The shofar is, as we have pointed out, the signal mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah (known in Numbers 29:1 as Yom Teruah, Day of Sounding the Shofar, and Leviticus 23:24 as Shabbaton Zichron Teruah, which means something like a Sacred Day Commemorated with Sounding the Shofar). But when exactly should you blow it and how? Today’s page takes up that question.
The core Jewish prayer, in talmudic times and ever since, is the Amidah. It is said three times a day during the week, and four on Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and festivals with the inclusion of Musaf, literally the “added” service. (On Yom Kippur, a spiritual high point of the year, the Amidah is said a grand total of five times with the addition of both Musaf and Neilah at the very end of the holiday.)
Though Musaf is recited on many occasions throughout the year, it is especially important, and most elaborately enhanced, on Rosh Hashanah, as is clear from a mishnah on today’s page that attempts to work out the order of blessings in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf:
This is the order of the blessings: One says the first blessing of the patriarchs, then the blessing of God’s great deeds, then the sanctification of God’s name, and one includes the blessings of divine kingship. But he does not blow the shofar yet according to Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri.
Rabbi Akiva says if you are not going to blow for divine kingship why mention it all together? But you include divine kingship together with sanctifying God’s name and blow and then conclude with the final blessings.
According to this mishnah, the Musaf of Rosh Hashanah opens as all other Amidahs do with the blessing of the patriarchs (and in some synagogues today, matriarchs) and other blessings that praise God. But in the Rosh Hashanah Musaf, these ordinary blessings that begin the Amidah soon give way to a special recitation pronouncing God’s kingship and, according to Rabbi Akiva, sounding the shofar, which is connected to that theme.
The next mishnah introduces three themes of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf that will be familiar to those who know the modern liturgy:
One does not recite fewer than ten verses in the blessing of kingship, or fewer than ten for remembrances, or fewer than ten verses for shofars.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri says: If one recited three from each of them, he has fulfilled his obligation.
The verses on these three themes — malchuyot (divine kingship), zichronot (remembrance) and shofarot (literally “shofars”) — are a central piece of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf as it has come down to us.
The Gemara begins analyzing this mishnah by asking why the number ten? It proposes that the number ten corresponds to praises (hallelujahs) that David said in the Book of Psalms. But, the Gemara asks, aren’t there many more praises than that in the Book of Psalms? Indeed, it actually refers to the number of times that the precise phrase “praise him” (halleluhu) appears in the very last psalm, Psalm 150.
In contrast, Rabbi Yosef suggests that the ten verses correspond to the Ten Commandments, which were said to Moses at Sinai. Rabbi Yochanan says that they correspond to the ten utterances through which the world was created by God, one for each time that it says “and he said” in Genesis 1. When the Gemara then points out that there are only nine instances of this precise phrase it goes on to include Genesis 1:1, “In the Beginning, God created,” as the tenth.
All of this directly informs the Rosh Hashanah Musaf today. Today’s Musaf includes three sections — malchuyot, zichronot, and shofarot — with ten biblical quotations on each of these three themes that are drawn from the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. This is capped off by sounding the shofar before we return to the normal conclusion of the Amidah. This is why the Rosh Hashanah Musaf is very long — and also the liturgical highlight of the morning.
I find it fascinating the fluidity of traditions and opinions that seem to have coexisted, both about the structure of the Rosh Hashanah Musaf and the reasons that we are said to recite ten verses on each of these three significant themes. The Gemara is perfectly comfortable not rendering a final decision. Nonetheless, the core blessings and structure mentioned here have survived more or less intact over thousands of years.
Similarly, the Gemara goes on to debate how many sounds we are supposed to hear from the shofar. The rabbis aren’t in complete agreement, though they are, interestingly enough, satisfied with far fewer than the 100 we are accustomed to nowadays.
Read all of Rosh Hashanah 32 on Sefaria.