The silence of the shofar on Shabbat rings out majesty and devotion - opinion

The rabbis did not rule that it was forbidden to use the shofar on Shabbat, what they ruled was that it was forbidden to carry the shofar to the synagogue on Shabbat.

 A MAN checks a shofar ahead of Rosh Hashanah. (photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
A MAN checks a shofar ahead of Rosh Hashanah.
(photo credit: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Many years ago, in midmorning of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, two men who appeared to be a father and son walked into the synagogue on the Lower East Side of Manhattan which I attended for the High Holy Days. The two found empty seats in the back, and although they wore kippot, neither had on a tallit nor did they bring with them mahzorim (holiday prayer books). The gabbai asked them – in both English and Yiddish – if they needed something. The older of the two smiled and shook his head.

Being in a synagogue was clearly something they were not accustomed to. Throughout the day they stood when everybody else stood and remained seated otherwise, and both politely declined offers of honorifics that were distributed to members of the congregation throughout the service. Needless to say, there was more than a little curiosity about who they were and what they were doing here.

The two sat in their seats without saying a word until nearly three in the afternoon, when the services ended. As everyone packed up and began to leave the shul, the two men, appearing puzzled and troubled, approached the gabbai and asked, in broken English, why the shofar was not blown. The gabbai patiently explained that when the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos – as it did that year – the shofar is not used. The two men – obviously unacquainted with Jewish law and custom – seemed perturbed and asked how that could be since they were made to understand that the shofar is the main focus of Rosh Hashanah. The gabbai felt that this was neither the time nor place for referencing rabbinic principles and guidelines, so he simply invited them to return the next day when the shofar would indeed be blown. They didn’t.

For the two, the silence of the shofar on that day was far louder than the hundred blasts the congregation heard the following day. What they heard, instead, was the thunderous sound of disappointment and confusion as the long-anticipated experience they were expecting and hoped for went unfulfilled. Although I understand why they felt let down, had they been better prepared, not only would they have understood why the shofar was not blown on that day, but they would have been provided with a perspective of what the silence of the shofar on Shabbat is truly all about.

For those of us who are familiar with the intricacies of the holiday, the unused shofar on Shabbat is, regrettably, taken for granted. I’ve always felt that the rabbis had something else in mind when they ruled that the risk of forgetting to bring the shofar to the synagogue before the beginning of Shabbat was without a valid workaround. The shofar, they concluded, will remain silent for everybody rather than cause emotional torment for the few who might have inadvertently overlooked bringing it. That oversight may indeed be the basis for not sounding the shofar on Shabbat, but a deeper dive into the subject suggests a more complex and meaningful validation for bypassing the mitzvah when Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah coincide.

 A shofar is held up at the Western Wall. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A shofar is held up at the Western Wall. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Paul Simon, in his eloquent description of the sounds of silence, spoke of the moral and social decay that he found increasingly difficult to tolerate. For him the silence of the masses represented apathy and indifference, and the lessons of religion – all religions – were reduced to graffiti-like urban scrawling. Silence, though, need not always be that way.

The silence of the shofar on Shabbat, I’ve always felt, rings out majesty and devotion which, in many ways, is as important as the call for awareness and repentance that the four sounds emanating from the instrument represent. For the most part, there have developed two ways of responding when, every few years, the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat: some are pleased since the services on that day will be appreciably shorter, while others are disappointed because an important mitzvah is being postponed. All too few, unfortunately, take a holistic view of placing the shofar aside and fail to perceive just what the silent shofar is telling us.

Forbidden to carry the shofar to synagogue on Shabbat

Consider, first of all, the forgotten shofar. The rabbis did not rule that it was forbidden to use the shofar on Shabbat, what they ruled was that it was forbidden to carry the shofar to the synagogue on Shabbat. Little imagination is needed to picture the turmoil among the congregation if there was no shofar to blow. They would have to either reassemble at the location where the shofar was left untaken, or seek different synagogues in order to fulfil the commandment. Neither, the rabbis felt, was a viable alternative. So, despite the highly unlikely but nevertheless real possibility of the shofar being left behind before the onset of Shabbat, the rabbis took the position that we were human beings and not angels. Better, they decided, to instruct the entire Jewish congregation that the shofar is not to be used on Shabbat rather than force even a bare minyan to endure the inner turmoil of not fulfilling the central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah. A greater understanding of and sensitivity to human frailty could not be asked for.

But, others might argue, couldn’t the ruling against carrying on Shabbat be suspended for Rosh Hashanah? Laws, after all, are suspended in the event of emergencies or life-threatening situations. Considering the importance and significance of the shofar, might not the one against carrying on Shabbat, too, be suspended and permit the instrument, if forgotten, to be brought to the synagogue? In that seemingly reasonable question lies the core of Jewish learning and intelligence. The permission, indeed demand, to violate all but three of the Torah’s commandments in the event of critical situations, is in and of itself a Torah principle. We are instructed to obey the commandments so that we may “live by them,” from which the concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) was derived. When a life is in danger, violating Torah precepts is not just an option, it is an obligation.

With regard to Shabbat, it is therefore required to extinguish a fire or break down a wall if it is for the purpose of saving a life. The Torah, however, makes no such exception for forgetfulness; the shofar that is left in the drawer or display case on Friday afternoon cannot be removed and brought to the synagogue on Saturday morning. The rabbis were not given the authority to change or compromise Jewish law. Better, it was determined, for the shofar should not be used than to intentionally ignore that which has been defined as forbidden. The shofar blows of tekiah, shevarim, teruah, and tekiah gedolah, which remain unheard when the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, therefore, proclaim our commitment to the Torah and to the principles that have enabled us to survive despite the countless threats to our existence. The sound of that silence could not be more glorious.

Oh, and the two gentlemen that came into my shul on that Rosh Hashanah morning were, I learned, recent immigrants from one of the countries that belonged to the Soviet Union. They returned to my shul the following week during the closing hours of Yom Kippur. This time, of course, they weren’t disappointed. The holiest day in the Jewish calendar ended with the triumphant blasts of the shofar announcing that we have made it through the annual judgment process successfully. How the two spent the rest of their lives I have no idea. I just hope that someone clued them into the reality that the silence of the shofar that so troubled them was, on the contrary, a proclamation heralding the laws, traditions, and customs of the Jewish people.

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions.