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Defining the Mitzva of Shofar: To Blow or to Hear?

  • Rav Doniel Schreiber

Translated by David Silverberg


What is the definition of the mitzva of shofar - to blow the shofar, or to hear the sound of the shofar? This fundamental question forms the basis of several disputes in the laws of shofar, and ultimately presents us with a broader view of the mitzva.


The Yerushalmi (Sukka 3:1) rules that one may fulfill the obligation of shofar by using a stolen shofar. The reason, however, is subject to dispute. One opinion derives this leniency from the verse, "You shall observe it as a day of blowing," a clause which, by virtue of its generic implication, allows for the use of a stolen shofar as well. The second view contends that to derive this halakha requires no extrapolation from a verse. Since the essence of the mitzva of shofar is hearing its sound, and the shofar itself merely facilitates this function, the illegal means by which the shofar was acquired will have no bearing on the fulfillment of the obligation.

It would seem that this argument revolves around the critical question of the nature of this mitzva. The first view would maintain that the essential mitzva is the blowing of the shofar. As such, the shofar constitutes the mitzva-object, and hence, in the absence of Scriptural indication otherwise, one would not fulfill his obligation with a stolen shofar. The second position apparently focuses upon the role of hearing the sound of the shofar. Therefore, a stolen shofar is sufficient even without textual basis, since "sound" cannot be considered a stolen object.

The Rambam rules in accordance with the second view:


If one blew a stolen shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation, since the mitzva is only with the listening of the sound; even without touching or lifting the shofar, the listener fulfills his obligation, and the law of theft does not apply to sound (Hilkhot Shofar 1:3).

The Ra'avad disagrees:

Even were the law of theft to apply, [the verse reads,] "You shall observe a day of blowing" - in any event, as stated in the Yerushalmi.

The Ra'avad adopts the first view in the Yerushalmi, seemingly maintaining that the essential mitzva relates to the blowing itself, rather than the hearing. Therefore, a derivation from the verse is necessary to indicate one's fulfillment of his obligation with a stolen shofar.

Interestingly, the Semag (asei 42) and the Ra'ah (cited in Chiddushei HaRan, Rosh Ha-shana 28), rule against the Yerushalmi, and disqualify the blowing of a stolen shofar. Apparently, they believe that the mitzva of shofar is the blowing itself, and they do not subscribe to the Yerushalmi's extrapolation from the verse. The Ran suggests that the issue of the stolen shofar is subject to a dispute between the Bavli - which would disqualify such a blowing - and the Yerushalmi, which, as we have seen, renders the blowing of a stolen shofar acceptable for the mitzva.

As for the final halakha, the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 586:2) rules that one fulfills his obligation with a stolen shofar, even if the owner has not lost hope of retrieving the shofar (and hence still legally retains ownership). The Mishna Berura (586:9) explains the ruling as based on the Rambam's comment, that one fulfills the mitzva through hearing the sound, which itself cannot be considered stolen. The Mishna Berura adds, however, that one should not recite a blessing on a stolen shofar, as this would be inappropriate.


The Rishonim dispute the precise text to be recited for the blessing prior to the blowing of the shofar. The Ra'avya (vol. 2, Rosh Ha-shana, 534) cites the text as he found in the Yerushalmi: "lishmo'a kol shofar" ("to hear the sound of the shofar"). In our version of the Yerushalmi, however, this syntax does not appear. In truth, disputes regarding the text of this blessing date back to the time of the Geonim. The vast majority of the Geonim, including Rav Hai, Rav Natronai, Rav Amram, and Rav Sa'adya, upheld the text as cited by the Ra'avya - "… to hear the sound of the shofar." The opposing view, adopted by Rav Yehudai and Rav Achai Gaon, calls for the recitation of, "litko'a be-shofar" - "to blow the shofar."

Although this controversy does not necessarily relate to our question concerning the essential fulfillment of the mitzva, several sources clearly draw such a connection. The Rambam (Responsa Rambam 51; Pe'er Ha-dor 1) writes explicitly that since the mitzva of shofar is to hear the sound of the blowing, we recite the blessing "lishmo'a kol shofar":

Question: Wherein lies the distinction between "to hear the sound of the shofar" and "on the blowing of the shofar?"

