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ראש השנה

תקעו בחדש שופר כסה ליום חגנו
כי חוק לישראל הוא משפט לא-להי יעקב

Tik'u ba-chodesh Shofar, keseh l'yom chageinu.
Ki chok l'Yisrael hu, mishpat leilokei Ya'akov.


Sound the shofar on the New Moon, on the appointed time for the day of our festival.
For it is a statute for Israel, the judgment of the God of Jacob.

Tehillim (Psalms) 81:4-5




What we call Rosh Hashana is actually the third of four days that are listed as "the head (beginning) of the year" in the first Mishna of Mesechet Rosh Hashana. In the Torah itself, it is called Yom Teru'ah, or Yom Zichron Te'ruah.

The second Mishna tells us that Mankind is judged at this time. One reason the Torah itself makes no mention of this is that one shouldn't think that the only time to do t'shuva is at this time of the year; we should always be trying to come closer to Hashem.

According to one opinion in the Talmud - one that is generally accepted - the world was created in Tishrei. In our Rosh Hashana liturgy we say, hayom harat olam - "Today is the birthday of the world". This does not refer to the first day of creation, but rather to the sixth day - the creation of Man, for whom the entire universe was created. We believe that God not only created, but continues to take an active role in running the world. It makes sense that, as in every large enterprise or project, there is a regular (yearly) review and plan for the upcoming year.

In the very moving U'netanu Tokef prayer, we read:
On Rosh Hashana it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed - how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine who by plague, who by strangulation and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.


The Gemara quotes Rabbi Akiva who says that Hashem told us how to gain a favorable judgement: "says Hakodosh Baruch Hu .. 'recite before Me on Rosh Hashana the order of Malchuyot (Kingship), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofrot (blowing of the Shofar). Kingship: that you will accept My sovereignty, Remembrances: so that you will be remembered for good, and through what vehicle? - with the Shofar'".

These three "orders" are incorporated into our Mussaf prayer. For each, we have an introduction, followed by 10 pesukim relating respectively to God's "Kingship", to His "Remembering" and to the Shofar - in each case three from Torah, three from the Nevi'im, three from the Ketuvim, concluding with one extra from the Torah - followed by a concluding idea and a b'racha. Each is followed by a set of Shofar blasts (in the Sefardic custom, during the silent Amida, and for Ashkenazim, during Chazarat Ha-shatz).

The Maharsha explained that each section is designed to reaffirm a central tenet of our faith. Malchiyot affirms G-d's role as creator of the world; zichronot - G-d's intervention into the affairs of man ultimately rewarding good and punishing evil; shofarot - the principle that "good" and "evil" are not left to idiosyncratic definition but are determined by revealed truth - matan Torah.


Malchuyot. The Gr"a explained that there is a difference between a mosheil and a melech. A mosheil - however well-intentioned - imposes his rule over his subjects, whereas a Melech rules by acclamation of the people. On Rosh Hashana, and during the Aseres Y'mei T'shuva we focus on accepting God's sovereignty.


Zichronot. Of course, there is no "forgetfulness" before God - as we say as part of the concluding B'racha: ein shikcha lifnei kisei k'vodecha. So how can we understand this? One approach is that it is purely allegorical - when God performs some action it appears to us that He is "remembering" some promise or some merit. Thus, God "remembered" Noach by ending the Flood. The Talmud tells us that Sarah, Rachel, and Chana were each "remembered", and blessed with their respective children, on Rosh Hashana. Similarly, Yosef Ha-Tzaddik was "remembered" and taken out of jail on Rosh Hashana to appear before King Pharoah. Another, similar approach, is that we are asking God to pay attention to our merits and those of our forefathers and give us a good decree based on that.

Rav Eliyahu Dessler explained it a little differently - it is not God who we are calling on to remember, but ourselves.
[On Rosh Hashana we say]: "Who recalls good remembrances for those who bring Him to mind." That is, God is prepared to remember for a person even an infinitesimal amount of good that he may have done. But only for "those who bring Him to mind." That is, who try to remember Him, and who try to recognize the smallest points within their own soul and to bring them out into the light - which is what we mean by "remembering."

One who does this to the best of his ability, and brings even the smallest point before God, attempting to rectify it as part of his service of God, is in effect "remembering" God - and in return God will "remember" him.


Shofrot. The sound of the Shofar has many symbolic meanings. Among the many are:
  • The Shofar is part of the coronation of God as King.
  • The Shofar proclaims the Ten Days of Repentance.
  • As a reminder of Har Sinai, when "the sound of the Shofar continually increased and was very great.
  • To inspires fear and trembling in our hearts on this day of Judgement.
  • The Shofar, a ram’s horn, reminds us of the Binding of Isaac, and of our obligation to sacrifice our lives in Sanctification of the Holy Name
  • The Shofar reminds us of the long anticipated ingathering of the exiles and arouses an inner yearning in our hearts for that time.


The Shofar itself should not be straight - the bent shape reminds us of the bent form of one who subjugates himself in prayer, and of our obligation to bend our will to God.


There are three types of sounds that we blow: a Tekiya - a straight blast lasting 5-6 seconds; a Sh'varim - three shorter sounds, totalling around the same length, and a Teru'ah - (at least) nine short, stacato sounds. The Gemara says that the targum of Yom Teru'ah is yom d'yevava - a day of crying/sobbing. There is a dispute whether this refers to a moaning type of cry (represented by the Shevarim) or a sobbing cry (represented by the Teru'ah). To be yotzei kol ha-deyot, we do both, as well as the combination of the two. Each is surrounded by Tekiya blasts. And since the word Teru'ah appears three times, we blow each set three times. So, there are a minimum of 30 Shofar sounds (Tekiya-Shevarim-Teru'ah-Teki'ah x 3, Tekiyak-Shevarim-Tekiya x3, Tekiya-Teru'ah-Tekiya x 3). We have a tradition to blow a total of 100 sounds. This is based on a Midrash that says that when Sisera's mother wept (Shoftim/Judges 5:21) she gave 101 sobs. To counteract this, we blow 100 times - leaving her one for her legitimate pain over losing her son.

When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat - as it does on the first day this year - we do not blow the Shofar. This is based on a g'zeira that one who is not well-versed in Shofar-blowing may want to bring a Shofar to an expert, and might forget and come to carry it more than 4 cubits in the public domain. This really shows the power of the Sages - to actually uproot a Torah law for the sake of a Rabbinic statute; even more striking because, according to most poskim Halachic authorities there is no such thing as a Biblical "public domain" in our time. But there is a hint at this in the verses - as mentioned, one verse calls the holiday Yom Teru'ah - "a day of Shofar blowing", and another Yom Zichron Teru'ah - a day of remembering the Shofar blowing. Also, we are able to blow the Shofar on the second day.

Even in Israel, Rosh Hashana is celebrated for two days. This custom goes back at least to the time of the first Temple. The Talmud explains that since the months were declared based on witnesses seeing the new moon and testifying before Beis Din, if they were to come in the middle of the day, it would already be too late to notify everyone. So, two days are celebrated and considered as yoma arichta - one long day. There is even a safek whether to make a b'racha of she'hechiyanu, so there a custom to wear new clothing or eat new fruits on the second night and have that in mind when making the she'hechiyanu on candle-lighting or Kiddush.

On the first night (some do this on the second night as well) our festive meal includes many symbolic customs. We eat round, rather than braided, Challah, and dip it in honey, rather than salt. (My family's custom is to do this till after Sukkot.) We dip apple in honey and say a prayer for a "sweet new year". Fish is eaten with the prayer that we "be fruitful and multiply like fish". Pomegranates (may our merits increase as the seeds of the pomegranate), the head of a fish [or sheep] (may we be as the head and not the tail). Some foods have names that can be symbolic, like beets - silka (she-yistalku oyveinu - that our adversaries be removed), or leeks - karti (she-yikartu son'einu - that our enemies be cut off).

Wishing you all a כתיבה וחתימה טובה - may you be inscribed for a good year of health, prosperity and happiness.

Posted by joem on Sep 21, 2006 10:52 pm

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