hour 2: He consulted with the angels. Hour 3: He gathered together the Earth’s dust. Hour 4: He kneaded the Earth. Hour 5: He formed him. Hour 6: He was a lifeless entity. Hour 7: He threw into Adam a soul. Hour 8: He entered Adam into the Garden of Eden. Hour 9: He commanded him not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Hour 10: Adam sinned. Hour 11: Adam was judged. Hour 12: Adam was acquitted. But for some reason, this design that Adam the First was judged on Rosh Hashanah demands that we too be judged on this day. Perhaps we might answer this parallel as follows.

Man was not only judged and acquitted on Rosh Hashanah, but he was created on this day too. Why is this significant? This teaches us that immediately after he was created, Adam the First could not resist sinning against God, for even one hour. “For man is not righteous in the land, that he does good, and never sins”. (Eccl. 7:20) This means that man’s very design makes him – us – subject to sin “as soon as we are in existence!” Sin is always “crouching at the door”. (Gen. 4:7) And since this is Adam’s design, it is our design too. But God acquitted Adam, and as King Solomon said, “no man is good, and without sin”. It is inevitable that man sins. This explains why we require Yom Kippur as a fixed and repeating Day of Atonement. We will always fall into sin at some point. Therefore, God aligned our day of judgment to duplicate Adam’s. This teaches us that just as Adam sinned and required judgment, but also a pardon…we too require judgment, for our sins are inevitable as well.We come to appreciate that it is by God’s very design of the human being, that these High Holidays are essential.  

Now, as man is judged on Rosh Hashanah, it is vital to our happiness this coming year that we review our knowledge, actions, values, personality traits, and Torah adherence ‘before’ Rosh Hashanah. This is accomplished in part by our early rise to recite Selichos. For if God inscribes us all “on” Rosh Hashanah, this must be based on our level of perfection as we ‘enter’ this holiday. While it is true that we can use the Ten Days of Repentance to improve ourselves and alter our decree, it is wise to start our self-evaluation process before hand. Of course, one who is aware of Torah values and understands the great good and sensibility a Torah life offers, will evaluate and improve himself on a regular basis throughout the year. 

Rabbi Ruben Gober once spoke on the idea that Rosh Hashanah is not a time of requests, but of contemplating God’s kingship: His role as man’s Governor. Rabbi Gober taught that it is this very realization of God as our Creator and Ruler that raises us to a higher level, and entitles us continued existence. For God sustains only that which conforms to His will…namely man. All of God’s Earthly creations aim to direct mankind to a greater appreciation for the Creator. Nothing in God’s creations serves another purpose, except man, when he sins. With this thought in mind, let us review another section of this Talmud.

In our Talmudic section, God says that we must bring three sacrifices of sorts, and each one will be effective in securing grain, fruits and water, respectively. But God says we are to bring these sacrifices on Passover, Shavuos and Succos. The question arises: what do the holidays have to do with securing grain, fruits and rain? If we understand the nature of the holidays, we will readily answer this question.




The holidays are commemorations of God’s intervention: He saved us from Egypt through miracles; He gave us His Torah on Shavuos – again with miracles, and He protected us by His clouds, a miracle we duplicate by building Succos to mimic those clouds all around us, and above us. On each holiday, God demonstrated His intervention through miracles, so we might know beyond any doubt that it was in fact God who performed all we experienced. I believe too, that the twelve stones erected on both sides of the Jordan River which we just read about, and a third set in the river, were again to prove God’s providence: teaching future generations that we inherited Israel ‘only’ via God’s intervention, and not our own might. For how else could twelve stones be erected on the river floor, unless God split the Jordan, as he split the Red Sea? And placing two more sets of twelve stones – with the Torah inscribed on all – on both sides of the Jordan, those ancient Jews effectively created a route map of how they entered the land of Israel! The first set of stones recalls our point of departure from outside Israel; the set in Israel proper shows where we arrived; and the set in the Jordan River proves “how” we entered the Land – through a miracle of the river being split.  Now we can answer our question.

