The Mitzvah to Blow Shofar

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Special for Rosh HaShanah

I am bringing this project to a close after Sukkot of this year, moving on to see how the Arukh HaShulchan presents and blends de-oraita with de-rabbanan, Torah law with rabbinic law, custom, and everything in between. Until then, because Rosh HaShanah is on Shabbat, we have the opportunity to consider an extra mitzvah, one I had not discussed before, the blowing of shofar.

More than I had realized, the mitzvah shows ways the lines between de-oraita and not can blur, in what I hope you will find interesting ways.

The Mitzvah and the Hint of the Mitzvah

Rambam, whom I usually rely on for a bare-bones presentation of the Torah mitzvah, does not disappoint in Sefer HaMitzvot, Obligation 170. We are commanded to hear shofar on the first of Tishrei, as we read in Bamidbar 29;1, a day of blowing you shall have. He says nothing more, a signal he thought the mitzvah and its being de-oraita were straightforward propositions.

In Mishneh Torah, he complicates the issue, because he calls the blowing of shofar a gezerat ha-katuv, a divine decree, then adds it also hints at our need to awaken ourselves from our slumber of the whole year, to focus again and better on matters of real value, rather than the unimportant trivialities with which we filled our past.

Significantly, Rambam writes this in Laws of Teshuvah 3;4, making clear he did not mean to present shofar’s full purpose, only to offer an aspect it adds to our experience of teshuvah, repentance.

What did he/do we mean by such hints? Are they rabbinic? Custom? Less? More?

Chazal Present Some Clearly Rabbinic Ideas with Scriptural Support

Ramban’s glosses to Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvot gives us another example. Remember that Rambam introduced his work with fourteen principles for how to determine what counts as one of the 613 Biblical mitzvot, many of principles not so veiled criticisms of the earlier count of Behag, an eighth century Gaonic work. Ramban glossed Rambam’s shorashim, to defend Behag.

The first rule was not to count rabbinic commandments, as Behag had. Among Rambam’s complaints about the idea was the phrasing of the Gemara that sets up the idea of 613, Makkot 23b-24a. R. Samlai says the Jews were commanded 613 mitzvot at Sinai, which should clearly exclude later rabbinic legislation.

Ramban praises Rambam’s points, because they lead to fruitful consideration of important questions. First, he notes, Behag in fact had a different wording for that passage, that the Jews were commanded 613 mitzvot, without mention of Sinai. Still, Ramban gives an answer even within our version. He calls our attention to a tendency of Chazal’s to speak about why the Torah wanted some practice, when the practice itself is clearly of rabbinic origin. His first two examples appear in Rosh HaShanah 16a, where the Gemara asks why the Torah said to make water offerings on Sukkot and to recite the blessings of malchuyout, zichronot, and shofarot on Rosh HaShanah.

In both cases, the Gemara offered benefits the observances produce, without saying the Torah never commanded them, though both are clearly de-rabbanan. To show this is true of the three blessings of Rosh HaShanah mussaf—in connection to which we blow the shofar—Ramban cites Rosh HaShanah 34a, where the Gemara tells a Jew to go where he can hear the shofar blown rather than hear the berachot said (in an era before prayerbooks), if he can only do one. Because only the former is de-oraita.

Ramban says it is just how the Gemara speaks, and seems to think it justifies Behag’s decision to include some of these misome of them in the 613, because the Gemara refers to them as “the Torah said.”

Two ways, already, the mitzvah of shofar blurs the lines between de-oraita and de-rabbanan, in having a “hint” meaning, and in the Gemara speaking of a Torah origin for the clearly rabbinic blessings said in connection to its blowing.

A Hint in Sefer HaChinukh

Before he gets to the mitzvah, Sefer HaChinukh gives another non-halakhic element. In his discussion of the lechem hapanim, the twelve loaves of bread changed weekly on the Shulchan, the Table in the Beit HaMikdash, Mitzvah 97, Sefer HaChinukh advances a principle, Hashem rewards mitzvot in the same realm as the mitzvah itself. For the showbread, our involvement with bread earns a reward of bread/livelihood.

