Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Rosh Hashanah

Shabbat Rosh Hashana

This year, as Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, we don’t blow Shofar on the first, and in some sense principal, day of the holiday. Why?

The Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 29b) gives a technical answer: gezerah de-Rava—“the edict of Rava”; that is, to prevent violation of Shabbat that might be caused by people who, in their zeal and anxiety to perform the mitzva of the day, might forget the prohibition against carrying objects in the public domain on Shabbat and unwittingly carry the shofar, thereby desecrating the Sabbath. To prevent such possible violations, the Sages made an edict that effectively cancels the execution of several such mitzvot centering on the use of a physical object. (A similar rule is applied to Lulav, on the first day of Sukkot, and to Megillah, on Purim—a possibility which only occurs in Jerusalem, where Shushan Purim is observed on the 15th of Adar, and even here only rarely).

But in the case of Rosh Hashana, there is also another explanation, set forth as the first answer by the Bavli (which is summarily rejected) and by the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud). In two otherwise parallel Torah portions, the holiday is described with two different titles. In Numbers 29:1 it is referred to as yom terua’h, miqra qodesh—“a day of horn blowing, a holy assembly”; while in Leviticus 23:24 it is called zikhron teru’ah…—“a remembrance of horn blowing…” The former verse is seen as referring to Rosh Hashana that falls on a week-day, while the latter alludes to Shabbat Rosh Hashanah. Translating this dispute into conceptual language, à la Brisk, the Yerushalmi is saying that the reason for not blowing Shofar on Shabbat Rosh Hashanah is not merely a technical one, but reflects a basic difference in the essence of the day, expressed in the phrase zikhron teru’ah—“a remembrance of horn-blowing.” What is meant by this phrase?

This phrase is used further on in the Bavli (32a) as one of the sources for the practice of reciting the three lengthy, special blessings recited in Musaf of Rosh Hashana—Malkhuyot, Zikhronot & Shofarot. The essential idea of these blessings is to reflect upon and celebrate various aspects of God’s manifestation in the world. It presents, as it were, a mini-theology, complete with proof texts from each of the three parts of the Bible: His majesty and power (“Kingship”); His providence and involvement in history, being attentive to the needs of mankind and specifically of Israel, also related to His compassion (“Remembrances”); and His revelation as such—at Mount Sinai, in the Temple where he was worshipped with sacrifices and other rites punctuated with musical instruments and shofar blasts, and in the future, with the Ingathering of the Exiles and the appearance of Messiah (“Shofar” matters).

When Rosh Hashana falls on a weekday, these three blessings are an integral part of the act of blowing shofar, which is interwined and interwoven with them. On Shabbat Rosh Hashana, there is no shofar blowing, but there are still the three blessings of Musaf. It seems to me, given the known connection between the phrase zikhron teru’ah and these blessings, that Shabbat Rosh Hashana is related to the theme of these blessings. The concept of zikhron teru’ah may itself may be understood as “pondering upon, reflecting on, making mention of the shofar blasts.” Here the shofar blasts are not merely the sound of the shofar in the technical sense, but the multitude of meanings and associations, of religious experiential contents, inherent in this act. On Shabbat the physical (or better, “audial”) performance of Shofar is cancelled, but the inner spiritual counterpart of the external act remains. This is the essence of “remembering the horn-blasts.” The text of these three blessings thus becomes the embodiment, the canonical formulation, of this broader concept.

On another level, we may now ask the question: why should this be so? What is it about Shabbat Rosh Hashana that is incompatible with actually sounding the shofar? Several years ago, when Rosh Hashana occurred on Shabbat, I served as Baal Musaf in my old synagogue in Ramat Eshkol; somehow, I felt that this service was more like a somewhat lengthy Shabbat service than a Rosh Hashana davening. The sound of the shofar conveys a sense of alarm, of urgency, of shocking us awake (as in the Rambam’s “Wake up, sleepers!” or Amos’s “Sound the shofar in Zion”), which is of the very essence of the weekday experience. The Shabbat is a day of wholeness, of peace and contentment, of sensing God’s imminent presence already very close to us (cf. all of the Sefat Emet’s homilies about Shabbat). In some sense, the two experiences are incompatible with one another. Thus, on Shabbat Rosh Hashana we have zikhron teru’ah—we know that the shofar is supposed to be there, but is absent; so we reflect upon it, mediate upon the larger themes which are implicit in it—and that suffices.

