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Shabbat and Shofar: Initiation of Rabbinic Independence

Arthur L. Finkle

However, on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year, usually the first new moon in
September), the Priests sounded two Shofars and one Trumpet. (See Chofetz
Chaim, Mishnah Berurah 586 et seq.) Another differing source indicates that,
although normally the trumpet plays the long notes and a Shofar sounds the short
notes. On Rosh Hashanah, however, the trumpet takes the short notes; the
Shofar, long notes. See Rosh Hashanah 33b. Either way, the Shofar
accompanied the special sacrifices on Rosh Hashanah, the holiday designated as
"Yom Teruah" ("A day of blowing"; Num. 29:1). The Shofar also proclaimed the
Jubilee Year on Yom Kippur (Lev. 25:9–10). The special year freed property to
its original owners, forgave debts and gave freedom to slaves, among other

Indeed, the Temple service provided Shofar sounds on the Sabbath, itself. There
was within the temple an inscription on the lintel of the wall at the top of the
Temple that said, "To the house of the blowing of the trumpet (Shofar)". Each
Sabbath 2 men with silver trumpets and a man with a Shofar made three trumpet
blasts twice during the day. On Rosh haShanah, this was different. The Shofar
is the primary trumpet. According to Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29, Rosh
HaShanah is the day of the blowing of the trumpets. The original name is Yom
(Day) Teruah (The staccato sound of the horn, which also means “Shout”).
According to the Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 16a, 3:3), the trumpet used for this
purpose is the ram's horn, not trumpets made of metal as in Numbers 10. On
Rosh HaShanah, a Shofar delivers the first blast, a silver trumpet the second, and
then the Shofar the third. Accessed March 1, 2010.

Subsequent Rabbinic Prohibition of Sounding Shofar on the Sabbath

However, the Midshnah makes clear that , prior to the destruction of the Temple,
the Shofar was sounded on Rosh Hashsnah from in the Temple. Rosh HaShanah
Mishnah 4:1; 4:2

After the destruction of the Temple, Yochanan ben Zakkai substituted the Shofar
to be played first in Jerusalem; then he enlarged to the area to Jerusalem and its
environs; then in Jamnia (where the Rabbi’s were situated immediately after the
Temple’s destruction. Thereafter the Rabbi’s enlarged the areas to cover those
area on Judea that had Jewish courts, which bespoke a population at oeast 120
people. RH 4:1 and notes from Yad Avraham.

• As time passed, the further away from the rituals of the Temple practice
and the predominance of the Rabbi’s, the practice came to be that the
Shofar was not sounded on the Shabbat. It was later codified in Shulchan
Aruch, Orach Chaim 588:5, Taz, Mishna Brurah 13; Shulchan Aruch, Orach
Chaim 143:1 ; Ran to Tractate Rosh Hashana ch. 4; and Shulchan Aruch, Orach
Chaim 135:14

Indeed, we look to the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Aruch 588:4) and we see:

When the festival of Rosh HaShanah fall on Shabbos, the Shofar is
not sounded. Sounding the Shofar is not a forbidden labor; it is
forbidden [because ] it is considered mundane activity which can
lead to a mundane assembly which is forbidden on the Sabbath.

The Rabbi Sholom Dovber ("Rebbe Rashab" -1860-1920) clears this up
when he staters athat the ban of sounding is Rabbinic; not Biblical. But the ban
is due to Rabbah’s Decree. In another Chasidic interpretation is that the
Sabbath takes on a spiritual glory and does not need another spiritual glory to
carry the day. But, on other days, the Shofar sounds provide this spiritual
glory; which otherwise is lost after the Sabbath.

After the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established that they
would blow in every place in which there is a Rabbinic court." (Rosh Hashanah 4:1)

The first statement of the Mishnah is puzzling. If blowing Shofar is melakhah (the
category of work forbidden on the Sabbath), then why is it not forbidden inside the
Temple? And if blowing Shofar is not melakhah, why would it be forbidden outside of
the Temple? Clearly, any solution to this problem will need some other kind of
understanding of blowing Shofar.

Nevertheless, the Gemara (the commentary/interpretation of the Mishnah by the sages of
the 3rd-6th centuries CE) continues:

"From where in the Torah does this law come? Said R. Levi bar
Lachma said R. Hama bar Haninah: One verse says "a day of
complete rest commemorated with the blowing of the
Shofar"(Leviticus 23:24), and one verse says "it will be for you a
day of blowing the Shofar"(Numbers 29:1). There is no problem.
The [first] one is when the festival occurs on Shabbat. The [second]
one is when the festival occurs on a weekday" (Babylonian Talmud,
Rosh Hashanah 29b).