He says Ramban has this idea, too, as does Rosh HaShanah 16a, where the Gemara envisions Hashem as having told us to bring Omer on Pesach to earn a blessing on our grain, libate water on Sukkot to be blessed with rain, and blow shofar of a ram on Rosh HaShanah for God to remember the Binding of Isaac. Another value of shofar, it recalls the merits of that event.

[The Gemara is inconsistent here—the bread and water bring reward of bread and water, where the animal of the shofar that is the key, although horns of other animals are also valid for shofar on Rosh HaShanah. Not crucial to our discussion.]

The Lengthy Mitzvah

Sefer HaChinukh himself sends us to his lengthy [his words] presentation of the mitzvah of shofar, mitzvah 405, so we can table our questions for the time being. He writes that the first day of Rosh HaShanah is designated a yom teru’ah, and mi-pi ha-shemu’ah (some kind of tradition, often rabbinic) that it is with a shofar, as on Yom Kippur of a jubilee year.

For a reason, he starts with human nature, people’s need for an attention-grabber to grab their attention. When people go to war, they shout and yell to foster the needed mood; so too on Rosh HaShanah, the day of judgment of all creatures (Rosh HaShanah 16a). To be worthy of another year, or to be granted a year we do not deserve because of God’s rachamim, the Jew needs all the repentance s/he can get. The fully penitent are those to whom God’s Attributes of Mercy are most available.

The shofar helps, particularly because its broken sounds mimic those of a broken heart, also reminding us to break our evil inclination. To justify his symbolic reading, he reminds us of the statement of R. Yehudah, Rosh HaShanah 26a, we use rounded/ bent horns to remind ourselves to bend our hearts to obey God.

So far: aside from specific halachic requirements, we have claims that the shofar is blown to remind God of the Binding of Isaac, to awaken us from our general stupor on the need to cultivate our relationship to God, to break our hearts so our teshuvah secure fuller response from God, and to keep us focused on conquering our baser selves, breaking our evil inclination.

A Few Halakhot

Not to be too airily thoughtful, let’s remember some laws, too. The shofar must be long enough to hold in one hand and have parts of it seen at either end; we can use the horn of any animal other than a cow, as long as it grows hollow, to be able to blow through. (He thought that limited it to sheep and goats, where we today know of many other species with hollow horns, kudu, oryx, eland, antelope, and more.)

We blow three sets of a teki’ah before and after a teru’ah, theoretically nine blasts. Our uncertainty about the sound of a teru’ah led to our current situation, where we blow thirty blasts to be sure to fulfill the Biblical obligation (a hundred is a later tradition, based in Midrash).

Rosh HaShanah on Shabbat

Since it is happening this year, let’s remember the rabbinic decree not to blow shofar on Shabbat, nor to take a lulav. The Gemara did have an exception for a beit din, a court, although Rambam thought it was only for a beit din whose members possessed the original semicha. In contrast, Rif would blow shofar in his beit din when Rosh HaShanah was on Shabbat, clearly understanding that it was any worthy beit din.

Charmingly, Sefer HaChinukh writes, “and you, my son, if you merit it, will choose whichever finds greater favor in your eyes.” I think he means he hopes his son will grow to be of stature to rule on whether to follow Rif or Rambam, a high hope for a father for his son.

There’s more, but the basics of shofar are seen and known enough that I don’t feel the need to repeat them. What I did want us to notice was shofar’s useful example of how hard it can be to draw the lines between de-oraita and other aspects of a practice. It is with shofar that Ramban points out Chazal’s comfort with saying the Torah said something clearly rabbinic; it is with shofar that we see more than one suggestion for its purpose, despite none of those fitting all its parameters.

Shofar, a bare mitzvah given by the Torah, with rabbinic and theological additions, woven into the mitzvah itself by later readers and writers.

About Gidon Rothstein

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