Answer: The difference between them is substantial. For the precise mitzva is not the blowing, but rather hearing alone is sufficient. Were the mitzva to have been the blowing, then each individual would have had to blow for himself, just as each individual is personally obligated in lulav and sukka. If so, then certainly the listener who did not himself blow would not fulfill the obligation, and, conversely, the blower who did not hear would fulfill his obligation, even if he closed his ears, since he blew. But the law is not so, for the mitzva is hearing, not blowing. Just as regarding the mitzva of sukka the mitzva is to dwell in the sukka, not to build the sukka, and regarding lulav the mitzva is holding the lulav, not binding it together, here, too, the mitzva is the hearing. When he [the blower] blows, I fulfill my obligation through hearing. Therefore, one must recite the blessing, "lishmo'a kol shofar" - "to hear the sound of the shofar" - just as we recite, "to dwell in the sukka" and not "to build the sukka."

The Rosh (Rosh Ha-shana 4:10) cites a similar position in the name of the Behag:

So writes the Behag, that the reason why we recite the blessing, "lishmo'a kol shofar" rather than "litko'a be-shofar" or "al teki'at shofar," the way we do for the Megilla, is because one fulfills his obligation through hearing the sound of the shofar, not through blowing the shofar.

However, Rabbeinu Tam (cited by the Rosh, Rosh Ha-shana 4:10) and the Semag (asei 42) maintain that the mitzva of shofar is essentially the blowing, and hence the proper text for the blessing is "al teki'at shofar." This is also the view of the Yere'im, Or Zaru'a, and Machzor Vitri. A particularly interesting syntax of this blessing appears in Rashi's siddur: "… Who commanded us regarding the blowing of the shofar, to hear the sound of the shofar" ("ve-tzivanu al teki'at shofar lishmo'a be-kol shofar"), which seems to combine both aforementioned positions. (Some believe that the text in Rashi's siddur has been corrupted.) The Tur and Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 585:2) rule in accordance with the Rambam, that one recites the blessing, "lishmo'a kol shofar."


This issue surrounding the precise definition of the mitzva of shofar may impact the possibility of a deaf person (who can speak but cannot hear) fulfilling the obligation of shofar on behalf of others. If the mitzva is to hear the sound of the shofar, then presumably a deaf person would not be under any obligation whatsoever. Consequently, he would be unable to perform the mitzva on behalf of others. However, if we maintain that the mitzva of shofar requires one to blow the shofar, then this obligation would apply to the deaf as well, and they in turn would be able to blow on behalf of others. These are essentially the two views cited by the Me'iri (Rosh Ha-shana 29). Rav Yehonatan of Lunel is of the opinion that a deaf person may blow the shofar on behalf of others.


Upon further examination, both approaches appear problematic in light of various halakhot relating to the mitzva of shofar. If we assume that the mitzva is to blow the shofar, then how can one person blow on behalf of others? Shouldn't each individual have to blow for himself? Furtherm, such a position would seemingly conclude that if the blower did not hear the sound of the shofar, he has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation. Such a ruling contradicts the implication of the Mishna, Rosh Ha-shana 27b, which asserts that one who blows into a pit does not fulfill his obligation if all he hears is the sound of the echo.

The contending view, which sees hearing as the essence of the mitzva, runs into problems of its own. The first relates to the issue of kavana (intention) while performing a mitzva. There is a well-known dispute whether or not intent is indispensable for the fulfillment of mitzvot. The halakha is that according to the opinion requiring intention while performing a mitzva, a listener does not fulfill the mitzva of shofar unless the blower has in mind to fulfill the obligation on his - the listener's - behalf. Such a requirement seems unnecessary if the mitzva of shofar is merely to hear the sound of the blast. Even the Rambam, who upholds this view of the mitzva, explicitly demands the intention of the blower to fulfill the obligation of the listener (Hilkhot Shofar 2:4).

Secondly, according to this approach, it should make no difference who blows shofar; so long as a shofar blast is heard, the requirement should be fulfilled. However, the Mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 29a) disqualifies the shofar blowing of a minor, deaf-mute, and an imbecile. Does this not imply that the mitzva of shofar involves the blowing, and not merely hearing the sound?

