Rabbi Shmuel Weiss
Rosh Midreshet Tal Menashe

Each Jewish holiday has a character which is expressed through its particular mitzvot and customs. Through examining them, it is possible to understand the true significance of each holiday. The mitzvot are not only symbols, but also spiritual codes, which we need to decipher using the unique content with which Chazal have endowed them over the course of time.

As the Day of Judgment (Rosh HaShanah) approaches, our custom is to blow the shofar, starting with the beginning of Elul. This custom creates the atmosphere of awe and fear so necessary to this period. We all hear the shofar blasts and are reminded of – and remind ourselves of – judgment and repentance. We eagerly await the Day of Judgment, when we will fulfill the only Torah mitzvah of the day – “to listen to the call (literally, voice) of the shofar.”

But this year, when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat, we do not blow the shofar. Why not? How could Chazal eliminate the mitzvah of the day? What ramifications does this have for us?

The Mishnah in Masekhet Rosh HaShanah teaches us:

When Rosh HaShanah fell on Shabbat, they would blow the shofar in the mikdash but not in the medinah. Since the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai ordained that they should blow the shofar wherever there was a beit din.

We see that by Mishnaic times they had already abrogated the mitzvah of shofar when Rosh HaShanah fell on Shabbat, and that they distinguished between Jerusalem (mikdash) and everywhere else (medinah). After the destruction, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai ordained that the law concerning the shofar, which had applied to Jerusalem only, should be extended to every place that had a beit din.

The Gemara (Rosh HaShanah 29b) tries to clarify the source of this law:

Rabbi Levi b. Lachma said in the name of Rabbi Chamah bar Chanina: One verse (Vayikra 23:24) says, “A sacred rest, a remembrance of teruah (a shofar blast), but another verse (Bamidbar 29:1) says, “It is a day of teruah for you”! This is not a contradiction, as the first verse refers to when the festival falls on Shabbat, and the second refers to when the festival falls on a weekday.

The Gemara derives the law from these two verses which speak of blowing the shofar. In the context of the holidays, the verse in Vayikra says, “a remembrance of teruah,” which teaches us that on Shabbat we do not actually blow the shofar. In contrast, the verse in Parashat Pinchas which says “it is a day of teruah” teaches us about the normal obligation to blow each year. According to this understanding, the nullification of the mitzvah on Shabbat is itself ordained by the Torah! The
Torah itself delineates that when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat we do not blow the shofar.

However, the Gemara continues with Rava’s question: “But if this law is Torah-mandated, how is it that in the mikdash they blew?” (In the mikdash only rabbinic ordinances could be overridden, not Torah laws.) Because of his question, Rava concludes that this law is not Torah-mandated, but rather a rabbinic ordinance. He proves this from the following words of Rabbah: “It was an ordinance, to prevent the possibility of anyone taking the shofar and carrying it four cubits in the public domain inorder to learn from an expert how to blow it.”

The Torah requires one to hear the blowing of the shofar every year, even on Shabbat. But the Sages came and nullified this mitzvah when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat, out of fear that a person would go to learn how to blow, and bring his shofar with him, and would thus desecrate the Shabbat and transgress a Torah prohibition.

This decree brings us face to face with the power of the Sages. The ultimate application of the concept “It is not in heaven” is when the Sages uproot a mitzvah from the Torah. When the Torah was given to the Sages, they were given the power to nullify a positive commandment of the Torah.

We will sit in shul this year without blowing the shofar. We will not listen to the “voice” of the shofar, but we will have the great opportunity to listen to other voices – the voices of the Sages to whom we are also obligated to listen.

The Rambam writes in Sefer HaMitzvot (Positive Commandment #174):

He commanded us to listen to the Great Beit Din and to follow whatever they command regarding the permitted and the forbidden. It makes no difference whether they arrived at them through logic, hermeneutical principles, esotericism, or any other method which they deem correct and which will strengthen the Torah. In all cases, we are obligated to listen to the command and to act on it, following them without deviating.

Listening to the voice of the Sages is comparable to listening to the shofar. Crowning God and His Torah through blowing the shofar is similar to “crowning” the words of the Sages through not blowing the shofar. The acceptance of both the Written and Oral Torahs is what allows for this complete cooperation. By obeying the words of the Sages we accept God’s kingship. It is He Who commanded us to “listen to the voice of the Sages.”

Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriah (Meorot Neriah, Elul-Tishrei, p. 68) explains the significance of this rabbinic decree:

“The Sages have the power to uproot a Torah law in a passive fashion” (i.e., through omission – not blowing the shofar). This is power! This is the power of man towards His God, this is their strength, a divine strength. Is there anything which more resoundingly teaches us the power of the Sages, than the silenced teruah of Rosh HaShanah which falls on Shabbat?

The Jerusalem Talmud has a similar discussion about shofarblowing on Shabbat, but reaches the opposite conclusion. The Gemara there concludes that the Torah really does nullify the mitzvah of shofar when Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat. It is not a rabbinic ordinance. The verses show that one is obligated to blow each year, and that one does not blow on Shabbat. In response to the question of Rava (“If this is true, why do we blow in the mikdash?”), the Gemara responds, “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught that in the verse following ‘a remembrance of teruah’ we read, ‘you should sacrifice.’ This means that [you should blow] in the same place where you offer sacrifices.” In other words, the obligation of blowing specifically in the mikdash is a Scriptural decree. This obligation is limited to the mikdash, as it says, “you should sacrifice.”

According to the Jerusalem Talmud, we need to clarify why the Torah itself nullifies the obligation to blow the shofar on Shabbat. Rav Zvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook (Kinyan Torah, p. 83) explains:

The inner meaning of the mitzvah is the remembrance, and the shofar simply reveals this. It is incorrect to say that on Shabbat we do not keep the mitzvah of blowing the shofar, because that it exactly when the mitzvah is kept in its highest and most fundamental fashion. . . . “A remembrance of teruah” expresses the essential mitzvah, and therefore the Gemara states that the source of the mitzvah of blowing the shofar is the verse of “a remembrance of teruah.”

According to Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook, we see that the Torah’s intention is not to forbid our shofar-blowing on Shabbat; it is simply unnecessary to blow then. What the shofar accomplishes when Rosh HaShanah falls on a weekday, Shabbat accomplishes when Rosh HaShanah falls on it. The encounter of the holiness of Judgment Day with the holiness of Shabbat teaches us the ongoing remembrance of “Remember the Shabbat day.” This renders the one-time remembrance of the shofar-blowing redundant. So it is especially this year, when we do not blow the shofar, that we have the “silent blowing” which teaches us about the essence of the day.

This year we merit to blow the shofar of the Sages, “in accordance with the Torah which they teach you,” together with the shofar of Shabbat which is “a sign between us.” These two “shofarot” lead us to crown God on Judgment Day with a combination of fear and love. This is better than crowning Him out of fear alone, as we do in years when we hear the actual shofar.

May we merit, through these shofar blasts and through our prayer to the world’s Creator, to hear the blast of the messiah’s shofar. “Sound the great shofar for our freedom, raise the banner to gather our exiles and gather us together from the four corners of the earth.” May it be speedily in our day, amen.