Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Rosh Hashana 5764

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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The Dual Idea of Rosh Ha-Shana

Prof. Moshe Kaveh

President, Bar Ilan University and Head of the Pearl and Jack Resnick Institute for Advanced Technology in Physics

Rosh Ha-Shana is a holiday of great spiritual power, whose impact is meant to influence every Jew throughout the whole year. As such, we would expect the holiday to send a strong single message, but this is not the case. In this article we will examine the duality in the meaning of Rosh Ha-Shana.

In one approach, Rosh Ha-Shana emphasizes G-d's position as King of the Universe. This essentially rational approach sees the function of Rosh Ha-Shana as crowning the Creator in His world, and all the prayers and acts directed towards the heavens do not promote man's needs. The second approach defines Rosh Ha-Shana as the "Day of Judgement", i.e. on that day the Supreme Court of heaven sits in judgement of every earthly being. In this approach, which has an emotional-mystical bent, the role of Rosh Ha-Shana is to motivate man to improve his actions in fear of the Day of Judgement - the day of spiritual stock-taking for every Jew in the presence of his Creator.

Duality in Science

To demonstrate that there can be dual approaches to one concept, I will use an example from the world of physics. Although the laws of physics are clear and can be proven empirically, at the beginning of the last century this science found itself facing a conceptual collapse. The question that baffled the scientists was why the electron (the negative light charge), revolving around the positive (heavy) core, does not lose energy to radiation (according to the rules of electromagnetics), and fall into the core.

The surprising answer of Nils Bohr of Copenhagen, founder of the quantum theory concept, was that the electron is not a particle (therefore it does not revolve around the core) but a wave. Nevertheless, in certain experiments it appeared that the electron continues to behave like a particle, for instance in the photoelectric effect, for which Albert Einstein received the Nobel Prize. And again the question arose: is the electron a particle or a wave? The amazing answer is that there is a duality in nature whereby in certain experiments the electron behaves like a particle and in others - like a wave. The electron's particle-like behavior is analogous to our senses and rationality, while the wave-like behavior is neither rational nor "sensible". In any case, nature can be explained either one way or the other, and both are legitimate!

So, the dualistic interpretation of values, which moves between the rational and emotional approaches, finds surprising reinforcement in the world of physics..

The Duality of Shofar Blowing

Back to Duality in Rosh Ha-Shana. In practice our sages did not reject either one of the two above-mentioned approaches, seeing both as words of the living G-d. Both approaches, as we shall see, have support in the prayers and customs of the holiday. Moreover, both approaches that existed side by side throughout the generations are based on the distinction between the worship of G-d in fear and the worship of G-d in love. So for example, the prayer states: "Reign over the entire universe in Your glory; be exalted over all the world in your splendor...and purify our heart to serve You sincerely...Blessed are You, Hashem, King over all the world, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance." Shortly after this prayer we blow the shofar as a completion of the experience of worshiping G-d in love.

But, immediately following the shofar, our sages added the prayer "Today is the birth[day] of the world. Today all creatures of the world stand in judgement - whether as children [of G-d] or as servants. If as children be merciful with us as the mercy of a father for children. If as servants, our eyes [look toward and] depend upon You, until You be gracious to us and release our verdict [clear and pure] as light, O Awesome and Holy One." Here we have the worship of G-d in fear. Our sages acknowledged that the second approach touched most of the community more powerfully and the idea of Rosh Ha-Shana as a day of judgement has indeed been dominant throughout history.

Practically speaking, the first approach would mean no difference between teki'a and teru'a, because both fulfill "and you shall sound the trumpets before the Lord your G-d". Yet our sages were split on the significance of the teru'a - is it a "clarion" sound, suitable to crowning the Lord as King, or a "crying-out", suited to the emotional state of man facing his Creator on the Day of Judgement. Their uncertainty was so profound that to cover both ideas they ruled that the shofar blowing should consist of a series of thirty teki'ot with different patterns of shevarim and teru'a in relation to the teki'a.

Maimonides in Hilkhot Shofar (Ch. 1, 2) lists the only commandment relating to Rosh Ha-Shana that appears in the Torah: "You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded" (Num. 29:1), and he adds: "In the Temple, at New Year, they used to blow a ram's horn flanked by two trumpets... for the day required the blast of a ram's horn. Why then were trumpets blown together with the horn? Because scripture says: 'With trumpet and sound of the horn shout ye before the King, the Lord' (Ps. 98:6)". This accords with the first approach to Rosh Ha-shana as the coronation of G-d as King.