Until now, we have assumed that the significance of the blowing and that of the hearing are mutually exclusive. The position viewing the blowing as the essential obligation denies the hearing any halakhic significance, while the opinion maintaining that the mitzva requires hearing the shofar negates the significance of the blowing.

However, given the shortcomings of the above extreme positions, it would seem advisable to seek a more moderate formulation, an approach that accepts the significance of both the blowing and the hearing of the shofar. In this vein, let us explore the position of the Rambam. We raised a number of difficulties regarding Rambam's position that the mitzva of shofar is characterized as "shemia" (hearing), rather than "tekia" (blowing):

  1. How does this square with Rambam's own ruling that one who listens to "shofar blowing" fulfills the mitzva only if both he and the blower have intent that the blowing should fulfill the listener's obligation? If the mitzva is to hear the blowing, then why must the blower have in mind to fulfill the obligation on behalf of the listener?
  2. Why is it that one does not fulfill the mitzva by listening to shofar blowing performed by a deaf-mute, imbecile, or minor? Has not one indeed heard the sound of the shofar in these instances?

Reb Chaim Brisker zt"l and his grandson, the Rav zt"l, Maran Rav Yosef Dov Ha-levi Soloveitchik, offer differing explanations of Rambam's position in order to resolve these difficulties. We will begin with Reb Chaim's approach, which seeks to absorb both extremes into the mitzva.


The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Shofar 2:4):

One who blows shofar casually ("mitaseik") to practice has not fulfilled his obligation [with this blowing]; similarly, one hearing from a casual blower has not fulfilled his obligation. If the listener had intent to fulfill his obligation but the blower did not have intent to fulfill his [the listener's] obligation, or if the blower had intent to fulfill his [the listener's] obligation but the listener did not have intent to fulfill his obligation, he [the listener] has not fulfilled his obligation, until both listener and blower have intent.

This ruling of the Rambam must be viewed in light of his stance regarding the general issue of "mitzvot tzerikhot kavana" - whether or not one requires intent during the performance of a mitzva to fulfill his obligation. Considerable controversy exists as to how exactly the Rambam rules on this issue.

I) The Ran (Rosh Ha-shana 28a) and Kesef Mishneh (Hilkhot Shofar 2:4) understood that in general the Rambam requires intent for the fulfillment of a mitzva. The exception is the mitzva of eating matza (see Hilkhot Chametz U-matza 6:3, where the Rambam validates matza consumption even when the individual eats under coercion), since eating by definition involves "hana'a," a form of bodily benefit, which obviates the need for intent. (See Keritut 19b, that one who inadvertently violates prohibitions regarding forbidden sexual relations or food consumption must bring a sin-offering, as he benefited from the action.)

II) The Maggid Mishneh has difficulty arriving at a conclusion regarding the Rambam's position, and the Tur (O.C. 475) likewise leaves it as an open question whether or not the Rambam requires intent for the fulfillment of a mitzva.

III) Reb Chaim felt that the Rambam did not require intent for the fulfillment of a mitzva, and for this reason he validates coerced matza consumption for the fulfillment of the mitzva of matza. Three other rulings of the Rambam, however, seem to indicate otherwise:

1.     Hilkhot Megilla 2:5: 
One who reads the Megilla without intent does not fulfill his obligation. For example, if one was writing it, teaching it or correcting it [i.e. a scribe reviewing the scroll to ensure its propriety], then if he had intent to fulfill his obligation through this reading, he has fulfilled his obligation; if he did not have intent, he has not fulfilled his obligation.
Why does the Rambam require intent to fulfill the obligation?
2.     As we saw earlier, the Rambam disqualifies a shofar blowing performed during the course of rehearsal without the intent to fulfill the mitzva. Why?
3.     In that same halakha, we saw, the Rambam requires both the intent of the blower and that of the listener in order for the listener to fulfill his obligation. Aside from the question regarding the Rambam's definition of the mitzva of shofar as "shemia," why would the Rambam require intent of both the blower and listener if he holds "mitzvot einan tzerikhot kavana" - mitzva performance does not require intent?

