Monday, September 25, 2006

Rosh Hashanah – Enthroning Hashem

You shall intone ‘Kingship’, ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Shofar Blasts’ before me on Rosh Hashanah. ‘Kingship’ – So that you should enthrone me as king over yourselves. ‘Remembrance’ – So that you are brought to my mind [only] for good [reasons]. And with what [should you enthrone him]? With the shofar. (Baraita BT RH 34b = 16a)

Just as the shofar is sounded at countless coronation services in the Prophets (2 Samuel 15:10; 1 Kings 1:34, 39, 41; 2 Kings 9:13), so too do we use the shofar at Hashem’s ‘coronation’ on Rosh Hashanah (1). This symbolism is made absolutely explicit by the recital, seven times, of Psalm 47 at the start of the shofar blowing service at Musaf:

God has ascended [to his throne] with a blast; Hashem, with the sound of the shofar…For God has become king (2) over the nations; Hashem is seated upon his
holy throne. (6, 9)

There is a pivotal difference between the exercise of ‘accepting the yoke of heaven’ (M Berakhot 2:2) and ‘enthroning’ Hashem as king. Note how the nature of this ‘enthronement’ is elucidated by the Sifre (3):

Why did the Sages see fit that ‘Kingship’ should be said first, and that ‘Remembrance’ and ‘Shofar Blasts’ should only be said afterwards? Rather that you should enthrone him over yourselves first and after that ask mercy of him, in order that you should be remembered [for good] before him. And with what [should you enthrone him]? With the shofar, [because] the shofar signifies freedom, as it says (Isaiah 27:13) “On that day he shall sound the great shofar [and the lost ones will come from the land of Assyria and the rejected ones from the land of Egypt and they shall prostrate themselves to Hashem on his holy mountain in Jerusalem”].

The foundational and essential act of Rosh Hashanah according to these sources is not the ‘acceptance of the yoke of heaven’, which the Mishnah (Berakhot 2:2) conceives of as taking place daily with the recitation of the first paragraph of the Shema. The ‘acceptance of the yoke of heaven’ is an act performed by the individual (at least partly) under duress. The ox has no choice but to accept the yoke (plough harness) placed upon it by its master. So too, despite doing so ‘with love’, the individual Jew has no choice but to submit lovingly to the demands of the supreme existence (kivyakhol).

Distinct from this is the foundational and essential yearly act of Rosh Hashanah: the communal act of enthroning Hashem as king of the community (4). This is not an act performed under duress, it is an act performed out of herut, the freedom to do something (as opposed to hofesh (5), the freedom from something). The significance of the shofar, as the Sifre notes above, is that it is a symbol in scripture of the free acceptance of Hashem’s sovereignty. The proof text the Sifre brings for this reads as follows, “On that day he shall sound the great shofar [and the lost ones will come from the land of Assyria and the rejected ones from the land of Egypt and they shall prostrate themselves to Hashem on his holy mountain in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 27:13). The dispersed of Israel are not ‘gathered up from the four corners of the earth’ as other texts state, rather the shofar serves as an invitation to the dispersed of Israel to enthrone Hashem willingly and the dispersed ‘come’, apparently of their own accord, to Hashem’s holy mountain. There ‘they will prostrate themselves’, they do so as a collective and voluntary act.

That the community of Israel is able to freely choose to enthrone Hashem as king over themselves, an opportunity the individual does not have, testifies to the power of the community within Jewish thought. The sheer power and audacity of this theological claim is nowhere more evident than in the last verse appended to the Aleinu prayer, the central pillar of the ‘Kingship’ section of the Musaf service. The verse is from Deuteronomy 33:5, part of the blessing with which Moses blesses Israel before his death, and reads as follows, “And there was a king [i.e. Hashem] in Jeshurun [i.e. Israel], when the heads of the people gathered, when the tribes of Israel were together”. It almost seems (kivyakhol) as if Hashem’s being king was dependant on the actions of Israel. It is precisely this audacious theological claim that the Sifre on Deuteronomy (Piska 346) makes at length:

