June 20, 2024
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Rosh Hashanah 29b

Rosh Hashanah without the shofar, Sukkot without the lulav, or Purim without the megillah is like a play without the main character. Why is the sounding of the shofar prohibited on Shabbat?

According to the Talmud Yerushalmi, the prohibition is of biblical origin. It is inferred from the fact that the Torah gives Rosh Hashanah two different names: Yom Teruah, which means “the day of sounding the shofar,” and Zichron Teruah, which means the day of “remembering the shofar.” On Shabbat/Rosh Hashanah, explains the Yerushalmi, the actual sounding of the shofar is prohibited and is replaced by references to the shofar in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. On a weekday Rosh Hashanah, the words “Yom Teruah” require the actual sounding of the shofar.

Another explanation for the prohibition of sounding the shofar on Shabbat mentioned in the Yerushalmi is that only the members of the High Court, before whom witnesses testified to the sighting of the new moon on Shabbat, knew for sure that Shabbat was also the day of Rosh Hashanah. Everywhere else, the doubt still remained as to whether Shabbat or Sunday was Rosh Hashanah. And in the presence of such doubt, there was no justification to sound the Shofar on Shabbat.

The Talmud Bavli disagrees and mounts a four-pronged attack on the Yerushalmi. First, argues the Bavli, the sounding of the shofar is not included in the 39 melachot employed in the construction of the Mishkan. Second, the sounding of the shofar is not a melacha but rather a chochma (skill). Third, when the Torah states “yom teruah yiheye lachem” it means that the shofar should be sounded on whatever day Rosh Hashanah occurs, whether on a weekday or a Shabbat. Otherwise, the Torah would have simply said “teruah yiheye lachem.” Lastly, if, in fact, the prohibition of sounding the shofar on Shabbat is biblical, how could it be sounded in the Temple? Therefore, the Bavli maintains that the prohibition against sounding the shofar on Shabbat is the product of rabbinic legislation (a “takanah”). Because all males are commanded, and women take it upon themselves, to adhere to the mitzvah of shofar, and because most people are untrained in the skill of sounding the shofar, the rabbis were concerned that people might carry the shofar through the streets to a ba’al toke’ah (a person skilled in the art of blowing) to sound the shofar on their behalf. Out of a similar concern, the rabbis prohibited picking up a lulav on Shabbat/Sukkot, or reading the Megillah on Shabbat/Purim.

The shofar was always sounded in the Temple Sanhedrin (High Court) on Shabbat because rabbinical Shabbat legislation did not apply in the Temple, ein shevut b’Mikdash. When the Sanhedrin was exiled to Yavneh, the question arose whether the shofar could be sounded in Yavneh on Shabbat. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai ruled that the shofar could be sounded on Shabbat in the presence of a beit din (court of law), even outside the Temple. In Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zachai’s opinion, the presence of a beit din would deter the people from carrying on Shabbat. The question is what does the term beit din include? According to one opinion in the Talmud Bavli, it means the Great Sanhedrin of 71 judges. According to a second opinion, the term beit din includes the district courts of 23 judges. And according to the Rif, the term beit din refers to any court of three persons any time, in any place. Indeed, the Rif sounded the shofar in his beit din in Fez on Shabbat/Rosh Hashanah. However, his disciples did not follow his custom.

The rabbinical prohibition of sounding the shofar on Shabbat has come under machine gun fire from Rishonim and Acharonim. First, if the sole concern is that of carrying on Shabbat, why can one not carry the shofar in a location equipped with an eruv? Perhaps it could be suggested that the sounding of the shofar cannot be dependent upon the arbitrary question of whether or not an eruv is in place. It is inconceivable that the shofar be sounded in one neighborhood, where there happens to be an eruv, but not in another, where there is no eruv. On the other hand, that is precisely what happened in the days of the Temple. They sounded the shofar in the Temple, but not outside the Temple, and later in beit din, but not outside beit din. In rebuttal of this argument, one might suggest that everybody knows when the Sanhedrin or the beit din is in session, but not everybody knows whether the eruv is up. Furthermore, the crowds that gather in the synagogue on Shabbat/Rosh Hashanah might be oblivious to the laws of eruv and conclude that because they saw the shofar carried in one location, it can be carried in all locations.

