Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • The Essence of Rosh Hashana
To dedicate this lesson



Rabbi Berel Wein

Rosh Hashanah is called in the Torah "yom teruah" - the day of the sounding of the teruah. This refers to the shofar sounding which serves as the special ritual commandment that dominates the Rosh Hashanah holiday. The Talmud teaches us that the teruah sound must be preceded by a tekiah - a straight unbroken sound - and followed by another tekiah. Though the teruah is therefore placed at the center and in reality as the focus of the service of the sounding of the shofar the exact sounding of the teruah is a matter of halachic debate. The Talmud records that the difference of opinion revolves as to whether the sound of the teruah is one of a deep heartrending sigh or whether it is a staccato sound of a wail or a call to arms. The Talmud reaches a compromise on this question and both sounds, the deep sigh sound which is now called shevarim and the wailing staccato sound which now assumes the name of teruah, are sounded. Even though the shevarim sound has this different name it is in reality also technically a teruah as far as the Torah is concerned. I find it interesting to note that the Talmud chose not to make a definite decision regarding the sound of the teruah and included both sounds - shevarim and teruah - in the order of the service of the sounding of the shofar. I think that this seeming indecision on the part of the Talmud in reality comes to teach us an important lesson regarding the message of the shofar on the holy day of Rosh Hashanah.

The sound of the shevarim is the sound of sadness, lost opportunity, regret and even tragedy if you will. The rabbis of the Talmud stated that a deep gut-wrenching sigh breaks a person in half, physically and mentally. It is a sigh of mourning and events that have troubled us and made us feel depressed. The past year has been replete with such troubling moments, again both personally for all of us and nationally for the people and state of Israel. Somehow we had hoped for better. Beset by economic and security woes, feeling uneasy and uncertain about our future, buffeted by events over which we feel that we had no control, we stand before God humbled and without real confidence. The deep sigh that emanates from within our souls is matched by the sound of the shevarim, the deep sigh that comes forth from the hollow of the shofar. We appeal to God to help us because we fear that we are broken in spirit and will and ability. We are only able to break our bodies and visions with a deep sigh, the sound of shevarim. God wants our hearts and they are only available once we have forfeited our unwarranted hubris and arrogance. Better a deep inner sigh than a public boast. How many seemingly great and powerful people were brought low this year and publicly humiliated! We cannot come to an encounter with the Lord, so to speak, unless first we are broken and humble.

The staccato sound of the teruah conveys a different message. It is also a wail of mourning but in another context it is also a call to arms, a rallying sound for a charge to be mounted against the foe. Judaism is a religion of balance and equity. We must sigh but not to sigh always and only. Even in the depths of troubles and uncertainty we are bidden to continue to struggle and not to abandon the field. The Torah tells us that the ancient army of Israel went into battle to the sound of the teruah that urged them forward. Victories are not won with broken hearts alone. Yehoshua is commanded many times to be strong and powerful and not to give in to moments of defeat and frustration. There are no easy victories in life, in a family or a community or a nation. Life is a constant daily struggle and the teruah comes to rally us to strength, loyalty, determination and ultimate triumph. Therefore this staccato sound of the teruah must be included in the shofar service for otherwise we will be tempted to give up and half broken already allow ourselves to become completely defeated. I think therefore the rabbis of the Talmud included both sounds of the teruah - the shevarim and the teruah - in the shofar service to indicate this need for correct balance in approaching our service to God and humans. Humility and strength, a broken heart and a stiffened resolve to improve is the message of the teruah to us.
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