“And there was a king in Jeshurun” (33:5): When all of Israel is united in their counsel below, His great name is praised above, as it is said, “And there was a king in Jeshurun”…Similarly Scripture says: “This is my God, and I will glorify Him” (Exodus 15:2) – When I acknowledge Him, He is glorious, but when I do not acknowledge Him, He is [not] glorious, if one may say such a thing (kivyakhol) – “When I proclaim the name of Hashem; ascribe ye greatness unto our God” (32:3) – when I proclaim His Name, He is great, but when I do not, [He is not great,] if one may say such a thing (kivyakhol) – “Therefore ye are My witnesses saith Hashem, and I am God” (Isaiah 43:12), when you are My witnesses, I am God, but when you are not my witnesses, I am not God, if one may say such a thing (kivyakhol) – “Unto thee I lift up min eyes, O Thou that art enthroned in the heavens” (Ps. 123:1) – were it not for me, Thou wouldst not be enthroned in the heavens, if one may say such a thing (kivyakhol). So too in this case [“And there was a king in Jeshurun…]when the tribes of Israel were together” – [He is King] when they form one [unified] group; [He is] not [King] when they form several groups. (6)

It is at Rosh Hashanah that the community (re)enthrones Hashem as king, as the central orientating aspect of our lives; we realign our priorities and remember that despite “our beginning in dust and our end in dust”, it is only we ourselves, as a community, that have the power to set our priorities and right our ways.

The individual human being on Rosh Hashanah may be hopeless and frail, “a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a fleeting breeze, flying dust and a fleeting dream”. Yet the community on Rosh Hashanah can sound the shofar and proclaim:

God has ascended [to his throne] with a blast; Hashem, with the sound of the shofar…For God has become king (2) over the nations; Hashem is seated upon his holy throne. (Psalm 47:6, 9)

Chatimah Tovah!
Comments and criticism welcome as always. Scroll down past the endnotes and click the link to add a comment.


(1) This too is the symbolism of the sounding of the shofar in Psalm 132, which recounts the events of 2 Samuel 6, when David brought the ark of Hashem up to Jerusalem.

(2) Four of the so-called ‘kingship psalms’ (93:1, 96:10, 97:1, 99:1) contain the characteristic phrase “Malakh Hashem”. Here, a similar phrase, “Malakh Elokim”, is used. Mowinckel argued that in each of these instances the phrase should be rendered “the Lord has become king” rather than “the Lord is king”. Proof for his position, which is one of a number of possible readings, can be adduced from 2 Kings 9:13 “Jehu has become king”, and similarly 2 Samuel 15:10. It is doubtless that contextually the instance in Psalm 47 that was just cited is the most secure of these readings. For the inner-cultic liturgical uses of these psalms and a good treatment of the hypothesised ‘Enthronement Festival’, see “Psalms”, John Day, 1990, Sheffield Academic Press. This writer has significant doubts about the hypothesis. What appears absolutely certain, however, is that ‘chaoskampf’, the primeval victory over the raging watery chaos, is an absolutely central part of the enthronement. Hence, every single ‘chaoskampf’ passage of significance is cited in the ‘Kingship’ section of the Musaf service. It should also be noted that each of these passages mentioning the Leviathan (and Rahab) have significant parallels in the Ugaritic (i.e. Canaanite) narrative of Baal’s victory of Yam, and also in the Mesopotamian ‘Enuma Elish’. Compare Psalm 74
12 O God, my king from of old, who brings deliverance throughout the land; 13 it was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters; 14 it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan, who left him as food for the denizens of the desert.
And also Isaiah 27,
1 In that day the LORD will punish, With His great, cruel, mighty sword Leviathan the Elusive Serpent -- Leviathan the Twisting Serpent; He will slay the Dragon of the sea.

With the Ugaritic,

Though you smote Lotan the wriggling serpent, finished off the twisting serpent, encircler-with-seven-heads, the skies will be hot, they will shine when I tear you in pieces (KTU 1.5.i.1-3).

VHMY – I therefore conclude that Hazal (‘our Sages of blessed memory’) were completely aware of the links between chaoskampf and enthronement, even if they understood the theological significance of chaoskampf a little differently, and therefore, in their wisdom, included these passages in the ‘Kingship’ part of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf service

(3) I do not yet have the precise reference for this; apologies.

(4) VHMY – It should also be clear that Psalm 47 is an invitation for the rest of the nations of the world to likewise enthrone Hashem as their God too, inviting them to “acknowledge God” i.e. with a shofar (Malbim).

(5) This distinction between hofesh (freedom from school) and herut (freedom to worship Hashem) is made by the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, Sir Professor Jonathan Sacks, in his ‘Passover Haggadah’.

