It is a positive mitzvah of the Torah to hear the blast of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, as it is stated: “it shall be a day of blowing the horn to you.”
Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shofar, 1:1
Although the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Torah decree, there is an allusion in it as well. It says: “Be roused, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers, wake from your slumber; search your deeds and return in teshuvah…”
ibid., Laws of Teshuvah, 3:4
Say before Me [verses of] kingship, so that you shall crown Me king over you… How? With the shofar.
Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a
A mitzvah is a commandment, a divine decree. The word mitzvah also means “connection,” for it connects its earthly observer with its supernal Commander.
Man is finite and mortal; G-d is infinite, eternal, and utterly beyond grasp or definition. Thus, nothing humanly generated can possibly relate to G-d. The possibility for connection can only come from the other direction: when G-d, who transcends all definition (including the categorizations “finite” and “infinite”) chooses to relate to man and to enable man to relate to Him. In commanding us the mitzvot, G-d made that certain physical deeds should constitute the fulfillment of His will. By doing these deeds, our bodies and souls become implements of the supernal will, and the human touches the divine.
Seen in this light, the particulars of a mitzvah are practically irrelevant. What is significant is not what G-d commanded us to do, but the fact that G-d commanded us to do it. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “had G-d commanded us to chop wood”—i.e. commanded us an act that is devoid of all social, experiential or spiritual utility—this would be no less a mitzvah than the most “moral” precept or the most moving observance commanded us in the Torah.
The mitzvot create a relationship between man and G-d—man as realizer of the divine will. But G-d also extended to us a vehicle for even deeper connection: teshuvah.
Teshuvah is commonly translated as “repentance,” but the word actually means “return.” Teshuvah is the divinely prescribed remedy for one who has violated a mitzvah, and includes three basic stages: cessation of the transgression, acknowledgment and confession, and the resolve never to transgress again. Through proper teshuvah, the transgression is forgiven and the blemish it inflicted upon the transgressor’s soul wiped away. Teshuvah even has the power to “transform sins into virtues” and raise the baal teshuvah (penitent or “returnee”) to a level at which “even the perfectly righteous cannot stand.”
The fact that teshuvah can rectify a violation of a mitzvah means that it reaches beyond the parameters of the bond between man and G-d created by the mitzvot. From the perspective of the mitzvot, man connects to G-d by fulfilling G-d’s will. A violation of the divine will has the opposite effect: not only is the person no longer connected, but he has even further distanced himself from G-d. In this context, a transgression will always remain a negative event. It might be atoned for through punishment or even forgiven by G-d in His great mercy; the connection might be reestablished through a renewed commitment to the fulfillment of the mitzvot. But the fact remains that, in the past, there has been a disruption of the relationship. This fact cannot be undone, and it certainly cannot be considered a virtue.
Teshuvah, however, redefines the past, transforming the transgression from a break in relationship into an agent of even deeper connection. When a person regrets his sins and agonizes over his disconnection from G-d, his pain translates into a yearning for G-d more intense than anything the perfectly righteous individual can ever experience. As a mirror returns a ray of light that is far more potent than a ray shining directly from its source, so does the baal teshuvah return to G-d with a greater passion and intensity than that of one who never strayed from the straight and true path of connection to G-d through mitzvot. The transgression becomes a virtue, for the distance and disconnection it created have been converted into a force for greater closeness and deeper connection.
The Mitzvah and the Allusion
Therein lies the deeper significance of the two passages from Mishneh Torah (Maimonides’ codification of Torah law) quoted at the beginning of this essay.
In the first passage, which is the opening law of the section entitled Laws of Shofar, Maimonides defines the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a mitzvah, a divine commandment. He gives no reason for this mitzvah, as indeed is the case with virtually all the mitzvot whose laws he codifies. (In the rare instances in which Maimonides does offer a reason for a mitzvah, it is because this “reason” is itself a halachah (law), spelling out or clarifying a legal detail of how the mitzvah is to be fulfilled).
But the sounding of the shofar is more than a mitzvah—it is also a vehicle for teshuvah. Its sound—the sound of a child sobbing in search of the father he has abandoned—wakens our hearts to return to G-d and restore and intensify the relationship we have damaged with our transgressions. As Maimonides writes in Laws of Teshuvah:
“Although the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Torah decree, there is an allusion in it as well. It says: ‘Be roused, sleepers … search your deeds and return in teshuvah.’”
Note that Maimonides speaks of the shofar’s arousal to teshuvah as an “allusion,” rather than a “reason” or “function,” of shofar. For the teshuvah element of shofar, being far loftier than its mitzvah element, cannot be part of the mitzvah; at most, the shofar can only allude to it, as an allusion offers a hint of something that lies beyond its topical significance. This is also why the above passage appears in Laws of Teshuvah rather than in Laws of Shofar.
