Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Rosh Hashanah 5778
This essay is sponsored by Marlene & Armand Lerner.
Shofar for the Masses
The Scriptural commandment to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah ideally is fulfilled in the context of the public prayer service. The Mishnah offers guidance about when in the lengthy High Holiday liturgy the congregation ought to hear the shofar. “The one who passes before the Ark on the Yom Tov of Rosh Hashanah, the second one causes the shofar to be blown; but on the occasion of Hallel, the first one leads the Hallel recitation (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:7).” The first one refers to the precentor for Shacharit, while the second one refers to the precentor for Musaf. Here, in passing, the Mishnah teaches that in Tannaitic times (and in many congregations today, especially on the High Holidays) it was customary for different people to lead various parts of the service. The wording of the Mishnah makes clear that Hallel is not recited on Rosh Hashanah. Hallel is mentioned here only to create a contrast with a day of shofar-blowing. Whereas the recitation of Hallel and the blowing of the shofar are each a special mitzvah, observed on select occasions, nevertheless these rites are not performed either on the same day or at the same juncture of the service. Hallel is chanted immediately after Shacharit; shofar blasts are interspersed throughout Musaf on Rosh Hashanah.
Why delay the observance of shofar-blowing until that later part of the service? The question is strengthened in light of the general halakhic principle that mitzvoth should be performed with alacrity and at the earliest available opportunity. One is supposed to (literally or figuratively) run to perform a mitzvah. Why did the doctors of the liturgy not prescribe that shofar blowing take place during the Shacharit service?
At first, one might be tempted to dismiss the question; after all, there are clearly substantive differences between Shacharit and Musaf. The Rosh Hashanah Shacharit Amidah comprises seven blessings; its middle section has only one blessing, which is about the sacred character of the day. In contrast, Musaf on Rosh Hashanah has nine blessings; its middle section comprises the three blessings of Malchuyyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot (God’s kingship, remembrance, and the ram’s horn as a heralding instrument, respectively). A set of shofar blasts is sounded after each of these three special blessings, thereby fulfilling the Scriptural obligation to hear three sets of Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah. In light of the shorter Shacharit liturgy, it would be impossible to perform the shofar rite in optimal fashion during that service.
Rabbi Zerachiah Ha-Levi (12th century Spain and France) claimed that according to Talmudic law all four Rosh Hashanah services (Ma’ariv, Shacharit, Musaf, and Minchah) have nine blessings, inclusive of Malchuyyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot (Ba’al Ha-ma’or Rosh Hashanah 12a). For proof of this assertion, he cited the Talmud’s homiletic explanations for the different lengths of the various kinds of Amidah: eighteen blessings on ordinary weekdays, seven on the Sabbath, and nine on Rosh Hashanah (Berakhot 29a). He argued that, just as on weekdays all the prayer services include eighteen blessings, and on the Sabbath all have seven blessings, so, too, on Rosh Hashanah all services have nine blessings. [Professor Shmuel Safrai noted that Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 4:5, which presents a detailed description of the lengthy Amidah and its associated shofar blasts, never mentions that the service there under discussion is Musaf – it could just as readily refer to Shacharit.] Rabbi Zerachiah conceded, however, that despite his Talmudic analysis the practical custom for many generations had been to recite the nine-blessing Amidah only at Musaf, and that that custom should not be changed.
Rabbi Nissim of Gerona rejected Rabbi Zerachiah’s claim that in antiquity all Rosh Hashanah services contained nine blessings (Ran al Ha-Rif Rosh Hashanah 9a). He cited a Baraita from the Yersuhalmi that clearly distinguishes between the seven blessings of Shacharit and the nine blessings of Musaf (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 33a). Still, Ran is able to question the delayed observance of the shofar ritual by also asking why the sages did not simply prescribe the lengthier prayer for Shacharit instead.
The Babylonian Talmud instinctively assumed that the postponement of shofar blowing until Musaf reflects the fact that synagogue attendance is larger at that later hour than it is earlier in the morning, during Shacharit. The halakhic principle “in a multitude of people is the king’s glory (Proverbs 4:28)” mandates that public religious ceremonies be observed in the presence, and with the participation, of the maximum number of people. The Talmud then questions this theory, pointing out that if maximizing congregational participation were of paramount importance then even Hallel would be postponed until Musaf. Rather, the principle of “the zealous are early to perform mitzvoth” outweighs that of “in the multitude of people.” Accordingly, on this reasoning, both shofar and Hallel ought to be observed during Shacharit. Why, then, was shofar-blowing postponed? Rabbi Yochanan answered: The Mishnah’s ruling was taught during a period of anti-Judaic persecution (Rosh Hashanah 32b).
Rashi explained Rabbi Yochanan’s terse answer in this way: Heathen occupiers forbade Jews from blowing shofar. They stationed sentries in the synagogue to make sure the Jews complied with that ordinance. At noontime, when the hour of Shacharit had concluded, the sentries left the premises. Services continued with Musaf, at which point the Jews were able to blow shofar undetected. Rashi’s explanation is not compelling. Why would the heathens allow full synagogue services, but not the shofar ritual? Why would the sentries leave the house of worship before the congregants did? Aware of these difficulties, Tosfot preferred the alternative theory recorded in the Yerushalmi.
Yerushalmi, too, cites an historical theory in the name of Rabbi Yochanan. On one occasion, the Jews assembled for Rosh Hashanah services and the awesome sound of their shofar blasts frightened local heathens. The gentile neighbors misconstrued that noise as a Jewish call to war. The heathens pre-emptively attacked and slaughtered the Jews. To avoid a repeat of such a tragedy, it was decided in subsequent years to postpone shofar blowing until Musaf. The thinking was that an early morning trumpet blast reasonably could be misunderstood as a call to arms. But if the Jews first prayed and read Scripture and only later blew the ram’s horn, at midday, the gentiles surely would realize that the piercing sound was merely a Jewish ritual, and possessed no martial significance (Yerushalmi Rosh Hashanah 59c). The narrator of the Yerushalmi questioned the logical coherence of Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation, suggesting that, on Rosh Hashanah, at least for part of the service, synagogue attendance is poor and that the noise level would not have been intimidating. Rabbi Jonah retorted that Rosh Hashanah is one of only two days a year (the other being Hoshana Rabbah) when the masses thronged to the synagogue.
Yerushalmi offers two more justifications — homiletical, not historical – for the postponement of shofar blowing. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi noted the juxtaposition of these two verses: “Hear, O Lord, what is just; heed my cry, give ear to my prayer, uttered without guile. My vindication will come from You (Psalms 17:1-2).” The prayer uttered without guile is interpreted to mean Musaf, while vindication in the Heavenly court is effected through the shofar. Rabbi Tachlifa of Caesarea noted the juxtaposition of “a day when the horn is sounded. You shall present a burnt offering (Numbers 29:1-2).” The Torah itself connects the musical highlight of the holiday with its additional (Musaf) sacrifices, implying that the two rites are to be performed together.
All the explanations for the delayed shofar ritual emanated from Amoraim living in the mid to late third century CE. They knew the law as codified in the Mishnah, but struggled to find its justification. Those offering homiletic answers conceded that the real reason had been obscured by the passage of time. Rabbi Yochanan tried to identify a time and place for the change in ritual practice. Do the two answers quoted in his name in the Bavli and Yerushalmi refer to the same historical episode? Perhaps, though I suspect not. The Bavli speaks of persecution, presumably the Hadrianic decrees of the 130s CE in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba War. The Yerushalmi speaks of a tragic event occurring during a time of Jewish-gentile tensions, though not necessarily of government suppression of Judaism. The sociological and behavioral explanation — that the rabbis delayed shofar blowing in light of the tendency of worshippers to arrive in synagogue late — finds expression in both Talmudim. My own view is that indeed it was this that was the rabbis’ primary motivation for conjoining shofar and Musaf. If so, that could have happened in any generation. Rabbi Yochanan’s mention of the era of persecution could be understood as supplying an approximate date for the change, even if it was not an historically accurate justification.
We may now inquire: Why do people arrive late to synagogue service? Turei Even posited that women and children arrive late because they are exempt from the early morning recitation of Shema. Moreover, children are tired and tend to sleep late (Turei Even Rosh Hashanah note 221). Radvaz suggested that people did not fill a great need to be present in the synagogue for Shacharit; they were fully familiar with the text and could recite it from home. Musaf, however, with its inclusion of Scriptural passages about the Additional Sacrifices, was unfamiliar to most Jews. They relied upon the precentor to satisfy their liturgical obligations; that necessarily required their presence in the synagogue (Radvaz 6:2,225).
The Talmud states that on Yom Kippur people would arrive early to the synagogue and leave late, while on Yom Tov people would arrive late and leave early (Megillah 23a). On Yom Kippur cooking is forbidden and there is no midday (or any other) meal. Accordingly, there is no reason for a worshipper to be delayed, at home, in the kitchen before prayer, nor is there any gustatory motivation to race through the prayers and quickly dash home in order to eat. On Rosh Hashanah, when cooking is permitted, a Jew might miss the communal Shacharit service while preparing the family’s holiday feast. Were the shofar sounded at Shacharit, many Jews, unfortunately, would miss the rite.
Had the reason for the shift to blowing shofar at Musaf instead of at Shacharit been exclusively a function of anti-Judaic persecution or of general hostility between Jews and gentiles, then, under improved political circumstances, the halakhah should, logically, have reverted to its original form. This is not what happened. To this day, we continue to blow shofar at Musaf even in the emancipated Diaspora and in the State of Israel. Tosfot, writing in 12th century France, claimed that we do not restore shofar blowing to Shacharit because there is the ever-present possibility that government persecution of Judaism will be revived. Ritba expressed a similar viewpoint and added the further technical argument that a rabbinically-ordained practice cannot be overturned — even if its original justification no longer exists – unless a later Rabbinic Court of high standing formally abrogates that earlier practice. Raabad suggested that we maintain the Mishnaic approach of shofar at Musaf primarily because “a multitude of people is the king’s glory.” It will always be the case that a fair number of congregants will take their time, in the morning, getting to the synagogue for services.
It is a spiritually powerful experience to join with hundreds of other Jews in a cathedral synagogue, with all standing in absolute silence and dread as the Ba’al Tekiah sounds the (possibly very large) shofar during Musaf of Rosh Hashanah. This can be sharply contrasted with the lesser experience of hearing (likely a much smaller) shofar in a small minyan for weekday morning services during Elul, as worshippers prepare to exit the sanctuary to get to work. The shofar is an effective tool to stimulate repentance. But its power is magnified by the presence of large numbers of Jews. The giants of Rabbinic Judaism demonstrated their wisdom by structuring the elements of the High Holiday service such that we might all experience moments of maximum religious and emotional communion with Our Father in Heaven.