Rosh Hashanah (Ramban)
Ramban’s Sermon for Rosh Hashanah
In addition to his Torah commentary, Ramban wrote a number of sermons, four of which appear in Chavel’s edition of Kitvei ha-Ramban (English: Ramban (Nachmanides) Writings & Discourses); for Hanukkah, for a wedding, Derashat Torat Hashem Temimah (a sermon celebrating the Torah in general, most probably given shortly after the Barcelona Disputation of 1263), and a sermon for Rosh Hashanah (Vol. I: 211-252). Chavel speaks of this in glowing terms, referring to it as the finest and most fully-developed of all Ramban’s sermons. It was delivered in Acre, some time after he moved to the Land of Israel, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, either in the final year of his life (i.e., prior to Rosh Hashanah 5030=Autumn 1269) or one year earlier, in 5029 (=1268).
The sermon begins with a word-by-word explication of the verses in Lev 23:23-25 commanding this holiday, beginning with the perennial puzzle as to why, if it is “the Beginning of the Year,” it is described as occurring in the seventh month. Ramban explains that the counting of months and that of years differ from one another; in particular, the counting of months from Nissan was only introduced after the Exodus from Egypt, as a means of commemorating that event. Until that time (as in the account of Noah and the Flood) the months followed the rhythm of the seasons of the year, beginning in the fall, counting from the Creation of the world in Tishrei, as per R. Eliezer in b. Rosh Hashanah 27a.
He then goes on to explain the term Shabbaton, “day of cessation,” explaining the concept of festival days and cessation from labor and other forms of mundane activity therein (see on this HY XIV: Emor). Here, as he does elsewhere, he uses material from his Torah Commentary, which had already been formulated at that time but not yet written in assumed its final form. He then continues:
Now we shall explicate the phrase zikhron teru’ah, “a remembrance of horn blowing.” Rashi wrote in his commentary on the Humash: “Zikhron teru’ah—this refers to verses of remembrance (zikhronot) and verses of shofar-blowing (shofarot), to remember for them the Binding of Isaac, in whose stead there was offered a ram.” But if that was the case, [the Torah] should also have brought the verses of Malkhuyot (Divine kingship) from the midrash, for it is inconceivable that Scripture should mention verses of remembrance and of shofarot and not mention verses of kingship. And the Rabbis already expounded all of them from the verse “and they shall be for you as a remembrance before your God” (Numbers 10:10) … [here Ramban quotes the midrash, and explains how Rashi interprets it]
And all this [i.e. that which Rashi said] is incorrect, for all of these things are simply asmakhta be’alma [a midrashic associative mentioning of the biblical verse], for the reading of the verses (in the three special blessings added to Musaf on Rosh Hashanah] is not a Torah obligation at all, but is based upon the words of the Scribes, as it states explicitly in the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashanah 34b): “[In the event that one must choose between the two] one goes to a place were they blow the shofar rather than to a place where they recite the blessings. This would seem obvious: the one is a Torah obligation, the other is a Rabbinic obligation. But we needed to state this it explicitly: even if the one place [where they say the blessings] it is certain, in the other it is doubtful.” But the Rabbi [i.e., Rashi] is not so meticulous in his commentary on the Humash, and he quotes the asmakhta’ot as he found them in the Sifra and Sifrei and Mekhilta [i.e. without discrimination].
Here he turns to an excursus, discussing the verse concerning the blowing of shofar on Yom Kippur of the jubilee year, how it is alluded to the Torah, as well as the question as to whether or not both soundings of the shofar—both of Rosh Hashanah and of Yom Kippur—override Shabbat, which he claims they originally did in the time of the Temple. He then returns to his original subject, the term zikaron:
But the meaning of the phrase “a remembrance of horn-blowing” (zikhron teru’ah) is the same as “You shall have a day of horn-blowing” (yom teru’ah; Num 29:1). Thus, Scripture says that this day shall be for us a day of cessation [from activity; shabaton], and that it shall be a remembrance of horn-blowing, meaning that we shall blow [the horn] on it and we shall be remembered before God, as in the matter mentioned above, “and you shall blow upon horns on your burnt-offerings, and it shall be for a remembrance for you before your God” (Num 10:10).
