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The Nature of Prayer on Rosh Ha-shana, Fast Days and Times of War

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Based on a shiur by HaRav Mosheh Lichtenstein


Adapted by R. Avihud Schwartz

Translated by R. David Strauss




            The mishna describes the special prayer recited on fast days declared in times of drought:


He recites before them twenty-four benedictions - the eighteen recited daily, to which he adds six as follows: "Remembrances" (Zikhronot), "Shofars" (Shofarot) [and these psalms]: "In my distress I called unto the Lord" (120),  "I will lift up my eyes unto the mountains" (121), "Out of the depths have I called You" (130), "A prayer of the afflicted when he faints" (102).

R. Yehuda says: He need not recite "Zikhronot" and "Shofarot," but instead he should recite [the following Scriptural passages]: "If there be in the land famine, if there be pestilence" (I Melakhim 8), and "The word of the Lord that came to Yirmiyahu concerning the droughts" (Yirmiyahu 14), and he ends each [of the additional six] section with its appropriate concluding benediction. (Ta’anit 15a)


The gemara explains the disagreement between the Tannaim:


R. Adda of Yafo said: What is R. Yehuda's reason? Because "Zikhronot" and "Shofarot" are recited only on Rosh Ha-shana, and on [Yom Kippur of] the Jubilee year, and in a time of war. (ibid. 16b-17b)


Rashi (ad loc.) notes:


And in a time of war – As it is written: "And if you go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresses you" (Bamidbar 10). I do not know where it is stated that [special] blessings and the verses of "Malkhuyot," "Zikhronot," and "Shofarot" are recited in a time of war.


Rashi notes that while the obligation to pray at a time of war is explicitly stated in the Torah,[1] no source indicates that in a time of war one must recite the verses of "Malkhuyot," "Zikhronot," and "Shofarot" that are recited on Rosh Ha-shana.


            What is the Sages' position regarding the prayer recited in a time of war? R. Adda of Yafo explains why R. Yehuda omits the blessings of “Rememberances” and “Shofarot” on fast days by positing that these blessings are uniqe to Rosh Ha-shana and wartime. Nevertheless, the plain sense of the passage implies that the Sages agree with R. Yehuda that the verses of "Zikhronot" and "Shofarot" are recited in a time of a war; their disagreement relates exclusively to the question of whether or not these verses must be said on fast days declared in a time of drought. What is the significance of this dispute?


            Second, there is an important difference between Rashi’s formulation and that of the gemara. The mishna states that on fast days, we add "Zikhronot," "Shofarot," and four other blessings, and the gemara similarly relates to "Zikhronot" and "Shofarot." Rashi, however, states that we say the verses of "Malkhuyot," "Zikhronot," and "Shofarot." Rashi apparently concludes that since the passage is also dealing with Rosh Ha-shana, when the verses of "Malkhuyot" are recited, those verses must also be recited on the occasions mentioned in the passage together with Rosh Ha-shana.


            In effect, the question that arises from our reading of Rashi is: What is the relationship between the blessing of "Malkhuyot" and the blessings of "Zikhronot" and "Shofarot"?


"Kingship" and "Remembrance" on Rosh Ha-shana



            In order to explain this matter, we must consider two opposite understandings of the nature of the day of Rosh Ha-shana:


            1) The day of Rosh Ha-shana is the day on which God is crowned as King of the universe. This crowning necessitates an evaluation of what is happening in the world – that is, Rememberance. In other words, the Day of Remembrance is a consequence of the Day of Kingship.


            2) The day of Rosh Ha-Shana is a day of Remembrance, as is stated in the concluding formula of the blessing in the Amida prayer dealing with the special sanctity of the day (“Yom Ha-Zikaron”). Remembrance, however, necessitates the crowning of God as King. While according to the first understanding, it is God who stands at the center of Rosh Ha-shana, according to this understanding, the day centers around man – or to be more precise, the relationship between man and God.


            These two understandings dictate the relationship between the blessing of "Malkhuyot" and the blessing of "Zikhronot." The gemara states:


Also recite before Me on Rosh Ha-shana [texts making mention of] Kingship, Remembrance, and the Shofar. Kingship, so that you may proclaim Me king over you; Remembrance, so that your remembrance may rise favorably before Me; and through what? Through the shofar. (Rosh Ha-Shana 16a)


This baraita presents "Malkhuyot" and "Zikhronot" together, but does not explain the relationship between them.


