On Rosh Hashanah every man woman and child waits with anticipation for the moment the Rabbi will call out Tekia and the sound of the Shofar will be heard. The shofar represents this sacred day and is in fact defined as the Mitzvat Hayom (The mitzva which expresses the essence of the day). The accepted halachic position is that any Mitzvat Hayom, such as Lulav on Sucot and the reading of the Megila on Purim, must be fulfilled before eating on that day. By all standards this should apply to Tekiat Shofar (the blowing of the Shofar) as well, yet, in many communities and Yeshivot it is customary to eat before the blowing of the Shofar. Let us try to better understand the issues at hand and the different customs that have developed.
The Shulchan Aruch (OC/ 652/2) writes that it is prohibited to eat before lifting the lulav and etrog. (There is a discussion amongst Halachic authorities whether a person, who does not have a lulav presently but will be getting one later, may eat before lifting the lulav or not.) The source of this Halacha is found in the Mishna Succah (38a) and the Gemara’s discussion of that Mishna. The Mishna teaches that a person who has returned from a road trip where he had no lulav must perform the Mitzvah when returning home “on his table”. Rashi, based on the Gemara, explains the phrase “on his table” as: Even if he forgot and began to eat he must get up from his meal and fulfill the mitzvah and only then continue eating.
Though the Shulchan Aruch does not explicitly apply this halacha to Tekiat Shofar, since the mitzva of Shofar begins at daybreak and is of biblical origin the same principles should apply. As a matter of fact, this is precisely what prompts many later authorities to rule that it is prohibited to eat before fulfilling the mitzvah of Shofar. (See: Sdei Chemed Rosh Hashana 2/31; Beit Meir 652; Matei Efrayim 588) So what is the basis for those places that allow and even encourage eating before Tekiat Shofar.
Explanations to the custom of eating before Tekiat Shofar revolve on several axis. One is the basis of the prohibition. As seems clear from the Gemara in Succah, the rationale is the same as would apply to refraining from eating before Tefila and Kriat Shema. In the case of Kriat Shema and Tefila, we find in Shabat (9b) that the rationale is lest he carry on with his alternate activity and miss the time of the mitzvah. In reference to this point it is accepted by rabbinic authorities that if there is some form of reminder which would prevent neglect of the mitzvah, eating would be permitted. For example, when there is a set time for a Mincha minyan late in the afternoon one may eat earlier on the basis that he will remember to say Mincha with the public. Similarly with Tekiat Shofar, since the Tekiot are part of the Musaf service which is said in a public setting there should be no fear of forgetting the mitzvah. This is particularly true when a Synagogue or a Yeshiva have a joint Kidush before the blowing of the shofar. This rationale would not apply if we were to suggest that mitzvot such as lulav and shofar are meant to receive priority as they represent the essence of the day. Such a direction may be part of what the Gemara in Succah “Dilma mitzva le’afsukei” maybe because it is a requirement to stop (eating) and fulfill the mitzvah.
A second issue at hand is the definition of what type of eating is prohibited. In the Mishna the term table is used, this would seem to indicate a meal rather than a snack. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 652/2) writes, “it is prohibited to eat before taking the lulav”. Many of the commentaries of the Shulchan Aruch note that this terminology comes to exclude “teima”, a small snack (See Mishna Berura OC 652 note 7 in the name of Chayei Adam and Bikurei Yaakov) Though in truth it should be noted that the Magen Avraham remains with a question as to whether this distinction is correct and the Be’er Haitev seems to understand that the Magen Avraham prohibited even a snack. Using the distinction between eating and snacking, it is possible to permit having a Kiddush on Rosh Hashanah before Tekiat Shofar if only a small amount is eaten. (See previous article Making a Proper Kidush and how much must be eaten when reciting kiddush)
The Mishna Berurah and Mateh Efrayim are of the opinion that this leniency may be applied only to one who is weak or unwell. If we want to apply it to the general public we need to either depend on opinions that feel the distinction between eating and snacking could apply to all people. We could also accept the Mishna Berurah’s limitation and explain that do to the lengthy Musaf most people would have a hard time completing the Tefila with no food or drink.
The third consideration raised by supporters of eating before Tekiat Shofar is the prohibition of fasting past midday on a Yom Tov. Since most places conclude the Rosh Hashanah Tefila after midday, it is preferable to eat something before Tekiat Shofar, depending on the above mentioned leniencies, rather than fast beyond midday.
Consequently it should be noted that there are differing opinions between the halachic authorities if any food should be eaten before Tekiat Shofar. Those who choose to follow the opinion permitting eating should do so after reading the Torah, reciting Kiddush and eating only a minimal amount.
In conclusion I would like to relay a story that brings this whole issue into prospective. Some years ago I heard a shiur on this issue from Rav Lichtenstein. At the conclusion of the shiur he stated that either position could be argued effectively. Upon hearing this conclusion Mrs. Lichtenstein commented: That may be true but how can a Jew eat before hearing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
(For further study on this topic see Tzitz Eliezer vol. 6 response 7; vol. 7 response 32; vol. 8 response 21; Moadim Uzmanim vol. 1 ch. 4)