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Thoughts on the Shofarot Section of Musaf the Rosh Hashanah

As we have seen in the previous two pieces that I’ve written, the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service is unique in that instead of the normal seven blessings found in other holiday and Shabbat services, there are nine blessings. We begin with the usual three opening blessings with various poetic additions for Rosh Hashanah: the blessings of Avot (calling on the merit of the patriarchs and matriarchs), Gevurot (mentioning God’s power over life and death), and Kedushah (the prayer about God’s holiness) including the well-known poem of Unetaneh Tokef among other sections. In the middle we usually find the blessing of Kedushat Hayom (the sanctification of the day), but as we have seen, at Musaf on Rosh Hashanah this blessing is combined with the special section on God’s sovereignty, the Kingship verses, Malchuyot. Then comes an additional blessing about God’s remembrance, the Zichronot verses, that we looked at last. The third special section is in the sixth blessing which we will consider today, the Shofarot (verses about the Shofar). The last three blessings in every Amidah follow: Avodah(asking that our service be accepted), Hodaah (thanksgiving for all our blessings),and the closing blessing for peace (Sim Shalom) which includes the well-known priestly blessing from the book of Numbers.


Shofarot has a similar structure as the Malchuyot and Zichronot blessings. There is an introductory passage, followed by ten biblical verses, three from the Torah, three from Psalms, and three from the Prophets. We’ll see shortly that there is a bit of a deviation from this pattern in Shofarot. The conclusion of the blessing is found in a closing paragraph which includes the tenth biblical verse, a verse from the Torah. After this, we once again hear ten blasts of the shofar and the passages of Hayom Harat Olam and Areshet S’fateinu which conclude each of the three special themes of Musaf. I discussed them in the previous piece on Zichronot.


The Rabbis speak of a number of miraculous phenomena that appear later in the biblical narratives, being created by God at twilight on the eve of the first Shabbat of Creation. In this way they avoid the criticism that miracles violate the laws of nature established by God at the beginning of time. One item suggested in the Mishnah of Avot, though not in the first list of ten items, is the ram which “miraculously” shows up on Mount Moriah with its horns caught in a bramble bush, just in time to be offered on the altar in place of Isaac. In the Midrash of Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (chapter 31), we find the statement of Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. “From that ram, which was created at twilight, nothing came forth which was useless. The ashes of the ram were the base which was upon the top of the inner altar (the incense altar in the Temple). The sinews of the ram were the strings of the harp whereon David played. The ram’s skin was the girdle around the loins of Elijah, may he be remembered for good…. The horn of the ram on the left side was the shofar blown by the Holy One on Mount Sinai… The horn on the right side, which is larger than the one on the left is destined in the future to be sounded in the world that is to come.” In the shofarot blessing, we have an echo of that midrashic statement, with the introductory passages focusing on the left horn, the shofar at Mount Sinai, and the closing passages looking forward to the sounding of the right horn for the future redemption of the Jewish people. You may notice that while the Malchuyot and Zichronot have a universal sound, including all people in the world, Shofarot tends to be directed primarily at God’s special relationship with the people of Israel.


The blessing opens with a brief description of the scene at Mount Sinai on the day of the revelation of the Torah. “Ata nigleita ba’anan k’vodecha, You revealed Yourself in a cloud of glory to speak to Your holy people, allowing them to hear Your voice from the heavens. Through a pure mist (arfalei tohar), You disclosed Yourself and the whole world – everything -

quivered in Your Presence. All of creation trembled in awe, as You, our sovereign, made Yourself known at Mount Sinai, teaching Your people Torah and mitzvot. You spoke to them from amidst fiery flames, allowing them to hear Your majestic voice and Your sacred words, revealed Yourself to them amidst thunder and lightning, and appeared to them with the sounding of the shofar, uv’kol shofar aleihem hofata.”


What follows are the biblical verses for shofarot, beginning with three verses from the Torah describing further the events at Sinai, two from before the giving of the Torah and one from afterwards. This section thus focuses on the shofar recalling events which took place in the past. In the first verse we find, “Vay’hi b’yom hashelishi bihyot haboker, On the third day, as morning dawned, vay’hi kolot uv’rakim, there was thunder and lightning, v’anan kaved al ha-har, a dense cloud covering the mountain, v’kol shofar chazak m’od, and the powerful sound of the shofar, vayecherad kol ha-am asher ba-machaneh, all the people who were in the camp trembled.” Our second verse is taken from a few verses later in Exodus, “Vay’hi kol hashofar holeich v’chazek m’od, the sound of the shofar grew ever more powerful, Moshe y’dabeir v’ha-elohim ya’anenu b’kol, as Moses spoke, God’s response thundered.” The third verse from the Torah following the giving of the ten commandments, describes an experience of synesthesia during the moments of revelation, with the different senses confused: “V’kol ha-am roim et hakolot v’et halapidim, and all the people saw the thunder and the lightning, v’et kol hashofar, and the blare of the shofar, v’et ha-har ashein, and the mountain smoking, vayar ha-am vaya’nu’u vaya’amdu mei-rachok, as the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.”

