On Rosh Hashanah which falls on Shabbat we desist from blowing the Shofar. At first glance this is a very strange practice – or non-practice. The blowing of the Shofar is a Torah commandment, which applies but one day a year. Nonetheless we do not blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah which falls on Shabbat. The first approach taken by the Talmud is that the idea not to blow is also from the Torah:
Whence [in the Scripture] is this rule derived? — R. Levi b. Lahma said: "One verse says, 'a solemn rest, a memorial of blast of horns,' while another verse says, 'it is a day of blowing the horn unto you!' [Yet] there is no contradiction, as one refers to a festival which falls on Sabbath and the other to a festival which falls on a weekday." (Rosh Hashanah 29b)
While this would certainly solve the problem, the solution is not so simple. The Mishna already noted that even on Shabbat the Shofar is sounded in the Temple. If there were a biblically mandated prohibition to blow on Shabbat, then blowing Shofar in the Temple would be equally inappropriate. Therefore Rava explains:
Rava said, 'According to the Written Law it is allowed, and it is the Rabbis who prohibited it as a precaution; as stated by Rabbah; for Rabbah said, "All are under obligation to blow the Shofar but not all are skilled in the blowing of the Shofar. [Hence] there is a danger that perhaps one will take it in his hand [on Sabbath] and go to an expert to learn and carry it four cubits in public domain." The same reason applies to the Lulav and the same reason to the Megillah (Rosh Hashanah 16a)
We see that on a Torah level, the Shofar should be blown even on Shabbat; it is a Rabbinic prohibition which prevents the fulfillment of the Torah law, and our question rebounds with even greater force: If the Torah commands us to sound the Shofar on this day, how could the rabbis say not so? The technical answers to this question are not necessarily satisfying in this case, for here our concern is that a singular, unique, once-a-year mitzvah is frustrated. The question is compounded by a passage in the Talmud that regards the failure to blow the Shofar as an ominous sign:
R. Isaac further said: If the Shofar is not sounded at the beginning of the year, evil will befall at the end of it. Why so? Because the Accuser has not been confused.
When the Shofar is not sounded, deleterious spiritual effects result. On the other hand, if we consider the origin of the Shofar and the spiritual implications of its message, perhaps we attain the benefits of the sound of the Shofar without actually blowing, and still "confound Satan."
The sounding of the Shofar is a symbol of God's benevolence and capacity to forgive us even when guilty. Through the sound produced by the ram's horn, we are reconnected with spiritual power of Akeidat Yitzchak: Avraham willingly responds to God's call to offer his beloved son Yitzchak as an offering, but a heavenly voice instructs him to desist, and to offer the entangled ram in Yitzchak's stead. Henceforth, the ram's horn becomes both a reminder, a symbol and a call to respond to the spiritual challenge and to return to the spiritual standard set by Avraham. The Midrash says that whenever the Jews become entangled in sin, the sound of the Shofar can be an agent of forgiveness.
A serious question emerges from the biblical passages surrounding the akeida: While the command to offer Yitzchak came directly from God, the order to desist came from an Angel. We might ask: whose command takes precedence, God Himself or His messenger? While we may say that the command to take a life is something only God Himself has the authority to issue, an angel's order to save a life is sufficient. However, if we analyze the entire akeida episode in terms of the theme of Rosh Hashanah, a clearer explanation emerges. The fundamental aspect of Rosh Hashanah is the idea of God's kingship. It is a day of coronation, and we are called upon to take our role in this coronation. The main theme is Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim – accepting the kingship of Heaven, as heroically demonstrated by Avraham, who was prepared to follow the divine command even though it contradicted his every emotion, every sensibility. The Word of God had come to him, had commanded him, and he knew that he must accept the Yoke of Heaven.
God regarded Avraham's willingness to obey as equal to actual performance of the deed; He regarded the willingness to comply as fulfillment of the letter of His command. There was no need for Yitzchak to die; the test was passed. Avraham accepted the word of the Angel; Yitzchak was saved, the ram was used in his place, and the Shofar became the symbol of this shift. In every sense, the word of the angel is also "from heaven": obeying the angel's command is also Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim.
When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat and the Shofar is not sounded, we experience another intriguing repercussion of the akeida and of the sacrifice that was not made. The slaughter of Yitzchak was voided, yet God considered it as having been performed in full. Similarly, when we do not blow the Shofar, we are essentially performing an identical gesture and hoping that God accepts our lack of performance of the Mitzvah in a similar vein. This, too, is Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim; in fact, it is an even more profound acceptance of God's rule. For when we blow the Shofar, we hear and accept God's Word, but when we desist from blowing the Shofar on Shabbat, we show concern for God's Shabbat, and we are effectively accepting not only the words of the Torah, but the words of the sages as well. We, too, are obeying the directives of God's messengers. This, too, is Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim.
The ominous portent associated with not blowing the Shofar applies only whenKabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim is diminished by the absence of the spiritual awareness awakened by the Shofar's blast. Therefore, it is even more important when we don't blow the Shofar to concentrate and focus on how we accept God as King, how we adore and safeguard Shabbat, how we unswervingly accept the words of the Torah and the authority of the Rabbis. By not blowing the Shofar, we can bring about even greater Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim.
It is our hope that in this merit the coming year will be delightful from beginning to end.
May we all be inscribed in the Book of the Living for a year of spiritual growth, material comfort, health and happiness.