Rosh Hashanah

Echoes of Majesty

The shofar-blast of Rosh Hashanah reverberates back to our earliest Jewish past and ahead to our repentance in the End of Days. How are we to understand its significance in the present?

At four intervals the world is judged…On Rosh Hashanah all mankind pass before Him in single file like sheep. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2) The meaning of each holiday is reflected in the particular mitzvot we are required to perform. The eating of bitter herbs and matzoh on Passover speaks to us of enslavement and freedom; fasting on Yom Kippur attests to the atoning nature of the day. The sukkah symbolizes our reliance on the protectiveness of God. But what does blowing the shofar tell us about the meaning of Rosh Hashanah? Though we are all stirred by the sound of the shofar, we need to know the precise connection between the shofar and the essence of the day.

…and recite before Me on Rosh Hashanah [verses of] Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofar. Kingship — so that you declare Me King over you; Remembrance — so that your remembrances come before Me for good; and with what? With the shofar (Rosh Hashanah 16a).

From the Talmud, it seems that, unlike our common perception, Kingship, Remembrance and Shofar are not three separate and distinct themes of the day. Instead it would appear that Kingship and Remembrance are the main messages of Rosh Hashanah and the shofar is but a vehicle for transmitting them. Yet we may wonder. How does the shofar deliver its purported messages?

Remembrance — so that your remembrances come before Me for good; and with what? With the shofar (Rosh Hashanah 16a).

Perhaps the more perplexing problem with Rosh Hashanah lies not as much with a proper understanding of what we do on the day as in what is blatantly missing from the day’s agenda. Rosh Hashanah, perhaps more so than Yom Kippur, is the day when man is judged. Nevertheless, in contrast to Yom Kippur, when the themes of sin and atonement reverberate throughout, on Rosh Hashanah (with the exception of some Gaonic additions to our liturgy) the topics of sin and atonement are shockingly absent.

Why is there no confessional service in which we beat our chest in remorse and contrition over the misdeeds for which we are to be held accountable? Where and when are we called upon to do teshuvah on this judgement day? Why was there no Temple service parallel to that of Yom Kippur where the High Priest would confess the sins of Klal Yisrael and seek to expiate their guilt? Are we to assume, perhaps, that the very essence of the day expiates our sins so that we need not acknowledge them? While our rabbis consider such a notion regarding Yom Kippur, they do not entertain it concerning Rosh Hashanah. In short, if Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Judgement Day why is this fact not more apparent?

While seemingly oblivious to the above problems, Chazal were troubled by yet another glaring omission from the Rosh Hashanah service — the conspicuous absence of Hallel. Hallel, a standard feature of the festival liturgy, was enacted by the prophets of Israel (see Pesachim 117a) to be said at holiday intervals. One would expect that if on the holiday intervals within the year, Hallel is recited, certainly it should be recited on the holiday that marks the transition from one year to the next.

Said R. Abahu: “The Ministering Angels asked the Holy One Blessed Is He: Master of the Universe, why does Israel not say praise before You on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? He responded to them: Is it fitting that the King sits on the Chair of Judgement and the Books of the Living and the Dead are open before Him, and Israel recite His praise? (Rosh Hashanah 32b)

Chazal’s explanation concerning the absence of Hallel serves only to strengthen our previous questions. If the theme of awesome judgement so pervades the mood of this day that we cannot allow ourselves joyous expressions of Hallel, why is this overwhelming seriousness expressed only in a liturgical absence and not in any inclusions, liturgical or otherwise, that would serve to identify the judgement aspect of the day? Furthermore, if indeed life and death hang in the balance on this day, then God’s answer to the Ministering Angels should more correctly have been that “the books of life and death are open,” and not “the books of the living and the dead.” Indeed, we wonder, what are the books of the living and dead?

There is yet another serious difficulty with R. Abahu’s statement: While his prima facie suggestion seems to be that joyous praise is incongruous with the judgement theme of the day, elsewhere, the Talmud tells us that Hallel-type praise is not at all inconsistent with the day of Rosh Hashanah and that the very blast of the shofar is an expression of such Hallel-type praise of God. This idea is found in a Talmudic discussion (Rosh Hashanah 31a) of the significance of the requirement to cite ten supportive verses for each of the central themes of Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofar: They represent the ten [expressions of Hallel] that David said in the [chapter of] Psalms where it is stated: “Hallelujah with the blast of the shofar.”

If the theme of awesome judgement so pervades the mood of this day that we cannot allow ourselves joyous expressions of Hallel, why is this overwhelming seriousness expressed only in a liturgical absence and not in any inclusions, liturgical or otherwise, that would serve to identify the judgement aspect of the day?

If the shofar is an expression of praise, why not praise Him with the traditional Hallel?

There are two separate paths that can lead one to teshuvah. One is the Individualistic path, the other the Universal.

The Individualistic path focuses on man. He is disappointed with himself, recognizes that he is flawed by his sinful deeds and resolves to mend his ways. He stands alone as a single sinful individual and implores God to atone for his sins so that he may once more stand purified before Him.

Yom Kippur is the day for the individual who has arrived at teshuvah through introspection and self-analysis. The fasting of that day and the Viduy confessional featured in the day’s liturgy and in its Temple service allows him to come to terms with his personal flaws and to resolve never to repeat them — to be cleansed of them and to stand purified before God.

Said R. Akiva: “Fortunate are You O Israel. Before Whom do you become purified?…Before your Father in Heaven…”

There is, however, an alternate path to teshuvah that differs dramatically in both scope and content from the individualistic approach. Here, the focus is not on man, but on God. In this process of teshuvah, man does not come to seek out God through the burden of his sins. His thoughts go beyond self. His is a teshuvah of Rosh Hashanah. On this day that commemorates the creation of man, he contemplates God’s role in the history and destiny of mankind. He is awestruck by the magnitude of God’s role not only as Creator and Sovereign Lord of the Universe but as the mover of the affairs of man. His and all of mankind’s fate is in God’s hand and will be determined on this fateful day. He recognizes that his own moment in time is but a fleeting link between man’s past history and future destiny. He realizes. that eternity for man can only be achieved by linking himself to God and His people; therefore from whatever historical moment he may find himself, he is stirred to accept the Sovereignty of the Hashem and become His loyal and inspired servant.

And you shall seek out from there your Lord, your God and you shall find Him; for you sought Him out with all your heart and soul. (Deuteronomy 4:29).

On Yom Kippur, man discovers himself, and in the process, discovers God. On Rosh Hashanah, man discovers God, and in the process, discovers himself.

The most potent vehicle for attaining the aforementioned recognition of God’s sovereignty and ongoing role in history is through the sound of the shofar. The shofar blast was first heard by the Jewish nation when God revealed Himself as lawgiver on Mount Sinai at the dawn of our history. Indeed, the first sequence of supportive verses for the theme of Shofar cited in the Mussaf liturgy all refer to the shofar sounded on Mount Sinai. The next sequence of verses cited are from King David’s Psalms, symbolizing, as does all of Psalms, the ongoing aspirations and longings of man for his Creator. The verses continue with selections from the Prophets wherein they prophesize the blast of the shofar that will mark our ultimate Redemption and fulfillment of Judaism’s eschatological vision. By symbolizing God’s role in history from its dawn until the end of time, the shofar proves a most powerful vehicle for the theme of Kingship, the recognition and acceptance of God’s sovereignty in this world.

Kingship — so that you declare Me King over you…and with what? With the shofar.

You remember the deeds of the universe and You recall all the creations from the earliest
time…Before You all hidden things are revealed and the manifold mysteries since the very beginning of time. For there in no forgetfulness from before Your Throne of Glory and nothing hidden from before your eyes…This day is the day of the first of Your handiwork, a Remembrance of the [very] first day. . For it is a decree for Israel and a judgement day for the God of Jacob.

Regarding nations, it is asked, “Which are destined for the sword and which for peace?”…and creatures are recalled on it to be remembered for life and death. Who is not considered on this day? (Mussaf Service)

It is again the shofar that best captures the symbolism of God’s ongoing role in the affairs and destiny of man. Pirkei Avot (5:8) teaches that the “ram of Abraham” who caught its horns in the thicket (Genesis 22:13) and became a sacrificial offering in Isaac’s stead, was created at twilight of the sixth day of Creation. Rav Ovadiah of Bartenura, in his commentary to Avot, explains that this ram was not actually created at that time but that it was decreed then that it would be caught in the thicket at the moment of Isaac’s binding. Its role decreed from the dawn of Creation, the ram’s horn is therefore a fitting symbol of God’s interest and intervention in the affairs of man from Creation onwards. Additionally, as a symbol of the Binding of Isaac, the shofar serves as the source of Remembrance of the special covenantal relationship between God and Abraham’s descendants, the Nation of Israel.

Our God and God of our fathers. Remember us favorably before You and be mindful of us for deliverance and compassion…and let there appear before You the Binding with which our father Abraham bound his son Isaac upon the altar, and he suppressed his compassion to wholeheartedly do your will; so may your compassion suppress your anger against
us…For You are He who remembers all forgotten things… and may You remember with compassion today the Binding of Isaac, on behalf of his descendants. Blessed are You, O God, Who remembers the covenant. (Mussaf benediction)

“Remembrance — so that your remembrances come before Me for good; and with what? With the shofar.”

Particular moments in history be captured by words. Hence, on the holiday of Pesach, as part of our Hallel-praise, we commemorate the date of our national deliverance from Egypt by recalling “When Israel went out of Egypt…the sea saw and fled.” On Shavuot we relate the part of Hallel that notes the “mountains skipping like rams” which, according to Chazal, took place at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, when all the mountains trembled before the presence of the Lord. On Sukkot, we note God’s protectiveness —“It is better to take refuge in Hashem than to rely on man”— reliance on God being a major theme of the Sukkot holiday. On Chanukah, the holiday marking the rededication of the Temple, we joyously speak of “the courtyards of the House of the Lord.”

What verses are capable of expressing the essence of Rosh Hashanah when we recall all of human history and destiny? Surely no delimited praise is worthy of capturing the awesome scope of this day.

It is not merely the awesomeness of the day and its determination of life and death that prevents us from saying Hallel, but it is the unfathomable scope of the day when the history of all mankind, those no longer alive and those who are presently living, comes before Him, that proves an insurmountable obstacle to saying the traditional Hallel.

There is only one appropriate manner in which we can praise God’s role in all of human history — through the blast of the shofar.

Hallelujah with the blast of the shofar…The shofar, which recalls God’s role on Mount Sinai; the shofar which points to the eschatological vision of man, the shofar which is the symbol of God’s intervention in the affairs of man to a music store neat you! from the dawn of creation; the shofar which recalls the special covenant with Klal Yisrael, is the only fitting vehicle by which we can offer proper praise to God on this day of the Creation of man — when man and God took their initial steps together on the glorious path of man’s history towards mankind’s ultimate Destiny.

It is this blast of the shofar, with its simultaneous breath of history and destiny that |
inspires us to teshuvah.

Rabbi Sosevsky is Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim and Editor of Jewish Thought: A Journal of Torah Scholarship.

This article was featured in the Fall 1994 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at