My chavruta MAK has written up this summary of what he taught at last week's siyyum on Masechet Rosh Hashanah:
Masekhet Rosh Hashana, in an uncharacteristic turn toward the actual holiday of Rosh Hashana, discusses the laws pertaining to the sounding of the shofar. It is clear from the text that in antiquity, horns of several different types of animals were used as musical instruments, and even as shofarot. Three examples are depicted in the photographs at the top: a ram’s horn, a bovine horn (of a bull, cow, or ox), and a “straight” horn (belonging to a ya‘el, usually translated as wild goat or antelope).
Despite the fact that all of these horns were used, Jewish law and tradition clearly give preference to the ram’s horn (just ask any Jewish elementary school student to translate the word shofar, and “ram’s horn” will most likely be the answer). Why is such significance attributed to the horn of the ram, rather than to that of any other animal?
The classical Jewish conception of history (including history that has yet to be experienced) consists of three primary events, three moments that define the relationship between God and humanity: creation, revelation, and redemption. A survey of some aggadah (and even a little bit of halakhah) will show the degree to which the ram’s horn is intimately connected in the rabbinic mind with each of these events. In fact, the use of a bovine or “straight” horn as a shofar could even be construed as a rejection of one or more of these elements of our sacred history. We shall see how.
Text 1, from our masekhet, relates the ram’s horn to the story of the Binding of Isaac. On Rosh Hashana, God regards us as both so vulnerable and so meritorious that it is as though we were willing to offer ourselves up as a sacrifice before God, just as Abraham’s ram did. The relationship between this episode and Rosh Hashana is well known, and Jews have adopted the tradition of reading Genesis 22 from the Torah on the holiday each year.
The rabbis emphasize that the ram in this biblical story was not simply any ovine, however. This particular animal has been intimately related within Jewish tradition to creation, revelation, and redemption.
Text 2, along with several other rabbinic texts, identifies this ram (at least according to some opinions) as one of the supernatural creations that were brought into existence during the twilight period that preceded the first Shabbat nearly 5766 years ago. Text 3 expands upon this point, indicating that Abraham’s ram provides a link not only to the creation of the universe, but also to the revelation at Sinai and to the future redemption: its physical body, present at all three events, can essentially serve as a summary of all of world history. As such, it is most appropriate to sound a ram’s horn, and thus to call to mind this animal, on Rosh Hashana—the holiday when we think very carefully about God’s creation of the world (considered by some opinions in our masekhet to have occurred on Rosh Hashana), revelation at Sinai (the moment of God’s most intense interaction with humanity), and redemption. Text 4 provides further evidence of the link between Abraham’s ram and the ultimate redemption.
It is thus evident why the ram has an intimate connection with the holiday of Rosh Hashana, as it is clearly associated with three moments in time that weigh very heavily on our minds as we stand before God to be judged for life or death for the coming year. But what about other types of horns? Might they not also be associated with creation, revelation, and redemption? In fact, neither cow horns nor “straight” horns possess this connection, and their use can even be construed as a rejection of these concepts.
Text 5, from our masekhet, presents a slightly cryptic explanation for rejecting the use of cows’ horns, and Rashi’s commentary in text 6 illuminates the statement a bit. Much like golden garments would, the use of a cow’s horn on a holy day would invoke the memory of one of the lowest points in Israelite history: the episode of the Golden Calf. This event, coming as it did so shortly after the revelation at Sinai, can be understood as an explicit rejection of both the form and content of this revelation—in a sense, the exact antithesis of the symbolism of the ram’s horn. In addition, reminding God of a moment of idolatry in our past may not be the best strategy for a holiday that emphasizes repentance and renewed commitment to observance of mitzvot.
So what about “straight” horns? These too can be seen as a rejection—in this case, of redemption. Text 7, from our masekhet, indicates that some of the rabbis of the Talmud associated the bent ram’s horn with humility before God and the “straight” horn with uprightness and straightforward honesty. (Text 8, incidentally, demonstrates that the halakhah agrees with Rabbi Levi in text 7—that the ram’s horn must be used as the shofar both for Rosh Hashana and for Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year, thus providing the basis for our entire discussion.) If the straight horn invokes the theme of uprightness and honesty, why not use it? These are certainly admirable values, except insofar as they are contrasted with the humility of the bent horn. Personal humility is seen as the dominant ethic necessary for Rosh Hashana, and thus preference is granted to the ram’s horn.
