Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Rosh haShana

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Rosh ha-Shanah 5760/1999

A Straight or a Twisted Shofar?

A. Harel Fisch

Professor Emeritus

Dept. of English

Tractate Rosh ha-Shanah, chapter 3, says: "The shofar for the New Year was that of a wild goat, straight, ... R. Judah says: On the New Year a [shofar] from a male [i.e., a ram] is sounded, and at the Jubilee, from wild goats." (mishnahs 3-5). The gemara (Rosh ha-Shanah 26b) explains the question at issue. The Sages believed that "on Rosh ha-Shanah, the straighter a person's thought is the better," but R. Judah maintained, "The more bowed a person is [in his soul], the better." Although the halakhah follows R. Judah, Nahmanides ruled that it only applies from the outset [milekhathila], but that after the fact [bedi'avad] even if one sounded the horn of a wild goat, shaped as straight as possible, such a shofar blowing is acceptable.

As is typical, the Sages introduced complicated theological and philosophical positions here through their discussion of details that appear purely ritualistic and not of the essence. If we but scratch the surface, the debate over the most desirable type of shofar for sounding on the New Year sheds light on a paradox which lies deep at the foundation of the idea of repentance and the Day of Judgment.

The following passage from S.Y. Agnon's Days of Awe (only in the Hebrew edition; the English translation is an abridgment), pp. 108-110, provides a good point of departure: "The first round of blowing the shofar, we sound tekiah-shevarim-teru'ah and the last tekiah is not part of this round, but the Rabbis of blessed Memory enacted that one should sound a teruah (succession of tremulous notes), with a simple blast (tekiah) before it and a simple blast after it. The first tekiah is of the essence, the second, a rabbinic enactment. A tekiah is a plain, straight sound, as I have said--the sound that comes out and travels, piercing the air, until it reaches our patriarch Abraham of blessed memory." Later Agnon characterizes each of the three sounds of the shofar: "The tekiah stands for the totally righteous..." (based on Midrash Yehi Or in Menorat ha-Maor Zohar, also cf. Emor 98). According to this, the plain blast (which precedes the tremulous note) is really essential. This is the simple sound, corresponding to the horn of the wild goat and symbolic of a person whose reasoning is straight and who does not bow over. Next we sound the tremulous note of the person who bends his reason and casts himself down; the latter is symbolized by the curved horn of the ram. These sources cited in Agnon's book support the first tanna mentioned in the Mishnah, and give preference to the tekiah, the simple sound that symbolizes the totally righteous.

The basic question underlying the debate between these tannaim is how should we behave when we stand before the throne of judgment on the Day of Judgment. One well-founded approach is to admit our guilt, to "bow the head like a bulrush" (Isaiah 58:5) and beseech the Lord; in short, to place everything at G-d's mercy, for "not because of any merit of ours do we lay our plea before You but because of Your abundant mercies" (Dan. 9:18).

This approach is deeply rooted in Selihot and in the prayers and liturgical poetry of the High Holydays. It finds expression especially in the longer confession recited on the Day of Atonement, which includes "al het," (lists of sins), and at the end of which we present ourselves as altogether undeserving and lowly: "Behold, I am before Thee like a vessel filled with shame and disgrace." The approach that says, "the more bowed a person, the better," is based on such verses as Genesis 8:21: " since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth." Were it not for the Lord's mercy, there would be nothing to exonerate us in judgment. This is essentially an escape from judgment, as the liturgical poet put it: "Lord, if we have no [good] deeds [to our credit], Your great name will stand up for us; and do not bring us to judgment, Holy One." It is as if the person praying wishes to abrogate judgment, begging for mercy outside the courtroom.

One could, however, take the opposite approach, which also has validity. In this mode, we hope not only for mercy that allows us to expect clemency, but also for exoneration in justice, as in the High Holyday prayer: "Find us righteous in judgment, King of Justice." In principle we do not see ourselves as wicked, but as honorable and righteous in judgment. Hence (according to the first tanna in the baraitha) we do not have to be bowed; quite the contrary, we must prove the righteousness of Israel in comparison with the gentiles, for "No harm is in sight for Jacob, no woe in view for Israel" (Num. 23:21). Therefore the Day of Judgment is a joyous day in which we celebrate the integrity and righteousness embodied by our nation, the collective Jewish people.

In this attitude, we not only seek atonement by virtue of the binding of Isaac, but also identify ourselves with Isaac, he whose suffering at being offered as an unblemished sacrifice is not a token of punishment but rather yissure ahavah, the pangs of love and tribulation. Compare the phrase, "Therefore the righteous [uveken zaddikim] shall see and rejoice," which is recited in each of the services during the High Holidays. The Lord also relates to us accordingly, as the paytan says: "Innocent, becoming innocent with the innocent." [hatam umittamem im temimim}

In short, just as when a person brings his case to court, he does not present himself as guilty, so on the New Year and the Day of Atonement a sense of guilt is not necessarily the primary attitude. Especially in our times, we may have added one more sin to our "credit" by accepting and internalizing the negative image of the Jew in the eyes of the gentiles as a nation of sinners. But this is nothing more than slander and defamation, for that is not how the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are; and whoever accuses himself without reason must also repent. During the Dreyfus trial the vast majority of the Jews of France believed he was guilty. Some say there were not even thirty people who thought otherwise! The overwhelming majority were far more convinced that the French government was in the right than that their fellow Jew was innocent.

Job provides a fine example of the second approach, symbolized by the straight shofar. He stood fast to his claim of integrity, notwithstanding the attempts of the friends, i.e., the "world," to dissuade him:

Far be it from me to say you are right;

Until I die I will maintain my integrity.

I persist in my righteousness and will not yield;

I shall be free of reproach as long as I live.

(Job 27:5-6)

Job is the true hero for our generation, and he should serve us as an example when we stand before the throne of judgment on the Day of Judgment. In conclusion I think it fitting to cite the Hebrew poet, Nathan Alterman:

Then Satan said: How can I be a match for this creature?

He has courage and talent, weapons and resourcefulness.

So he said: I shall not take his strength, nor restrain him with bridle or bit

Nor intimidate or dishearten him as of yore,

Only this shall I do: dull his wits, so that he forget his own righteousness.

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