Thursday, September 17, 2009

Rosh Hashanah 5770

Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

Rabbi, Kehillat New Hempstead

Social Worker, Yeshiva Bais Hachinuch

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Rabbi Yosef Elyahu Henkin1 zt’l was one of the foremost halachic authorities in America and the president of Ezras Torah, a charity organization that offered assistance to needy Torah scholars.

Rabbi Henkin was involved in many landmark halachic decisions that affect contemporary Jewish life2. Among others, there were two landmark issues that Rabbi Henkin argued passionately about. The first involved eating prior to hearing shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt’l was of the opinion that one is allowed to make Kiddush and eat a small amount before hearing the shofar3. Rabbi Henkin countered that whenever one is obligated to fulfill a mitzvah he is forbidden to eat before doing so, and shofar is no different4.

The second dispute involved the need to write a get (halachic divorce document). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt’l was of the opinion that if a woman married through a Reform or Conservative marriage, the marriage has absolutely no validity. Thus, if the woman wants to remarry she may do so without obtaining a ‘get’ from her ‘husband’. Rabbi Henkin vehemently opposed Rabbi Feinstein’s position. He felt that at least we have to suspect that the marriage has the status of ‘kiddushei safek (doubtful marriage)’. Therefore, she must obtain a get from her first husband before remarrying5.

At the end of his life Rabbi Henkin suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, a progressively debilitating disease that ultimately destroys one’s memories and cognitive abilities. As the disease progresses the patient may have moments when he is completely disconnected from reality. During those times, many sufferers of Alzheimer’s will scream obscenities or shout vulgar and angry comments regarding events that transpired decades prior.

My Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Wein shlita, relates that he once went to visit the ailing Rabbi Henkin, when he was suffering such a bout of complete disconnect. Rabbi Henkin was sitting in his chair staring blankly ahead, repeating over and over, "מי טאר נישט עסין פאר תקיעות", "זי דארף יא האבען א גט" – “One cannot eat before tekios (shofar blowing)”; “She does require a get!” For twenty minutes straight Rabbi Henkin blankly kept repeating those same words.

Rabbi Wein related that it was an extremely painful sight to see a man who had carried the Torah world on his shoulders, now reduced to such a pitiful state. On the other hand, it was incredibly inspiring to see what was truly in his heart. When there was nothing left in his mind, what remained was two halachic rulings that he had fought about for the Sake of G-d’s Torah!6

“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy gathering; you shall do no labor; it shall be a day of teru'ah for you.” (Bamidbar 29:1)

Rabbi Yonasan Eybshitz zt’l explained that there is a deep connection between the anniversary of the creation of Man7 and the commandment to blow the shofar.

When the Torah records the creation of Man it writes, “The Al-mighty G-d formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul8. Man became a living, sentient being when G-d breathed His own breath into him. It was that metaphysical breath that transformed him from physical matter into a living hybrid of physical and spiritual.

When we blow the shofar on the day of Man's creation, it serves as a memorial to that first breath - the Divine breath of life blown at the dawn of Creation, on Rosh Hashanah.

On Rosh Hashanah, we are commanded not to blow the shofar per se, but to hear the blast of the shofar. When our Sages composed the wording of the blessing recited on Rosh Hashana, they attempted to focus our concentration on that first breath, that primordial breath which infused mankind with a Divine soul.

During the course of the year, the sound of the shofar may become distant and we may turn our attention away from the divinity that is at our very core. That cycle of obliviosuness is interrupted on Rosh Hashana, as it was on certain other occasions in our history when we were able to hear that sound collectively and clearly, and to recognize its divine source: At Mount Sinai, when we received the Torah, on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee Year. It will again occur with the advent of Moshiach.