Beyond this, foregoing the ram’s horn, and its association with humility, in favor of the straight horn can be construed as a rejection of the Jewish concept of redemption. Texts 9 and 10 explain that in determining which individuals are worthy of participation in the ultimate redemption, humility and eschewal of haughtiness are the primary criteria. Humility—the notion symbolized, according to our gemara, by the ram’s horn—is what ultimately enables a person to overcome death by earning the right to participate in the personal and universal redemptions. And there certainly is no holiday on which we think more about overcoming death than Rosh Hashana, when the Book of Life sits open before God. Thus, to embrace the ram’s horn rather than the straight one is to embrace the idea of redemption, just as to select it over the cow’s horn is to embrace revelation.
When we hear the sound of the ram’s horn shofar this Rosh Hashana, we can be mindful of the power that it symbolizes: the power to connect us with creation, to bring us closer to God through revelation, and to help us earn the merit one day to participate in the ultimate redemption.
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 16a. Translation from Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky, The Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-aggadah: Legends from the Talmud and Midrash, trans. William G. Braude,
R. Abbahu said: Why do we sound a ram’s horn? Because the Holy One said: Sound before me a ram’s horn so that I may remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac son of Abraham, and deem it for you as if you had bound yourselves on the altar before me.
אמר רבי אבהו למה תוקעין בשופר של איל אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא תקעו לפני בשופר של איל כדי שאזכור לכם עקידת יצחק בן אברהם ומעלה אני עליכם כאילו עקדתם עצמכם לפני
Mishnah, Tractate Avot 5:6. Translation from Jules Harlow, ed., Siddur Sim Shalom, Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 1989, p. 643.
Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath (of Creation), at twilight:
the mouth of the earth the rod
the mouth of the well the shamir
the speech of the ass the script
the rainbow the writing instrument
the manna the tablets
Others add: the demons, the burial place of Moses, the ram for our father Abraham.
Some add: the tongs made with tongs.
עֲשָֹרָה דְּבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן: פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים: אַף הַמַּזִּיקִין, וּקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל מ שֶׁה, וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים: אַף צְבַת בִּצְבַת עֲשׁוּיָה.
Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 30. Translation from Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 391.
R. Hanina ben Dosa said: The ram that was created at twilight on the sixth day of creation—not a part of it was without purpose. The ram’s ash was the foundation for the altar within the Temple Hall; its sinews provided the ten strings for the harp David played on; its hide became the leather girdle on the loins of Elijah, ever remembered on good occasions; its two horns were made into shofars—the left horn is the one the Holy One blew on Mount Sinai; and the right horn, larger than the left one, the Holy One will blow in the time-to-come, as is said, “And it shall come to pass on that day, that a large horn shall be blown” (Isa. 27:13).
Pesikta Rabbati 40:6. Translation from Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 42. [Hebrew text of excerpt from Zachariah 9:14 only.]
Throughout that day, Abraham saw the ram become entangled in a tree, break loose, and go free; become entangled in a bush, break loose, and go free; then again become entangled in a thicket, break loose, and go free. The Holy One said, “Abraham, even so will your children be entangled in many kinds of sin and trapped within successive kingdoms—from
וַאדֹנָי יֱהוִֹה בַּשּׁוֹפָר יִתְקָע וְהָלַךְ בְּסַעֲרוֹת תֵּימָן:
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 26a.
Mishnah: All shofarot are kosher except for those of a cow, for it is called keren. . . .
Gemara: . . . Ulla said: The reason of the Rabbanan is in accordance with Rav Hisda. For Rav Hisda said: Why does the High Priest not dress in garments of gold when he enters [the Holy of Holies] to perform the service? Because an accuser cannot become a defender.
מתני' כל השופרות כשרים חוץ משל פרה מפני שהוא קרן . . .
