"Your Love is Better than Wine": The Meaning of the Decree against Blowing Shofar on Shabbat

  • Harav Yehuda Amital


Translated by David Strauss



In Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (23:3), we read:


Yehuda bar Nachman opened in the name of Resh Lakish: “God has gone up with a shout; [the Lord with the sound of a shofar]” (Tehillim 47:6): When the Holy One, blessed be He, goes up to sit on the seat of justice, he goes up with justice, as it is written: “God [Elokim] has gone up with a shout.” And when Israel take the shofar and blast, the Holy One, blessed be He, gets up from the seat of justice and sits on the seat of mercy, as it is written: “The Lord [the Tetragrammaton] with the sound of a shofar.” And He becomes filled with mercy for them and He shows them mercy and He turns the quality of justice into the quality of mercy for them. When? “In the seventh month” (Vayikra 23:24).


            We don’t fully understand what is stated here. What precisely are the qualities of justice and mercy, and how does the sounding of the shofar turn the quality of justice into the quality of mercy? In any event, what we have here is clearly an exceptional situation: Amoraim explicitly discussing the impact of the mitzvot upon the heavenly order, the Divine attributes. The talmudic authorities generally avoid such discussions, leaving contemplations of this sort to the masters of Kabbala.


            On Rosh Ha-shana that falls on Shabbat, we content ourselves with the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings, and abstain from sounding the shofar. This is the way that Rava explained this law (Rosh Ha-shana 29b):


[When] the festival of Rosh Ha-shana fell on Shabbat – in the Temple they would sound [the shofar], but not in the provinces… From where do we derive this?… Rava said: By Torah law it is permitted [to blow the shofar on Shabbat], and it was the Rabbis who issued a decree, in accordance with Rabba. For Rabba said: All are obligated in sounding the shofar, but not all are proficient in sounding the shofar. [Therefore the Rabbis issued] a decree, lest a person take [a shofar] in his hand, and go to a person who is proficient in order to learn [how to blow it], in the course of which he will carry it four cubits in the public domain. And this is also the reason for [the rabbinic prohibition of taking] a lulav [on Shabbat], and this is the reason for [the rabbinic prohibition of reading the] Megilla [on Shabbat].


            We see, then, that by Torah law blowing a shofar on Rosh Ha-shana that falls on Shabbat is permitted. But the Sages forbade this because they were concerned that a person who does not know how to blow a shofar may go to a person who does know in order to learn how to blow it, and he will end up carrying the shofar in the public domain – something that is forbidden on Shabbat.


            Who were those Sages who had the courage to prohibit the sounding of the shofar on Shabbat owing to such a far-fetched concern?  Is it realistic to think that a person will not prepare himself in advance, but rather will try to learn how to blow the shofar on the very day of Rosh Ha-shana, and thus come to carry the shofar in the public domain?


            Midrash Sekhel Tov (Bereishit 22:18) cites Rabbi Zera: “The Anshei Keneset ha-Gedola (the Men of the Great Assembly) decreed about [the mitzvot of] shofar, lulav and megilla, that they should not be observed on Shabbat.” It was, then, the Anshei Keneset ha-Gedola who decreed that the shofar not be sounded on Shabbat.


            This was not the only decree that the Anshei Keneset ha-Gedola issued in order to avoid the violation of the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat. The Anshei Keneset ha-Gedola demonstrated great sensitivity regarding this issue, and because of this concern they forbade the handling of objects that are muktza. Thus we find in Shabbat (123b):


Our Rabbis taught: At first they [the Sages] said: [Only] three utensils may be handled on Shabbat [and all others are forbidden]: a fig-cake knife, a soup-pot ladle, and a small table-knife…


Rabbi Chanina said: This Mishnah was taught in the days of Nechemya the son of Chakalya, for it is written: “In those days I saw in Judea some treading winepresses on Shabbat, and bringing in sheaves” (Nechemya 13:15).


            The baraita, however, continues by informing us that this decree underwent changes, leniencies being added three times: “Then they permitted [other articles], and they permitted again [still more], and they permitted still further.” Why did the Sages do this? Because they saw that the people needed to use these utensils.


            Thus the question arises: Why did the Sages permit only the handling of objects that were required for the satisfaction of material needs? Why didn’t they also permit the handling of a shofar? Is the turning of the quality of justice into the quality of mercy not a sufficiently important need?


