The Sound of Shofar, By Rabbi Dr. Chaim E. Schertz


In Jewish tradition we encounter two different traditions about the nature of the Mitzvah which requires us to hear the sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  According to one tradition, this is a Mitzvah which is incumbent upon the individual.  It is no different than the Mitzvah of taking hold of Lulav and Etrog on Sukkot or having Tzitzit upon a garment which one wears, or placing Tefillin upon one’s head or arm.

A different tradition, however, considers hearing the sound of the Shofar as a communal obligation.  That obligation is related to communal prayer and is in many respects no different than other communal obligations for example, building the Temple or going to war against specified enemies.

The Rambam discusses both of these aspects.  He first states:  “How many Shofar blasts is a person (i.e. an individual) obligated to hear on Rosh Hashana?” and he answers, “nine blasts.”  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar 3:1).  Later in the chapter he states, “The community is obligated to hear the sound of the Shofar blasts according to the order of the blessings.”  (Ibid  3:7)

Very few commentaries try to reconcile these two different approaches (i.e. is it an individual or communal mitzvah?)  One who does is the Chayei Adam:

The most important aspect of the shofar blasts is to blow according to the order of the blessings when the leader of the service repeats the Mussaf service when they blow for Malchiyot and Zichronot and Shofrot. . . .  However, since the Rabbis ordained to blow the Shofar prior to the Mussaf service, . . .and the reason they did so is to confuse the Satan that he should not prosecute us during the Mussaf service . . .nevertheless they must be blown with all of their particular laws intact. . . nevertheless the congregation already fulfilled their obligation from the Torah with these sounds (the sounds before Mussaf).  (Chayei Adam, Laws of Rosh Hashana, 142: 17)

The reconciliation of the Chayei Adam is nevertheless difficult to understand.  If the major aspect of hearing the Shofar blasts is according to the order of the benedictions, how does one fulfill the Torah obligation by a series of blasts instituted by the Rabbis to confuse the Satan?  In addition, there is no indication at all in the Torah that the hearing of the sounds of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana is in any way associated with a communal obligation. Is it not more logical to assume that it is an obligation on the individual?

To deal with these contradictions, we must turn to the analysis offered in the Talmud.  There are two Braitot presented in the Talmud which can be best understood by the two traditions which expound the opposite viewpoints about the nature of the Mitzvah of hearing the sounds of the Shofar.

The first Braita informs us that the Torah requires three T’ruot to fulfill the Mitzvah of hearing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  Those are derived from three verses in the Torah.

The First verse: “God spoke to Moses saying:  Speak unto the children of Israel to say: on the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a Sabbath in remembrance of the T’ruah.”  (Vayikra 23: 23-4)

The Second Verse:  “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month it should be a sacred calling to you, do not do any work, it should be unto you a day of (blowing the T’ruah).” (Bamidbar 29:1)

The third verse:  “You should allow the T’ruah of the Shofar to pass in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month on Yom HaKippurim allow the sound of the Shofar to pass throughout your land.” (Vayikra 25:9)

It is clear that this third verse does not refer to Rosh Hashana, but rather to Yom HaKippurim of the Jubilee year (Yovel).  What is superfluous about all of these verses is the statement that they all must occur on the seventh month, for it is clear that Yom HaKippurim as well as Rosh Hashana can occur in no other month.  The term “seventh month” is thus superfluous and as a result it can be used to establish a Gezera Shava, a corresponding level of principles between the verses.  The key principle is to teach us that all forms of blowing the Shofar during the seventh month must be identical.  The two texts dealing with Rosh Hashana must be added to the one text dealing with Yovel and vice versa.  Thus, all the T’ruot blown in the seventh month must consist of the number three. (See Rosh Hashana 34a)

What is more significant is that all other aspects of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana are based upon the Yom HaKippurim of the Jubilee year.  It is the Yom HaKippurim of Yovel which defines the nature of what is required in the blowing of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  One example of this is that prior to blowing the T’ruah and immediately after blowing the T’ruah, a continuous straight blast or Tekiah must be sounded. (See Ibid)

From a philosophical perspective, it is crucial that the Yom HaKippurim of Yovel becomes the foundation for blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  The ritual of the Yovel is the best demonstration that the blowing of the Shofar is an act for the individual and not for the community.  The blowing of the Shofar is an expression of freedom for every Jew who has been enslaved and it also restores property to every original owner.  Thus, the blowing of the Shofar provides the tangible benefits of personal as well as economic freedom.

The Second Braita established the basis for blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana on the sojourning of the Jewish people in the wilderness.  A G’zeira Shava is established on the superfluous occurrence of  the word T’ruah in the journey in the wilderness as well as in reference to Rosh Hashana.  The G’zeira Shava taught, that every T’ruah both in the wilderness and on Rosh Hashana, had to be preceded and followed by a continuous long sound which is called a Tekiah.

The underlying lesson of sounding the T’ruah in the wilderness is expressed by the following verse: “If you should go to war in your land against an enemy which oppresses you, and you are to blow a T’ruah with your trumpets, you will be remembered before the Lord your God and you will be rescued from your enemies.” (Bamidbar 10:9).

The Torah teaches us that the T’ruah would only be sounded during times of trial and oppression, but during days of celebration and the offering of sacrifices, the T’ruah was never sounded, but only the Tekiah – the continuous sound.  What is clear from the above is that if the concept of hearing the Shofar is rooted in going to war, then the mitzvah of hearing the Shofar is based on a communal structure, the military formation. Thus there is great communal participation in this understanding of why we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana.

Both aspects of Shofar blowing are thus expressed by the two Braitot and their corresponding understanding of the foundation for blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana.  If blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana is rooted on blowing the Shofar on Yom HaKippurim of the Jubilee year, then the basis is individual freedom and economic self-sufficiency.  If the basis is warfare in the wilderness or in your homeland against the enemies of the Jewish people, then the Mitzvah is inherently a communal expression of the Jewish people.  Ultimately, we begin to recognize that the continuity of Jewish life exists in the interconnection between the individual Jew and the Jewish community.  The strength of the individual is expressed through the success of the Jewish community.

Rabbi Dr. Chaim Schertz received his semicha from Yeshiva University in 1969.  He also received masters in Jewish Philosophy from YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School.  He has a second Masters in the History of Ideas from New York University, and a Ph.D. from New York University in the History of Western Thought.  He taught Classics at Pennsylvania State University and Philosophy at Regis College in Denver, Colorado. Rabbi Schertz served as the Rabbi of Kesher Israel Congregation in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for over 25 years and is currently retired and living in Harrisburg.

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