The answer may lie in the Rambam's terminology with regard to disqualifying the shofar blowing during practice. The Rambam in this context employs the term, "mitaseik," an expression generally used in reference to an action performed with no intent whatsoever, not even for the action itself. The use of this term in the context of practicing shofar blowing seems inappropriate. After all, the blower had every intention to blow the shofar; he merely did not intend for this shofar blowing to fulfill his obligation of the mitzva of shofar. The Rambam should have referred to this case as "shomei'a be-lo kavana" - one who hears without intent to fulfill the mitzva of shofar - rather than "mitaseik."

The Rambam's usage here of the term "mitaseik" shows that the deficiency of such a blowing does not relate to "kavana." Were the disqualification of the practice blowing to have been based merely on the lack of sufficient intent, the Rambam would not have presented the case with the expression "mitaseik." Apparently, intent is not the problem, since mitzvot do not require intent - "mitzvot einan tzerikhot kavana." Rather, any shofar blowing performed as part of training is by definition considered "mitaseik."

To explain how such a case can fall under the category of "mitaseik," which generally refers to instances where the individual does not even think about what he is doing, Reb Chaim adds a new dimension to "mitaseik." One can be considered a "mitaseik" even when aware of the action he performs, so long as he does not intend to perform a "mitzva action" - a "ma'aseh mitzva." The practicing blower knows that he is blowing a shofar, but has no interest whatsoever in hearing the sound. As such, there is no intent to perform a mitzva action. Thus, the category of "mitaseik" includes two instances: when the individual does not know even what he is doing, and when he knows what he is doing but has no intention to perform a mitzva-act.

Based on his analysis, Reb Chaim concludes that the Rambam would validate a shofar blowing when perffor musical enjoyment. (The Rambam does not issue an explicit ruling regarding such an instance, which forms the basis of the Gemara's discussion in Rosh Ha-shana 33a.) Since he blows in order to hear the sound of the shofar, the only possible basis for disqualification would involve the lack of intent to fulfill the mitzva, which, according to Reb Chaim, is not required according to the Rambam and thus the mitzva is fulfilled. The rehearsing blower, by contrast, focuses only on the act of blowing, and has no interest in hearing the sound. He therefore does not fulfill the mitzva as his blowing falls under the category of "mitaseik." The same may be said about the scribe who reads the Megilla in the process of correcting the script before him. Since he has no intention even to read the words, but rather wants to ensure the propriety of the text (see Rashi, Berakhot 13), we do not consider the scribe as reading the Megilla.

The final issue awaiting resolution is the Rambam's insistence upon intent on the part of both blower and listener. Why would such intent be necessary if mitzvot do not require intent?

To answer this question, Reb Chaim adds yet a third dimension of "mitaseik." Any mitzva performance consists of two components: the action, and the "kiyum" - the essential fulfillment. Reb Chaim posits that no mitzva can be performed without a concrete "ma'aseh mitzva" - mitzva action. Therefore, a "kiyum mitzva" without a "ma'aseh mitzva" ipso facto falls under the category of "mitaseik." Perception without action is meaningless.

Another example of this concept relates to the mitzva of prayer. The essential fulfillment of this mitzva is a cognitive one - "worship of the heart." The mitzva action, however, is the recitation of the words. As far as halakha is concerned, the internal service of the heart is of no significance without the physical action of the recitation.

Reb Chaim understood the Rambam's insistence upon the intent of both blower and listener in this light. One who merely sits and listens to the shofar blowing should seemingly be considered a "mitaseik," as he performs no concrete action. Hearing constitutes merely sensory perception, which would not qualify as a "mitzva action." Therefore, argued Reb Chaim, we must conclude that even according to the Rambam, both the blowing and the listening make up the mitzva of shofar: the blowing is the mitzva-act ("ma'aseh mitzva"), while the hearing is the essential fulfillment ("kiyum mitzva"). The audience connects to the mitzva-act of blowing through the familiar halakhic mechanism of "shomei'a ke-oneh" - the intent listener is equivalent to the speaker (or, in this case, the blower) when there is mutual intent. Although the listeners do not actually blow the shofar, they assume the status of blowers with respect to the requirement that every fulfillment of a mitzva be associated with a concrete action. Thus, when a five hundred-member congregation listens to the shofar blowing of one who intends to fulfill their obligation, we view the synagogue as consisting at that moment of five hundred listeners and five hundred "blowers."

