We pray on Rosh Hashanah, "Our G-d and the G-d of our fathers,
sound the great shofar for our freedom . . ." The prophet
Yishayah (27:13) likewise spoke of a "great shofar" that will be
blown at the time of the final redemption. What is this shofar?
R' Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook z"l (1865-1935; Ashkenazic
Chief Rabbi of Palestine) explained as follows: We find in the
laws of the Rosh Hashanah shofar that there are three levels in
the fulfillment of the mitzvah: ideally, a ram's horn should be
used. If that is not available, the shofar of any kosher animal
may be used. If even that is not available, any shofar may be
used, but no berachah may be recited.
There likewise are three levels for the shofar of redemption.
The purpose of that which we call the "messianic shofar" is to
bring about an awakening, to serve as a drive which will cause
the rebirth and redemption of the people of Israel. There has
been in Israel at different times, and today too, R' Kook said,
an awakening and an aspiration whose origins lie in
kedushah/holiness - in ardent faith in G-d and the Torah, in the
holiness of Israel and its mission, and in the desire to fulfill
the will of G-d. This is the "great shofar" of the redemption -
the zeal of the people to be redeemed, born out of the lofty
desire to fulfill the great mission which cannot be accomplished
while they are wretched and exiled.
There are those in whom the holy aspirations have weakened.
They do not have within them a passionate fervor for the lofty
ideas of kedushah. But there still remains within them man's
healthy human nature, whose origins also, says R' Kook, lie in
holiness. This healthy human desire to live in freedom is the
middling shofar, not ideal, but acceptable.
Finally, there is the "unfit shofar" which is blown out of
necessity when a kosher shofar is not to be found. If the holy
fervor for redemption is lost and if natural human patriotism
also is gone, then the enemies of Israel will come and sound in
our ears the signal for redemption. However, no blessing can be
recited upon this shofar because it is a curse.
This is why we pray: "Sound the great shofar for our freedom."
(From R' Kook's Rosh Hashanah derashah in 1933, shortly after the
rise of the Nazis in Germany )
The Judgment on Rosh Hashanah
Three books are opened on Rosh Hashanah - one for perfect
tzaddikim/righteous people, one for complete resha'im/wicked
people, and one for benonim/people in the middle. Perfect
tzaddikim are inscribed and sealed immediately for life.
Complete resha'im are inscribed and sealed immediately for
death. Benonim are left hanging from Rosh Hashanah until
Yom Kippur. If they merit, they are inscribed for life. If
they do not merit, they are inscribed for death.
(Gemara, Rosh Hashanah 16b)
R' Moshe ben Nachman z"l ("Ramban"; 1194-1270) writes: This
gemara cannot be taken literally because many tzaddikim die each
year and many resha'im live out the year in tranquility. Indeed,
the verse (Kohelet 8:14) cries out: "There are tzaddikim who are
treated as [if they had done] the deeds of resha'im, and there
are resha'im who are treated as [if they had done] the deeds of
tzaddikim." Also, Chazal have stated (Avot ch. 4): "We cannot
fathom the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the
Rather, this is the gemara's meaning: There are some sins for
which Hashem's righteous justice demands that a punishment be
meted out in This World, and there are some sins for which
justice requires that punishment be in the World-to-Come. The
same is true of merits. There are some mitzvot for which the
Master of Reward pays in This World, and there are some for which
He pays in the World-to-Come.
A tzaddik who is completely righteous will be inscribed for
life. A wicked person whose judgment requires that he be paid in
This World for the good deeds that he has done also is inscribed
and sealed for life, i.e., he is adjudged for a year of life,
peace, wealth, belongings and honor. Thus, he is equal to a
"perfect tzaddik" as far as his judgment is concerned.
On the other hand, a rasha who is completely wicked in every
possible way is adjudged to die immediately. Similarly, someone
who has done good deeds and who has committed only one sin - if
it is a sin for which he deserves the punishment of death, he is
inscribed on Rosh Hashanah for death. This means that he will
either die that year or be very ill or experience a year of pain
and suffering. Such a person is a "complete rashah" as far has
his judgment is concerned.
Even the master of all prophets [i.e., Moshe] was judged for
one minor sin and was punished for it; he is called a "complete
rasha" for purposes of this discussion.
Furthermore, when Chazal speak of "death," they are not
referring only to the length of a person's days. Rather, all
forms of punishment are called "death." Similarly, all forms of
reward are called "life."
Tosfot interprets the above gemara differently. Tosfot states:
Since the gemara mentions a category called "benonim" [which
Rashi interprets to mean people whose mitzvot and sins are
equal], the implication is that the term "tzaddik" refers to
anyone who has performed more mitzvot than sins. Likewise, the
term "rasha" refers to anyone who has done more sins than
mitzvot. It is apparent that such tzaddikim sometimes die and
such resha'im sometimes live.
What then is the meaning of the gemara? The "life" and "death"
referred to in this gemara are in the World-to-Come [i.e., man is
judged on Rosh Hashanah regarding the World-to-Come.]
(Rosh Hashanah 16b)
Later commentaries raise several objections to Tosfot's
explanation. One of these is: If the judgment on Rosh Hashanah
relates solely to the World-to-Come, why are we judged every
This question may be answered as follows:
Even tzaddikim sin, and they must be punished for those
mistakes. Likewise, even resha'im perform some mitzvot, and they
must be rewarded for those good deeds. However, because Hashem
does not want tzaddikim to suffer in the World-to-Come, He
punishes them in This World for their sins. Similarly, because
He does not want resha'im to be present in Gan Eden, He rewards
them in This World for their mitzvot.
It follows that Hashem cannot wait until a person dies to
decide that person's place in the World-to-Come. Rather, his
place in the World-to-Come must be reviewed on a regular basis so
that the quality of his life in This World can be determined
accordingly. For example, if Hashem sees that a given person
would deserve immediate entrance into Gan Eden if not for a
certain sin, Hashem decrees on Rosh Hashanah that that person
experience certain suffering during the coming year in order to
be cleansed. And, because that person may sin again, this
judgment must be repeated every year until he dies.
(Based on Tosfot Ha'Rosh
and R' Yoel Sperka shlita: Chazon Yoel p.16)
It is appropriate to conclude with the words of R' Yaakov
Yehoshua z"l (Poland and Germany; 1681-1757) in his commentary
to the above gemara. He writes:
"Here it is appropriate to be brief, as the Sages have said,
'That which is beyond you do not seek and that which is covered
from you do not investigate.' The 'books' referred to here are
certainly something that is beyond us. Perhaps one person in
1,000 can understand the nature of these 'books' properly."
Letters from Our Sages
This week we present a free translation of a letter by R'
Yisrael Salanter z"l (died 1883). In it, the founder of the
mussar movement discusses how different types of people
approach the Day of Judgment. The letter is undated and is
printed in Ohr Yisrael, No. 14.
At one time, I know, every person was seized by horror from the
call, "The month of Elul has come." This fear bore fruit and
brought man closer to the service of Hashem, each person on his
own level - but not as you would expect.
One would think that a person who was distant from Hashem's
service all year long would be seized by fear and worry because
of the approaching judgment. In fact, the opposite happens;
there is more improvement, and rebuke is taken more seriously, by
those who all year hold firmly to a holy path than by those who
all year walk in darkness.
There are both materialistic and spiritual reasons for this
paradox. The materialistic reason is that habit is a very
powerful force. The spiritual reason is that when a person sins
he draws upon himself a spirit of impurity which pollutes his
soul and confuses him.
Anyone who has studied a little bit of mussar sees vividly that
this spirit of impurity of which we spoke stands before him to
entice him to act contrary to what his intelligence knows is
right . . .
Now, when the great practitioners of the fear of Heaven are
gone - those whose own fear of judgment could be seen on their
faces and made an impression upon their followers - if there are
no roots, from where will the leaves come? Nevertheless, if we
can remove from ourselves our dirty garments and put on clean
ones [see Zechariah 3:4], we will see clearly that we must be
afraid and we must tremble - each person on his own level, but
much more so than in previous generations.
It is well known, and experience shows, that it is possible to
serve Hashem on a lofty level without studying mussar/ethical
works. However, to turn from bad to good without mussar is like
trying to see without eyes or to hear without ears. Therefore
the poskim/halachic authorities have written that during the High
Holidays -- when one prepares for judgment on Rosh Hashanah and,
even more, before Yom Kippur - one must study mussar works.
And what can we do about the wall of iron that separates us
from Hashem, i.e., the spirit of impurity that pollutes man's
soul, so that the study of mussar can have the desired effect?
There is only one answer - this, too, experience teaches us - and
that is to pour out one's soul to Hashem with a minyan in order
to bore a small hole in that iron wall.
Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Hurewitz
in memory of his father
Yehuda Tuvia ben Yehoshua Aharon a"h