Thursday, October 02, 2008

Rosh Hashanah (Mitzvot)

The Sound of the Shofar

The central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is of course the sounding of the shofar. We have written a good deal about this subject in the past, and those interested are directed to my comments in my blog archives. One central point that deserves mention: that this commandment is formulated in the halakhah, and in the blessing preceding its performance, as “to hear the sound of the shofar.” While there are a number of other mitzvot which involve listening, upon closer examination these turn out to be mitzvot that involve the hearing or reciting of a text, which may be fulfilled passively by hearing someone else recite them: e.g., hearing Kiddush on Friday night; the reading of Megillat Esther on Purim; various blessings; or even the Repetition of the Amidah in synagogue. Here, the mitzvah itself is formulated in terns of hearing; the shofar blower does not perform the mitzvah in a more direct or heightened way than anyone else, but is simply the instrument of its execution.

There is something raw, elemental, about the sound of the shofar: it is not the articulated speech of human language, nor even the controlled, carefully sculpted sounds of instrumental music as an art form. It resembles nothing so much as cry of pain, or an alarum calling a populace to readiness. Whether the shofar is a kind of non-verbal prayer, often compared to an infant crying out for its mother, or a call directed to the individual to wake up and take a good hard look at what he/she has done with his/her life, it is the most elemental sort of voice. In either case, the hearing of the shofar is meant to shake a person out of a certain complacency.

Many thinkers, beginning with Rav David Hacohen (HaNazir) have noted that Judaism is more oriented towards sound, to hearing, to the spoken word (Sinai), than it is to the visual experience. Christianity, by contrast, has a rich visual iconography of painting and sculpture. Indeed, even in Jewish visual art, the most commonly used object seems to be the letters of the Hebrew alphabet: that is, the word, language, which ultimately brings us back to sound: “Hear O Israel!”

Holiness and Kingship

I recently did some work editing a paper by Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Bilhah Nitzan related to Jewish liturgy in ancient times, both among such sectarians as the Qumran and Judaean Desert sect, and in the mainstream of Rabbinic Judaism. She made some interesting observations about the recitation of the Kedushah – Isaiah 6:3 and Ezekiel 3:12, noting that both groups exhibited great reticence and hesitancy about reciting these verses.

Indeed, upon a little reflection, one familiar with Jewish liturgy will realize that these statements of God’s holiness and transcendence and His hidden remoteness (“Blessed is His glory… from His place”) are not treated like ordinary biblical verses, recited freely. They appear in three different settings in the daily liturgy, in all three of which there are special limitations. The Kedushah of the Amidah is the high point of the public repetition of that prayer, and may only be recited in the presence of a minyan of ten; in the introductory blessing of the Shema known as Yotzer, dealing with the creation and the daily renewal, so-to-speak, of the sun and moon and the heavenly luminaries, it is recited at one remove, as an account of the praises sung by the angelic choruses in heaven; near the end of the davening, in Kedushah de-Sidra (Uva le-Tzion), it is read as full verses, replete with Aramaic translation. Interesting, the earliest Siddurim, such as those of Rav Saadya Gaon and Rav Amram Gaon, contain a note that the Kedushah of Yotzer is not to be said by an individual worshipping privately, but only in a minyan. A close reading of the Shulhan Arukh reveals that the Bet Yosef also expresses some ambivalence on this point (Orah Hayyim 59.3); the Rama allows it unequivocally, but only because it is ספור דברים, i.e., a narrative and not a prayer or praise of God per se.

What is the meaning of this reluctance? The verse in Isaiah declares God’s holiness, three times over (“Holy! Holy! Holy!)—an idea that surely fills every religious believer with fear, awe and trembling. Somehow, even the very uttering of the words is somehow too holy to be done in a routine manner, but must be in circumscribed conditions.

The central theme of Rosh Hashanah is not God’s holiness, but His kingship, which is a little different. There is nevertheless a connection between the two. The motif of malkhut, of Divine kingship, so-to-speak spills over from the fourth blessing into the third blessing of the Amidah (see Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4.5), reinforcing the declaration of Gods holiness with the motif of His kingship. Thus, rather than האל הקדוש, “the Holy God,” during the Ten Days we conclude this blessing with the words המלך הקדוש, “the Holy King.” Moreover, on the solemn festival days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this blessing is expanded with a vivid depiction of how all living things are overwhelmed with fear, awe, and even terror upon the revelation of the numinous aspect of God: “May all things fear Thee, and all creatures bow down before You, and may they make a single band to serve You in truth; and let all that has breath say, ‘the Lord God of Israel is king, and His kingship is upon all!” Indeed, it is this awesome aspect of God that moves us to accept His kingdom, מלכות שמים.

Incidentally, in the traditional Ashkenazic Mahzor, the motif of the angelic Kedushah is elaborated with beautiful and impressive piyyutim on each of the High Holy days. These are still recited in many kehillot outside of Israel, but have largely fallen into desuetude here.


I conclude with a blessing to all my devoted readers, for a wonderful New Year of hithadshut, of true renewal, on all level—personal, familial, communal, of all Jewry and, indeed, of all humanity. Then all humankind will finally fulfill the words of the prophet Zephaniah, that “the speech of all nations (including we Jews) will be turned about in a clear way to call upon the name of the Lord”—the name of He who is One, who is Being itself; and the hatred and hostility and xenophobia and meaningless wars will cease. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Righteous, for life, health, creativity, peace, joy and love.


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