When Rosh Hashana’s First Day is Shabbat

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin is the Founder and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone

RSR Head Shot Gershon Ellinson creditThis year the majority of the first day of Rosh Hashana is turned into a mystical mystery with the silence of shofar, the absence of the expected blasts of the ram’s horn – a phenomenon which is difficult to understand.  Despite the fact that the Bible describes Rosh Hashana as “a day of a truah (broken, staccato shofar sounds) shall it be for you” (Numbers 29) – indeed, the only Biblically ordained positive commandment of the New Year’s festival is the sounding of the shofar – when Rosh Hashana falls out on the Sabbath day, the shofar falls silent.  In the words of the Mishnah: “When the Festival of Rosh Hashana falls out on the Sabbath, the Shofar is to be blown in the Holy Temple, but not anywhere else in the country.”  (Mishnah, Rosh Hashana 4,1).  How can we understand such a strange mandate – especially since there is one Talmudic opinion that this silence is even a Biblical decree, stemming from the verse, “A Sabbath of remembering the truah sound” (Leviticus 23); when Rosh Hashana falls out on the Sabbath, you may only remember what the shofar blasts sound like but the ram’s horn itself must remain silent. (B.T. Rosh Hashana 29b).

Perhaps we can understand this idea if we delve more deeply into the significance of the shofar sounds in general.  There are fundamentally two different blasts which are blown from the ram’s horn: the firm, exulting and exalting t’kiah sound (taka means, straight strong and firm while the staccato, searing, sighing, sobbing t’ruah sound expresses brokenness and despair).

The sages of the Talmud even debate as to whether the truah is three sharp sighing sounds and since shvarim actually means broken peaces. And should be followed by nine gasping, sobbing sounds. Our charge is to sound all of the possible permutations, with the broken sound of despair always preceded and succeeded by a triumphant straight sound (t’kiyah) of faith and hope (B.T. Rosh Hashana 33b).

What do these blasts have to do with the fundamental significance of Rosh Hashana?  Rosh Hashana is the anniversary of the creation of the world – and our declaration of faith that the Almighty guarantees an eventual world of perfection and peace, a haven of harmony.  This is clearly expressed in the Additional Prayer (Mussaf Amidah) liturgy of malkhiyot – “we have faith in You that we shall soon see the glory of Your power…when all the wicked will be turned to You and the world will be perfected in the Kingship of God.” And the exalted t’kiyah sound expresses this optimistic faith.

But Rosh Hashana is Biblically referred to as “Yom Truah”, the day of the staccato, sighing-sobbing sound!  I believe that the reason is tragically clear: unfortunately, the world in which we live is a far cry from the perfected world of nations vowing fealty to a God of justice, compassion and peace.  Our world is a place of corruption, wars and terrorism , a veritable vale of tears!  Hence we cry out to God in pain on Rosh Hashana, entreating our Parent-in-Heaven to take note of our suffering and effectuate our redemption.  This is the truah, the sigh-sob cry of God’s suffering servants in a world of untimely deaths and innocent victims of drive-by shootings.

When Rosh Hashana comes out on the Sabbath, another motif enters the equation. The Sabbath is a fore-taste of the world-to-come, a day of peace and harmony which allows us a glimpse in the here-and-now of what will eventually occur in the days of redemption.  Rosh Hashana is redemption promised – whereas Sabbath is redemption realized.

But redemption is not being realized at all; our history is blood-soaked and tear-stained with Jewish sacrifices – and the intensity of the pain is only exacerbated during this last period of our war against the terrorism of Islamic fundamentalism.  For a nation which has willingly risked privation and poverty in order to celebrate the Sabbath, the confluence of Perfection Promised and Perfection Realized which takes place when Rosh Hashana falls out on the Sabbath can seem like a delusion and a mockery in the backdrop of a reality in which parents bury children, in which an Efrat resident, Rabbi Leo Dee buries his young wife Lucy and two teenage daughters Maya and Rina, brutally murdered by terrorists.

And when the disparity is too great, when the ideal and the actual are so far apart -perhaps  the only way to maintain our faith is to remain silent!  In the Elah Ezkerah.

martyr ology which we recite on Yom Kippur, the liturgical elegist pictures Moses watching the great Rabbi Akiba being tortured to death by his Roman captors, and crying out to God: “This is Torah, and such is its reward?”  The Almighty responds: “Be silent- or I’ll turn the world back into primordial waters.”  When the disparity between the world as it is and the world as it ought to become too great, the only possible response – if you want to keep the faith – is silence!

This is the higher meaning between Aaron’s silence when his two righteous sons were struck by Divine fire on the day of the consecration of the Sanctuary (Vayidom Aharon).  I had the privilege of being present at the first Sabbath circumcision celebrated by the Klausenberger Hassidim in the Beth Moses hospital – a building that the surviving remnants took over after the Holocaust, when they settled in Brooklyn.  The Rebbe himself lost his wife and eleven children – and refused to leave the inferno before trying to save as many of his adherents as possible.

The Rebbe explained:

“At every circumcision, we recite the verse from Ezekiel, usually translated: ‘I see that you are rooted in your blood (dam), by your blood shall you live, by your blood shall you live (beamayich hayii).  “But ‘dam’ also means silence, as in Vayidom Aharon.  At this time in our history, on this Sabbath, if we are to continue to plant in the vineyard of Torah despite the unspeakable horror of the holocaust that we have experienced, I would translate the verse, ‘I see that you are rooted in your silence (dom); By your silence do you live, by your silence do you live.’’’

And so, on Rosh Hashana which falls on the Sabbath, the shofar is silent; the people of Israel swallow their cries of despair in order to keep on working for and believing in the perfection of the world in the Kingship of God.


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