He thus interprets the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a theurgic act—that is, a means of influencing God, causing the people Israel to be remembered before Him in a favorable way. As we have mentioned here several times in the past, there are two divergent, even diametrically-opposed ways of interpreting the mitzvah of shofar: the theurgic one mentioned here, associated with Akedat Yitzhak and the shofar’s connection to the ram offered in his stead (see also, for example, the blessing describing God as ”He who hears the sound of the horn-blowing of His people Israel with compassion”); and an exhortatory or moralistic one, in which the shofar serves as a call to teshuvah, awakening those who hear it to renewed religious consciousness and attention to heir actions in this world (thus, e.g., Rambam in Hil. Teshuvah, Ch. 3).
And it is not stated explicitly in the Torah whether this blowing is done with a shofar or with [bronze] trumpets (hatzotzrot); nor is the reason for this mitzvah there explained, why horn-blowing; nor why one needs to be remembered before God on this day more so than on other days of the year; nor why we are commanded that it should be a holy convocation, as I mentioned above.
But because Scripture called it a day of remembrance, and because it is in the same month as the Day of Atonement, at the beginning of the month, this hints that it is a day of judgment before the Holy One blessed be He, for He shall judge the nations on Rosh Hashanah and remember His creatures, and He shall sit on the throne of the righteous judge (per Ps 9:5). And thereafter, during the Ten Days [of Repentance] He shall forgive the transgressions of His servants and atone for those who repent. For the word zikaron (remembrance) is used by the Scripture regarding judgment of those who are subject to being judged. [At this point Ramban brings a long series of texts illustrating the use of the verb זכר in connection with remembering, regarding both the sins of wrongdoers and the merits that stand in favor of the righteous; see Ezek 18:22; ibid., 24; Ps 25:7; Ezek 21:29; ibid., 28; Neh 5:19; 13:14].
Now the Torah gave us this matter by way of allusion, and it was known in Israel from the prophets and the holy fathers, going back to Moses our Teacher, and it is still in our hands as a tradition and as something well-known in the Talmud; and one who has merited to be a Kabbalist engaged in the secrets of the Torah may see this matter stated more explicitly in Scripture, and the language of the Torah is more explicit therein.
Interestingly, he bases not only the Kabbalistic interpretation, but even the simple, straightforward understanding of this holiday on an oral tradition, rather than on the Biblical text per se, which is rather opaque
For it is the teru’ah is which stood for our fathers and for ourselves, as it says, “Happy is the people who know the blowing of the horn” (Psalm 89:7). Now, what is the meaning of this verse? For there are many people who know how to blow trumpets and horn, and woe to them and woe to their portion. And there are many others who do not know how to blow it at all, and happy are they and happy is their portion!. [In short, this verse cannot be interpreted literally, as referring to the skill of blowing the shofar, but must have a deeper, symbolic, even esoteric meaning]. Rather, teru’ah alludes to the Attribute of Judgment (din). Therefore it says, “They shall blow a trumpet blast upon setting off on their travels” (Num 10:6), and regarding this it says “Rise up O Lord and scatter your enemies, and may those that hate You flee before You” (ibid., v. 35). And one also sees that the walls of Jericho fell because of the blowing of horns, as it says, “Until the day that I tell you to blow and to sound the trumpets” (Joshua 6:10), and thereafter, “and all the people blew a great blast and the wall fell” (ibid., v. 20). And because this was the beginning of the conquest of the land, the Holy One blessed be He wished that the Attribute of Judgment be stretched out against them, and there was a ban against it.
And Onkelos alluded to this in translating the verse “’And the blowing of the king is among them’ (Numbers 23:21)—and the Shekhinah [or: indwelling] of their king is among them.” And because teru’ah alludes to the Attribute of Judgment, it says “Happy are the people who know the teru’ah,” for it brings them close to da’at (knowledge), for knowledge (yedi’ah) is used in reference to cleaving or attachment, as in the verse “And the man knew his wife” (Gen 4:1); or “a virgin and no man had known her” (ibid., 24:16).
