By Rabbi Richard Sarason
The blowing of the shofar is surely one of the high points of the Rosh Hashanah morning service. But the “Shofar Service” as the discrete entity we know today is actually a creation of Reform liturgists. Located at the end of the Torah service, before the Torah is returned to the ark, and including the three sections of Malchiyot (biblical verses dealing with God’s Sovereignty), Zichronot (biblical verses dealing with God’s Attentiveness), andShofarot (biblical verses dealing with the sounding of the Shofar), this is a synthesis of two different pieces of traditional liturgy.
At this same point in the traditional morning service, the shofar indeed is blown, preceded by the blessing, Baruch …v’tsivanu lishmo’a kol shofar (“Be praised…who has commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar”), and accompanied by psalm texts (Psalm 47 and additional verses). Later, in the middle of the Amidah in the Musaf(“additional”) service, the sections of Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot are added. In all other services on Rosh Hashanah, the Amidah has seven benedictions (as we noted some weeks ago). In the Musaf service, there are nine: Malchiyot is incorporated into theKedushat hayom (“Sanctity of the Day”) benediction, since God’s sovereignty is in any case one of the themes of that benediction on Rosh Hashanah. Zichronot and Shofarotimmediately follow this as separate benedictions, and are then followed by the three regular concluding benedictions of the Amidah. During the reader’s repetition of theAmidah, the shofar is blown after each of these special sections. Since most North American Reform prayer books have omitted the Musaf service, these three sections, which are the traditional centerpiece of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, had to be reconfigured—and actually have been variously reconfigured in different Reform prayer books. We’ll discuss that later, but let’s first examine what these prayers are and where they come from.
Malchiyot , Zichronot, and Shofarot are first mentioned in the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 4:5), in a description of the order of the benedictions in the Rosh Hashanah morning (or perhaps Musaf) Amidah. There is a dispute there about whether the Malchiyot verses should be recited in the Kedushat haShem benediction (what we call the Kedushah) or the Kedushat hayom benediction. The latter option becomes the norm. The Mishnah there also records that the shofar is to be blown after each set of verses has been recited, and notes that each section is to include no less than ten verses (that is indeed the custom to this day: three verses on each theme from the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, with a tenth verse, from the Torah, concluding the series). Mishnah Ta’anit 2:2, recording the order of special prayers on fast days occasioned by drought, indicates that the first two of these prayers, appended to the Eighteen Benedictions, are Zichronot and Shofarot.
So what do these texts reveal about what’s going on here? All of this activity was clearly intended to get God’s attention (the repeated shofar blasts) and to draw down God’s providential favor. By (literally) reminding God of God’s own words of promise—that in past times of dire need, God remembered our ancestors and saved them; that the shofarwas blown both in times of trouble to summon God and in times of rejoicing; that at the end of days God’s sovereignty will be acknowledged by all humanity—that is, by invoking these words of Scripture, we release their power and help to bring about their fulfillment by “moving” God to act on our behalf. This surely is the primal meaning of the rite—but generations of commentators have seen less theurgic (or magical) meanings in this activity: the shofar blasts call us to accounting and repentance, reminding us of our duties to God and our fellow humans. Their impact is on us rather than on God.
While the ritual is referred to in the Babylonian Talmud as t’kiata d’vei rav (“the blasts—shofar blowing—of the school of the Master”;1 b. Rosh Hashanah 27a), the first full texts of these prayers appear only in Seder Rav Amram, from the second half of the ninth century. Each of the three sections—Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot—itself is made up of three parts: (1) an introductory poem, (2) the set of 10 verses which comprise the core, and (3) a petition that concludes with a chatimah (a benedictory flourish).
The poetic introduction to Malchiyot is Aleinu l’shabei’ach (this is the text’s original location and function in the liturgy; it was taken over into the daily liturgy, to conclude each service, beginning only in the thirteenth century in the wake of the Crusades in the Rhineland). It proclaims that Israel’s God is the God who created, and rules over, the entire universe and that, in the future, Israel’s God will be acknowledged by all peoples. This leads directly into the ten verses proclaiming God’s sovereignty. The section concludes with the petitionM’loch al kol ha’olam kulo bich’vodecha (“Reign over the entire world in Your glory”). This petition appears as well in every Amidah on Rosh Hashanah at the conclusion of theKedushat hayom benediction—and, indeed, Malchiyot is folded into this benediction inMusaf. The benedictory conclusion is “Praised be You, Adonai, King over all the earth, Who sanctifies Israel and the Day of Remembrance.”
The poetic introduction to Zichronot is Attah zocheir ma’aseh olam (“You remember the creation of old”), which emphasizes Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgment, on which God calls to mind all things past and present. It leads into ten verses that recall instances of God’s providential attention to Noah, to the Israelites in Egypt, and the promise that God will remember the covenant with the ancestors for the sake of which redemption will come to their descendents. The petition begins Zochreinu b’zikaron tov l’fanecha(“Remember/take note of us for good”), and concludes, “Praised be You, Adonai, Who remembers the covenant.”
The poetic introduction to Shofarot begins Attah nigleita ba’anan k’vodecha (“You revealed Yourself in a cloud of glory”), referring to the revelation at Sinai where the sound of theshofar was heard amidst thunder and lightning. This leads into ten verses that depict various contexts in which the shofar was, or will be, sounded, and the petition that God “sound the great shofar to proclaim our freedom,” as promised by the prophet Isaiah. The section concludes, “Praised be You, Adonai, Who hearkens in mercy to the sound of His people Israel’s shofar-blasts.”
The length of these three sections, both severally and all together, led many North American prayer books to abbreviate them or to spread them out a bit. Most instructive in this regard is David Einhorn’s Olat Tamid (1858), which includes an abbreviatedMalchiyot in the Kedushat hayom blessing of the morning Amidah (there is no Musaf), followed by an abbreviated Zichronot—both of these in the vernacular and neither followed by a shofar blast. That is held off until after the Torah reading, where it is preceded by an abbreviatedShofarot, also in the vernacular. Other Reform prayer books that omittedMusaf,2 including the UPB and (in its wake) Gates of Repentance, created a “Shofar Service” following the Torah reading that presented abbreviated versions of the three sections, either in the vernacular or bilingually. The draft of the Rosh Hashanah morning service for the new CCAR Mahzor (which now bears the name, Mishkan Hanefesh, “Sanctuary of the Soul”) builds on the tradition of Einhorn and spreads the three sections throughout the service. More on that next week.
- Some have construed “Rav” here as a proper name, and associated these texts with the Babylonian Rabbi of that name. But bei rav is an Aramaic idiom referring to the school of a rabbinic master. The poetic texts, in any event, are more likely to be from the land of Israel than from Babylonia.
- Isaac Mayer Wise’s 1866 Minhag America, vol. 2, retains Musaf, out of a desire to attract both moderate reformers and some traditionalists.
Dr. Sarason is Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought and the Associate Editor of the Hebrew Union College Annual. He was ordained at HUC-JIR.