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Sunday, August 23, 2009


While the 3rd chapter of B. Rosh HaShannah begins with a discussion of what kinds of animal horns are proper to use as a shofar, the debate that follows moves through a series of other concerns. One of those points appears to be about the provenance of the shofar being used, but leads to a more basic disagreement about the character of a mitzvah, a religious obligation.

The Talmud (B. Rosh Hashannah 28a) teaches:
Rabbi Judah says: One may not blow a shofar [made from the horn] of a burnt offering, but if one does, it fulfills the religious obligation.
The animal presented for a burnt offering is dedicated to the Temple and becomes holy. If one takes the horn of that dedicated animal to use for some other purpose, they have “trespassed” on the holy object. But in this case, according to Rabbi Judah, the only consequence is that the horn reverts to it non-holy, secular state of being. One should not have even considered using this holy object for such a purpose, but if one does they have still fulfilled their obligation.

Rabbi Judah considers similar cases and draws a distinction between cases where use of the dedicated horn does not interfere with fulfilling one’s religious obligation and where it does. A horn taken from a whole-offering, which cannot revert to a secular state in the way a burnt offering can, does not fulfill one’s obligation. One taken from an animal used for idolatry can, despite its source, be used to fulfill the mitzvah.

Key to his understanding is the notion that one is taking the shofar from an animal which is dedicated for one purpose and now using it in an unintended way. He seems to presume that one derives a benefit from performing the mitzvah.

Raba objects. He argues that from the outset one may use a shofar from any of these questionable sources to fulfill one’s obligation without concern.
Raba reasons: Both are the same. If a shofar from a burnt offering or from a whole-offering is sounded, it fulfills the religious obligation since religious obligations (mitzvot) are not for one’s benefit.
To translate – Raba allows the use of these shofrot, regardless of their questionable origins, without hesitation. While it sounds as if Rabbi Judah will allow some of them if they are used inadvertently, Raba allows them consciously. The reason behind Raba’s leniency is that he does not believe they are being taken away for some outside use that will benefit the person “since religious obligations (mitzvot) are not for one’s benefit.”

This is the meat of the argument: when you perform a mitzvah, do you derive benefit? Rabbi Judah says yes and so he is concerned about whether the shofar is misappropriated or not. Raba says no and so the status of the shofar is not in question.

I am going to leave the subject of shofars behind in order to consider Raba’s statement that religious obligations are not for one’s benefit. What might that mean?

Perhaps Raba meant that the performance of the mitzvot does not give one economic or social benefit. Pirke Avot 4:5 teaches in the name of Rabbi Zadok that one should not make the Torah a crown for one’s glorification nor a spade with which to dig. The earliest rabbinic contracts offered compensation not for rabbinic services but for the loss of time at other worldly occupations. The Torah could not be a job. One acted l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, not for one’s own benefit.

I can understand that as an economic or social statement, but not as a spiritual one. In an ideal world one would not go about doing mitzvot for the social glory of it all. Nor would one use Torah skills to make a fortune. Nonetheless when I perform a mitzvah, I want it to affect me, those around me and God. I want it to make a difference in the world. If it does not create some benefit in the world and in my life, why bother? I may not always recognize the benefit, but I need to know it exists.

There is a classic notion that God is perfect, unchanging and unchangeable. If that is so, then God cannot be in relationship, if only because relationships move us. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson* has argued that our sages intuited a different model. He cites a midrash from Bereshit Rabbah (68:9) that
From the first day of creation, the Holy Blessing One longed to enter into partnership with the terrestrial world, to dwell with God’s creatures within the terrestrial world.
He goes on to note that in the midrash we find a God “who suffers, a God who becomes vulnerable in having created us.” God is moved by us and we by God. No where is this more explicit than when we enwrap our fingers with the tefillin strap and recite the words from Hosea 2:21-22:
I will espouse you forever;
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness
Then you shall know the Holy One.
In performing the mitzvah we wrap ourselves in God, affirming the mutual relationship that binds us. In the proclamation of our covenant with God, we acknowledge the dynamic relationship that engages God and us.

The moth of Elul has begun. Some read the name of this month as an acrostic for the verse from the most beautiful Biblical love song, the Song of Songs: ani l’dodi v’dodi li, I am to my beloved and my beloved is mine. Read the book, the passion of the lovers is palpable. Each yearns for and is moved by the other. It is that passion that I hope for in my religious life. It is that passion that I hope for living each day as a holy gift from God.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser, 2009
* “Ba_Derekh: On The Way – A Presentation of Process Theology”, By Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, pg. 10-12


June said...

Rabbi; This is wonderful! Thanks for posting these teachings~~
I would like to ask you about the sages that the talmud reffers to here, or perhaps to point out something important;

Rabba is an amorah from Babeloniya and the name is spelled Reish, Beit, Hey.

Rava (partner of Abayei) is of a later generation of Babeloniyan Amorahs, and his name is spelled Reish, Beit Aleph.

I think that Rosh Hashanah 28a brings Rava, not Rabba. What do you think?

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Hi June
I agree that it is interesting to keep track of who these particular sages are, not always easy since there are multiple sages with similar names. As best I can track this Rabbi Judah is Rabbi Judah ben Ezekiel, a Babylonian amora of the 2nd generation who built up the school at Pumbedita and introduced a dialectical appproach to the text. Our Raba (resh-bet-alef) seems to be Raba ben Joseph beh Hama, a Babylonian amora of the 4th generation who, along with Abaye, continued the methods of Rabbi Judah.

I draw my spellings from some of the English translations I consult -- so they are not always consistent. Biographies of the sages are available in the Jewish Encyclopedia which is available for free on the web.

All the best to you, and thanks for keeping us on track.