This, therefore, is why the Rambam demands the intent of both blower and listener in spite of his general position validating mitzva performance without intent. Since the essential fulfillment of shofar is one of listening, the specific problem of "mitaseik" arises, thus necessitating the mutual intent of blower and listener to connect the latter to the act of the former. It thus turns out that the Rambam, too, recognizes a vital halakhic function served by the act of blowing, beyond the hearing of the shofar sound. We can now readily understand the Rambam's disqualification of the blowing performed by a deaf-mute, imbecile, or minor. Since halakha regards them as lacking sufficient intellectual ability, they do not possess the wherewithal to effectuate this blower-listener relationship in order to transform the audience into halakhic "blowers."

This also explains why a minor, deaf-mute or mentally disabled person cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of others. The answer might be that one needs to hear a halakhic shofar sound. In other words, to fulfill his obligation, the individual must hear the sound of "tekiot," as defined by Halakha, and not any sounds that happen to emerge from a shofar. For example, should a gust of wind happen to make its way through the shofar and produce a sound, a listener would not fulfill his obligation thereby. A halakhic shofar sound is one that is produced through a "ma'aseh tekia," a proper act of blowing, which requires that the blower be one who is himself obligated in the mitzva.


Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik disputed the approach of his grandfather Reb Chaim for two reasons.

I.     In the Rambam's responsum on the subject, he forcefully emphasized the peripheral role of the blowing itself, indicating that it does not constitute an integral part of the mitzva of shofar. This viewpoint clearly emerges from his comparison between the blowing of the shofar and the construction of a sukka, which is only a "hekhsher mitzva" - the preparatory stages of the mitzva, rather than part of the performance itself.
II.     As we know, the Halakha forbids one from speaking between the different periods of blowing, so as not to interrupt between the blessing on the shofar and the complete execution of the mitzva. In Hilkhot Shofar 3:11, the Rambam restricts this prohibition to the blower throughout all of shofar blowing. The congregation, however, may speak in between the first and second periods of blowing – the teki'ot de-meyushav and de-me'umad. This ruling suggests that the blessing over the shofar blowing relates only to the blower, not the audience; otherwise, the latter would be forbidden to speak in between as well. Since the blessing always relates to the "ma'aseh mitzva" rather than the "kiyum mitzva," it seems that only the blower executes a "ma'aseh mitzva," not the listeners.

Rav Soloveitchik thus concluded that the congregation never becomes "blowers;" they remain merely listeners. There is no need for "shomei'a ke-oneh" in the context of the mitzva of shofar, since the mitzva requires mere sensory perception and nothing beyond that. If so, all our previous questions return. Why must both blower and listener have intent for the listener to fulfill his obligation, and why can't a deaf-mute, imbecile, or minor fulfill the mitzva on behalf of others? Furthermore, why does the problem of "mitaseik" not arise when someone merely listens to the shofar blowing?

Rav Soloveitchik answered that the bilateral intent of blower and listener enables the listener to overcome the obstacle of "mitaseik" and effectively renders the hearing of the shofar a "ma'aseh mitzva." This mutual intent transforms the listening of the shofar sounds from a passive activity to active engagement, and is thus not defined as "mitaseik." Accordingly, "hearing" in the context of the mitzva of shofar means more than haphazard or incidental hearing.

According to Rav Soloveitchik's approach, the intent spoken of by the Rambam in this context is unique to the laws of shofar and stands independently of any general requirement of intent. Therefore, even those who generally do not require intent for the fulfillment of mitzvot would demand the mutual intent of the blower and listener of the shofar in order to avoid the problem of "mitaseik." Furthermore, a deaf-mute, imbecile, or minor may not blow on behalf of others since they are incapable of this prerequisite intent. Additionally, on the basis of this analysis, Rav Soloveitchik concluded that if one had previously fulfilled his obligation of shofar and now blows on behalf of others, he should not recite a blessing. The blower cannot recite a blessing since he has already fulfilled his obligation, and his audience cannot recite the blessing since the blessing relates only to the blower, who executes the "ma'aseh mitzva."


Whereas according to Reb Chaim the audience becomes "blowers," not just listeners, Rav Soloveitchik understood that tfulfill their obligation merely through listening, without having to be considered blowers. Both Reb Chaim and Rav Soloveitchik agree that mitzvot require a component of "ma'aseh," of concrete action of some sort, in order to obviate the problem of "mitaseik." In their view, there are three categories of "mitaseik:"

1.     when there is no mitzva-act, but only preparatory measures for a mitzva - such as those hearing the shofar blowing without any intent to connect themselves with the blowing;
2.     when a mitzva-act has been performed, but the individual was entirely unaware of what he was doing - such as one who blows shofar while he sleeps;
3.     when there is a mitzva-act which merely results from another purpose, rather than serving as the primary purpose of the individual's activity - such one who blows in order to train himself in the skill of blowing



A possible solution for shofar being purely a mitzva of tekia may lie in an expansion of the familiar principle, "shomei'a ke-oneh." In Halakha, one who listens to an obligated recitation is considered as having himself recited the given text. Perhaps this concept can be applied to shofar blowing as well - "shomei'a ke-tokei'a." This would render the listener equivalent to the blower, as far as the mitzva is concerned. Alternatively, the blower may be considered the shali'ach (agent) of the congregation, who thus fulfill their obligation through the representation of the blower. However, these answers do not solve why one who blows into a pit, hearing merely an echo, does not fulfill his obligation.



At a completely different level, Rav Yehonatan of Lunel takes a particularly novel approach to the enigma that is mitzvat shofar (Rosh Ha-shana 34). He maintains that, in truth, there is neither a mitzva to blow nor a mitzva to hear. Rather, we are obligated to observe a "day of blowing," based on the commandment (Bamidbar 29:1), "You shall observe it as a day of blowing." This is accomplished by listening to a halakhically defined shofar sound.

Several issues may now be resolved. First of all, the blower must be one who is obligated in the mitzva in order to create a halakhically defined shofar sound, which is indispensable for generating a "day of blowing." Secondly, in order for the blower's actions to effectively create a "day of blowing" for his listeners, a connection must be made between the two parties through mutual intent that the representative's blowing should relate to the congregation. Finally, whereas one must hear the sound of the shofar to observe this "day of blowing," if one blows into a pit he must hear the actual shofar sound, rather than the echo, to fulfill his obligation.

One issue, however, must be addressed according to this: can a deaf person fulfill the mitzva by blowing the shofar? Sure enough, commenting on the Mishna in Rosh Ha-shana 29a, Rav Yehonatan rules that a deaf person may even fulfill the obligation on behalf of others (as we saw above). Needless to say, he himself fulfills the mitzva by blowing. This position is well understood in light of Rav Yehonatan's view that the mitzva of shofar requires the observance of a "day of blowing." Although one who blows into a pit and hears only the echo does not fulfill the mitzva, this is due to the fact that he did not create a shofar sound, since all he could hear was an echo. Regarding the deaf individual, however, a perfectly good shofar sound was created, only he was unable to hear it due to physical disability.

It would seem that Rashi, too, follows this approach of Rav Yehonatan. Both in his commentary to Chumash (Bamidbar 10:10) and his work on the Talmud (Rosh Ha-shana 32a), Rashi implies that the recitation of Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot on Rosh Ha-shana is Biblically ordained only in the context of shofar blowing. The recitation outside the framework of the teki'ot is not required, as far as Torah law is concerned. This position is readily understood in light of the concept of creating a "day of blowing." The content of Malkuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot relates to this concept of "commemorating blowing," which becomes significant only within the context of shofar blowing.

Clearly then, teki'at shofar is a complex mitzva. Properly internalized, it inspires us to change the course of our lives and alter our very destinies. May we merit that the sound of the shofar reach not only our ears but our hearts as well as we usher in a shana tova u-metuka.

[This is an abridged version of an article that appeared in Alei Etzion #10.]