We pray for grain, fruits and rain on each of these three holidays, since it is an opportune time to do so. As we celebrate the holidays, we are reminded of those astonishing miracles God enacted to do some great good for the Jewish nation. And precisely as we are in the throngs of that elation and appreciation for God’s age-old providence, we then pray for God’s current intervention, to secure our sustenance for this year. That conviction of God’s providence back then, now presently in our minds, fuels our prayers with a renewed realization and conviction that God intervenes. And that realization is what God desires we sense as He pours out His blessings. In other words, God gives His goodness to those who recognize that He is the source of all. Only that individual is deserving of God’s blessings, since it is he who lives, as God desires. These gifts God grants us, in turn, will be appreciated properly: as God’s doing.

Additionally, we request each area of sustenance at its season: on Passover which is harvest season, we request a good harvest of grain; on Shavuos we pray for fruits, and in the rainy season commencing on Succos, we pray for rain. In the hour of need, we align our conviction in God’s historical providence, with our current request. We do so, since man may assume that seasons dictate our bounty independent from the Creator. But, by sacrificing at the seasons of certain crops and rains, we deny the assumed “independent” functioning of nature, and realize all is in God’s hands. As He intervened for us back then in Egypt, He continues this relationship with us, and it is this relationship that we maintain by observing Torah.

This is an important lesson: God answers us more readily…when we are convinced of His abilities. When we realize it is not “nature”, but God’s will that sustains us with food and water…we are now entitled. This is because we have raised ourselves to a higher level, as individuals who view life as solely dependent upon God. And since we are living as God desires, He desires us to live! He then grants us our requests for sustenance.

Our appreciation is doubled by the fact that it was God who decided that we should bring the three offerings on these three holidays. God planned it out this way to offers us a myriad of opportunities to elevate ourselves at each and every turn. But we must engage in studying His Torah system to realize these truths, the hows and whys of Torah law, and appreciate what God is doing. We can never answer “why” He created mankind. But we can seek reasons for all of His mitzvos. In last week’s Parsha Netzavim, Ibn Ezra explains that the essence of each Mitzvah is what is “in the heart”. (Deut. 30:14) Ibn Ezra means that the true purpose of each and every mitzvah is to arrive at greater knowledge: that which is in the “heart”. Of course we must ‘perform’ mitzvos. But the performance is merely an expression of human conviction. If one does not perform what he claims is a value to him, his values are not real. Therefore, knowledge must result in action, i.e., Mitzvah, in order to be termed a “conviction”. But action is only necessary because God wishes that man to see where he fails to act, so as to eliminate the ignorance, which prevents his fulfillment of God’s words. The true objective in every mitzvah is the knowledge gained which brings us closer to God.


Rosh Hashanah

The Talmud continues with this theme of performing certain actions on certain holidays. We stated that the three holidays addressing God’s providence, are an opportune time to capitalize on man’s appreciation for God’s intervention, or providence, concerning our sustenance. But Rosh Hashanah, although a holiday, is not about providence. Rather, it is all about God in His capacity as ruler, or rather, “King”.

God created many laws: Tefilin teaches that we are philosophically incomplete without Torah close by. We must demonstrate that as a human being without Torah, we are severely crippled even with all our limbs intact. Torah is a required organ of the human being, and Tefilin displays this lesson. Conversely, and ironically, circumcision addresses our incomplete physical natures, if we remain physically whole. Our lives are not primarily physical, but metaphysical. By tempering our sexual sensation through circumcision (as Maimonides teaches), we render ourselves better suited for a life of wisdom. Charity and visiting the sick perfect our morality, and spread good feelings among society. Each command addresses another facet of the multifarious human personality.

Holidays serve to reiterate certain essential truths. The truth taught via Rosh Hashanah is that God is King. Shabbos is different, as it reminds us of God as the Creator. It would then follow that Shabbos is more vital, since we observe it every seven days. We cannot go for longer without Shabbos. We must be mindful that the very existence of the universe, and our very beings, is an act of God, and not ourselves. “He made us, and not ourselves.” (Psalm 100) Although quite an obvious lesson, Kind David wrote this, as he knew man’s egotistical nature can obscure God’s responsibility from something this obvious. Shabbos is therefore indispensable each seven days.