These three verses from the Torah are followed by three from the Psalms, which describe the shofar as an instrument of praise in the present. First, a short verse from Psalm 47, “Alah Elohim biteruah, Adonay b’kol shofar, God ascends amidst the cry of the shofar, with its sound, Adonay is enthroned.” This is followed by another brief verse from Psalm 98, which is part of Kabbalat Shabbat. “Bachatzotzrot v’kol shofar hari’u lifnei haMelech, Adonay, Sound the trumpet and the shofar before the Sovereign, Adonay.” The third verse, from Psalm 81, is read before the Amidah on the eve of Rosh Hashanah; it is used to introduce the Kiddush over wine at lunch on the holiday; and the entire Psalm is read as the daily Psalm of the Levites for Thursday each week. “Tik’u va’chodesh shofar b’keseh l’yom chageinu, Sound the shofar on our feast-day, on the new moon when it is hidden, ki chok l’Yisrael hu mishpat leilohei Ya’akov, For it is Israel’s law, a decree of the God of Jacob.”


In the midst of this passage, suddenly the entire 150th Psalm appears, the grand conclusion of the Psalter, with its repeating words of praise to God. It opens and closes with the words Halleluyah, Praise the Lord, and within it, ten more times we are called upon to Praise God utilizing various musical instruments of ancient times, including the shofar, but also the harp and lyre, drums and flute. It reaches its crashing crescendo with the call, Haleluhu b’tziltzilei shama, hal’luhu b’tziltzilei teruah, Praise God with crashing cymbals, Praise Him with resounding cymbals.” The Psalm ends with the words “Kol haneshamah t’halel Yah, Halleluyah, Let every breath of life Praise the Lord, Halleluyah.”


The three prophetic verses all look to the future redemption of Israel and the world. They anticipate the sounding of the right horn of Abraham’s ram, that great shofar that we hope to hear in time to come announcing the ultimate perfection of the world. The first two prophetic passages are from Isaiah. In chapter 18, he addresses, “Kol yoshvei tevel v’shochnei aretz, All you inhabitants of the world and dwellers on earth, kin’so nes harim, tir’u, when a banner is raised on the mountains, look! V’kit’koa shofar tishma’u, and when the shofar is sounded, listen!” A second verse from Isaiah 27, has a definite Messianic sound, “V’hayah bayom hahu yitaka b’shofar gadol, For on that day, a great shofar will be sounded, uva’u ha-ovdim b’eretz Ashur v’hanidachim b’eretz Mitzraim, those lost in the land of Assyria and those cast away in the land of Egypt shall come back, v’hishtachavu ladonay b’har hakodesh biy’rushalayim, and worship Adonay on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” The prophet, who lived in the time of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in the end of the 8thcentury BCE, is talking about the return of what we call the “ten lost tribes,” the people of the Kingdom of Israel carried off by the Assyrians and assimilated into the populations of the East. The third prophetic verse is from two centuries later, from the words of Zechariah, a post-exilic prophet, who writes, “Vadonay aleihem yeiraeh, Adonai will appear to them (the people of Judah, the southern kingdom who had been exiled to Babylon), v’yatza kavarak chitzo, shooting arrows like lightning, vadonay Elohim bashofar yitka, God will sound the shofar, v’halach b’saarot Teiman, advancing in a stormy south wind, Adonay Tzevaot yagen aleichem, Adonay Tzevaot (the Lord of Hosts) will protect them.” The editor of this section adds his personal encouragement, “Ken tagen al amcha Yisrael bishlomecha, And so, too, protect Your people Israel with Your peace.”


We then conclude this blessing with a fervent prayer for redemption, the opening lines of which are part of our weekday Amidah. “Eloheinu veilohei avoteinu, Our God and God of our ancestors, T’ka b’shofar gadol l’cheiruteinu v’sa nes l’kabeitz galuyoteinu, Sound the great shofar proclaiming our freedom, raise up the banner signaling the ingathering of our exiles.” The lines which follow are part of the festival liturgy and also are familiar to old campers since they were set to a tune complete with hand motions back in the day and, somewhat more recently, they were given another catchy tune which many cantors sing. “V’karev p’zureinu mibein hagoyim unefutzoteinu kaneis miyark’tei aretz. Draw near those scattered among the nations and from the ends of the earth assemble our dispersed.” The prayer continues, “V’havieinu l’Tziyon ircha b’rina v’liyerushalyim bet mikdashcha b’simchat olam. Bring us with song and boundless joy to Zion,Your city, to Jerusalem, the site of Your Temple.” Here, the Lev Shalem Machzor follows the pattern of Conservative prayerbooks in avoiding prayers for the restoration of the ancient sacrifices and simply mentioning the offerings of our ancestors. 


This mention is followed by the tenth verse for Shofarot, a verse from the Torah, from the book of Numbers, which does not actually mention the shofar, but does speak of sounding trumpets when one offers sacrifices on the various holidays. “Uv’yom simchatchem uv’moadeichem uv’roshei chodsheichem, on your joyous occasions – your fixed festivals and new moons – ut’katem b’chatzotzrot al oloteichem v’al zivchei shalmeichem, you shall sound the trumpets over your sacrifices and offerings. V’hayu lachem l’zikaron lifnei Eloheichem, Ani Adonai Eloheichem, they shall be a remembrance of you before your God, I, Adonai, am your God.”