Malkhut in the Liturgy

Last year I was struck by an interesting anomaly. Why is the blessing of Malkhut, of God’s sovereignty and kingship, inserted specifically in the middle blessing of Musaf, kedushat hayom, that which speak of the sanctity of the day of Rosh Hashana, rather than with in Kedushat ha-Shem, the blessing which speaks of Gods’ holiness and transcendence? The question is sharpened when one notes that, during the High Holy Days, this blessing not only has a special concluding formula, Ha-Melekh ha-Kadosh, “the holy King” (rather than “the holy God,” as all year round), but contains a special three-fold insertion that depicts in sublime poetic terms Gods’ majesty. Three consecutive paragraphs, each beginning with the word uve-khen (“and so…”), describe the Almighty’s kingdom manifested over three concentric circles: the entire cosmos; the people Israel; and “the righteous.” I have always find these three sections among the most moving and spine-tingling parts of the liturgy, which, as much as any other passage, embody for me the Rosh Hashana experience of Malkhut.

This subject is in fact discussed in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashana 4.5), where Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri and Rabbi Akiva debate this very question. The halakhah is decided in favor of the latter view, for an essentially technical reason, but the dispute is in itself quite interesting. That both positions enjoy considerable legitimacy is indicated by a passage in the subsequent Talmudic discussion (32a) which mentions different prayer leaders who led the service in the two days of Rosh Hashana in the presence of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, following different versions. Moreover, both approaches have left their imprint on the liturgy as we know it. I have already mentioned the signs of this concept in the third blessing. But Malkhut also appears in the fourth, middle blessing: not only in Musaf, but in all the other prayers of Rosh Hashana with the formula melokh al kol haolam… (“reign over the entire world…”); in the concluding formula of the blessing (melekh al kol ha’aretz; “king over the entire earth”), not only in the Amidah, but also in the Kiddush and haftarah blessings; and this is in turn carried over to the concluding formula of the middle blessing for Yom Kippur as well (which combines no less than three separate strands: melekh mohel vesoleah..., melekh al kol haaretz, and mekadesh Yisrael ve-Yom ha-Kippurim...—“king over the entire earth… king who forgives and atones… who sanctifies Israel and Yom Kippur”).

What is the significance of all this? In the third blessing, that of kedushat hashem, God’s sanctity, we contemplate God’s holiness and majesty per se, without the intermediacy of any other mode of religious experience: we engage directly in reflection upon God as the ultimate reality, power, etc. Here, kingship is a universally accessible human experience. In the fourth blessing, this reflection is rooted in the occasional, in the mechanism of the Jewish year and its symbolism, which is in turn understood as a function of the election of Israel and even the uniqueness of our relationship with God (atah behartanu... vatiten lanu... aleinu leshabeah...—“You have chosen us… you have given us special times… It is ours to praise…”). Here, kingship is mediated by something else: by the entire structure of the Torah, of halakhah, of the sacred calendar with its holy days, etc. In a word, one may sum up the two approaches as theocentric vs. halakho-or covenant-centric.

Examining the changes and additions to the various fixed prayers, I found another striking contrast. The Talmudic changes to the concluding formulae of blessings (hamelekh hakadosh, hamelekh hamishpat) are focused upon God and His qualities; Rosh Hashana is perceived as a day of theocentric enthroning or coronation of God as king. The later, Geonic insertions (zakhrenu lehayyim..., mi kamokha av harahamin..., ukhtov..., besefer hahayyim..— “remember us for life… write us… in the book of life…”), which are of lesser halakhic standing, express human anxiety and concerns about our own individual, familial, and communal fate, our wishes being written for a good year. This tension between the theocentric and the blatantly anthropocentric pervades the entire High Holiday liturgy: on the one hand, there are such liturgical poems as Melekh Elyon (“Supreme King”) and Hasehem Melekh (“God reigns”), which simply enumerate the praises of God as king; on the other hand, Avinu Malkenu and Unetaneh Tokef” which in many synagogues are the emotional focii and high points of the day, are cries for the fulfillment of human needs.

“Remember the Covenant of Abraham”

One of the central motifs throughout Jewish prayer is zekhut avot, “the merits of the patriarchs.” The role of the three patriarchs is prominently featured in the opening blessing of the Amidah prayer, recited all year long; this blessing contains an interesting back-and-forth tension between speaking of God’s transcendent attributes, as He is in Himself—ha-El ha-Gadol ha-Gibbor veha-Nora, El Elyon: “God, who is great, mighty, and awesome; supreme God”—and His connection to us through remembering the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for whom He held a special love: “who recalls good acts of kindness… and remembers the kindness of the fathers to their descendants, for His name, in love…”

But this theme comes into its own in the liturgy of the Days of Awe. The central and climactic piyyut of the long Selihot recited on Rosh Hashana eve begins with the words, “remembers the covenant of Abraham, and the Binding of Isaac.” From that day on, the Selihot format is expanded to include seven or eight such piyyutim each night, concluding with an Akedah —a poem recounting the Binding of Isaac. In each of the major prayers of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, a set of three piyyutim by Ha-Kalir, relating to each of the three of the patriarchs, is inserted in the opening blessings of the Reader’s Repetition. On the second day of Rosh Hashana, when the Torah reading is the chapter of the Binding (Gen 22), some Sephardim have a special pre-dawn service of piyyutim and Bakashot around the theme of the Akedah.

All this reflects one central notion: that Jews do not pray to God from the standpoint of the isolated individual, nor from that of “universal man,” but from within the context of our specific, special historical relation to Him, going back to the patriarchs. It’s a bit analogous to the Kuzari’s observation that the Ten Commandments cite God as He who took us out of Egypt rather than as the Creator. We believe that our faith has ancient roots, in the figures of these mysterious figures who, in a pagan world, discovered the truth of God’s unity and His ethical nature. He also remembers these extraordinary individuals, and the mere fact of their having lived, and done in their lives what they did, is counted to the favor of their descendants in moments of crisis and difficulty.

This idea is elaborated in another direction in the Kabbalistic tradition: “the Patriarchs are the Divine chariot.” The patriarchs are seen as archetypal, almost mythic figures, corresponding to symbolic structures deeply imbedded in the fabric of the cosmos. Here, they are identified with the three central sefirot (Divine realms) of hesed, gevurah, & tiferet: compassionate loving-kindness; stern justice and law/orderliness; and the harmonious beauty that mitigates between the two.

And yet at the same time, we see them as human beings, not merely as plaster saints. As we noted in our discussions of Genesis, the three patriarchs may also be seen as a gallery of human types, each one with both strengths and weaknesses to be overcome.

Why the central role of the Akedah? Yeshayahu Leibowitz used to point at the Akedah as encapsulating the difference between Judaism and Christianity. Rather than God “sacrificing Himself” for man, something which Judaism in any event sees as logically absurd (for how can the Eternal die, even speaking figuratively?), man is called upon to sacrifice that which is dearest to him for God. The essence of the idea of Divine service is that man devote his all to this fact.

Din and Rahamim

There is an interesting paradox in the dynamic between the two anchor points of the Ten Days of Repentance. At first glance, Rosh Hashana is perceived as a joyous festival, like any other. To be sure, one spends longer than usual in the synagogue, and there is a rather solemn liturgy, but there are also festive holiday meals, with groaning boards. For many Jews, the apples and honey and pomegranates, to say nothing of the fish and beef and honey cake and what not, are at least of equal weight with the shofar, the blessings of Musaf, or the heartfelt cry of Avinu Malkinu. The first night of Rosh Hashana ranks next to the Seder night alone as a time for extended families —both observant and non-observant—to have a festive meal together. Yom Kippur, by contrast, is a solemn day of fasting and confession of sin, with a somber, even melancholy atmosphere.

Yet upon examining more closely the descriptions of these two days in the sources, one reaches an exactly opposite conclusion. Rosh Hashana is in fact a day characterized by din: by divine judgment, in which God turns a severe, sternly judgmental face towards Israel, and for that matter toward every human being, scrutinizing each one closely as he/she “passes beneath his staff” like sheep. Yom Kippur, by contrast, is a day of mercy, rahamim, of compassion and forgiveness. (As I have mentioned here several times in the past, Yom Kippur is the day when God revealed his thirteen qualities of mercy; the day of the intimate epiphany to Moses in the cleft of the rock, as opposed to the grand, awe-inspiring epiphany on Mount Sinai (see HY, Ki Tisa). It is, to be sure, a day of confession, of teshuva, of repentance and of completing the process of self-examination begun during Elul. But etymologically, the very title of the day, Yom Hakippurim, the Day of Atonement, implies a day of reconciliation, of being accepted by God, and of Divine forgiveness as a free gift.

Rosh Hashana is thus a day of insecurity. As the beginning of the year, we do not know what the new year will bring: life or death, prosperity or impoverishment for the individual; peace or war, chaos or growth, democracy or fascism for the nation. Hasidic teaching speaks of the “vitality” or “life energy“ of the year being emptied out of the world as the year ends, and the life energy (hayut) of the new year only being brought down when Israel blows upon the shofar at the beginning on Rosh Hashana. Till then, not only persons, but the world itself is in a state of taut suspension and anticipation.

