(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
Navigate to Belief section

Talmudic Rabbis Debate the Practice of the Law Versus the Intention Behind It

Technical discussion about the shofar leads quickly to an examination of deep spiritual questions

Adam Kirsch
June 10, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

One of the stimulating things about reading Daf Yomi is that you never know when a technical legal discussion will suddenly blossom into a profound examination of a spiritual question. That’s what happened this week in Chapter 3 of Tractate Rosh Hashanah, a short chapter largely devoted to the shofar that is blown on the holiday. Beginning with a discussion of what kind of animal horn can be used to make a shofar, the rabbis end up asking a question that goes to the heart of Judaism: Does God want us simply to carry out the mitzvot, or is the whole point of mitzvot that we obey them as a conscious religious act? Is it the practice of the law that counts or the intention behind it?

Chapter 3 begins by sweeping up some leftover details concerning the sighting of the new moon, which was discussed in last week’s reading. As we saw, the new month could not be proclaimed until a special court heard testimony from witnesses that a waxing crescent moon had appeared in the sky. But what happens, the Mishna asks on Rosh Hashana 25b, if the judges of the court themselves see the moon? Do they still have to hear witnesses? It turns out the rule is that a judge cannot also be a witness, so if two judges see evidence of the new moon, they must recuse themselves from the court and appoint new judges in their place. Only then can they give testimony.

The same principle applies, more consequentially, in criminal cases. Say that the Sanhedrin, the ruling court in Judea, saw a murder committed in front of their own eyes. In that case, Akiva teaches, “they are all rendered witnesses, and a witness cannot become a judge.” This might seem exactly backwards: Surely if the judge sees the crime for himself, he is more sure of what happened than if he merely hears about it from a witness. But Akiva is concerned to preserve the principle that every court must strive to find grounds to exonerate a defendant. Just as in the American legal system, there must be a presumption of innocence. “But once they have seen him kill a person,” the Gemara explains, “they will be unable to find grounds to exonerate him.”

Now the rabbis move on to the main subject of the chapter, the laws of the shofar. This is one of many subjects on which the Bible gives insufficient guidance, leaving it to the rabbis to interpret exactly how the law is to be put into effect. All we read in Leviticus is, “In the seventh month, the first day of the month”—that is, the first of Tishrei, which is Rosh Hashanah—“shall be a solemn rest for you, a memorial of blasts of a shofar, a holy convocation.” But what, the rabbis wonder, qualifies a horn to be shofar? Can it come from any kind of animal? Must it be in its original form, or can it be altered or decorated?

The mishna on Rosh Hashana 26a begins by specifying that any kind of animal horn can be a shofar, except for a cow’s horn. According to the mishna, that is because a cow’s horn is not referred to as a shofar but merely as a keren (the Hebrew word for horn). But Rabbi Yosi raises an objection to this distinction, pointing out that all kinds of shofar are also called keren—for instance, a ram’s horn is also a keren. So why, the Gemara wonders, is a cow’s horn forbidden? The real reason, the rabbis argue, is that a cow’s horn recalls the Golden Calf, and it is unwise to remind God of that episode of idolatry when calling on him. For the same reason, they explain, the high priest enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur dressed not in his usual golden garments, but in plain white clothes—because gold, too, is a reminder of the Golden Calf. As the Talmud succinctly puts it, “a prosecutor cannot become an advocate”: The gold is a witness against the Jewish people, while the priest is supposed to plead on their behalf.

This sounds like a good explanation, but the Gemara goes on to point out that it’s not entirely satisfactory. If we don’t use a cow’s horn in the Temple, the rabbis ask, why do we use the blood of a bull to sprinkle in the Holy of Holies (as detailed in Tractate Yom Kippur)? Isn’t the blood also a reminder of the Golden Calf? No, the Gemara replies: “Since it has changed, it has changed.” That is, cow’s blood does not resemble a cow, so it doesn’t immediately bring the Golden Calf to mind. And what about the prohibition on golden garments—isn’t it the case, the rabbis ask, that many accoutrements in the Temple are made of gold, from the Ark cover to the coal pan? Here, too, the Gemara has an explanation: The prohibition on gold applies only to items used to adorn the high priest, not to the items he uses.

Having learned that a cow’s horn cannot be a shofar, we now learn that the actual material used in the Temple on Rosh Hashanah was a straight ibex horn, plated with gold. Today we hear the shofar alone in the synagogue, but in the Temple it would be accompanied by two trumpets; the shofar would sound a long blast, since it was the focus of the ceremony, while the trumpets only sounded short blasts. On other fast days, instead of an straight ibex horn, the priests would use a curved ram’s horn. In the Gemara, we learn that there is a homiletic explanation for the difference between the straight horn and the curved horn: On Rosh Hashanah a person should straighten his mind, while on fast days he should bend himself in prayer and humility. Other rabbis, however, say that this is backward: It’s on Rosh Hashanah that the priests used a curved horn, and on fast days that they used a straight horn. The homily, fortunately, works pretty well either way.

The Talmud goes on to list the flaws that can disqualify a shofar from use. If the horn is cracked and glued back together, or if pieces from different horns are combined, then the shofar is unfit. If it is punctured and the hole is sealed, the shofar is still usable if it makes a clear sound, but if the repair “impedes the blowing” it is unfit. A horn can be shortened, scraped out, or plated with gold on the outside; but gold can’t be applied on the inside or around the mouthpiece, because then the listener is not hearing a shofar but a metal instrument.

Finally, we reach the most interesting point of all. “If one was passing behind a synagogue, or his house was adjacent to the synagogue, and he heard the sound of the shofar … if he focused his heart, he has fulfilled his obligation; but if not, he has not fulfilled his obligation.” What this means is that two Jews standing right next to each other can hear the same shofar blast but have different halakhic status. The one who concentrates on the sound and realizes its meaning fulfills his duty, while the other, for whom the shofar is just background noise, does not fulfill his duty.

When the Gemara comes to discuss the point, however, it points out that a law related to Passover seems to contradict it. That ruling holds that even if a Jew is forced to eat matzoh against his will, he has still fulfilled his obligation. This seems to suggest that intention is not required for a mitzvah—the act itself is what matters, regardless of what motivated it. (If you’re wondering exactly what it means to force someone to eat matzo against his will, you’re not alone: The rabbis too debate this, and they decide it could mean either a case of demonic possession, or else compulsion by a gentile authority. Still, why “the Persians” would want to compel a Jew to eat matzo on Passover remains unclear.)

This is Rava’s position, that “mitzvot do not require intent.” Do as you are commanded and God will be satisfied, even if you’re doing it absentmindedly or under compulsion. But the Gemara brings several challenges to this view. Isn’t it the case that saying the Shema prayer only counts if you have “focused your heart”? And what about the mishna that says that hearing the shofar only counts if you hear it consciously and deliberately? The Gemara struggles to imagine what Rava could say in response. Perhaps what this mishna means is not that the hearer must be conscious that he is fulfilling a mitzvah, but merely that he be conscious that he is hearing a shofar, as opposed to say, a donkey’s bray. Or does it mean that the person who sounds the shofar must do so with a particular listener in mind, so that if someone else overhears it, that person does not fulfill the mitzvah? No, the Gemara concludes: A communal shofar blast is meant for anyone who hears it, as long as they “focus their heart” on fulfilling the commandment. Saint Paul famously characterized Judaism as a religion of the letter, rather than the spirit; to this, the rabbis would reply that God demands both.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study,click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.