This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Horn of Plenty*

The familiar practice in virtually all Jewish communities is to sound the Shofar one hundred times during the course of the Rosh Hashanah services.

This elaborate ritual evolved from more modest beginnings.

Since the Torah uses the word teru'ah three times in connection with the Rosh Hashanah festival, the raqbbis took this to mean that there is a requirement to make the sound known as "teru'ah" three times during the day. This was understood to correspond to the holiday's three main themes: God's sovereignty, God's remembrance of humanity, and the motif of shofar itself.

The problem was that the rabbis were not entirely certain what the Torah had in mind by teru'ah. According to one view, it represented a vibrating, sobbing voice, like the sound that we now refer to as teru'ah, consisting of nine rapid-fire notes. Others believed that the Torah's teru'ah simulated a sigh, represented musically by three medium-length notes (the pattern that is currently designated as shevarim). A third opinion insisted on intoning both the sigh and the sob sounds.

There was also a consensus that whichever of these sounds was the correct one, it must be preceded and followed by the prolonged blast known as the teki'ah.

In order to cover all their bases, the Talmud reports that Rabbi Abbahu of Caesarea instituted the procedure of exercising all three options for each of the three required soundings.

Do the math: Since each instance consisted of three sounds (the sound itself sandwiched between two teki'as), and each was performed three times, and in three different ways, 3 x 3 x 3 = 27. Add an extra three to satisfy the opinion that combines the shevarim and the teru'ah and we emerge with thirty distinct shofar-units. Double that total to cover the two different shofar services during the daily worship-- after the Morning Service and during the Musaf prayer--and we arrive at sixty.

This was getting close enough to the round number of one hundred that various traditions found ways to add the extra forty blasts to fill out the total.

This elaborate shofar symphony blossomed out of the mere three blasts that were originally commanded by the Torah.

Some later rabbis found it hard to accept that a crucial Jewish ritual had originated because of uncertainties about the interpretation of a biblical precept. This admission of doubt was a source of profound theological irritation for a religious outlook that often justified its authenticity by appealing to its unbroken historical tradition.

Apparently, it was this uneasiness that provoked the Jews of Kairowan, Tunisia, to address an inquiry to the Babylonian scholar Rav Sherira Ga'on (10th-11th centuries), head of the great talmudic academy of Pumbedita. They requested guidance from the distinguished rabbi in explaining various questions that had arisen concerning the development of the Rosh Hashanah customs: How did people blow the shofar before the time of Rabbi Abbahu? Which of the various interpretations of teru'ah is the authentic one -- after all, only one of them can really be true.

Rav Sherira answered impatiently that these were not sincere questions, but merely provocations designed to challenge the tradition. It was clear to him that all the different interpretations of teru'ah were equally valid and acceptable: "The matter is correct and clear, a three-fold inheritance in our possession, handed down as a tradition from fathers to sons, uninterrupted, throughout the generations of Israel, since the days of the prophets and until the present."

Rav Sherira argued that the prevalence of the current custom should be construed as retroactive proof that this was exactly the same practice that could be traced all the way back to Moses at Sinai.

Some historians have argued plausibly that the sages of Kairowan who posed the question were responding to the taunts of the Karaites, who found in this case convenient proof for their contention that the rabbis' beloved Oral Torah was built on very flimsy foundations. This premise helps account for Rav Sherira's annoyed dismissal of the question.

A most audacious approach to the matter is evident in the Jewish esoteric tradition, as expressed in the Kabbalistic masterpiece the Zohar. Like Rav Sherira, the Zohar's author refused to entertain any insinuation that a venerable Jewish ritual could have arisen because of an uncertainty over the interpretation of a biblical expression.

Quite the contrary, argued the Zohar, the differentiation between the sobbing teru'ah and the sighing shevarim is crucial to the mystical meaning of Rosh Hashanah. The respective sounds represent the two different divine qualities that exercise judgment on humanity. The sobbing symbolizes the strict standard of celestial justice that is usually withheld from Israel. The sighing or groaning denotes the gentler kind of judgment that is associated with the divine presence in the lower realms.

On Rosh Hashanah, Jews hope and pray that the verdicts issued by our compassionate Judge will be of the lenient type symbolized by the shevarim.

Recognizing that this explanation contradicts the explicit testimony of the Babylonian Talmud about the ambiguities that led to the different shofar sounds, the author of the Zohar declared that it was the talmudic rabbis who had missed the point:

"These Babylonian rabbis do not know the mystery of the sob and the sigh, and they do not know that both are essential... They do not understand what they are doing when they blow both sounds, but we do understand."

The Zohar takes the same approach in accounting for another Rosh Hashanah rule that seems to have originated because of doubts.

According to the Talmud, the fact that Rosh Hashanah is celebrated for two days, though the Torah assigns it only a single day, is a consequence of uncertainties about its precise date. Because in ancient times the date of Rosh Hashanah was determined by the testimony of witnesses who had observed the astronomical new moon, it could happen that the witnesses arrived towards the end of the day and the Sanhedrin only became aware retroactively that the day had been a holiday.

In order to prevent confusion in the observance of the festival laws, the sages decreed that the first possible day should always be observed tentatively as a holy day, a practice that was continued even after the publication of a calculated calendar that did not rely on the testimony of witnesses.

In this respect too, the Zohar rejected the Talmud's account, and stated instead that both days of Rosh Hashanah are fundamental to the holiday's mystical purpose, since they symbolize the two celestial tribunals that converge for the Day of Judgment: the upper court of harsh justice, and the lower court of lenient justice.

Clearly, the proponents of this world-view looked to Judaism for a source of immutable stability. They insisted that Judaism had existed in an unaltered form from time immemorial until the present, and that the Jewish customs of their own generation were identical in every detail to those of the biblical and talmudic eras. This brand of fundamentalism allows for far-reaching symbolic interpretations of religious laws and rituals.

For all its attractions, I believe that this approach runs counter to the dominant spirit of Jewish tradition. The classical Jewish texts preserve the record of an ongoing dialectic between the divine revelation and the imperfect humans who struggle to understand it and actualize its values in a changing world.

This tradition is not one of abstract metaphysical certainty, but rather is mediated by mortals who are occasionally subject to doubts, disagreements and errors.

It is imperfect beings like these who are in need of the shofar's call to spiritual renewal.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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