The Gemara asks a typical question: What is the biblical basis for the law that one does
not blow the Shofar on Shabbat outside of the Temple? R. Hama bar Haninah is quoted,
providing a clever reading of the Torah. Since the rabbis assume that the Torah is perfect,
and perfection implies that no words are wasted, the two verses quoted above from
Leviticus and Numbers, which appear to say the same thing, cannot, indeed, be saying the
same thing. According to Hama bar Haninah, the verse from Leviticus which uses the
language ‫שבתון זכרון תרועה‬--shabbaton zikhron teru’ah (a day of complete rest
commemorated with the blowing of the Shofar)--should be understood as “on the
Shabbat, a remembrance of the blowing,” or as Rashi explains, “and not a real blowing;
rather, they recite verses about the blowing of Shofar.” This is a very clever reading of
the verse from Leviticus.

Basically, R. Hama bar Haninah’s approach is that, based on a midrash on the Torah,
blowing Shofar is permitted on weekdays, but forbidden on the Sabbath. But, as the
Gemara asks next:

“Said Rava: If it [i.e. the prohibition to blow Shofar on shabbat] is based on the Torah,
how did we blow Shofar in the Temple?…”

Of course we knew this. At our first look at the Mishnah, we knew that any approach that
argued that blowing Shofar was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath would not explain the
Mishnah; if Shofar-blowing is forbidden on the Sabbath, how were they permitted to
blow Shofar in the Temple. As clever as R. Hama bar Hanina’s reading is, it is
inadequate to the task of explaining the Mishnah. So why did the Gemara even include
his midrash if it was so plainly and obviously incorrect?

The answer to this question reveals one of the underlying truths of rabbinic Judaism.
More important than the conclusion is the process. The message of the Gemara is not that
a correct understanding is irrelevant, or that there aren’t correct (and incorrect)
understandings; to the contrary, careful thinking and evidence-based argument are
crucial. But they are not as important as allowing diverse views to be expressed. When
we examine and discuss the logic of the Mishnah, we make sure that diverse opinions,
divergent opinions, and even clearly false opinions are given voice. To shut off the
creativity of a Hama bar Haninah in this case might indicate that all that matters is the
final word. To indulge that creativity, even when it is clearly wrong, sets the opposite
precedent, and encourages creative thinkers to take intellectual risks for the sake of

Torah. If the conversation of Torah she’b’al peh--"Oral Law"--is to proceed, we must
foster and encourage our risk-takers.

Rava does end up revealing how the Mishnah makes sense. Rava quotes his teacher
Rabbah, who argues that the prohibition against blowing Shofar outside of the Temple
was a rabbinic prohibition (and not a biblical prohibition, as Hama bar Haninah argued),
which simply did not apply to the Temple.

The Talmud now turns to the second part of the Mishnah: “After the Temple was
destroyed, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai established that they would blow in every place
in which there is a Rabbinic court.” The Mishnah’s language “established” is bland and
undramatic. The Talmud fills in the details:

Rabbah’s Decree includes three classic cases where Rabbah rules that a
mitzvah must be postponed or cancelled due to the concern that the mitzvah
implement might be inadvertently carried on Shabbos.

• Taking a lulav on the first day of Sukkos,
• Blowing Shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashana (Rosh Hashana 29a)
• Reading of Megillas Esther (Megilla 4b).

In each case, the Gemara mentions that Rabbah made his ruling not only
in the case being discussed, but in the other two cases, as well.

The opinion found in the Jerusalem Talmud and the subsequent Sifra is that blowing a
Shofar on Shabbat is a Biblical prohibition which received a special dispensation to be
blown in the Temple on Shabbat (Rosh HaShannah 4:1) On the other hand, in the
Babylonian Talmud blowing a Shofar is interpreted as only a rabbinic prohibition and
outside of the Temple it was prohibited lest one carry it more than four amot in the public
domain (Rosh HaShannah 29b).

Indeed, the Sages are empowered to "overrule" a Torah precept (if their instruction
involves restraint from action, not a proactive violation of a biblical command).See See
Talmud Yevamot 89b-90b. This authority is subject to many limitations. For example,
the Sages can only use this power in order to preserve another Torah statute (as in our
case, the Torah prohibition against carrying in the public domain on Shabbat.

Our obligation to follow such directives is implicit in the verse,8 "And you shall do
according to the word they tell you, from the place that G-d will choose, and you shall
observe to do according to all they instruct you." Although, It should be noted that the
Jerusalem Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 4:1) maintains that the original biblical command to

sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah only applied to when Rosh Hashanah falls on a

In a further emendation, the Alter Rebbe’s accents the prohibition of the
mundane activity to buttress the argument that one should not carry rather than
the other way around.

Halakhah (Jewish Law) rules that the Shofar may not be sounded on the Sabbath
due to the potential that the Ba'al T'kiyah (Shofar Sounder) may inadvertently
carry it, which is in a class of forbidden Sabbath work. (R.H. 29b)

One can not blow the Shofar on Shabbat because of temptation to
carry more than four cubits in a public domain [thus, breaking the
prohibition of carrying on the Sabbath.] Mishnah Berurah, 588:5

The historical explanation is that in ancient Israel, the Shofar was sounded in the
Temple on the Sabbath as were other sacrifices and musical instruments.