Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do I have to care for it to be a Mitzvah? (Rosh Hashanah 28a)

How we experience and speak about God has enormous ramifications for how we live our lives and structure our communities. However else we envision God (shepherd, teacher, parent, friend, lover), the images of God as Ruler and Law-giver predominate in Jewish religious thinking. For many Jews, this is understood literally. For me it is metaphorical, a way of expressing the sense of obligation and mutuality in the mutual relationship between God and Israel, between God and each of us. (But more on that in my next posting.)

Not surprisingly, in a culture that conceives of God as Law-giver, the primary mode of religious behavior is obedience to God’s mitzvot (commandments) and much attention is paid to discerning precisely what God requires (that explains all of Talmud, halakhic midrashim, Shulchan Arukh, and Mishneh Torah). It is quite natural, therefore, to ask: When I fulfill a mitzvah must I do so with intention? If I happen to engage in the commanded behavior inadvertently, have I fulfilled the mitzvah?

The Rabbis’ conversation about shofar has been winding its way to this subject for some time. The discussion opens in earnest with a teaching of the father of Shmuel: if one is compelled to eat matzah, does he fulfill the mitzvah of achilat matzah (eating matzah, required at the Pesach seder)? Shmuel’s father asserts that he has. Rava responds that this is also the case for one who blows the shofar for the sake of playing music, but not with intent to fulfill the mitzvah of shomei-ah kol shofar (to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah).

At this point, the Gemara intervenes to identify an objection one might raise in comparing the case of matzah to the case of the shofar:
There [in the case of eating matzah] the Merciful One said, “eat matzah” and the [coerced person indeed] ate. But here [in the case of the shofar], it is written, zikhron teruah [“remembrance of shofar blasts” – Leviticus 23:24] and this person is occupied with something else. [That is why Rava] informs us [that the two cases are analogous, and that in both cases, the person fulfills the mitzvah]. [Thus] we see that Rava is of the opinion that commandments do not require intention.
Rava’s argument is this: the mitzvah of matzah in only to eat it. Well, the coerced person ate it. Whether or not his intention was to fulfill the mitzvah, he performed the required act. In the case of shofar, however, one might claim that zikhron teruah, which seems to mean “commemorated with shofar blasts” in context, can be understood as “remembrance of shofar blasts” and therefore requires more than mere hearing. Minimally, “remembrance of shofar blasts” requires the act of memory and probably more to the point implies focus on the meaning of the sound in order to fulfill the mitzvah. Hence we might think that merely hearing the shofar blast would not be construed as fulfilling the obligation. But we would be wrong! It is sufficient to merely hear the shofar and that is why Rava tells us that hearing shofar, like eating matzah, does not require intention. Clearly, there is an effort here to separate performance of a behavior from intentionality.

A possible objection is raised on the basis of a mishnah from Berakhot 13a:
[An Amora] challenged [Rava]: If one was reading Torah [the section containing the Shema] and the time for recital of the Shema arrived, if he directed his mind, he has fulfilled the mitzvah; but if not, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah. Is it not [meant by] “[if] he directed his mind to fulfill the mitzvah” [suggestion the requirement of intentionality to fulfill the mitzvah]?
If one were reciting the section of the Torah containing the Shema, and the time for reciting the Shema arrived, does his reading satisfy the mitzvah? The mishnah seems to say that only if the reader intends it to fulfill the mitzvah does it in fact do so. The Rabbis, however, redefine “to read” for us, claiming that the mishnah is describing a simple, sloppy recitation for the purpose of proofreading to correct mistakes in a scroll or manuscript, and not a careful, articulate reading. Hence this reading does not qualify on purely technical grounds: the reading was not a proper reading, and intention is not required.

Why do the Rabbis thus far steadfastly maintain that intention is not a requirement in fulfilling a mitzvah? I can think of two reasons:

1. If we mark only people’s behavior, and not their intention, more people will be given greater credit for fulfilling mitzvot. Even inadvertent observance of a mitzvah, when credited, encourages greater observance in the future.

2. Perhaps more importantly, measuring behavior is tough enough. Recitation of Shema is an excellent example: how do we determine whether the reading is clear and articulate enough? Measuring intention is far more subjective and messy. How can you peer into the heart of another person? Measuring intention could quickly lead to judgmentalism, and that can be spirit-demolishing and community-destroying.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, 2009

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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blow Away! (Rosh Hashanah 27a - 28a)

The preeminent mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar sounded. But what does that mean? If the baal tekiyah (shofar blower) employs a home-brew amplifier, by blasting into a barrel or other resonant chamber to enhance the sound, and I hear the echo, does that count? When I first had a PDA years ago, a friend and colleague loaded a recording of the shofar blasts onto it. Does listening to this recording count? If I’m not keeping Rosh Hashanah but I happen to walk past a synagogue at the time the shofar is sounded, does that count?

In the mishnayot recorded on daf 27b we read:

One who sounds the shofar into a pit, a cistern, or a barrel: if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation. But if he heard the sound of the echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation.

And similarly, one who was passing behind a synagogue or whose house was adjacent to the synagogue, and he heard the sound of the shofar (or on Purim he heard the sound of the Megillah) if he directed his mind, he has fulfilled [the obligation to hear the shofar], but if not, he has not fulfilled [the obligation]. Even though this one heard and that one heard, this one directed his mind and that one did not direct his mind.

Yet even before introducing this mishnah, back on daf 27a, Gemara commented:

Why? [To the contrary] let him [be deemed] to have fulfilled his obligation [by having heard] the beginning of the blast, before it became mixed up with the sound [of the echo]! Rather two voices coming from a single person cannot be distinguished. [But two voices] coming from two people can be distinguished. Indeed, coming from two people can [separate sounds] be distinguished? But [suggesting the contrary] thus it is taught [in Megillah 3:20]: In [the public reading of] the Torah [in synagogue] one person reads and one translates [into Aramaic]. But [one should not read while two translate, nor should two read while one translates], nor should two read while two translate…

The Rabbis are concerned that we hear the sound of the shofar directly and intentionally, that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar we must be actually listening for it, and desirous of hearing it. Given the religious agenda of Rosh Hashanah – to engage in cheshbon nefesh (an accounting of our souls) and teshuvah (repentance) – this makes perfect sense. Direct engagement and intention are essential to cheshbon nefesh and teshuvah.

Yet only a few dapim later (on 28a), we find Rabbah loosening the requirements:

If one heard part of a shofar blast inside a pit, and part of the blast at the edge of the pit, he has fulfilled [the obligation].

A comment a few lines later reveals that Rabbah is speaking about the shofar blower: if s/he begins the blast while standing in a pit, and walks to the edge of the pit and climbs out while still blowing the shofar, then a person standing on the edge of the pit, who initially heard the echo of the blast, and only comes to hear the blast directly when the shofar blower reaches the edge of the pit, nonetheless fulfills his/her obligation to hear the shofar. Surprising! This contradicts what we learned in 27a above, that one must hear the beginning of the blast directly. Could this possibly be more evidence of what Rabbi Rieser identified in his last post about the Rabbis reflection of the destruction of the Temple? Once we heard the word of Sinai directly, once we participated in the sacrifices directly, once we had access to the words of the prophets directly. Today we hear but an echo. Yet those who intend to fulfill the mitzvah and seek to experience the sound of shofar are credited with doing so, and we encourage people to participate to their fullest in the hopes they will find religious meaning and comfort in Jewish practices.

And perhaps Rabbah is also painting a picture for us of how Judaism is adopted and absorbed by so many of us: initially we stand at the edge of the pit, far from the center, listening and considering what meaning this has for our lives. Then the tradition moves closer to us and envelopes us and we feel its power far more directly.

May the power and potential of Elul -- which we welcomed this morning with the first blast of the shofar this season -- draw us all closer to God and closer to one another. May Elul bring repentance, reconciliation, and renewal.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, August 17, 2009


I am still settling back from traveling, including a week at the National Havurah Summer Institute, a wonderful week of Jewish peer learning and living with 300 folks in attendance. I recommend this annual retreat to your attention. You can read more about this year’s Summer Institute on the Jewschool blog. I share my travels both because I believe the NHC Summer Institute is a remarkable experience, but also as a way of explaining why I have not had much time of late to write for the blog.

More reflections on the shofar.

The discussion on B. Rosh HaShannah 27b considers modifications and repairs that might be made to a shofar. Some modifications are acceptable:
If [a shofar was] too long and one shortened it, it is valid. [If] one sanded it down until it’s coating was very thin, it is valid.
Some adaptations go too far:
[If] one plated it with gold, including the mouthpiece, it is invalid. ...[If] one overlaid it with gold on the inside, it is invalid. [If one did so] on the outside—if the sound is altered and unrecognizable [as a shofar], it is invalid.
Some just seem bizarre:
One who turned a shofar inside out [by softening it in hot water] has not fulfilled [the
obligation]. Said Rab Pappa, “Do not imagine that one turned it inside out like a coat, rather if one stretched the narrow part and widened the broad part, [it still is not valid].

To remain a valid shofar the modifications may not change the quality or timbre of the sound or render the shofar unrecognizable. All quite reasonable if the goal is to preserve the constancy of the shofar sounds.

One other example, found in the mishnah, fascinates me.
[If] one stuck together the shreds of shofars, [the resulting shofar] is invalid.
I am sure my interest does not mirror the Mishnah’s concern. When I read this line I envision a shofar cobbled together from a pile of shards, leftovers from destroyed shofars. I wonder how a shofar, which is so hard, could get so broken. I wonder why someone would even consider creating such a composite shofar.

Here is my fanciful reconstruction of this mishnaic teaching.

The Mishnah is the earliest Rabbinic document we possess, so it offers the first Rabbinic opportunity to respond to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Nonetheless there are few overt responses to the destruction found in the Mishnah; more explicit responses are found in Tosefta, the Midrashim and in the Talmuds. Still the authors of the Mishnah could not have escaped the emotional sense of loss.

The shofar seems to my untrained eyes to be nearly indestructible. It bounces when dropped. It can withstand knocks and other abuse. I haven’t tried, but I can’t imagine how much force it would take to shatter a shofar. If I am right, the shofar could make an interesting symbol of constancy and faithfulness. In the destruction of Jerusalem, when the walls of the Temple were tossed over like Legos, even shofars could be shattered to pieces.

I can imagine someone searching in the ruins of Jerusalem and finding the remains of broken shofarot. An artisan might wish to preserve these fragments by reconnecting them to construct something like a shofar. I cannot imagine finding pieces of horn that would fit neatly together, like a jigsaw puzzle, nor can I imagine shaping the pieces so expertly that they fit together seamlessly. Rather, I envision a mosaic; tiled pieces that may come from multiple horns. They would be connected not edge to edge, but tiled with some sealed to the bottom of other pieces, some on top. The uneven surface of the reconstructed shofar would project the image of the destroyed shofarot.

It seems impossible to me that such an instrument could meet the requirements that the horn both preserve the recognizable timbre of a shofar and that it be recognizable as an “intact” shofar. Rather I imagine that such a creation would necessarily project brokenness and the impossibility of a perfect repair in this world. The broken shofar would, to my mind, sound the cry of a broken people looking for stability and faithfulness in an unstable world.

We sound the shofar on Rosh Hashannah to herald the beginning of a new creation. The words of the Musaf Amidah remind us that on this day the world was birthed, HaYom harat olam. But there are years when even the most devout must question the ability of the world to regenerate itself. There are times when brokenness overwhelms the hope for repair. Perhaps for those times a shofar of shards calls us to attention and urges us to gather up the pieces. The work of repair falls on our shoulders. The world awaits our best efforts at renewal.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser, 2009

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Straight and Twisted Shofarot (Rosh Hashanah 26b)

Are rituals -- and the objects we use to practice them -- symbolic of the prevailing spiritual mood? Or do we choose ritual objects to cultivate in ourselves an attitude or mood appropriate to the occasion? The mishnah on Rosh Hashanah 26b concerning shofar discusses the source, shape, and embellishment of the horns used on Rosh Hashanah, fast days (declared in the case of drought or disaster) and to announce the Yovel (Jubilee) year at the end of Yom Kippur. )

The shofar of Rosh Hashanah is of a wild goat that is a straight [horn] and its mouth is plated with gold, and two trumpets [are blown] at its sides. The shofar [blasts] long and the trumpets [blow] short, because the commandment of the day concerns a shofar. On fast days: [we blow] with [horns of] males, bent, and their mouths are plated with silver, and two trumpets [are blown] in between them. The shofar [blows] short and the trumpets [blow] long, because the commandment of the day is with trumpets. The Yovel (Jubilee) year: is identical to Rosh Hashanah [with respect to] the blowing and the blessings. R. Yehudah says: On Rosh Hashanah we blast with [horns of] males and on the Yovel (Jubilee) years with [horns of] wild goats.

If that’s a lot to take in on first glance, I’ve prepared the text in an outline form with the hope that it makes the structure easier to follow:

A. The shofar of Rosh Hashanah:
a. is of a wild goat that is a straight [horn]
b. and its mouth is plated with gold,
c. and two trumpets [are blown] at its sides.
d. The shofar [blasts] long and the trumpets [blow] short, because the commandment of the day concerns a shofar.

B. On fast days:
a. [we blow] with [horns of] males,
b. bent,
c. and their mouths are plated with silver,
d. and two trumpets [are blown] in between them.
e. The shofar [blows] short and the trumpets [blow] long, because the commandment of the day is with trumpets.

C. The Yovel year: is identical to Rosh Hashanah [with respect to] the blowing and the blessings.

D. R. Yehudah says:
a. On Rosh Hashanah we blast with [horns of] males
b. and on the Yovel years with [horns of] wild goats.

What strikes me first and foremost is the concern with the shape of the horn. For Rosh Hashanah and to announce the Yovel (Jubilee year) we are to use a straight horn, but for fast days, a bent or twisted horn is prescribed.

(Time out for Jewish “trivia”: The Jubilee year occurs every 50th year at the end of seven cycles of shemittah (sabbatical years) and its announcement is made at the close of Yom Kippur by blowing a shofar. Leviticus 25: 8-16 explains the requirement to blow the shofar on the tenth day of the seventh month and to observe the Yovel as a sabbatical year. This is why shofar is blown in synagogues at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. No doubt you’re now thinking: but we blow the shofar every year following Yom Kippur. Yes, this is true, and that is because we have lost track of when the Jubilee year falls. Therefore we blow the shofar each year in case that year is the Yovel.)

(Second time out for background on fast days: Talmud, in masechet Ta’anit, prescribes special fasts and prayers in the case of severe drought and actual or imminent disaster. Blowing a shofar is covered in chapter 2.)

In the case of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we are engaged in the process of teshuvah (repentance), confident that if our repentance is sincere and thorough, God will forgive and our atonement will cleanse. Many people mistakenly think Yom Kippur is a somber day akin to a day of mourning, Not so. While it is certainly a serious occasion, Yom Kippur is a joyous day because we are assured that sincere teshuvah (repentance) brings forgiveness. Hence we – like the shofar -- stand straight: confident and joyful that our relationships with God and people in our lives can be repaired, reconciled, and renewed. Similarly, the Jubilee is a joyous occasion and the straight shofar announces rest for the land and release from debts.

On fast days, however, there was a sense of fear in the air in ancient times because the theology held that drought and disaster resulted from the people’s sins. Fasts – with their accompanying prayers and shofar blasts – were intended to remediate the situation and inspire repentance. People were encouraged by the bent shofar to bend themselves in repentance, but there is no sure confidence that their efforts will be successful.

These days, one is as likely to see a twisted shofar used on Rosh Hashanah as a straight one. The distinction made in the Mishnah is no longer observed in most communities.

Are rituals -- and the objects we use to practice them -- symbolic of the prevailing spiritual mood? Or do we choose ritual objects to cultivate in ourselves an attitude or mood appropriate to the occasion? Perhaps it both operating simultaneously.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman