The Power of the Shofar by Rabbi Josh Kahn


There once was a young, illiterate shepherd who did not know how to read from a Siddur.  On Yom Kippur, he too wanted to daven, so he brought his flute to Shul, unbeknownst to his father.  In shul, the boy wanted only to play the flute to sing to Hashem, but in no uncertain terms, his father told him to keep it in his pocket.  Finally, at Ne’ilah, after having listened to others pray all day, with tears streaming down his face, he could not hold back.  He wanted to express himself.  He wanted to reach out to God.  Right then, he decided to take out the flute and play a heartfelt melody.  Instantly, his father and the congregants became dismayed, but the Rebbe of the shul told them not to worry.  “This boy saved our prayers.  Our prayers were not ascending to the heavens.  We were not able to pray with the purity and sincerity that are required to elevate our prayers into the heavenly courts.  Suddenly, this boy, with his unknowing error but pure heart and tears, began to play his flute.  His purity was added to our prayers, and the doors of heaven opened up and our prayers were accepted.”

This well-known story captures the essence of the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah.  Every Yom Tov has its own special Mitzvat HaYom that tries to encapsulate the theme of the holiday.  On Sukkot, we sit in the Sukkah, symbolizing our dwelling in the desert after we left Egypt.  On Pesach, we eat Matzah, symbolizing both our slavery and our freedom.  On Shavuot, we learn Torah, reminding us of Matan Torah.  On Rosh HaShanah, the special Mitzvah is blowing the Shofar.  How is this Mitzvah symbolic of the motif of Tefillah that seems to permeate our days of Rosh HaShanah?

The answer is that the Shofar is a vehicle of Tefillah.  This idea is evident from its placement in the Mussaf Amidah.  In fact, some communities have the custom of sounding the Shofar during the recitation of the individual Amidah, at the conclusion of each of the middle Berachot of Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot.  It is inconceivable to interrupt the Amidah for something else, even another Mitzvah, unless the very essence of that Mitzvah is consistent with Tefillah.  Thus, the Shofar’s symbolism can be seen; on Rosh HaShanah, Shofar is synonymous with Tefillah.

Rav Soloveitchik suggested that this aspect of Shofar is evident in a Halacha regarding Mitzvot Tzrichot Kavanah, the discussion regarding whether or not the performance of Mitzvot requires proper intent.  The Rambam rules that with regard to the Mitzvah of Shofar, proper intent is required, while proper intent is not required when eating Matzah on the first night of Pesach.  Why is the Rambam seemingly inconsistent?  If intent is required for Shofar, shouldn’t it be necessary for Matzah as well?  And if intent for Matzah isn’t necessary, why should it be demanded for Shofar?

The reason for the apparent inconsistency is that intent is required only for certain Mitzvot.  Specifically, when the Maaseh HaMitzvah, the physical act of the Mitzvah, is different than the Kiyum HaMitzvah, the fulfillment of the Mitzvah, proper intent is required.  For example, the Maaseh HaMitzvah of Tefillah is the recitation of the Shemoneh Esrei.  However, saying the words is not the definition of the Mitzvah.  Tefillah is defined as an Avodah SheBaLeiv, service of the heart, articulated by Rav Chaim Soloveitchik to mean an understanding that one is standing before Hashem.  The emotion is the Kiyum HaMitzvah.  Similarly, regarding Tekiat Shofar, the Maaseh HaMitzvah is hearing the Shofar, but that does not suffice for the Kiyum HaMitzvah.  In order to fulfill the Mitzvah, an emotion is required, because the Shofar is our form of Tefillah on Rosh HaShanah.  Understandably, this type of Mitzvah requires Kavanah in order to fulfill the Mitzvah, in contrast to eating Matzah on the first night of Pesach, when eating the Matzah is both the act of the Mitzvah and its fulfillment.

Shofar is a unique form of Tefillah because it is not limited to words.  Just like the boy’s flute, which was used to communicate with Hashem, the Shofar sounds are open and allow for our own expression. 

The idea of prayer that is not defined through specific words is also highlighted in the Keriat HaTorah of the first day of Rosh HaShanah.  After Avraham sends away Hagar and Yishmael, the Torah describes Hagar praying to Hashem for water in the desert.  The Torah then says that Hashem listened to Yishmael.  However, nowhere in the text does it say that Yishmael davened.  Rav Mendel of Vorkah suggests that Yishmael davened a Tefillah in his heart.  This is the Tefillah of the Shofar.

Hopefully, the Tefillot we daven through the sound of the Shofar will be accepted by Hashem, Who will grant us all a Ketivah VaChatimah Tovah.

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