            A clearer picture emerges from a different passage in Rosh Ha-Shana:


Where is the blessing of the sanctification of the day to be said? It has been taught: Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] says: It should be said with the "Malkhuyot" verses. For just as on every other occasion,  we find that it comes fourth [in the order of blessings], so here it should come fourth. R. Shimon b. Gamaliel says: It should be said with the "Zikhronot" verses. Just as we find that on all other occasions it is said in the middle, so here it should be in the middle.[2] (Rosh Ha-Shana 32a)


            This Tannaitic dispute seems to be based on the two understandings mentioned above. R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi maintains that the blessing of the day is the blessing of "Malkhuyot," as argued by the first approach. R. Shimon ben Gamliel, on the other hand, maintains that it is the "Zikhronot" that stand in the center, and it is in that blessing that the special sanctity of the day is mentioned. According to R. Shimon ben Gamliel, Kingship is but a foundation and background for Remembrance.


            How do the verses of “Shofarot” relate to those of “Malkhuyot” and “Zikhronot”? The gemara cited above simply states: "And through what? Through the shofar." It is not clear whether the shofar refers to "Zikhronot," to "Malkhuyot," or two both together. Indeed, there are many indications that there are two distinct aspects to the shofar blasts - an aspect of Remembrance and an aspect of Kingship.


            The gemara states:


Whence do we learn that we are to say Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofar [verses]? R. Eliezer says: Because it is written: "A solemn rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of trumpets, a holy convocation." "A solemn rest" - this indicates the sanctification of the day. "A memorial" - this indicates Zikhronot verses. "Proclaimed with the blast of horns" - this indicates Shofar verses. "A holy convocation" - sanctify it by [abstaining from] doing work… Whence [then] do we learn that we say Kingship verses? It has been taught: Rabbi [Yehuda Ha-Nasi] says: “I am the Lord your God,” [and immediately afterwards], "In the seventh month" - this [juxtaposition] indicates Kingship verses. R. Yose bar Yehuda said: There is no need [for such an interpretation], for Scripture says: "And they [the trumpets] shall be to you for a memorial before your God." This makes superfluous [the succeeding words]: "I am the Lord your God." What, then, is the point of the words, "I am the Lord your God"? This creates a general pattern for all places where we say Zikhronot verses, [indicating] that Kingship verses should accompany them. (Rosh Ha-Shana 32a)


            It is noteworthy that this passage bases the Zikhronot verses and the Shofar verses on the very heart of the section dealing with Rosh Ha-shana in Parashat Emor, whereas it attempts to base the Kingship verses on a more forced interpretation of that section, or alternatively on a verse that is not at all connected to Rosh Ha-shana.


            These two expositions of the Kingship verses beg an explanation. According to R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi, it is possible to move the statement "I am the Lord your God" from the section dealing with gifts to the poor to the following section, which deals with Rosh Ha-shana. Indeed, it is R. Yehuda Ha-Nasi who maintains that we mention the sanctity of the day in the "Malkhuyot" blessing, that “Malkhuyot” is, in fact, the essence fo the day. He therefore makes every effort to bring the Malkhuyot verses into the Rosh Ha-shana section.


            R. Yose bar Yehuda presents a different approach. In his view, Rosh Ha-shana is a day of "Zikhronot" and "Shofarot" alone. But the Torah commands that the shofar must be sounded on Rosh Ha-shana, and the verses in Parashat Beha'alotekha teach us that if the shofar is sounded, God must be crowned as King. It would seem that according to this approach, the Malkhuyot verses must be mentioned whenever the shofar is sounded – such as on fast days.


            The Rishonim disagree regarding whether or not the expositions based on Scriptural verses that are found in this talmudic passage imply that the special blessings recited on Rosh Ha-shana are commanded by Torah law. In light of what we have said, it is actually possible to distinguish between the various blessings. The "Zikhronot" and “Shofarot” blessings are commanded by Torah law, as they constitute the essence of the day, whereas the "Malkhuyot" blessing is only Rabbinic, detailing an auxilliary aspect of Rosh Ha-shana.


THe Prayer recited in a time of war


            Now we can return to the passage in Ta'anit with which we opened our discussion. According to the Sages, Rosh Ha-shana is comprable to a fast day - on both days, the same blessings are recited - because Rosh Ha-shana is fundamentally a day on which we are judged before God. Indeed, immediately before discussing the necessity of mentioning verses of "Malkhuyot," "Zikhronot," and "Shofarot" on Rosh Ha-shana (Rosh Ha-Shana 16a), the gemara explains why we bring the omer offering on Pesach, the two-loaf offering on Shavuot, and the water libation on Sukkot – and there too the reasons are connected to the judgments that take place on those days.


            Thus, at the heart of Rosh Ha-shana stand prayer and supplication – that is, the "Zikhronot" and “Shofarot” verses. Accordingly, the "Malkhuyot" verses can be understood in two ways. It may be proposed that the "Malkhuyot" verses serve as the foundation of the "Zikhronot" and “Shofarot” verses; alternatively, the "Malkhuyot" verses are an independent element learned from a separate verse. Either way, the "Malkhuyot" verses do not stand at the center of the day, and there is therefore not a large difference between Rosh Ha-shana and fast days.


            In contrast, R. Yehuda maintains that at the heart of Rosh Ha-shana stand the "Malkhuyot" verses; the "Zikhronot" and “Shofarot” verses are merely addenda. Accordingly, there is no reason to transplant the Rosh Ha-shana prayer to fast days, which do not include the element of crowning God as king.


            This proposed explanation leads us to a novel conclusion. According to R. Yehuda, at a time of war, when all three types of verses are recited, there must be an element of crowning God as king! There are times when God's kingship is more striking. These times are generally connected to the calendrical cycle (such as the Ten Days of Repentance). Nevertheless, there are times when God's kingship stands out more sharply as a result of historical circumstances – that is, as a result of war. Accordingly, a time of war is a time of crowning God as king.


Thus, we see that R. Yehuda and the Sages disagree on two issues.


            1) The nature of the prayer offered on Rosh Ha-shana: According to the Sages, the "Zikhronot" and “Shofar” verses stand at the center, and the "Malkhuyot" verses are appended to them (in one of the two variations mentioned above). According to R. Yehuda, the "Malkhuyot" verses stand at the center.


            2) The nature of prayer at a time of war: According to the Sages, at a time of war, mention is made of the "Zikhronot" and “Shofar” verses, whereas according to R. Yehuda, mention is also made of the "Malkhuyot" verses.


Practical differences


            The various approaches presented above are relevant in various contexts:


            1) The question regarding the relationship between the Rosh Ha-shana prayer and the fast day prayer arises in the Or Zaru'a in an entirely different context. His discussion is based on a passage in Ta'anit 16a, which presents various criteria for a prayer leader: he must be an elder and a scholar, one who is conversant with prayer, and someone with a large family and no means of support. This passage is one of the few passages in the Talmud dealing with the issue of who is fit to be a prayer leader.[3] Many authorities maintain that the criteria mentioned in the passage in Ta'anit apply to all prayer leaders throughout the year.


            Logically, however, this is not a simple conclusion, for on a fast day, we demand not merely a prayer leader, but someone who suffers affliction, someone capable of crying out on behalf of the entire congregation. Indeed, the Or Zaru'a  asserts:


“Our Rabbis have taught: When they stand up to pray, although there may be present an elder and a scholar, they place before the Ark [as prayer leader] only a man conversant with the prayers. [Who is considered conversant with prayers?] R. Yehuda says: One having a large family and has no means of support and who draws his subsistence from [the produce of] the field, and whose house is empty, whose youth was unblemished, who is meek and is acceptable to the people"… And the one passing before the Ark mentioned in the baraita is all year round. And even if you wish to say that we are dealing exclusively with a time of a scarcity of rain, Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur… are no worse than a scarcity of rain. (Or Zaru’a, vol. 1, no. 114)


            The Or Zaru'a notes the distinction mentioned above and is not convinced that the law recorded in the gemara in Ta'anit can be extended to a prayer leader all year round. Nevertheless, the Or Zaru'a adds that for these purposes, Rosh Ha-shana is treated the same way as a fast day. This assumption is based, of course, on the position of the Sages, who equate the prayer offered on fast days to the prayer offered on Rosh Ha-shana.


            2) A common viewpoint among the Geonim was that the shofar is blasted on fast days.[4] The Ramban (Ta'anit 16a) dealt with this matter, and in the course of his discussion he makes an interesting comment regarding the prayer offered at a time of war:


And in chapter Mashu'ach Milchama (Sota 43a), regarding the war against Midian, they expound: "’And the trumpets for the alarm’ – that is, the shofars.” And I do not know whether they were imprecise in their wording, or that the trumpets are only sounded in the course of a war against enemies that oppress them in their land, as it is written: "In your land against the enemy that oppresses you." For why should they explain, "that is, the shofars," if not for this reason.


The Ramban explains that the prayer offered by Israel when they go out to battle differs from the prayer they offer when they defend themselves against their enemies. The difference may be connected to what we said above. When Israel goes out to battle, God is crowned as king: "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moshe said, ‘Rise up, Lord, and let Your enemies be scattered.’" When, however, Eretz Yisrael is being defended, Israel cries out to God – but the idea of His Kingship is pushed to the side.


It should be noted that the Ramban's distinction between two types of war, which we suggest corresponds to the disagreement between R. Yehuda and the Sages, is explicitly stated in Shlomo's prayer at the time of the dedication of the Temple. Shlomo distinguishes very clearly between "When Your people Israel are smitten down before the enemy… if their enemy besiege them in the land of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there be" and "if Your people go out to battle against their enemy, wherever You shall send them."


            3) In a famous dispute, the Rambam and the Ramban disagree regarding whether or not prayer is a biblical command. According to the Ramban, prayer is a privilege that should be used only in times of war and trouble. The Rambam, on the other hand, maintains that prayer is a daily obligation. According to the Rambam, prayer at a time of war is an independent mitzva, which he mentions among the laws of fast days rather than in the framework of the laws of prayer:


It is a positive Torah commandment to cry out and to sound trumpets in the event of any misfortune befalling the community, as the Torah states (Bamidbar 10:9): "[When you go out to war… against] an enemy who attacks you and you sound the trumpets…" That is to say, whenever you are distressed by misfortune - e.g., famine, plague, locusts, or the like - cry out [to God] because of them and sound the trumpets.

This practice is one of the paths of repentance, for when misfortune comes and the people cry out [to God] and sound the trumpets, everyone will realize that the misfortune came because of their evil conduct, as it is stated(Yirmiyahu 5:25): "Your sins have turned away [the rains and the harvest climate]." This [realization] will cause the removal of this misfortune. (Rambam, Hilkhot Ta'anit 1:1-2)


            The Rambam implies that while prayer as a religious activity is a daily experience, prayer at a time of war is not an experiential religious activity, but merely an act that stirs the people to repent.


            In contrast to the Rambam, the Ramban maintains that daily prayer is not a Torah mitzva, but rather a technical means that allows a person to ask God to provide for his needs. Nevertheless, regarding the prayer offered at a time of war, the Ramban explains:


And that which they explained in the Sifrei (Ekev) – "'And to serve Him' – this refers to the Talmud. Alternatively, this refers to prayer," is merely an asmakhta. Or it teaches that part of the service is that we should study Torah, and that we should pray to Him in a time of trouble, and that our eyes and hearts should be turned to Him alone, as the eyes of slaves are turned to the hand of their masters. (Strictures to the Rambam's Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, positve commandment 5)


            According to the Ramban, at a time of war, one should pray to God, just as the eyes of slaves are turned to the hands of their masters – that is, a prayer of crowning God as King.


            We see, then, that the Rambam and the Ramban present different aspects of both daily prayer and prayer offered at a time of war.


Concluding Remarks


            In conclusion, I wish to note a point that is not directly connected to our discussion, but nevertheless important to keep in mind. As stated above, the Rishonim disagree regarding whether the mentioning of the verses of "Malkhuyot," "Zikhronot," and "Shofarot" is a Biblical or only Rabbinic obligation. My father, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, said in the name of R. Soloveitchik that it follows from a close reading of Rashi that when the shofar is sounded and the blessings accompany the shofar-blowing, the verses are prescribed by Torah law. When, however, the shofar is not blown, the blessings constitute an ordinary fulfillment of prayer, and their obligation is only Rabbinic.[5]


            There are, however, those who proposed just the opposite[6]  – when the shofar is sounded, it creates the "Zikhronot," and then the blessings are only Rabbinic in origin. When the shofar is not sounded, however, the "Zikhronot" must be achieved in some other way – that is, through the blessings – and then the blessings are commanded by Torah law.



[1] It is also noted in the Prophets, in Shelomo's prayer and elsewhere.

[2] R. Shimon ben Gamliel’s opinion that the special sanctity of the day should be mentioned in the middle blessing seems to mean that the special sanctity of the day is always mentioned after an introduction of other blessings. Usually, there are three introductory blessings, and afterwards – "in the middle" – the special sanctity of the day is mentioned. The same model, he argues, should be preserved on Rosh Ha-shana, but instead of three introductory blessings, there are four such blessings.

[3] To the exclusion of the passage in Chullin, which deals with the acceptability of a minor.

[4] Many Rishonim rejected this position, but this is not the forum to discuss the matter at length.

[5] This understanding fits in well with the passage in Rosh Ha-shana 34b, but this is not the forum to expand upon the matter at greater length.

[6] See the Ramban in his derasha for Rosh Ha-shana and Maharam Chaviv in his book, Yom Teru'a.