Sunday, September 24, 2006

K'ev Rosh (HaShanah): Remembering the Cycles

“In the seventh month, on the first day of that month, you will observe a holy occasion. All business and mundane labor should not be performed. It is to be a Day of Trumpeting for you.” (Numbers 29: 1)

“It is an active command of the Torah to hear the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah as it states “….a Day of Trumpeting for YOU.” The horn used, whether it be for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur is to be a curved sheep’s horn, and any horn not of this specific type is unfit. Even though the Torah does not specify which type of horn is to be used for Rosh Hashanah, it does say in regards to the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:9) “And you shall blow a shofar…..a shofar shall be blown.” Tradition tells us that the horn for both occasions is to be a male sheep’s horn.” (Mishneh Torah, Laws of the Shofar 1:1)

“This month shall be for you the first of the months; first it is to you of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)

Clearly one can see that Exodus 12:2 is referring to the Hebrew month of Nisan and not the month of Tishrei since the following verses (3-20) relate specifically to the weeks preceding Passover and the Pascal offering. Since Jewish months did not have actual names until the Babylonian Exile, prior to that time they were called by their biblically designated ordinal numbers i.e. first month, second month, etc., and there wasn’t any way possible to confuse one month with another. Unless, of course, one wishes to overcomplicate matters.

The first of Tishrei is now considered as the primary Jewish New year. So how do the rabbis explain this contradiction with Exodus 12:2 which obviously refers to Nisan? The rabbis claim that in reality there are two new years, one that signifies our collective beginning as a nation and the other, the New Year we all know and love, is the annual day of personal and communal Judgment where we stand before God and await his verdict. This explanation is wholly unacceptable because the Torah doesn’t even hint to such an explanation for the ‘day of trumpeting’. If someone wishes to derive an interpretation from another interpretation that’s fine, but at least the original interpretation should have some Biblical source to support it. In this case, the rabbis are way off base and thus have turned Rosh Hashanah into a liturgical and psychological disaster.

The Torah in Numbers 29 makes no mention of repentance, sin, or overtures of regret for wrongs committed. Yet, for some reason, we Jews, prior to Rosh HaShanah, subject ourselves to endless sessions of self-effacement and apology, pleading for this merciful god not to kill us or horribly curse us for even the most minor infractions of Jewish Law. The entire month of Elul, a full 30 days prior Rosh HaShanah, becomes a marathonic dirge of penitent supplications and solicitations to the Almighty, culminating in the recitation of Selichos, a torturous early-morning prayer cycle authored by someone with a lot of time on his hands and not much imagination. Orthodox Jewish men rise earlier than usual to spend hours reciting page after page of “I’m a piece of crap and not worthy of Your kindness. You are the Merciful One. Please don’t fuck me over. I promise I’ll change my ways.”

Maimonides (see above) explains that we know the horn for Rosh Hashanah is to be a shofar (curved sheep’s horn) because the same terminology of ‘blowing’ (teruah) is found in relation to the Jubilee Year, where a shofar is specifically mentioned. The theme of repentance fits with this notion. A horn that is bent represents a bent knee or bent spirit, in line with the assumed theme of judgment and repentance. Nonetheless, the Torah in Numbers 29 doesn’t appear to offer any obvious reason why the Israelites were to have a special day set aside each and every year to hear the shofar blown, so the Rabbis, eager to inundate us with their ‘superior logic and morality’ had to create some new ones. To do so they had to ignore some realities of the day.

Even if one was to accept this interpretation, one would also have to assume that the Torah, while referencing a Jubilee year (Lev. 25:9) would also mention something of repentance or supplication in order to support the rabbis theme of repentance, yet it fails to mention either. The Jubilee Year is a time of ‘release’ and marks a period when debts are forgiven, the soil and people are given additional time to rest, harvests are for everyone equally, and real estate values are assessed by the Jubilee date. There remains no mention whatsoever of repentance or divine judgment, even though the actual shofar blowing of the Jubilee year was to occur on Yom Kippur!