            The answer is that the Sages were confident that just as the observance of the Torah’s mitzvot impacts upon heaven, so too their own decree that we should content ourselves with the Malkhuyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot blessings and not sound the shofar on Shabbat, can turn the quality of justice into the quality of mercy.  They were confident in this despite the fact that there is a fixed order in heaven:


Every year that there is no blasting [of the shofar] at the beginning, there is shouting at the end. (Rosh ha-Shana 16b)


The Tosafot comment on this:


“That there is no blasting of the shofar at the beginning” – the Halakhot Gedolot explains: Not that [Rosh Ha-shana] fell on Shabbat, but rather that there was some unavoidable interference.


            That is to say, this order is metaphysical – even if the failure to sound a teki’a was due to circumstances beyond anybody’s control, it will bring about evil consequences. But nevertheless, when this metaphysical order encounters the rabbinic decree not to sound the shofar on Shabbat – the decree overcomes it!


            From where did they derive this confidence? The answer to this question is found in the Yerushalmi (Avoda Zara 2:7):


“For your love is better than wine” (Shir ha-Shirim 1:2) – Rabbi Ba bar Kohen said in the name of Bar Pazi: Know that the words of the Scribes are dearer than the words of the Torah, for Rabbi Tarfon, had he not recited [Shema], would only have violated a positive commandment. [But] because he violated the words of Bet Hillel, he became liable for his life, owing to “Whoever breaks through a hedge, a snake shall bite him” (Kohelet 10:8).

Rabbi Yishmael taught: The words of the Torah include prohibitions and allowances, some are light, while some are serious. But the words of the Scribes – all of them are serious….

A prophet and a sage – to what may they be likened? To a king who sent two of his seals to the provinces. On one he wrote: “If he does not show you my signature and my seal, do not believe him,” and on the other he wrote: “Even though he does not show you my signature and my seal, believe him.” So, too, regarding a prophet, it is written: “And he give you a sign or a wonder” (Devarim 13:2). But here [regarding a sage]: “According to the sentence of the Torah which they shall teach you” (Devarim 17:11).


            The words of the Sages work even without seals! When the people of Israel express their love of God through their observance of the decrees enacted by the Sages, this itself turns the quality of justice into the quality of mercy. And indeed, the decree not to sound the shofar on Shabbat was accepted, and the prohibition spread throughout all of Israel.


            How did the Sages know that their words are so dear? In order to answer this question we must return to the Yerushalmi passage cited above. The mishna there relates:


Rabbi Yehuda said: Rabbi Yishmael put this question to Rabbi Yehoshua when they were on a journey: Why did [the Sages] forbid the cheese of non-Jews? He said to him: Because they curdle it with the rennet of an animal that was not slaughtered in the proper manner.


            The mishna reports that Rabbi Yishmael did not accept this answer, and that the two Tannaim continued their discussion – Rabbi Yehoshua offering explanations of the decree and Rabbi Yishmael raising objections against them – until Rabbi Yehoshua decided to change the topic of their conversation:


He diverted to another matter, saying: Yishmael, my brother, how do you read the verse –  “For your [masculine] love [‘dodekha’] is better than wine” (Shir ha-Shirim 1:2), or “For your [feminine] love [‘dodayikh’] is better than wine”? He replied: “Your [feminine] love is better.” He said to him: This is not so, as it is proved by its fellow [verse]: “Your [masculine] ointments have a goodly fragrance [wherefore the maidens love you].”


            The Yerushalmi asks: “Why did [Rabbi Yehoshua] not reveal to him [the reason for the Sages’ prohibition of the cheese of non-Jews]?” And it answers: “Rabbi Yochanan said: Because they had recently forbidden it, and Rabbi Yishmael was young.” The Bavli (Avoda Zara 35a) formulates the answer in a more understandable way:


Ulla said: When an ordinance is made in the west [=Eretz Israel], its reason is not revealed before a full year passes, lest there be some who might not agree with the reason and would treat the ordinance lightly.


            Rabbi Yishmael, who according to the Yerushalmi was still young at the time, did not participate in the process of establishing the decree, and therefore it was forbidden to reveal its rationale to him.


            It seems, then, that Rabbi Yehoshua’s question, “How do you read,” came “to divert him to another matter,” because it was still impossible to reveal to Rabbi Yishmael the rationale underlying the decree. The Yerushalmi raises an objection against this understanding: “Rabbi Chunyah asked in the name of Rabbi Chama bar Ukva: If he wanted to push him off with words, he ought to have diverted his mind by one of the five puzzles in the Torah….” Already in the Torah we find questionable verses; why then did Rabbi Yehoshua raise a question about Shir ha-Shirim? Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi explains that the verse which Rabbi Yehoshua asked about contains an allusion to Rabbi Yishmael: “There are things on which you must seal (‘meshikin’) your mouth. As it says: ‘Let him kiss me (‘yishakeni’) with the kisses of his mouth’” – there are things that one is forbidden to talk about.


            It seems, however, that the continuation of the discussion between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yishmael also pertains to the decree. In the dialogue between the man and the woman in Shir ha-Shirim, the Sages understood the man as representing God and the woman as representing the Jewish people.  Rabbi Yishmael read the verse as recording God’s words to the people of Israel: “Your (feminine) love is better than wine.” According to him, we are forced to say that the speaker is God, because he thinks that the people of Israel in themselves are incapable of issuing decrees, and that their words have no force. To this Rabbi Yehoshua replied that the speaker in the verse is in fact the people of Israel – it is they who say: “For your (masculine) love is greater than wine”: this is the power that God gave to the Sages – that their words should have independent validity.


            Last Shabbat we read in the Torah:


I call heaven and earth to witness this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse… that you may love the Lord your God, and that you may obey His voice, and that you may cleave to Him (Devarim 30:19-20)


            The mitzvot are the means through which the people of Israel express their love for God and their cleaving to Him. The observance of the mitzvot is inseparably connected to the love of God; the observance of the mitzvot integrates the love of God with the fear of His majesty. If you remove the element of love from the mitzvot – the desire to connect with God, to cleave to Him and to walk in His ways – you turn it into something dry and lifeless. On the words, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord” (Yechezkel 37:4), Rabbi Yirmiya bar Abba says: “These were people who lacked the vitalizing sap of good deeds” (Sanhedrin 92b).


            This principle, which underlies all of the mitzvot, is what guided Chazal in their decrees. All of Chazal’s decrees reflect a desire to draw closer to God, based on genuine concern regarding the commission of the slightest transgressions that erect a barrier between God and us. From here derives their confidence that this is indeed the will of God. With these decrees, the people of Israel, as it were, say to God: “The main thing is our love for You.”


What is the meaning of the words: “For your love is better than wine”?  When Rav Dimi came [from Eretz Israel] he explained it thus: The people of Israel said before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the Universe! Your love is more pleasant to me than the wine of the Torah. (Bavli, Avoda Zara, ibid.)


            The essence of the mitzva of repentance – the main mitzva associated with this period of the year – also lies in renewed closeness to God, as the Rambam explains in Hilkhot Teshuva (7:7):


How exalted is the degree of repentance? Only yesterday [the sinner] was separated from the Lord, God of Israel, as it is said: “Your iniquities were making a separation between you and Your God” (Yeshaya 59:2). He cries aloud and is not answered, as it is said: “When you make your prayers, I will not hear” (Yeshaya 1:15). He fulfills mitzvot and they are flung back in his face, as it is said: “Who has required this at your hand to tread My courts” (Yeshaya 1:12); “O, that there were even one among you that would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on My altar in vain; I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, neither will I accept an offering at your hand” (Malakhi 1:10); “Add your burnt offerings unto your sacrifice and eat flesh” (Yirmiya 7:21).

Today, the same individual [having repented] is closely attached to the Divine Presence, as it is said: “And you that cleave unto the Lord, your God, are alive, everyone of you this day” (Devarim 4:4). He cries and is immediately answered, as it is said: “And it shall come to pass that before they call I will answer” (Yeshaya 65:24). He fulfills mitzvot and they are accepted with pleasure and with joy, as it is said: “For God has already accepted your works” (Kohelet 9:7). Yet more, they are eagerly desired, as it is said: “Then shall the offering of Yehuda and Jerusalem be pleasant to the Lord as in the days of old and as in ancient years” (Malakhi 3:4).


            We say in our prayers: “Purify our hearts to serve you in truth.” “In truth” means that our every word and every action should be sincere: that we should serve God out of deep faith, out of love for Him, and out of a genuine desire to draw close and cleave to Him, as did the Sages.  May we and all Israel merit this during the coming days of repentance.