In Hilkhot Teshuva (Ch. 3, 4), however, he relates to the second approach: "Even though sounding the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana is a decree of Scripture, nevertheless there is a message in this action, as if to say: 'Arouse sleepy ones from your everyday habits, awaken from your slumber, repent from your actions and remember your Creator'. This aligns with the understanding of the holiday as a time for Man to repent. In other words, even Maimonides, the arch-rationalist, uses both ideas to explain the blowing of the shofar.

Sifre Numbers 77 also supports the combining of the two approaches: "Why did the sages establish that first the Kingship verses would be recited [in the Musaf prayer] and then the Remembrance and Shofar verses? Because first you crown him to be your King, and then you ask him for mercy so that you will be remembered by Him."

Duality in Rosh Ha-Shana Customs

Although our sages gave expression to both meanings of Rosh Ha-Shana, it appears that most of the prayers and customs emphasize the Day of Judgement quality of the holiday.

Prayer: The special Rosh Ha-Shana prayer is divided relatively equally between the two approaches. Some examples follow:

Approach A (The Crowning of G-d): "and you who are the Lord our G-d, shall reign" (Shaharit); "The Lord rules, the Lord has ruled, the Lord shall rule for ever and ever" (Shmoneh Esre - repetition); "Our Father our King" (Piyyut); "Reign over all the world with Your glory" (Shmoneh Esre - Mussaf); "Supreme King" (Piyyut).

Approach B (The Day of Judgement): "And so give Your fear" (Shaharit); "G-d the advocate" (Shaharit); "Lord of Faith in Your meting out of justice" (Piyyut); "And on Rosh Ha-Shana they will be inscribed" (Mussaf).

Foods: The Rosh Ha-Shana foods are influenced mainly by the definition of the holiday as the Judgement Day. For example: fish head (that we may be like the head, not like the tail); honey (that the year may be sweet); pomegranate (that our good deeds will be plentiful like the seeds of the pomegranate); carrot [Heb. Gezer] (that our harsh judgement may be softened) [Heb. gezar dinenu - our judgement].

Clothing: The beautiful custom of wearing white on Rosh Ha-Shana is based on the words of consolation of the prophet Nehemia (Neh. 8:9-10) "You must not mourn or weep...go eat choice foods and drink sweet drinks...Do not be sad for your rejoicing in the Lord is the source of your strength". And indeed, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Ha-Shana, 1:3, 57b) we find "Customarily a man who knows that he is on trial wears black, and wraps himself in black, and lets his beard grow, for he doesn't know how his trial will turn out. But Israel is not thus, rather they wear white, and wrap themselves in white, and shave their beards, and eat, drink and rejoice. They know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, does for them miracles".

Sleep: It is customary to refrain from sleeping on Rosh Ha-Shana because of its status as the Day of Judgement. This custom is in accord with the explanation for the absence of the Hallel service from the holiday prayers (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Ha-Shana 32b): "...why should Israel not chant hymns of praise before Thee on New Year and the Day of Atonement? He replied to them: Is it possible that the King should be sitting on the throne of justice with the books of life and death open before Him, and Israel should chant hymns of praise?"

The Halakhic Pluralism of Rosh Ha-Shana

We already mentioned that the only Rosh Ha-Shana commandment in the Torah is "to hear the sound of the shofar" This is a message to a "headstrong people" that puts "doing" before "hearing". As an antidote to hurried action, we are commanded to be silent and listen to the voice of the other in order to reach a state of harmony among the children of Israel.

Some of the halakhic discussions about Rosh Ha-Shana give voice to the variety of opinions regarding the holiday. For example:

Rosh Ha-Shana as the Day of Judgement: The Tana'im were divided - when is man judged? R. Yosi said man is judged every day, as written in Job (7:18) "You inspect him every morning" while R. Natan, on the basis of Job "Examine him every minute" (ibid.) said that man is judged every hour (Rosh Ha-Shana 17a). On the other hand, the Mishna (Rosh Ha-Shana 1,2) explains why the expression Rosh Ha-Shana was chosen to indicate the first day of Tishre? Because "at the New Year all who enter the world pass before Him like troops".