Others ask, if one may perform a brit milah, circumcision, on Shabbat, why may one not sound the shofar on Shabbat? In both cases the Torah requires the mitzvah to be performed on a particular day whenever that may occur, whether on a weekday or on a Shabbat. If the rabbis are concerned that the shofar may be carried in the streets, why are they not concerned that the milah knife or the baby be carried in the streets? Several answers are offered to distinguish shofar from milah. Whereas everybody is commanded to perform and is simultaneously preoccupied with the mitzvah of shofar, few individuals perform the mitzvah of milah at the same time. Accordingly, there will always be an uninvolved bystander, aware of the law, to remind the preoccupied parent of the prohibition of carrying. Others answer that whereas almost anybody can quickly learn the art of sounding the shofar or waving the lulav, nobody would undertake to perform milah unless fully trained and qualified. Accordingly, the mohel, who is highly qualified in all the laws of milah, will be conscious of the prohibition against carrying the milah knife on Shabbat. Others ask, why did the rabbis single out carrying on Shabbat when they should have been equally concerned with the prohibition of mending a musical instrument, shema yetaken kli? They answer that whereas the prohibition of carrying a shofar in the street applies on Shabbat but not on Yom Tov (because of the principle of “mitoch”), the prohibition of shema yetaken kli applies both on Shabbat and on Yom Tov. Thus, if the rabbis would prohibit the sounding of the shofar because of the concern shema yetaken kli, the shofar would never be sounded on Rosh Hashanah.

Some halachic commentators, after winding their way through the tortuous paths of the rabbinical prohibition against sounding the shofar on Shabbat /Rosh Hashanah, throw up their hands in despair, declaring that it defies all logic. Rabbi Yitzchak Mirski, in Hegyonei Halachah, suggests that the logic is in the lack of logic. The rabbis’ request to refrain from sounding the shofar on Shabbat Rosh Hashanah is as illogical as Abraham’s request that Isaac become a human sacrifice. Despite the inability to make any sense of Abraham’s request, Isaac was prepared to go along with it only because his father and his teacher required it. Similarly, our willingness to go along with the seemingly illogical rabbinical prohibition against sounding the shofar on Shabbat reminds God, in the most poignant way, of the faith that the Jews have in their rabbis who ultimately derive their inspiration from God.

And then there are the conscientious objectors who just don’t buy it. One such objector, Rabbi Yaakov Schlezinger, caused a religious riot in Jerusalem when he insisted on blowing the Shofar on Shabbat/Rosh Hashanah in the Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai Synagogue in the Old City in the presence of a rabbinical court. Rumor has it that when he met with violent dissent, he locked himself up in his apartment and sounded the shofar.

Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev suggests that the whole purpose of the shofar is to arouse God’s sympathy to inscribe us in the Book of Life and not in the book of death. However, on Shabbat, God, like us, is not allowed to write, unless it is a matter of pikuach nefesh, saving a life. Accordingly, God may not write on Shabbat in the book of death. Therefore, sounding the shofar on Shabbat/Rosh Hashanah is unnecessary.


Raphael Grunfeld, a partner at the Wall Street law firm of Carter Ledyard & Milburn LLP, received semicha in Yoreh Yoreh from Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem of America and in Yadin Yadin from Haga’on HaRav Dovid Feinstein, zt’’l. This article is an extract from Raphael’s book “Ner Eyal: A Guide to the Laws of Shabbat and Festivals in Seder Moed” available for purchase at https://www.amazon.com/Eyal-Guide-Shabbat-Festivals-Seder/dp/0615118992. Questions for the author can be sent to [email protected].

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