(6) I have mainly followed Rabbi Reuven Hammer’s translation (Yale Judaica Series) here. I have omitted the middle section for brevity, because the Midrash is complex and because the text, as you may have already noticed, is corrupt in places. I would highly recommend serious iyyun here, this Midrash is extremely deep. Be sure, as always, to look up each of the scriptural references carefully as each has a nuanced context. Be sure to see Michael Fishbane’s excellent treatment of this Midrash (and this entire genre) in his ‘Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking’, Oxford University Press, 2003.
In a similar vein, the Sifre (Piska 313) says of Abraham, whose endeavours, especially the Binding of Isaac, we recall throughout Rosh Hashanah:

Before our father Abraham came into the world – it was as if (kivyakhol) the Holy One, blessed be He, was only king over the heavens; as it is said, “Hashem, the God of the Heavens who took me” (Gen. 24:7). But after Abraham came into the world, he made Him King over the heavens and the earth; as it is said, “I will make you swear by Hashem the God of the heavens and the God of earth” (v. 3).


Blogger Tobie said...

Pshhhh, as they say in this country. One question- how would this understanding of Rosh Hashana correlate specifically to the plea for mercy for which it is a necessary prerequisite? I would think that acceptance done just before a plea for compassion is more similar to an acceptance done with no real choice. The kind of acceptance you describe here- out of free will, etc- seems for relevant to Shavuot or possibly Simchat Torah than to a day of judgment.

4:36 am  
Blogger Adam said...

Thank you for your (inaugral) comment Tobie. You are completely right: to pretend that the community enthrones Hashem completely freely and then must beg for its life is a little absurd. But since when were Jews strangers to absurdity?
To extend the audacious claim of some of these sources: If the community were not to enthrone Hashem as king over themselves, perhaps they would have nothing to be afraid of?! VHMY

6:00 am  
Anonymous Yiscah said...

I concur that you deserve a hearty pshhhh for this drash; I enjoyed reading it immensely! My comments concern the relationship between blowing the shofar as a sign of coronation and blowing the shofar as it is connected to receiving the Torah at Sinai (or, more simply, to Revelation). Of course I agree that coronation is especially important on Rosh Hashana, but when you look at the psukim in Shofarot (especially the ones from the Torah) many of them are connected to Sinai, as opposed to any sort of coronation. The difference between the shofar as coronation and the shofar as revelation is ultimately a question of the power of choice; we did not choose revelation, whereas it seems we do choose coronation. (See the sugya in BT Shabbat 88a and b, in which it is explained that Hashem held Har Sinai over the heads of Am Yisrael; if they chose to accept the mitzvot, they would live, but if they did not then the mountain would have been dropped on them. Some choice!) While I, of course, am much more attracted to the aspect of free choice in the enthronement of Hashem, I think there is something important in the fact of obligation-- the lack of choice that the individual experiences every day.

Emmanuel Levinas, a French (and Jewish) philosopher, wrote an excellent drash on revelation under duress, that is, without choice (commenting on the above-mentioned sugya in Shabbat 88a-b). I don't really want to get into the complexities of Levinas' philosophy, but basically he sees the relationship with Hashem as the bsis of all relationships, and as a sort of primary responsibility that no one can escape.

I guess what I am trying to get at is that perhaps the possibilities are not either/or. Perhaps we do not have to choose between free choice and lack thereof. Could we reconceptualize our relationship with Hashem as one of tension, in between the two options? I'm not sure what that would look like, but it's a thought. Sorry for such a rambling comment! Thanks for your thoughts...

8:43 am  
Blogger Tobie said...

No offense, but I think that "oh, please, we like absurdity" is a bit weak of a response to a potential logical flaw. I mean, it works, but ein l'davar sof.

And as for the second point- midrashic rhetoric strengthening the importance of the human will is not the same as believing that G-d has no power over those who chose not to accept Him. For one thing, He worked perfectly fine before the giving of the torah, and through the ten generations from Adam to Noah, etc.

1:52 am  
Blogger Miri said...

I like yiscah's idea of relationship with G-d being one of tension in between free choice and a lack therof; I find that a pretty accurate description. how else to describe the man-G-d relationship but as one of a constant tension?
in between all this talk was lost the idea of our coming close to G-d through the shofar; we blow it every morning throughout the month of elul when "G-d is in the fields," waiting for us to come up to Him with any requests we may wish to make. just another thought to throw into the mix, as long as we're talking abt our rltnshp to G-d - between revelation and coronation, the struggle between free will and forced subservience, where does the closeness bit live?

4:52 am  
Blogger Adam said...