Our sages explained the contradiction between the opinions as follows: that on Rosh Ha-Shana all are judged while the judgement of each individual is "signed and sealed" at set times: "at Passover for grain; at Pentecost for fruit of the tree...and on the Festival [or Tabernacles] they are judged in regard to water", and man's judgement is signed on Yom Kippur.

Shofar Blowing: The Torah commanded that the first day of the seventh month should be "a day of teru'a (fanfare)FONT SIZE=4> and our sages demanded that every teru'a should be preceded and followed by a teki'a (Rosh Ha-Shana 34a). Maimonides establishes that "the sobbing sound [of a weeping man] is the one we call a tremolo - teru'a". Also, "the repeated sighing sound is the one we call a broken note - three shevarim. Thus the total number of blasts necessary to allow for every possible doubt comes to thirty" (Hilkhot Shofar 3:3).

So this presents us with an interesting halakhic pluralism:
In the first example, despite the decisive idea that man is judged every day, our sages considered Rosh Ha-Shana as the Day of Judgement for those who have an absolutely clear moral standing - positive (the righteous) or negative (the evil-doers). The remainder, the ordinary people who comprise the majority, are judged and "sentenced" on Yom Kippur.

The second example also contains an important message: We make the community listen to all the possible combinations of the Shofar sounds, which imply different motifs for the holiday, in order to educate towards a pan-Israelite attitude which includes the entire range of opinions. Perhaps it was this approach of our sages that led to the unified performance of the Shofar blowing ceremony by all the Jewish communities even in times of destructive edicts and life-threatening situations. Moreover, the Shofar is a common symbol in archaeological finds such as synagogue mosaics, pottery handles, glass vessels, coins, amulets and even burial stones.

The Shape of the Shofar and Its Historical Message

Our sages deliberated which Shofarot were fit to blow, and although they determined that all are fit, the Tana'im preferred the "straight, simple" (not bent or twisted - Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shana 3,3) horn of the mountain goat. On the other hand, R. Yehuda required that the Shofar be bent (Rosh Ha-Shana 26b). The Talmud explains that the shape of the Shofar symbolizes the status of man. The preference is for simplicity, as R. Yona says, "in order that they should straighten their heart in repentance" (Jerusalem Talmud Rosh Ha-Shana 3:3, 58d). Another view is that it is better to display the "bent shape" prominently in the presence of the Creator (Rosh Ha-Shana 26a).

The instructive words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook on the various types of Shofarot are noteworthy in this connection, as related by M.Z. Neria, Mo'adei ha-Raia (5740-1980, p. 69). In his drasha on the verse "blow a great shofar for our freedom", R. Kook establishes three levels of the redemptive Shofar: Shofar Gadol, Shofar Benoni and Shofar Katan. The Shofar Gadol - the great, supreme one, symbolizes the religious awakening of the Jewish people to the redemption of the Land promised to it by G-d, and it was this call which was heard by those sages of Israel in modern times who yearned for the return to Zion. However there is another Shofar, heard by secular Jews, that calls upon the Jews to go up to the Land of Israel because it is the homeland of their forefathers - "Here lived our forefathers, our prophets, our kings. Here we may live as a free people in its country, here we may educate our children in a Jewish milieu". In Rabbi Kook's view, even this Shofar Benoni - average, medium one - which is outwardly devoid of religious significance, is fit and deserves our blessing!

But, lamented R. Kook, bursting into tears - "there is a third Shofar taken from an unpure animal - haters of Israel blow this sound into the ears of the people and call on the Jews to flee while they can and come to Israel, their enemies force them into redemption, warning them with battle cries and the noise of troubles and suffering, giving them no rest. And whoever ignores the call of the first Shofar and even that of the second, is forced to listen to the voice of the third...but on this Shofar one does not make a blessing, as is stated, "One should not bless over the cup of punishment" (Berakhot 51b).

In conclusion, we pray daily that "G-d shall blow with the large shofar for our redemption" meaning that He will not lead us to freedom using the Shofar katan with its warning of destruction, nor with the Shofar benoni, which is unworthy of the people of G-d, but our prayer is "And in that day, a great ram's horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in that land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the Holy mount, in Jerusalem" (Is. 28, 13).