The blessing concludes, “Ki Atah shomea kol shofar uma’azin teruah - ein domeh lach, For You hear the sound of the shofar, and attend to its splintered call (teruah) – You are beyond compare. Baruch ata Adonay, Praised are You, Lord, shomea kol teruat amcha Yisrael b’rachamim, who listens with compassion to the sounds of the splintered call of Your people Israel.”


As with the Malchuyot and Zichronot, this section is now followed by the sounding of ten more calls of the shofar and the concluding hymns of Hayom Harat Olam and Areshet S’fateinu, that I wrote about for Zichronot. When we finish this blessing in the Musaf Amidah, we are clearly approaching the conclusion of the long Rosh Hashanah service. In my experience, the last three blessings are chanted rather quickly by most cantors who are beginning to imagine the smell of brisket for their holiday lunch. 


However, just as we get to the end of the final blessing of Sim Shalom, it is customary to open the ark once more for a familiar piyyut, Hayom T’amtzeinu. “Strengthen us today!” Though this piyyut does exist with all twenty-two letters of an alphabetical acrostic following the prefix tav which indicates the second person singular, in each line, (it is in fact cited in that complete form in the comprehensive work of Daniel Goldschmidt on the High Holiday machzor),most machzorim omit the middle section after the letter dalet and include just four more verses that seem particularly appropriate for this concluding prayer. So we sing, Hayom t’Amtzeinu, Hayom t’Varcheinu, Hayom t’Gadleinu, and Hayom tiDr’sheinu l’tovah, alef, bet, gimel, dalet, Strengthen us today! Bless us today! Exalt us today! Seek our well-being today! This is followed by the verse for the letter chaf, Hayom tiCht’veinu l’tovah, Inscribe us for a good life today! From there our Machzor jumps toward the end of the alphabet to the letters kuf, shin, and tav. The choir piece I generally use introduces a verse for chet first which does not appear in our Lev Shalem Machzor, Hayom t’Chadeish Aleinu shanah tovah, Renew for us a good year, today! (That particular verse does not appear in Goldschmidt’s alphabetical acrostic either, but appears as “some add”.) The concluding verses then are Hayom t’Kabeil b’rachamim uv’ratzon et tefilateinu. Lovingly accept our prayers today! Hayom tiShma shavateinu! Hear our plea today! And finally, Hayom tiT’m’cheinu biy’min tzidkecha, Sustain us with the power of Your righteousness today! After each line of the piyyut and its urgent plea, the congregation responds: Amen! As with many of these poems, there exist a variety of melodies and each prayer leader has his or her own favorite. The one I choose to use recalls memories of the choir in which my parents participated for so many years in my childhood. Its conclusion has always seemed so dramatic. I remember the rabbi, Harry Nelson of blessed memory, moving it to the very end and using it as a benediction, before dismissing the congregation. In retrospect, however, I’m thinking that would have made more sense on Yom Kippur when the only prayer afterward was the Reader’s Full Kaddishfollowed by the break between Musaf and Minchah. On Rosh Hashanah, there are still a few more closing prayers recited, Ein Keloheinu, Aleinu, and the Mourners’ Kaddish and finally Adon Olam. In addition, we follow the tradition of making up the balance of the one hundred sounds of the shofar in the middle of the Full Kaddish. While some congregations choose to sound the shofar in three groups of ten during the silent amidah as well as during the repetition after each of the special sections, we choose not to interrupt the silent prayer, but to sound the remaining forty blasts during the Full Kaddish instead. 


That tradition of one hundred blasts has a rather convoluted origin linking it, because of the unusual word “t’yabev” translated as “whining” in the Song of Deborah in the book of Judges, to the rabbinic description of the shofar call as a “y’vavah.” There, in Judges, it describes the futile waiting of the mother of the enemy general Sisera who, after fleeing the battlefield, has been killed by Yael, a Kenite friend of Israel, with a well-aimed tent-peg as he slept. The poet speaks of the mother’s cries while waiting and imagining his victory and his division of the spoil which must be delaying his return. Her lament contains 101 letters and is filled with hopes for the destruction and pillage of Israel. We sound only 100 blasts to nullify her evil prayers, but we do still recognize the pain of a mother’s loss, even the mother of our enemy, and so we do not sound the one hundred and first blast out of deference to her bereavement. Apparently, in Sephardic tradition, I read, 101 blasts are actually sounded, not because of Sisera’s mother, but in honor of the guardian angel of Israel, the Archangel Michael, the numerical value of the letters of whose name total 101.


May all our prayers and supplications and the blasts of our shofar ascend on high this year and bring us the blessings of a good and sweet year for all. Shanah tovah umetukah.


May we all be inscribed and sealed for good in the coming year. L’shanah tovah tikateivu v’teichateimu.     

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Edward Friedman

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