The mitzvah of the day on Rosh Hashanah is the mitzvah of blowing shofar, as the Torah commands us in Bamidbar (29:1): “On in the seventh month, on the first of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no laborious work; it shall be for you a day of sounding the shofar.” Many reasons have been given for this mitzvah by different commentators. Today I would like to analyze the reason proposed by the Rambam.


The Rambam in Mishna Torah (Hilchot Teshuva 3:7) writes the following:


“Even though blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a decree of the Torah (and therefore we need no further justification), it does contain a hint of its rationale, as if to say ‘Arise you who are sleeping from your slumber (oo-roo yesheinim mi’shinatchem) and wake up from your deep sleep (heikitzu mitardeimat’chem), search your deeds, return in repentance and remember your Creator.’ These are the ones who forget the truth because of their involvement with meaningless pursuits and they waste all their years in vanity and emptiness which will not yield benefit and will not save. ‘Look at your souls and examine your ways and your deeds, and each one of you should forsake his evil path and his inappropriate thoughts.’ The shofar has the power to stir us and to bring us to acts of repentance (teshuva).”


A closer look at the Rambam’s language raises a number of questions:


  1. What is the difference between “slumber” (sheina) and “deep sleep” (tardeima)?
  2. Why with regard to “sheina” is “oo-roo” required while regarding “tardeima,” the requirement is for “heikitzu”?
  3. What is the essential difference between a deep-sleeping or slumbering person and one who is awake?
  4. What is the idea behind the process of “search you deeds and return in teshuva and remember your Creator?” Would we not expect that remembering the Creator would be mentioned before returning in teshuva, since it would seem that remembering Hashem would be just a means to achieve the goal of teshuva?


In order to understand the depth of the Rambam’s words, we need to examine the first mentions in Tanach of the terms “sheina” and “tardeima.” Both of these terms occur in the story of the creation of Chava. The Torah (Bereishit 2:21) describes Chava’s creation in the following manner: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep (tardeima) to fall on Adam and he slept (“Vayishan”). And He took one of his ribs and he closed up the flesh under it.” It can be inferred from this pasuk, and so explains the Ibn Ezra, that tardeima is a deeper state of sleep than sheina. Similarly, tardeima results from external causes, as it says  “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall.” Sheina is the “product” of tardeima, as Hashem placed tardeima on Adam and then he fell asleep, “Vayishan.” There are two types of sleep: self-induced and tardeima, flowing from external influences. 

The sound of the shofar is supposed to overcome the two types of sleep that we acquire for ourselves in the course of the year. During the year, a person creates for him- or herself a reality of “sleeping” which can be interpreted as apathy and reconciliation with the existing situation. The decision to sleep may stem from a desire or need to hide from what is happening in our lives, or out of weakness or an unwillingness to face life’s challenges. Sometimes, we allow events in our environment to lull us to sleep, and we lose awareness of the experiences that impinge on us. We fail to be aware, to seize the moment, and as a result, we miss the opportunity to change our ways. 


We, like Shimshon in his time, enable Delilah to put us into a stupor and lull us to sleep on her knees, and thereby we make it possible for her to shave the seven locks of our heads (Shoftim 16:19). Like Shimshon, we are tired and weak from social, personal and emotional pressure and we prefer a moment’s rest over ongoing resilience. The sound of the shofar cries out “Philistines are upon you, Shimshon!” and we must know that we are still in the state where God has not departed from us, that we still have the strength to stir ourselves and to awaken from our stupor and our deep spiritual, moral, and social sleep. 


From sleep, one must hit’orer – from the root “ni-oor,” shake oneself – and then enter reality prepared to deal with life. Tardeima, deep sleep, demands yakitza – arousal,  from “keitz” which indicates the end of a state in which we are influenced by external factors that try to script our lives for us. 


However, we can ask: blowing the shofar already began at the start of Elul! If we haven’t awoken ourselves yet, what is so unique about Rosh Hashana that the sound of the shofar will now impact our actions?


In order to understand the uniqueness of the mitzva of blowing shofar on Rosh Hashana, one has to understand the essential difference between a person who is awake and one who is sleeping. Even though a human is considered to be an established danger whether awake or asleep (Bava Kama, 3b), in any case if a person set down utensils after another person has gone to sleep, and the second person subsequently damages the utensils in his sleep, he is absolved from paying damages. But we have a fundamental and ongoing expectation from a person who is awake, and he is not exempt from paying damages under most circumstances. It is the wakefulness and the sense of awareness of man that separates him from other animals and between him and a sleeping person. Wakefulness creates the expectation of personal, religious and social responsibility. 


Humans have a tendency to become tired and to desire sleep, as did Esav when (in Bereishit 25:29) “Ya’akov was preparing porridge and Esav came in from the field, and he was tired” and so too Yonah who sought to sleep in the bowels of the ship. We tend not to be awake, but rather we live our lives like a “fleeting dream.” But on Rosh Hashana, we newly experience our birth. Like Adam and Chava in their time, we are obligated to understand the Divine expectation of us and to wake ourselves up. The sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashana reminds us that we live, that we are obliged to be awake and aware, not to enter a state of apathy, not to allow life to just roll out. We must instead continue to be creative and alert, to continue to innovate, and not to allow habit to script our lives.


The Rambam encourages us to hear the sound of the shofar “and to search our deeds.”  The matter of searching deeds is not just introspection, but includes the understanding that our actions have consequences and ramifications. Living our lives in such a manner will lead us to be “awake,” alert to our deeds. This awareness leads to repentance, whose entire aim, I would claim, is to “remember your Creator.” Therefore the Rambam positions the concept of “remember your Creator” as an outcome of teshuva. Teshuva itself is not the primary goal but rather it facilitates our establishing the existence of Hashem in our consciousness constantly. Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid – I place God in front of me always – is a major principal in Torah not just from a religious and spiritual perspective, but also from a moral and social perspective. Understanding that Hashem is a part of my life, a living and breathing reality that believes in me, obligates me to be “awake” regarding my actions and to understand their significance and their implications.


King David writes in Tehilm 121:4 “Behold, He neither naps nor sleeps, the Guardian of Israel.” The Mitzudot explains “For He never removes His vigilance” – Hashem is always awake to what befalls the nation of Israel. Similarly, we are also required not to let our eyes succumb to sleep or to rest our eyelids. We must be awake and on guard.


The sound of the shofar that reminds us about the akeida, the giving of the Torah, and the coming of Mashiach, should awaken in us the feeling of renewal and the opening of a new chapter in our lives. The three events at which the shofar is heard call upon us l’chadesh, to make something new, to invent and innovate. The akeida “invented” the idea of sanctifying God’s name, even if He takes your life. Matan Torah introduced the notion of sanctifying God’s name through va’chai bahem, walking in the ways of Hashem (from an understanding of God’s will) and through living a Divine life. The shofar of Mashiach will renew the world according to the words of the prophet Amos (8:11): “Behold, days are coming, says Hashem your Lord, and I will dispense a famine in the land – not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, but rather to hear the word of God.” A world in which the reality and presence of God is recognized by everyone, and they will rush to hear His voice and to accept His sovereignty. 


When we hear the sound of the shofar let us wake ourselves up from our deep sleep and our slumber, examine our actions, return in repentance, and remember our Creator. Let us not live in a bubble, apathetic to the spiritual and social environment around us. Let us together, as individuals, as a community and as a nation, shape a reality in which the shofar of Mashiach will resonate in the ears of the whole world.