A well-known midrash pictures depicts God on Rosh Hashana seated upon His throne of judgment; only after the Jews blow the shofar in their synagogues does he move over to the throne of mercy. (Leviticus Rabbah 29.3)

The Sefat Emet comments that this is one of the reasons why Hallel is not recited on Rosh Hashana (and, I should add, Avinu Malkinu recited in its place). The mood of the day is one of uncertainty, of seeing ourselves as “servants before their master.” There is perhaps an element of joy, but it is deeply concealed.

One may apply this, by extension, to matters of faith. Rosh Hashana is the only holiday that occurs specifically when the moon is concealed. “Blow the shofar… on the day of hiddenness (one reading of the difficult word ba-keseh) on our feast day” (Ps 81:2). The moon is the symbol of Israel, but also of the presence of the Shekhinah. There is both a deep irony, and a certain appropriateness, to the fact that the holiday in which we “coronate” God as our king takes place during a time of absence, of groping, of bafflement, uncertainty and insecurity. In one of his stories I. B. Singer describes a half-heretical, half-crazy rabbi who preaches the following sermon: Why does Rosh Hashana occur when the moon is hidden? To symbolize that we accept God’s kingdom even when we cannot see Him or know for certain that he exists at all. Were God to be seen in the middle of the street, everyone would be religious; there would be no “trick” to enthroning God. The whole point and challenge of religious faith lies in His hiddenness, so to speak.

The Mystery of the Shofar

Solemn, inspiring are our prayers. Poetic and animating are our Pi[y]utim. Lofty and elevating is the sweet traditional melody of our services. But no matter how deeply we are moved by all these traditional functions, the most inspiring moment of the day’s services is when the mysterious sounds of the Shofar are discharged from that crude instrument whose primitive form and strange tunes affect our whole being, whose religious whisper penetrated deep—into the innermost recesses of our hearts, and whose influence upon us is of such magnitude that we feel electrified when these bizarre and mystic notes are echoed and re-echoed throughout the synagogue.

With these words my grandfather, Rabbi Abraham N. Gallant, opens “A New Year’s Day Sermon,” one of the few in his nine volumes of sermons in the English language (Hazyonos Avrohom, Bronx, 1922, p. 13). Together with him, as every year before Rosh Hashana, we ask the perennial question “What is that Shofar? What is the significance of this primitive unfinished instrument?”

Interestingly, one finds two main, divergent lines of interpretation of the mitzvah of Shofar within the midrashim, the Medieval expounders of ta’amei hamitzvot, etc. One thread sees the Shofar as a kind of non-verbal prayer of the Jewish people addressed to God. Indeed, this is expressed in the liturgy itself, in the concluding phrase (hatimah) of that blessing of Musaf Rosh Hashana dedicated to the meaning of the shofar: “Blessed art Thou… who hears the sound of Israel’s shofar-blowing (teru’ah) with mercy.” There is a well-known Midrash relating that, when God hears Israel blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashana, he removes Himself from the Throne of Judgment and moves over to the Throne of Mercy (Leviticus Rabbah 29.3). Then there is the oft-repeated Hasidic simile, comparing the sound of the Shofar to the sound of a small child crying for its parents, who hear and respond far more surely than they would to any mere words. And there are also variations: the Shofar is rooted, in its very physical nature, in the Binding of the Isaac, in which the ram caught by its horn in the thicket played a decisive role, so as to remind the Almighty of the merit of the patriarchs.

On the other hand, there is a strong counter theme in which the shofar as seen as directed in the opposite direction: as a kind of message directed to the Jewish people and to each individual Jew, calling upon them to wake up, to do teshuva, to return to their Creator. The most famous of these is Maimonides’ Hilkhot Teshuva 3.4, which we will discuss shortly, continuing the exposition of that work which we began last week But the same theme may also be alluded to in a halakhic passage of the Talmud (R. H. 26b) which discusses whether the horn chosen to be made into a shofar should be curved or straight (it is not self-evident that it need to be a ram’s horn; the possibility is at least raised if it being made of the horn of any kosher mammal). Each position is justified in terms of the symbolism of the human state of mind it reflects: the straighter a person is, the better his teshuva; or humility, being bent over.

The Mystery of Threes

If Passover is the holiday of fours: four cups, four sons, four questions, etc., the number that predominates on Rosh Hashana is three. In particular, everything relating to the shofar appears in threes, or multiples of three. The number of shofar blasts: all of the shofar notes come in triplets: a straight blast (teki’ah), followed by a warbling sound (either shevarim or teru’ah), and concluded by another straight blast. There are three of these in each set of shofar calls, making a total of nine. Moreover, in each of these sets, the middle, warbling sound is repeated in several different variations—shevarim, teru’ah, or the two taken together, shevarim-teru’ah—due to a halakhic uncertainty as to the correct way of making the sound described by the Torah as teru’ah. Hence, there are a total of 3 x 3 x 3 sounds, 27, plus 3 for the three double-notes of shevarim-teru’ah, making for a total of thirty.