Maybe the Rabbis are part right, but not in way that they might imagine. The ‘new year’ and the Jubilee are connected in a very practical sense. The Jubilee was a grand and awesome event, since much of ancient Israel’s commerce was affected and dependent upon it. Land deals were revoked or recovered, farming was absolutely forbidden, and indentured servants were freed without question. It was accompanied by a time of economic uncertainty and turmoil for both the average guy and the long-term investor. Imagine being told that in year ‘50’, all of your business deals, deeds, and loans were going to be annulled and that the free household help you enjoyed for the last umpteen years was being cut loose. That’s a huge lifestyle change and it required a powerful faith to put aside worldly concerns and observe it.

This may answer why there was a ‘Day of Blowing’ and why it was so important. Holidays are national occasions. Why was it so important that all Jews make themselves available on the 1st day of the 7th month to hear the Shofar? It was a yearly reminder of the Jubilee and the Cycle of Land Rest (Deut.16:1). After all, most ancient peoples didn’t have calendars, palm pilots, or day planners to remind them of these events and without someone to keep track and announce their imminent arrival, holidays and remembrances would be missed by a day or two or maybe even altogether. Horn blowing was another means of public service announcement, and specific horns were used for specific purposes depending on what sort of event was being announced. Ancient people knew the difference between the sounds of a straight horn, a curved horn, and a bronze or golden horn. To further support this theory, the shofar was blown everywhere, not just in Jerusalem, and everyone was obligated to mark the event by hearing it wherever they happened to reside. Every Israelite, be they slave, master, man, woman, or king had to know from which date his dealings were time-stamped as a mental preparation for the coming Jubilee.

This is the real reason why the Shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah and perhaps why we call it a ‘new year’ even though it isn’t the New Year at all. In agrarian societies, where manual labor, real estate, and investment capital were a vital necessity, the life-blood of the culture revolved around harvest times, where the return on one’s investments finally paid off. Farmers and merchants could borrow against the actual harvest return rather than the anticipated return of a springtime transaction; the harvest being a better and more tangible indicator of financial stability and success. Rosh HaShanah, the first of Tishrei, becomes the beginning of the ‘business’ year and we are reminded by the Shofar that our business dealings are subject to the cycles of rest and motion encapsulated within the commands of Rest Years and the Jubilee.

This would also explain why the shofar must come from domesticated male sheep; horns of wild goats are not permitted, since they bear no relation to the theme of the day. Domesticated sheep horn is also almost always curved, so the rabbinic wrangling over bent knees and spirits is just plain nonsense. The people used what they had readily available. Domesticated sheep were all over the place so everyone would have access to a shofar or at least to someone who had access. It’s just that simple. The important thing for Moses was to have everyone do it at the same time. No point handing out wristwatches if they aren’t going to be synchronized. This is another example of rabbis overcomplicating relatively simple issues and making the rest of us suffer needlessly in the process.

No, I don’t think the shofar’s shrill sound, enchanting as it may be to many, is that of the ‘Jewish soul crying out for God.’ It is, however, a stark reminder that our efforts to achieve prosperity and security in this world remain inexorably bound with the cycles of Nature. As Moses said when offering his blessings to the Jews (Deut. 32:1) “Listen skies and I shall announce! And let the earth hear the speaking of my mouth!” Moses invoked physical skies and the material earth to bear active witness upon the Israelite destiny. The nation’s adherence and recognition of these cycles were vital to their prosperity and survival.

(The word ‘shofar’ is commonly translated as ‘horn of a male sheep’, but maybe that translation is based solely on the common rabbinic understanding of shofar and Rosh HaShanah, being that nobody ever bothers to argue the point anymore.)

In any case, hob a gutt und a gebenshte yohr.

Kol Tuv


Sam said...

How bout joining us on the yahoo frumspectics group lots of activity

Shlomo said...

Give me the link and I'll give it some thought.

Kol Tuv

Avi said...

Excellent article. Write more on this topic. I always thought that this business about slichos was a bunch of boolsheet.We Jews are a good people and laying all kind of guilt trips on ourselves is not my idea of having a great time.