I'm flattered and honoured that you guys have taken so much time to engage with what I wrote and have evaluated it so fully. The nature of a Dvar Torah is that it usually presents a one sided argument: for the sake of edification, readability or theological bias the author exagerates an aspect of the sources in front of him. I agree completely that there are other sides to the experience of Rosh Hashanah as you have all so adroitly pointed out. Permit me a few words on points where I differ:

Yiscah: I both agree that Sinai is important and disagree as to its significance. It is precisely the aggadic piece you mention that highlights the intrinsic lack of free choice under circumstances where Hashem's hand is absolutely evident, as it was at Sinai after the many miracles wrought by Hashem for our ancestors. The question evinced by that aggadic piece is, when, if ever, was that choice made freely? I believe, in fact, that it reconfirms my original thesis: To enthrone Hashem in our day by recalling revelation of obligations (and presence?) at Sinai is precisely what the original revelation was not. That generation could not accept Hashem's sovereignty freely, whilst ours can. Hence, perhaps, the recalling of the coup d'etat at Sinai and transforming it into an enthronement.

Tobie: Our generation lives in very different times from those of our ancestors, whom, as the Tanakh and Hazal recall, witnessed miracles in their daily lives. Do you think it would be so illogical or farfetched for a modern to come to the conclusion that the clarity with which we are able to percieve Hashem in our day is far diminished? i.e. I wasn't saying that "G-d has no power over those who chose not to accept Him" but rather that surely it would be unjust for God to exercise that power over those who cannot perceive him?

Miri: I am not sure there is much room for closeness on Rosh Hashanah, and this is precisely indicated by the source you were quoting, which says that during the month of Ellul, "the King is in the fields". The King may leave his palace and make himself more accessible to us so we can settle accounts with him, but he is still depicted as a King, which immediately implies a certain unbroachable distance.

9:04 am  
Blogger Tobie said...

Interesting idea, but I'm not sure I buy it. Is there any reason that G-d should restrict His justice to those who believe in Him? Does that mean that atheists should be allowed to get away with anything? If G-d's justice is absolute, it must apply even to those who do not perceive it; otherwise, one would only be liable for things that they believed were wrong.

6:16 am  
Blogger Adam said...

"...otherwise, one would only be liable for things that they believed were wrong".
But that is precisely what mainstream Jewish thinking today dictates! It has been a trend since the 19th century to class almost every single person who violates, even deliberately and with knowledge of Jewish law, as a 'tinok shenishbah' ('captive child'). Even Israeli ministers who have protested that they are no such thing has been treated as such. This modern trend reflects an attitude that 'anyone who disagrees with us doesn't really know what they are talking about'; we have lost the ability to take the opinions of others seriously. The upside of all this, however, is a more inclusivistic ethic that obverts the need to separate transgressors from the community. What thsi indicates, however, is that one whose divinely endowed intelligence (or 'insufficient' Jewish education) leads him to sin, is today not considered culpable.

2:51 am  
Blogger Miri said...

yes, but you completely ignored my point about the tension. the thing is, I think Judaism encourages some amount of "closeness to G-d," bc the man-G-d relationship is to some extent modeled on man-man relationships. thus, if we're modeling our rltnshp with G-d on human rltnshps, it would seem that some amount of closeness is a natural outgrowth of that expectation. and when you're supposed to be crowning Him King, there is of course that distance which would seem to coflict with that idea. hence the tension.

3:45 am  
Anonymous Shoshi said...

I haven't read what you've written, partly because I don't actually have time right now and partly because what you've said probably goes way way way over my head into the troposphere. But I was instructed to liven this up with some 'Shoshi' so here I am. I don't know if this counts as lively. Perhaps a poem...(I would suggest a song, but hard to convey in this context..)

"Roses are red, violets are blue, Adam's in Israel and I wish I was too."

So there you go Krausy..I hope it is sufficient.

lots of love and kisses.

2:31 am  
Blogger Tobie said...

Well, to a point, but the question is really to what point and how much of it we really mean as opposed to being apologetics. I mean, clearly nobody would excuse a murderer on basis of the fact that he didn't believe that it was wrong to kill. On the other hand, it does seem unfair to blame a genuine tinok shenishba for failing to keep things like shatnez or kashrut, which his logic would never demand.

Perhaps our modern 'tinok shenishbah' solution is simply the communal way of abstaining from issues that seem to be over our heads and outside our power. By assuming that people do not 'know better' we don't get into the complicated issues of what people should or should not know. This does not, however, mean that G-d will do the same. To believe in an objective morality is to believe that there is a correct answer (or possibly more than one correct answer) to every moral question. Should people be excused for everything if they chose not to believe in morality, G-d, or a certain principle? If so, there are no wrong moral choices.

6:02 am  
Blogger Nikol said...

That's all fine. What, however, do you think about Obadiah Shoher's criticism pf Rosh Hashanah as aholiday that has nothing to do with New Year? Here, for example

3:07 am  

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