Certainly after a year of struggling for financial success, and finding it, man will have steeped himself into a sense of independence, where he feels he is solely responsible for his successes. He will also embellish his fantasies of immortality over this past year. He needs to face his mortality, and Who really granted him success. “And you shall remember Hashem your God, for He [is the one] that gave you strength to create success…” (Deut. 8:18)

Now, just as on the three holidays whose purpose it is to recall God’s providence, we seek His providence over our food…on Rosh Hashanah, we continue this practice of “combining common themes”. That is, on the day we recall God in His capacity as our king, we blow the shofar. But how is shofar related to accepting God as our ruler and king?



Malchiyos - Kingship

The Talmud states that we first recite the prayers recalling many verses depicting God as king. We must truly accept God as our ruler. In doing so, we endorse God as king. His role as “king” – over mankind – is embellished when man accepts His rule. An amazing idea: on Rosh Hashanah we actually contribute to God’s role as king by our acceptance of His rule. This idea is actually the words of the Talmud, “Recite the prayers of Kingship so you shall make Me rule over you.”



Zichronos - Omniscience

We continue our prayers with the Zichronos, the prayers of God’s all-knowing nature. The Talmud says, “God says, ‘Recite the Zichronos so that your remembrance shall rise before me for good [judgment].”

Now, we must ask why our recitation of Zichronos causes us to be remembered before God for a good judgment, more than our first prayer. Is not the first prayer of God as king, a more primary truth than God’s omniscience? Is not the fact that God created the universe more primary, than His subsequent relationship to it? As this is so, we would assume that our recitation of that more primary prayer of kingship would entitle us to a good judgment, more than our recital of the Zichronos prayer. Think about it first…but the answer is as follows.


Why should God remember us and inscribe us for a good year? It is because we do something to deserve it. What God did when He commanded us in this Zichronos prayer, is that He offered us an opportunity to perfect ourselves, whereby, we will receive a better judgment. God desires the good for His creatures. He asked that we recite the prayer describing His all-knowing nature. Now, what happens when we do so? It is this: We reflect immediately on a certain area of His knowledge: His knowledge about “me”. Meaning, the intent in our recalling God’s omniscience, is to realize that this omniscience extends to man, primarily…to me. The result is that I now feel I must answer to God, since He sits in judgment on this day of Rosh Hashanah. This specific prayer where I recall God’s knowledge over all my thoughts and actions is a motivational prayer: it motivates me to seek His approval, so I must change. This regret is actually the fist step in the process of repentance, and is viewed positively by God. God says, “Recite the Zichronos so that your remembrance shall rise before me for good [judgment].” He will improve our judgment because we now regret our actions, completely known to Him. Once a person realizes that God knows all, he views his sins as no longer hidden from Him, he sees his actions as evil, and this improves the person’s values, and his judgment from God. God need not punish man for actions that man will abandon independently.

We now understand that although Zichronos is not describing the more lofty capacity of God as King, it possesses the motivational aspect that drives man to regret and do Teshuva, repentance. This is why the Talmud singles out Zichronos as the catalyst for our improved judgment.


Shofaros - Revelation

The Talmud then asks “how” shall we convey our recognition of God as King and as omniscient? The answer is “through shofar”. Rav Avahu said, “God said ‘Blow the ram’s horn before Me and I will recall the binding of Isaac son of Abraham, and I will consider you as though you were bound [on the altar] before Me.” We must ask how our simple act of blowing this ram’s horn renders us on par with Isaac, who sacrificed his life, and how this relates to Rosh Hashanah.

