Parshat Rosh Hashana: Silence resounds

Parshat Rosh Hashana Si

This year, when the shofar will be sounded only on the second day of Rosh Hashana, a mystical silence prevails in the synagogue on the first day, Shabbat. Indeed, the total absence of the expected blasts seems difficult to understand. Despite the fact that the Bible describes Rosh Hashana as "a day of t'rua (broken, staccato shofar sounds) shall it be for you" (Numbers 29) - in fact, the only biblically ordained positive commandment of the New Year festival is the sounding of the shofar - when Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat, the shofar falls silent. In the words of the Mishna: "When the festival of Rosh Hashana falls out on Shabbat, the shofar is to be blown in the Holy Temple, but not anywhere else in the country." (Mishna, Rosh Hashana 4,1). How are we understand such a strange mandate of not blowing the shofar, although there is one talmudic opinion on this silence stemming from the verse "A Sabbath of remembering the t'rua sound" (Leviticus 23) - when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, you only remember what the shofar blasts sounded like (B.T. Rosh Hashana 29b). After all, the other verses in the Bible specifically define Rosh Hashana as the day of the shofar blast. Perhaps if we delve more deeply into the significance of the shofar sounds this idea of the "silent shofar" will be easier to understand. There are two different blasts blown on the ram's horn: the firm, exultant and exalting t'kia sound (taka means straight); and the staccato, searing, sighing, sobbing t'rua sound (ra'ua means broken). The sages of the Talmud even debate as to whether the t'rua is three sharp sighing sounds (which we know as shvarim) or nine gasping, sobbing sounds (which we know as t'rua). Our conclusion is to sound all the possible permutations, with the broken sound of despair always preceded and succeeded by a straight sound (t'kiya) 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. This is clearly expressed in the Additional Prayer (Musaf Amida) liturgy of malchiyot - "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'kiya sound expresses this optimistic faith. But Rosh Hashana is biblically referred to as Yom T'rua, the day of the staccato, sighing-sobbing sound! I believe that the reason is tragically clear: the world in which we live is far from perfect. Hence we cry out to God in pain on Rosh Hashana, entreating our Father-in-Heaven to take note of our suffering and redeem us. This is the t'rua, the sigh-sob cry of God's suffering servants in a world of untimely death and innocent victims. When Rosh Hashana comes on Shabbat, another motif enters the equation. Shabbat is a foretaste of the world-to-come, a day of peace which allows us a glimpse of what will occur in the days of Redemption. Rosh Hashana is redemption promised - whereas Shabbat is redemption realized. But redemption is not being realized at all; our history is blood-soaked and tear-stained. Thus the confluence of Perfection Promised and Perfection Realized which takes place when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat can seem like a mockery. When the disparity is too great, when the ideal and the actual are so far apart, the only way to maintain the relationship as well as the faith is to remain silent. In the Ela Ezkera martyrology which we recite on Yom Kippur, the elegist pictures Moses watching the great Rabbi Akiva 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 the primordial water." When the disparity between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be become too great, the only possible response - if you want to keep the faith - is silence! And so, on Rosh Hashana which falls on Shabbat, the shofar is silent; the people of Israel swallow their cries of dismay in order to keep on believing in the perfection of the world in the Kingship of God. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.