But that is not all. The sounds themselves are based upon threes. The teru’ah is a series of nine of the shortest possible sounds (kohot or yevavot); the shevarim is a group of three intermediate-length sounds, said to be suggestive of groaning, each one of which is the length of three yevavot (i.e., 3 x 3); while the teki’ah is one uninterrupted note, nine units long.

Finally, the most salient feature of the Rosh Hashana prayers is the group of special blessings added in the middle of Musaf, again, three in number. Each of these is composed of an introduction and a peroration, with ten biblical verses in the middle: three each from each of the three sections of the Tanakh (albeit not in the standard order, but: Torah, Writings and Prophets), with a concluding verse from the Torah. To be flippant, it is a bit reminiscent of Israel’s Armed Forces, many of whose units are constructed of pyramided series of three upon three.

What is the essence, the inner significance of the number three? Jews are understandably reluctant to become too deeply involved in the mysticism of the number three, due to its Christian associations through the Trinity. Nevertheless: three is the smallest number that can represent a whole, a complete thing. On the most basic level, two represents polarity, extremes, often irreconcilable opposites. Three represents the overcoming of that opposition in a new thing that bridges between the two extremes. It was this insight that formed the basis of Hegel’s philosophy, built upon the dialectic of thesis, antithesis and a new synthesis.

Or: three represents the basic family unit. There is no more universal polarity, more simultaneously vexing and fascinating, than that involved in the two-ness of the sexes (the very word “sex,” in fact derives from the Latin root secare, “to cut or divide”—the same root from which we derive the words “section,” “second,” etc.; hence, from a purely etymological viewpoint, one may argue that the very concept “homosexual” is an oxymoron). This polarity finds it resolution, its teleology, in the creation of new life: in the third person that both issues from this fleshly union and in turn bonds them into a new entity, a family (see the important Rashi on “they shall be one flesh”; Gen 2:24 —i.e., in the child born to them). Even families with several children come about through a repetition of this basic process, so that three may be thought of as the basic number representing the nuclear family. Basically, each child is a “synthesis” and, in time, becomes, to use Hegelian terms, a new thesis, bringing forward the family history into the next generation—and so on ad sof kol hadorot, into eternity.

In Kabbalah, too, one has not a few triads: Hesed, Gevurah, Tiferet; the three “faces” of Lurianic Kabbalah celebrated in the three Sabbath meals; etc. Similarly, Franz Rosenzweig, in The Star of Redemption, speaks of the Jewish symbol of Magen David as the intersection of two triangles, one inverted, representing the basic words: God–Man–World, and Creation-Revelation-Redemption. Hence, on both the intellectual/conceptual level and on the species/biological level, three is a number uniquely suited to represent constant renewal and creation. What better number to find hidden in the heart of the Rosh Hashana liturgy?

Sefat Emet on Renewal

The Sefat Emet, in the very first teaching on last week’s portion (Ki Tavo 5631, s.v. Midrash Tanhuma), speaks of the centrality of creativity and renewal. He notes the imperative, “let them be new in your eyes every day,” as applying not only to words of Torah, but to all things. The sense conveyed is that the essential religious service consists in constant personal renewal: in the awareness that life is not mere repetition, but that there are powers of renewal, of freshness, of creativity in each one of us, available to us if we but open our eyes to see them. His interesting move is in his relating this essentially psychological issue to basic religious issues: the possibility of human renewal and creativity corresponds to the belief in the living presence of Divine power (koah elohi) in universe, to God’s constant animation and renewal of the Creation, whereas the jaded, cynical approach, which sees everything as “more of the same old stuff,” is rooted in a naturalistic view(teva), which at most believes in the Deist’s “clockmaker God.”

To this I would add: this is particularly the message of Rosh Hashana, as the day of renewal of the life force of the universe, and or own renewal/revitalization/turning, which is the essence of teshuva. This type of renewal is one which becomes more difficult with the years, as one progresses through middle life and sees old age on the no-longer-so-distant horizon (friends and siblings becoming grandparents, retiring, etc.). At such moments, one may find inspiration in the verse (from the Psalm for Shabbat! 92:15), “they shall yet bring forth fruit in old age” (od yenuvun beseivah).


Post a Comment

<< Home