Having established that teru’ah is equivalent to the attribute of Judgment, he then interprets the word “know” to refer, not to intellectual knowledge, but to attachment to this attribute, much as the word yada’ is used in various biblical passages to refer to sexual knowledge. It is not clear what “cleaving” to the Attribute of Judgment might mean—but see below on the tension between this attribute and that of Mercy.
And it says “it shall be a day of horn-blowing for you,” for the day will be for us. And there was no need to mention the shofar, for the shofar is alluded to by the word yom (“day”) [for both of them allude to the Attribute of Hesed, Kindness or Mercy], and the teru’ah is within it. And this verse implies that this is a day of Judgment intermixed with Mercy. And this is what is meant by the verse, “Happy are the people who know how to blow the horn… for You are the glory of their strength” (ki tiferet uzamo atah; Ps 89:18); for Tiferet (glory) refers to the Attribute of Compassion, and Oz (strength) is the Attribute of Judgment. And these things are among the secrets of the Torah, of which it is not fit to speak in public, nor even to all the individuals. [So why does Ramban write it down in this sermon? Or does he mean that one should not speak of their esoteric meaning, beyond what he does here, saying ‘This alludes to that, and that to this’ and so forth?]
And the Ten Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur allude to the ten sefirot of Belimah [“hanging upon nothingness”; a term from Sefer Yetzirah]. for on the Day of Atonement He rises up on them, and the Lord of Hosts is raised up in judgment and the Holy God is sanctified with righteousness (Isa 5:16), as is known in Kabbalah
In brief, both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur involve a mixture of Din and Rahamim, just as the blowing of shofar represents both, as noted in his interpretation of the words shofar and teru’ah. Rosh Hashanah is seen as Din be-rahamim, and Yom Kippur as Rahamim be-Din. (It so happens that I wrote about this many years ago, for my yeshiva student newspaper, shortly after I came to Israel—the first time in my life I dared to write in Hebrew for publication). It is important to note that the true menaing of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is counter-intuitive. Rosh Hashanah is popularly understood as a joyous festival; indeed, many modern Jews who, even those not particularly observant, celebrate the day with an enormous festive meal, gathering with their extended families at the Yontiff table (I remember as a child observing how the married children of my neighbors used to return to their parents’ homes two nights a year: on the first night of Rosh Hashanah and that of the Passover Seder). Yom Kippur, by contrast, is a day of solemnity: it is course a day of fasting (albeit the meals before and particularly after the fast may also have a strongly festive air); the entire day is spent in the synagogue, with the Viddui, the double-acrostic Confession of sin, repeated over and over again.
Yet theologically, conceptually, it is the exact opposite: Rosh Hashanah is in fact a day of judgment, of total existential insecurity. Erev Rosh Hashanah, in particular, is marked by lengthy Selihot and an atmosphere of trembling and anxiety. Habad Hasidism speaks of the “vitality” of the new year being held in suspension until the Jews blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah morning. Only then, to quote a famous midrash, does God, so to speak, rise from His Throne of Judgment and move to that of Mercy.
Yom Kippur, by contrast, is a day of Divine mercy: kaparah, atonement in the sense of gratuitous forgiveness, “covering up” our transgressions. The elaborate ritual performed by the high Priest in the Temple of old was seen as a means of eliciting this quality in the Divine. God, as it were, realizes the weakness of human beings, their inevitable failure to meet the high bar set by in the Torah, and hence must excuse them. This is the essential message of God’s revelation to Moses in the cleft of the rock (on Yom Kippur!), following the sin of the Golden Calf, in which He discloses to him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (see my study of this in HY I: Ki Tisa [=Torah]).
The same tension between Stern Judgment and Compassionate Loving-Kindness appears in the concept of teshuvah, of repentance for one’s sins. Certainly, one must engage in teshuvah, to search one’s soul, to examine one’s deeds over the past year—but not to the extent that one is paralyzed by guilt. Just as God is ultimately merciful, so too must a person be merciful to others and to him/herself, and not to be too harsh in one’s judgment, but allow oneself to live. Hasidism constantly stressed this: its emphasis on joy is not simply “happy-clappy”—singing and dancing and jumping up and down, mindlessly ignoring the pain and problems of the world—but based upon a deep awareness of this precarious psychological balance. The seriously religious person, one who strives to serve God and seeks perfection in the spiritual, ethical, and intellectual life, may end up living in despair and self-doubt and depression if he judges himself too harshly. There is thus need for a happy medium, combining intelligent self-criticism with a healthy acceptance of self.
Or: one may view this in terms of a tension between prophetic, moralistic religion, which demands constant self-perfection; and priestly religion, which in a sense is softer, mire maternal, accepting man as he is in his faults, and offering forgiveness and an opportunity to live another year. (This idea is articulated by Richard Rubenstein in a seminal essay on the Yom Kippur liturgy in his book After Auschwitz. He also mentions there two Christian archetypes: the stern Northern European Protestant and the life-embracing Mediterranean Catholic; one might say, as in the old joke about the Jews Northern Ireland during the height of the conflict there, that there really are “Catholic Jews” and “Protestant Jews,”)
Ramban concludes this section with some comments on the parallel between the astrological sign of Libra (September-October) and the festivals of Tishrei:
And there is also a sign of this in the heavens, for this month is under the sign of the scales, which is the ascendant sign for this month, to say that there is within it balance and scales of judgment to the Lord (Prov 16:11). Just as the lamb (Aries) is [the sign of the month of] Nissan, indicating the matter of Passover, which the Egyptians worshipped and which they thought was the sign of their land, whose ascendance was good to them—but the Holy One blessed be He humiliated it and commanded Israel to slaughter it. And this is, “[I took you out of the] smelting pot of iron, from Egypt” (Deut 4:20), and as was said by R. Abraham [Ibn Ezra].
We have said that it is a day of judgment, and this is the meaning of “a day of horn-blowing” and “remembrance of horn-blowing”; and it is explicitly stated in the words of our Rabbis, as we have learned (b. Rosh Hashanah 16a): “On the New Year all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like sheep,” and they said (ibid.) “Three books are open on Rosh Hashanah: One of the righteous, [one of the wicket, and one of those in between]”—and many other similar things in their words.
The sermon continues with a detailed halakhic discussion of the entire subject of the shofar: the material of which it is made; the pros and cons involved in using the horns of various kinds of animal; the different shofar notes, when and how sounded; the special blessings added to the Musaf service; etc. Here we once again see the Ramban, not only as a master of homiletics or as a proto-Kabbalist, but as a halakhist, with complete mastery of the sources, which he analyzes with great care and erudition. He concludes the sermon with words of exhortation and inspiration to do teshuvah.
Three Rosh Hashanah Conundrums
It not being Passover, it would not be proper to ask four questions—but we can ask three (which, I have claimed, is the key number for Rosh Hashanah).
1. First, what seems to me an obvious question, but one which I have never seen addressed: Tanakh, the Hebrew name of the Bible, is an acronym for the words Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim, in that order. Why then do the verses invoked in the three special blessings added to Musaf not follow that order, but instead begin with Torah, continue with the Holy Writings (mostly selections from the Psalms), and conclude with the prophetic books?
2. Among these three special blessing, Malkhuyot, unlike Zikhronot or Shaifarot, but is combined with the blessing for the “sanctity of the day” (kedushat hayom), giving us the rather awkward concluding phrase, מלך על כל הארץ, מקדש ישראל ייום הזכרון. Indeed, there is a dispute in the Mishnah as to which blessing of the Amidah Malkhuyot ought to be integrated, but both sides agree that it is not recited by itself, but in tandem with one or another blessing. Why? What would have been wrong had there been 10 blessings in Musaf rather than 9?
3. Finally, a riddle posed to me by a friend, perhaps half in jest: It is customary to sound a total of one hundred shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah (somehow corresponding to the 100 weeping sounds made by Sisera’s mother alluded to in Judges 5:28). In another, unrelated Talmudic passage, we are told that the difference between one who “serves God” and one who does not is that the latter repeats his assigned chapter 100 times, while the latter does so 101 times. Why the difference between the two? Why not blow shofar 101 times?
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Let me conclude with a personal blessing to all our readers for a year of health, of love and friendship; of satisfying and enriching work and study and creativity; of material blessing; and, most of all, a year of peace. May our leaders have the wisdom to guide Israel and the world through this perilous epoch, without destroying, with incredible lightness, that which ahs been built with hard work and devotion.