What is the significance of the ram? It was offered by Abraham in place of Isaac. As my friend Shaye Mann stated, it demonstrated that although Abraham now had Isaac back in his life since God rescinded His command to slay him, Abraham nonetheless remained attached to God, and sought to sacrifice something in Isaac’s stead. But our Talmudic section focuses on Isaac’s sacrifice, not that of his father Abraham. Isaac was ready to sacrifice his life for God. He realized the lesson God planned to create for all time that God is to be our sole desire in life. And the ram is representative of Isaac. So when we blow the ram’s horn, we in other words state that we emphatically agree with Isaac’s yearning to sacrifice his very life to God. Therefore, as we agree with Isaac’s mission, to sacrifice his life, God views us on par with Isaac, and grants us equal merit: “I will consider it as though you sacrificed yourself on the altar”. But there is another idea in Shofar.


God Revealed

Where was the original shofar? What are the commencing words in the shofar prayer? The siddur refers to God’s Revelation a Sinai, where there existed the sound of a shofar that “grew exceedingly loud”. The Rabbis teach that man’s shofar blasts become weaker as he nears the end of that exhale. But God’s shofar blast at Sinai became even stronger with ever passing second. Ibn Ezra says this (Exod. 19:13) : “For the sound of the shofar was a great wonder – there was nothing at Revelation at Sinai that that surpassed it. For lightning, thunder and thick cloud [at Sinai] were [already] seen in the world. But the sound of the shofar was not heard until the day of the Ten Commandments”.  We wonder: what is so amazing about this sound, and what is its relevance to Rosh Hashanah?

Let us consider: how does a shofar blast differ from lightning or thunder? What did Ibn Ezra say? He said that the Jews never heard a shofar, but natural phenomena were matters already experienced, and not as impressive. It appears that shofar is not natural. What then is something “not natural”? It is manufactured. But this requires a “Manufacturer”. This is the answer: shofar reveals the existence of one who is causing its sound…a shofar cannot blast by itself. When the Jews heard the shofar at Sinai, they realized an Intelligence must be causing this sound, and intended it for them. And when the sound did not weaken, but grew in its intensity, the Jews were frightened at the very existence of God! For man’s breath weakens. God used shofar at Sinai to make His existence and divine nature apparent to all.

The primary message of the shofar is that God relates to mankind. The Shofaros prayer commences “You revealed Yourself in clouds of Your glory, unto Your sanctified people to speak with them.”  The first element described is that God revealed Himself, the second; “to His people”. Shofaros is highlighting a relationship between the Creator, and His people. So we have three prayers: 1) Malchiyos, which describes God as King (omnipotent); 2) Zichronos, which speaks of God’s omniscience; and 3) Shofaros, which reflects on these first two concepts, teaching that this omnipotent King who is also omniscient, has a relationship with mankind. We therefore commence our Shofaros prayers with a lengthy description of God’s revelation at Sinai. It was at Sinai that the shofar’s significance was born. Revelation is the primary proof that God relates to man, the proof used to validate Judaism, and that which disarms all other religions of any similar claim. Revelation commences the Shofaros prayer, as Sinai was the event par excellence that embodies God’s relationship with mankind –  a relationship forged on a basis of wisdom. 

These three prayers and their concepts highlight the nature of Rosh Hashanah. They remind man of the true reality in which we live, although obscured each year by life’s distractions.


End Notes

Reflecting on Isaac’s perfection, we too must realize how significant must be God’s place in our lives: a primary lesson of Rosh Hashanah. We must accept His role as King, as this is reality. We must move past our yearly agendas, our subjective desires, and our petty emotions. 

It is truly an amazing realization, that God created us. And He did so with a purpose for us. We live such temporal existences, but we have the potential for an eternal life. God created for us our beings, our souls, and a prospect of an eternal and blissful existence. That must stop each of us in our tracks, and make us yearn for it.

This Rosh Hashanah may be a turning point where we focus on what we are saying, and find a renewed interest in the many lessons Torah seeks to teach us. Patiently praying, we might contemplate our words, see new ideas, and reengage in rigorous Torah study, so we might discover a life where we “minimize our work, and maximize our studies”, as Ethics 4:12 suggests. If we are patient and think into what we are saying this holiday, we can make profound changes in our values for the remainder of our lives.


May each one of us me inscribed and sealed for a healthy, prosperous, tranquil, and enlightening year where Torah study and adherence becomes our priority!