There is yet another, third, significance to blast of the shofar, which touches upon a level of relationship between man and G-d that runs even deeper than those forged by mitzvot and teshuvah. A level so sublime that it finds no halachic expression at all—not as a component of the mitzvah of shofar, not even as an “allusion.” In addition to being the fulfillment of a divine decree and a call to teshuvah, the sound of the shofar is also the trumpet-blast of G-d’s coronation as king of the universe.
Rosh Hashanah is described as “the day [that marks] the beginning of Your works, a remembrance to the first day.” Actually, Rosh Hashanah marks the sixth day of creation—the day on which man was created. Nevertheless, it is considered “the beginning of Your works” and “the first day,” since the realization of the divine purpose in creation commenced with the first deed of the first man.
Creation includes creatures that are “lowlier” (i.e., less spiritual) than the human being (animals, inanimate objects), as well as creatures loftier than he (souls, angels, spiritual realities or “worlds”). But man is the only creature to possess free choice—a quality he shares only with the Creator. Thus, the appearance of man on the face of the earth introduced a new dynamic into creation—a dynamic which is the “beginning of Your works,” the purpose, end and essence of creation.
In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidism, until the first Rosh Hashanah, G-d was “ruler” of the universe but not its “king.” A king (melech, in Hebrew) is one whose subjects have freely chosen to submit to his sovereignty; a tyrant who rules by force is not a king but a ruler (moshel). When the first man opened his eyes, recognized his Creator, and chose to serve Him (as related in the Zohar), G-d became king, and His purpose in creation—that a world from which He has concealed all but the faintest glimmer of His presence should choose, by its own volition, to unite with Him—began its realization.
Every year, on the anniversary of the day on which our first ancestor submitted to the divine sovereignty, we renew mankind’s crowning of G-d as king of the universe. We express our desire that He reign over us, reiterate our commitment to serve Him, and celebrate His acceptance of the kingship with the joyous awe that characterizes a coronation. This is the most basic element of our relationship with Him: more basic than that of the mitzvot, and more basic than the bond effected by teshuvah. For the concepts of “commandment” (the agent of connection via the mitzvot) and “transgression” (the impetus and dynamic of teshuvah) have significance only after one has accepted the authority of the one obeyed or disobeyed.
The shofar sounds. The ear hears a clear, simple note, free of nuance and design; a divine decree has been fulfilled, a connection made. A more inner ear hears a sob of regret, a sob that bespeaks the pain of distance and the yearning to return that yield a deeper connection and a more furious bond. But the soul of souls hears the staccato blasts of the coronation trumpet, which annually lays the foundations of man’s relationship with G-d and the raison d’être of creation.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Tishrei 5723 (October 1962)
. Numbers 29:1.
. Likkutei Torah, Shelach 40a. There is another dimension to the mitzvah—the refining effect it has upon the human being and the substance of creation—where the particular features of a mitzvah are of primary importance. But the essence of a mitzvah is the fact that it is a divine command, a fact that overshadows, to the point of rendering insignificant, its social, educational and spiritual functions (see “On the Essence of the Mitzvah,” Beyond The Letter Of the Law (VHH 1995), pp. 106-112).
. Talmud, Yoma 86b.
. Ibid., Berachot 34b.
. Mishneh Torah, compiled by Maimonides in the 12th century, was the first systematic codification of Torah law (halachah) by subject, and remains the most comprehensive work of its kind to date. In the words of the author, “I compiled everything that derives from all these works (the two Talmuds, the halachic Midrashim and the responsa of the Geonim) regarding the prohibited and the permissible, the unclean and the clean, and all other laws of the Torah; all in a clear language and a concise manner… so that a person might read the Written Torah, and then read this book, and will then know the entire Oral Torah (i.e., the entire body of Torah law) and not require any other book in between…”
. Siddur, Rosh Hashanah prayers.
. “When Adam stood up on his feet, he saw that all creatures feared him and followed him as servants do their master. He then said to them: ‘You and I both, come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before G-d our maker’ ” (Psalms 95:6; Zohar, part I, 221b).
. Cf. Mechilta on Exodus 20:3: “The verse states: ‘I am G-d… You shall not…’ This is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who entered a country. Said his servants to him: ‘Make decrees over them!’ Said he to them: ‘When they accept my sovereignty, I shall make decrees over them; for if they do not accept my sovereignty, they will not accept my decrees.’ Thus, G-d said to Israel: ‘I am G-d… You shall not…’ I am the one whose sovereignty you have accepted in Egypt… If you accept My sovereignty, you must accept My decrees.”
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. IV, pp. 1146-1147.
This article is an excerpt from Inside Time, a groundbreaking three-volume book set about the meaning and messages of the Hebrew calendar.