. . .עולא אמר היינו טעמא דרבנן כדרב חסדא דאמר רב חסדא מפני מה אין כהן גדול נכנס בבגדי זהב לפני ולפנים לעבוד עבודה לפי שאין קטיגור נעשה סניגור
Rashi, commenting on Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 26a.
An accuser cannot. The gold of the calf. And a shofar of a cow is also an accuser, for it is the calf.
אין קטיגור. זהב העגל ושופר של פרה נמי קטיגור דעגל הוא:
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashana 26b.
Mishnah: The shofar of Rosh Hashana is made from the straight horn of a wild goat . . . on fast days, from male [rams whose horns are] bent . . . Rabbi Yehudah says: on Rosh Hashana, they blow the shofar of male [rams], and on [Yom Kippur of] the Jubilee years, of wild goats.
Gemara: Rabbi Levi said: The mitzvah on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur [of the Jubilee year is to use] bent [shofarot], and the rest of the year [i.e. on fast days], straight [shofarot]. . . What is the basis of the dispute [outlined in the Mishnah]? One [Rabbi Yehudah] holds that on Rosh Hashana, one should bend [i.e. humble] oneself before God, and on Yom Kippur, one should practice straightness [i.e. straightforward prayer and honesty]. The other [Tana Kama] holds that on Rosh Hashana, one should practice straightness, and on fast days, one should bend [i.e. humble] oneself before God.
מתני' שופר של ראש השנה של יעל פשוט ופיו מצופה זהב ושתי חצוצרות מן הצדדין שופר מאריך וחצוצרות מקצרות שמצות היום בשופר ובתעניות בשל זכרים כפופין ופיהן מצופה כסף ושתי חצוצרות באמצע שופר מקצר וחצוצרות מאריכות שמצות היום בחצוצרות שוה היובל לר"ה לתקיעה ולברכות רבי יהודה אומר בר"ה תוקעין בשל זכרים וביובלות בשל יעלים:
גמ' א"ר לוי מצוה של ר"ה ושל יוה"כ בכפופין ושל כל השנה בפשוטין והתנן שופר של ר"ה של יעל פשוט הוא דאמר כי האי תנא דתניא רבי יהודה אומר בר"ה היו תוקעין בשל זכרים כפופין וביובלות בשל יעלים ולימא הלכתא כרבי יהודה אי אמרת הלכתא כר' יהודה הוה אמינא אפילו של יובל נמי כר' יהודה סבירא ליה קא משמע לן במאי קמיפלגי מר סבר בר"ה כמה דכייף איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי וביום הכפורים כמה דפשיט איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי ומר סבר בראש השנה כמה דפשיט איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי ובתעניות כמה דכייף איניש דעתיה טפי מעלי:
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, Sukkah, and Lulav 1:1.
It is a positive commandment from the Torah to hear the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana, as it is said, “You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded” [Num. 29:1]. And the shofar that they blow on both Rosh Hashana and the Jubilee year is a bent sheep’s horn. And all shofarot aside from the horn of a sheep is invalid.
מצות עשה של תורה לשמוע תרועת השופר בראש השנה שנאמר יום תרועה יהיה לכם ושופר שתוקעין בו בין בראש השנה בין ביובל הוא קרן הכבשים הכפוף וכל השופרות פסולין חוץ מקרן הכבש
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 5a. Translation from Bialik and Ravnitzky, p. 711.
R Eleazar said: He in whom there is haughtiness of spirit will not have his dust stirred [at the resurrection], for it is said, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell with the dust” (Isa. 26:19). It is not said, “Ye that dwell in the dust,” but, “Ye that dwell with the dust”—each of whom during his life had made himself dwell [in humility] as a neighbor to dust.
וא"ר אלעזר כל אדם שיש בו גסות הרוח אין עפרו ננער שנא' הקיצו ורננו שכני עפר שכבי בעפר לא נאמר אלא שכני עפר מי שנעשה שכן לעפר בחייו
Rashi, commenting on Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 5a
Dwell as a neighbor to dust. Lowers himself to the level of dust.
שכן לעפר. משפיל עצמו לעפר: