Rabbi Boaz Genut
Former Rosh Kollel in St. Louis
Former Executive Director of Torah Mitzion
Currently Director of the Department of Marriage and Community Affairs at Tzohar
In the Mussaf prayer of Rosh HaShanah we find three special blessings: Malkhuyot (kingship), Zikhronot (remembrance), and Shofarot (the shofar). Each blessing includes verses which address its themes.
When we look at the content of these blessings and the verses incorporated into them, we notice that they all relate to God’s actions and activities. God is the King Who remembers everyone’s deeds. He is also the One Who blows the shofar.
This last image is a little surprising. It is true that the Shofarot section includes verses and descriptions of shofar blowing before God, but there is also a central image in which He is the toke’a (the one who blows the shofar). This occurred at Mount Sinai. In the words of the Rosh HaShanah machzor:
You were revealed in the cloud of Your glory to Your holy nation to speak with them . . . when You, our King, revealed Yourself on Mount Sinai to teach Torah and mitzvot to Your nation. . . . And with the sound of the shofar You appeared to them, as it is written in your Torah (Shemot 19:16): “It happened on the third day, in the morning. There was thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud on the mountain. The sound of the shofar was very powerful, and all the people in the camp trembled.”
Since it was God Who produced the Sinai shofar sound, it is as if God was blowing a shofar. What is the significance of God’s shofar blowing, and how does it relate specifically to Rosh HaShanah?
The question becomes even stronger when we look at the Midrash Tanchuma on Parashat Vayishlach:
The verse says (Yoel 2:11): “God voices orders [vaHashem natan kolo] to His army . . . . The day of God is an awesome, terrible thing. Who can endure it?” The phrase “God voices” refers to Rosh HaShanah, when there is shofar blowing. “To His army” refers to the Jews who tremble and are afraid of the sound of the shofar, and who repent in order to be found worthy on Yom Kippur. “Who can endure it?” refers to Yom Kippur, when the books of life and death are sealed.
While the verses in the Rosh HaShanah prayers relate to the shofar on Mount Sinai, the midrash speaks of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah. The midrash refers to this shofar blowing as the voice of God [vaHashem natan kolo]. How does the shofar of Rosh HaShanah transform into the voice of God?
We can find a possible solution to this question by looking at a unique halakhic requirement of shofar blowing, the requirement to have proper kavanah (intent):
If the person listening to the shofar intended to fulfill his obligation, but the toke’a did not have this in mind, or if the toke’a had in mind to fulfill the listener’s obligation, but the listener did not have this in mind – the obligation of the listener has not been fulfilled. The fulfillment is only when both the toke’a and the one hearing the blasts have kavanah (Rambam, Hilkhot Shofar, 2:4).
Taking sides in the great debate in the Talmud as to whether or not mitzvah performance requires kavanah (see Rosh HaShanah 28), the Rambam rules that mitzvot do not require kavanah. But he makes one exception to this rule – the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah.
What does this special ruling teach us about the mitzvah of shofar?
The requirement of kavanah for shofar teaches us that it is not the blowing of the shofar itself which is the mitzvah. Rather, the blowing is only preparation for the mitzvah (hekhsher mitzvah). The mitzvah itself is listening with proper intent. Both the toke’a and listener must listen, concentrate on the sound, and think about it. What types of thought are we talking about?
It would seem that this question is answered by the midrash we cited earlier: “‘His army’ refers to the Jews who tremble and are afraid of the sound of the shofar.” What is so scary about the sound of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah? It seems that we are meant to relate to the sound of the shofar in the same way that we relate to the voice of God. It is as if God is speaking with us and letting us hear His voice via the shofar.
According to Rabbi Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Birkat Moshe in Ma’ale Adumim), “The sound of the shofar is a Divine message, and not just a general one either. Rather, it is specific and targeted at each and every individual” (“Mah Nora
BeYamim HaNora’im,” in Biheyoto Karov – Asufat Ma’amarim LeYamim HaNora’im,” Yeshivat Ohr Etzion, p. 212).
In this way, hearing the shofar on Rosh HaShanah returns us to the shofar at Mount Sinai, where it all began. When we heard the Sinai shofar, we heard the voice of God giving the Torah to His nation, creating a new spiritual reality, and directing our paths.
From then on, God has continued to allow His voice to be heard, even though often we are not prepared to listen. He speaks to us through the Torah which He gave us; through events large and small which we experience in our personal lives; and through communal, national, and international events. We have a tendency to downplay the significance of things. In listening to the shofar on Rosh HaShanah, we are commanded to listen to the voice of the Master of the Universe – “to hear the sound of the shofar.”