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The Halakhah in the Parashah (Pinchas)

Here is this week’s Halakhah in the Parashah:
Parashat Pinchas

July 8, 2023 | 19 Tammuz 5783

Torah: Numbers 25:10-30:1 Triennial: Numbers 25:10-26:51

Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

Hearing the Temple
Rabbi Joshua Kulp

The Halakhah in the Parashah

When the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 C.E., the Jewish people lost their most valuable place of ritual. Through the sacrifices offered in the Temple, the libations, the incense, the menorah, the singing of the Levites and other such features of the Temple which were enjoyed by all senses, sight, smell, hearing, tasting and probably by touch as well, Jews came to experience the Divine. The synagogue is not such a place. Our synagogues are at times visually beautiful, but not always, nor do they have to be. The only food that we eat as a mitzvah anymore is matzah–so much for taste! The smell of a synagogue–well if you’re deep into a three-day Yom Tov, that might not be your favorite experience. Taste–that’s for the kiddush after. But there is one sensual ritual that remains, hearing, and the greatest example (and one of the few examples) of a mitzvah performed by our ears, is the shofar. Along with the lulav, the shofar is one of two Temple rituals that survived the sacrilege and traveled with us to this day. And that tells us something about Judaism.

The Torah refers to the first day of the seventh month (which has been called Rosh Hashanah since antiquity) either as “The day of Teruah” (Numbers 29:1) or “A remembrance of Teruah” (Leviticus 23:24). Most of the rituals in these two chapters were performed only in a Temple. And indeed, there are hints that originally the shofar might not have been a ritual obligatory on individuals. Philo of Alexandria writes in The Special Laws 2:188, “Immediately after comes the festival of the sacred new moon; in which it is the custom to play the shofar (or trumpet) in the Temple at the same moment that the sacrifices are offered. From which practice this is called the true Feast of Shofarot (Trumpets).” It seems that to Philo the shofar is not sounded outside the Temple. Such an opinion is even attributed to the rabbinic sages R. Shimon ben Yohai in the Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashanah 4a): “R. Shimon ben Yohai taught: ‘[In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts. You shall not work at your occupations;] and you shall bring an offering by fire to God.” (Leviticus 25:25):–in a place where the sacrifices are offered.” RSBY connects the second half of the couplet with the first. The shofar is sounded only where the sacrifices are offered. Were this to have been the final decision, we would not be hearing the shofar today.

But, in the end, the shofar is not a sacrifice. It is a mitzvah that can be performed without a Temple and without an altar. And as such, it became a mitzvah incumbent upon all Jews, whether they are in the Temple, in synagogue, or even staying at home. The rabbis read Numbers 29:1, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion…. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded” not in connection with the following verse which is about sacrifices, but as a mitzvah to be observed by all for all time with or without sacrifices. This is a critical transfer of what was probably a Temple ritual into a home ritual, and in many ways it may have saved Rosh Hashanah.

This shift from Temple ritual to a ritual for all individual Jews can be seen in an interesting dispute about the blessing over this mitzvah. Today, we conceive of the mitzvah to be “hearing the voice of the shofar” and our blessing is “לשמוע קול שופר–to hear the voice of the Shofar.” Individuals need not blow a shofar in order to fulfill their mitzvah; they need to hear the shofar. However, the earliest known testimony about this blessing, found in the Sheiltot of Rav Ahai Gaon, a tenth-century Babylonian composition, refers to the blessing as “לתקוע בשופר–to blow the shofar.” The issue continued to be debated by the geonim, with people taking both sides on the issue.

A couple of centuries later, the Rambam himself was asked about this blessing and responded in the following way:

What is the difference between [blessing]  “to hear the voice of the shofar” and “on blowing the shofar”?

The answer is that there is a big difference. For the commandment obligates us not to blow the shofar, but rather to hear the blast. If the mitzvah had been to sound the blast, each and every individual would be obligated to sound it, just as every individual is obligated to sit in a sukkah and take a lulav. And one who hears the shofar but did not sound it, would not have fulfilled his obligation…But this is not true, rather the mitzvah is to hear, and not to sound. And the only reason we sound the shofar, is to hear…and we should bless “to hear the sound of the shofar” and not “on the sounding of the shofar.”

This mitzvah continued to be debated in the medieval period, with important poskim coming down on both sides (see the Rosh, Rosh Hashanah 4:10). Eventually, the decision was made that the blessing should be “to hear the sound of the shofar” and that is what all Jews recite to this day (Shulkhan Aruch, Orah Hayyim, 585:2).

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Judaism does not place a premium on the beauty of the synagogue. We do not look at the hands of the kohanim when they bless us. Through the mitzvah of the shofar, performed by hearing and not blasting, we learn which of the five senses Judaism does place an emphasis on–hearing. “Shema, Hear, O Israel,” is our most famous prayer. We have not created batei k’nesset and batei midrash in order to see God. We have created them in order to hear and listen to the words of God as they have been brought down to us throughout the generations and as they are created in our own times. The shofar is our reminder on the first day of the year of this value–to emphasize listening, to emphasize deeper hearing, so that God’s voice can reverberate in our minds and souls throughout the rest of the year.

listen with intent, but we do not look.


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