Once each year we are commanded to listen intently, with proper concentration, to the sound of the shofar. We are called upon to tune in to that cry that supplants words, the sound that is made by our breath, and to hear the echoes of that first breath that reverberates through time, ever since God blew His own breath into Man.9

The gemara10 writes an intriguing statement: "כיון דלזכרון כבפנים דמו" - which means that since the purpose of blowing shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to effect a favorable rememberance of Israel before G-d, it is equivalent to a service performed inside the Holy of Holies.

Many commentators explain that this means that during the moments when we hear the shofar being blown, on some level it is as if we were performing the service in the Holy of Holies.

When the Torah details the service that the Koahin Gadol (High Priest) performed on Yom Kippur, it discusses the apex of the day’s service, i.e. his entry into the Holy of Holies. On the holiest day of the year, the holiest man in the world, entered the holiest place on earth. In reference to that awesome moment the Torah states11, “And no man shall be in the Tent of the Meeting when he comes to provide atonement in the Sanctuary until his departure.”

Rabbi Meir Shapiro zt’l explained that when the Torah states that no “man” can enter the sanctuary it includes the Kohain Gadol himself! At that surreal moment when the Kohain Gadol entered the inner sanctum of the Sanctuary he had to temporarily surrender his physical being. Although his body was physically there, mentally he had to bring himself to a higher angelic world, beyond physical confines. During those moments the Kohain Gadol had to be alone with his true inner self, the soul within which contains the true spark of life.

A shofar is the horn of an animal12. The sound of the shofar is the sound of breath - the spark of life - being blown through a natural medium, created by G-d Himself. The sound of the shofar is therefore reminiscent and symbolic of primordial man in his untainted pristine state.

When the Kohain Gadol entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, for a few moments he had to disassociate himself from his animalistic and base desires and needs and become a metaphysical being, above sin and physicality. The call of the shofar, which is to accomplish that same objective, therefore has the potential to raise us to the level of the Kohain Gadol entering the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur.

After Adam sinned by eating from the forbidden fruit in Gan Eden, the Torah relates13, “G-d called to Adam and he said to him, Ayeka -Where are you?!”

One of the challenges of exile is that we are strongly influenced by the culture we live in. The inundation of media and the world at large inevitably takes a spiritual toll on us and affects how we act and, more importantly, how we view ourselves.

When Adam sinned and G-d called him to task, Adam immediately blamed Chava, who in turn blamed the snake. G-d’s response was “Where are YOU?” It was a very poignant rebuke. The reason Adam sinned was because he allowed himself to be swept away by the trajectory around him. He felt that circumstances dictated his actions and that he was therefore justified in behaving as he did. G-d replied that Adam had made an egregious error. A person may never allow himself to be ‘swept away’. He must always be wary of his own true self. The world around him, and even his own sins, does not become part of him, and he must realize that.

We often think that the influences around us are part of us and that we are deeply connected to them. The hassles of life cause us to forget and lose sight of who we really are causing us to mistakenly identify ourselves with the world around us. The path to repentance must begin with the answer to the question, “Where are YOU?” No one else, and nothing else, just the raw YOU!

The shofar is a catalyst for reflection and introspection. Its wordless call cries out to us to answer, “Where are YOU?” It is a reminder that we must never view ourselves as intergraded with the exile around us. We must remember that internally we are different and have a higher mission.

Perhaps with this we can understand why we do not blow shofar when Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbos. The very essence of Shabbos is introspection and reflection. It is a day of cessation from the hassles and spiritual distractions of the week so that we can remind ourselves of our ultimate purpose in this world. One who truly appreciates the sanctity and centrality of Shabbos will reflect upon the question of “Ayeka” every single Shabbos. Therefore, the shofar is superfluous on Shabbos as we can achieve the objective of the shofar through our Shabbos observance.

However, if we do not appreciate the message of Shabbos, we are not only vulnerable because of the lack of the merit of the shofar, but we have failed to appreciate the beauty and essence of Shabbos as well.

The message of the shofar must remain with us throughout the year. We must always be true to ourselves, the real us!

“No man shall be in the Tent of the Meeting”

“Equivalent to a service performed inside the Holy of Holies”


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