May 29, 2024
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Confounding Satan in the Synagogue

Do Jews even believe Satan exists? And if the horned trickster is real, why would he come to synagogue? Shouldn’t he be running a nightclub somewhere? Actually, Satan does appear in traditional Jewish sources—but probably not the way you’re thinking. He has a prominent role in the biblical story of Job, and he also appears throughout the rabbinic literature. That being said, we don’t believe in a being with horns and a pitchfork presiding over damned souls. Rather, the Talmud makes the outlandish claim that Satan is an angel, the same angel that presides over death and in the evil inclination.

“Reish Lakish says: ‘Satan, the evil inclination and the Angel of Death are one,’ (Talmud, Bava Batra 16a).”

What does this mean? And how can the same angel do all these jobs? Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel—better known as “the Maharal of Prague” (who is also credited with creating the humanoid Golem)—takes up this question. Maharal explains that Satan symbolizes all the forces of destruction and degradation in the world.

On Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgment, Satan’s role is to focus on our shortcomings and demand that God execute strict judgment against us. Therefore, on Rosh Hashanah, the prayer leader begs God to “rebuke the Satan, that he should not trip me up.” The Talmud also explains blowing the shofar as a force to counteract Satan, but first a little background.

On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar first while “sitting” and then while “standing.” Over time, the tradition developed to sound the first “sitting blasts” while standing, but at least in theory, the first set of blasts were seated and the Talmud presses the reason for the two types of blasts: “Why do we blow the shofar while sitting, and repeat the blowing while standing? To confound Satan (Rosh Hashanah 16a).”

It seems that every year, we trick the prince of darkness with a fairly simple maneuver. After we finish reading the Torah, we blow the shofar, while the congregation may sit. Then, we repeat the process during the Musaf prayers, while standing. This confounds Satan and we are blessed with a sweet new year! But how can Satan fall for the same trick every year, especially when we publicize our strategy for tricking him? Again, we can find an explanation in the Maharal:

“The shofar symbolizes the ability to change from a state of restriction to freedom. This is why we blow the shofar when the slaves are freed during the Jubilee year and why the shofar is blown during the final redemption, when we are freed from exile. This is the meaning of ‘confounding the Satan.’ On Rosh Hashanah, when God is judging the world in a state of strict judgment, the shofar allows God to move from the restrictions of judgment to mercy.”

The Maharal explains to us how the shofar works to confound Satan. The shofar is an instrument of change and flexibility. It allows for God—as it were—to break out of the strict state of judgment, so He can take a merciful perspective on the world. Judaism understands the sound of the shofar to be a form of prayer, but unlike Shema, Amidah or Grace After Meals, this is a unique type of prayer, because it is a prayer that has sounds but no words. Shofar represents prayer that is deeper than words and gives us a window into the unbounded and wordless self.

Modern psychologists teach us that the brain encrypts the rules and processes that we use to engage with the world through language. In connecting with the emotional, wordless, part of our minds with the shofar, we are able to move out of the restricted thinking of our past and this can allow God to judge us in mercy as well.

Ultimately, it is a lesson for us as well—the solid cry of tekiah, the wailing moan of the teruah and the frantic blasts of shevarim (the three sounds we blow on Rosh Hashanah) all serve as a wake-up call, a spiritual alarm clock. Shofar allows us to break free of our own constraints, so that we too, can move from constraint to self-mastery and from spiritual oppression to properly-exercised freedom. And in our liberated state, we can—in our newly-transformed state—petition God for mercy as spiritually rejuvenated and liberated beings.

But one question remains… The Maharal explains how the shofar, in general, is a tool for changing the experience of Rosh Hashanah from judgment to mercy. But what did the Talmud mean when it said that by specifically blowing during the standing part of the prayers, we are able to confound Satan?

I heard a beautiful idea from the rabbanit of our synagogue, Alissa Thomas-Newborn, in a completely different context. She cited a teaching of the Kedushas Levi (Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev) on Parshas Balak. He makes the observation that standing contrasts with sitting because standing is less settled, and is only a small “step” (quite literally) from walking! Perhaps, this is what the Talmud means when it says blowing the shofar standing is what confounds Satan. By blowing the shofar while standing, we activate our own ability to be flexible—to leave our old patterns behind and start better ones in the next year!

We all naturally tend to be stuck in the same patterns in our lives. Although some of these are probably helpful, many of the patterns are things that we wish to improve upon. This resolution to change is what truly confounds Satan in the synagogue! This year, may we all actualize the change we wish to make and be written for a year of only blessing and sweetness!


Matisyahu Shulman is the author of the recently published work, “Reimagining Repentance: Experiencing the High Holidays Through the Lens of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (Kodesh Press). He is a clinician-scientist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute with an academic appointment at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on general and addiction psychiatry. Before medical school, he received semicha from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

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