by R. Gil Student
This year, we do not blow shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah because it is Shabbos. To prevent people from carrying a shofar where there is no eruv — something very relevant this year when many people will be praying in homes and backyards — the entire Jewish people will refrain from blowing shofar on the first day. That is the technical reason but often these rabbinic decrees carry additional layers of depth (Avodah Zarah 29b,35a). Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl, the retired rabbi of the Old City who sadly is mourning a son lost to Covid, explores the underlying connection between shofar and Shabbos (Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha, Shabbos, vol. 1 pp. 67-72; Sichos Le-Rosh Hashanah, no. 14).
Why we do we omit mention of sin on Rosh Hashanah? We do not say the “Al Chet” (viduy) and we don’t even eat foods that are reminiscent of sin — like the custom some have on Rosh Hashanah not to eat walnuts, which have the numerical value of sin (Rema, Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 583:2). How can Rosh Hashanah be days of teshuvah, repentance, if we do not even mention sin? How can they be the first 2 of the 10 days of teshuvah?
Rav Nebenzahl explains that there are two ways to demolish a wall. One is to remove each brick at a time, slowly but effectively deconstructing the wall. The other is to dig underneath the wall and destroy its foundation, so the wall falls down. Teshuvah consists of the hard work of removing each brick, each sin. Every “Al Chet” is another brick.
In contrast, Rosh Hashanah centers around the theme of accepting God’s kingship, His sovereignty over the world and each of us. The blessings highlight this message – peppered with references throughout and concluding with “Ha-Melekh ha-kadosh, the holy King” and “Melekh al kol ha-aretz, mekadesh Yisrael ve-Yom Ha-Zikaron, King over all the earth, who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.” We also recite piyutim about God’s kingship, such as “Melekh elyon, the supreme King,” which is just one example out of many. According to Rav Sa’adia Gaon, one of the reasons we blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah is as an act of coronating God as our king.
We accept God as king on the day commemorating the creation of man not as an abstract concept but as a path of life. When we truly view Him as our supreme master, we remove our own ability to sin. God alone controls the world, decrees and fulfills, exerts providence over all of creation. This is teshuvah by destroying the foundation of the wall of sin, our independence, our ability to transgress. On Rosh Hashanah we do teshuvah by focusing on God’s sovereignty over us. In contrast, on Yom Kippur we do teshuvah by focusing on individual sins, by removing each brick.
Shabbos represents the culmination of Creation. It is the day each week when we return to God this world, the pledge he deposited with us. When we observe Shabbos, we testify to God having created the world in six days after which He, like us, rested on the seventh. When Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos, we do not need shofar to coronate God because Shabbos itself coronates Him.
After we recite the first verse of Shema, we say “Barukh shem…, Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.” What does this verse add? Rav Nebenzahl explains that, setting aside politics and focusing on language, if we say, “Trump is president,” we do not indicate whether we think it is a good or bad thing. We merely state a fact. If we say, “Long live President Trump,” we are indicating our joy over his presidency. In a similar linguistic sense, when we say Shema, we accept that God is our king but do not indicate whether we are happy about it. Barukh shem serves as the equivalent of “long live the king” as we celebrate that God is our sovereign.
Similarly, on Shabbos we do not merely proclaim God as our king by refraining from forbidden labors. We enjoy Shabbos with a festive meal and other pleasures, oneg Shabbos, to rejoice in God’s rule. Our Rosh Hashanah meals, our fulfillment of “eat the fat, and drink the sweet” (Nechemiah 8:10) after we spend hours in shul proclaiming God as our king, shows that it is our privilege and our pleasure to make this declaration. We joyously and enthusiastically accept our role as servants to the Creator. If we are unhappy about the results of an election, we don’t have a joyous meal. Our Rosh Hashanah feast displays our joy that God is our king.
While on the one hand, on Rosh Hashanah we worry about our fate in the future year, perhaps this year more than in the past given our recent brush with death that still continues, we rejoice to know that God is our king. He holds our fate. As we recognize the severe limits of our control of the world, as we embrace God’s sovereignty and accept His control, we break down the barriers of sin. This year, we coronate God with Shabbos on the first day and on the second day with shofar.