This year, we will not hear the sound of the shofar on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. It will, thank G-d, have nothing to do with Covid-19, pandemics or anything dangerous. It is simply that our rabbonon decreed that we may not blow the shofar on Shabbos (Rosh Hashanah 29b; Rambam, Shofar 2:6). It may seem too early to discuss this subject, but if anything, it is a bit late. As we have indicated in these columns in the past, many of our sages have taught us that everything important requires preparation. Here, too, there is a special power to a Shabbos Rosh Hashanah. Rav Yaakov Ettlinger, author of the Aruch Laner, shares with us (in his Minchas Ani, Parshas Haazinu) the results of a historical study he completed. He discovered that whenever Rosh Hashanah fell on Shabbos, that year was either a terrible or a fantastic one for Klal Yisroel. Either way, it is almost never an uneventful somewhat forgettable year.
Rav Ettlinger offers several dramatic examples of this thesis: The destructions of both Botei Mikdosh took place in such years, as did other national tragedies. In fact, the Gemara itself (Rosh Hashanah 16b) declares that “a year when the sound of the tekiah is not heard in the beginning [on Rosh Hashanah], the sound of the teruah will be heard at its end.” This refers to evil tidings in such a year. On the other hand, he continues, the day of Yom Kippur, when we were forgiven for the sin of the Eigel, was also such a year. That year, we were also commanded to build the Mishkon, as was the year when we entered Eretz Yisroel with miracles. What is the meaning of this strange dichotomy? The Aruch Laner explains with a moshol, a complex parable, which we condense here in the interest of brevity:
An officer of the king sinned egregiously against him. None of his attorneys or advisors could budge the angry monarch. Finally, his wife tearfully stood before the king and poured out her heart. “Your majesty, my husband did indeed transgress toward you. However, it was a one-time aberration; he is truly loyal to you. Please, I beg you. Do not execute him and leave me as a widow and my children as orphans.”
The king was moved by her honesty and pain, by the thought of the innocent children, and granted clemency. A few months later, the story replayed itself with another officer, who suggested to his wife to do the same. A soon as she appeared before the king, he took note of the fact that she was covered with bruises and wounds. He ordered an investigation and discovered that it was the husband’s doing, immediately sentencing him to death. When this second defendant cried foul, the king answered him sternly. “Your wife did not speak out of her love for you. She spoke out of fear of your wrath. For that, there is no clemency.”
The Aruch Laner concluded: “Shabbos is the bride of Klal Yisroel (Bereishis Rabbah 11:8). When Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbos, we do not blow the shofar because we are concerned that someone will desecrate Shabbos in order to learn how to blow shofar. Imagine! Because of the rather far-fetched possibility that one Jew in millions will desecrate Shabbos, we deny the multitudes all the merits, power and value of the shofar. On those years, Shabbos herself comes to the defense of Klal Yisroel and pleads our case, because we have such a mutually loving relationship with her. We care so much about her that we have given up our most powerful weapon in obtaining a good year. Hashem hears her cries and supplications and forgives us because of her. That is why a shofar-less Rosh Hashanah often brings the greatest of blessings. However, if Shabbos has been injured and abused, if Shabbos has been treated unkindly and there is no shofar to bring us forgiveness, Shabbos cannot make a winning presentation either and the year becomes a dangerous one indeed.”
This is why we must use the few Shabbosos of the old year to fill the gap of the day without shofar. There are many ways that we can accomplish this with even a minimum of effort.
Rav Yitzchok Kolodetzky, son-in-law of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, has traveled the globe exhorting his listeners to usher in Shabbos on Friday a bit earlier than required. Even if we simply make a commitment – a kabbolah – to do so beginning in 5781, it can have tremendous impact this Rosh Hashanah. But this process must begin now.
If I may add a few suggestions, those who do not yet sing zemiros at the Shabbos seudah should begin to do so. For those who don’t honor the Shabbos at its close with melavah malkah, this is the year to begin. Those who have not yet heeded the Mishnah Berurah’s introduction to Hilchos Shabbos that those who have not learned Hilchos Shabbos are doomed to transgress her laws should begin now.
Finally, let us learn a lesson from a very special little girl on how to love the Shabbos so much that she will always be there for us when we need her.
Rebbetzin Rivka Schiff, daughter of the Brisker Rov, used to tell the heart-rending story of her suffering as a fragile seven-year-old during Churban Europa. The Rov’s rebbetzin and three of their children had been murdered by the Nazis ym”sh, while he was saved with two daughters and five sons. Little Rivka was a motherless orphan, who was uprooted continuously from one temporary dwelling to another. Rivkele yearned profoundly for her beloved mother, but consoled herself somewhat with the one item she had salvaged from her. It was a torn silver chain, which could not be worn, but she held it tightly in her tiny hand. It gave her the feeling that her mother was still nearby, watching over her. In the morning, as she awoke – often to be wrenched to a new hiding place – she would first greet her most treasured possession. “Good morning, my keitele (chain),” she thought to herself, not daring to be heard.
One Friday morning, the Brisker Rov received urgent information that the Nazis were about to institute heavy bombing in Vilna, where the Soloveitchik family had found some temporary respite. The Rov, with the full authority of his greatness in Torah, ruled that this was sakonas nefashos – a danger to life – and boarded a boat with his family just before Shabbos. Each member of the family took along their meager belongings, Rivkele clutching her precious chain. The captain informed them that they would have to disembark on Shabbos. The Rov’s p’sak – halachic decision – was clear. They were allowed – indeed required – to leave the vessel on Shabbos, but they could only take the clothes on their back. The kindly but rigorous father allowed each child to wear several garments, but the chain could not be worn and so had to be left behind. Rivkele cried bitter tears upon this terrifying decree, asking through her sobs, “How can I part from my chain? Mommy is no longer with me and now I won’t even have her chain!”
The Brisker Rov, giant among men, was also a loving father. He held his daughter tightly and whispered. “Rivkele, you are right that the chain is very precious, but our holy Shabbos is even more precious.” The emotion with which he spoke was even more powerful than his timeless words. The little girl parted with her beloved chain with eternal words, with a wisdom far beyond her tender years. “Keitele, keitele,” she wept, “I love you so much. You are so dear to me. You are my last link to my beloved mother. But Shabbos is even more beloved and precious to me. So gut Shabbos, my keitele. Perhaps I will see you after Shabbos. Perhaps not. But I will always keep the Shabbos that I love so much.”
Rebbetzin Schiff would often relate that this bitter event implanted in her both the love and the joy of Shabbos for the rest of her eventful and productive life. It was the joint legacy she had received from both of her towering parents under the most difficult of circumstances (see Rabbi Yisroel Meir Shushan’s Doresh Tov, Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, page 52).
Yes, we can learn from little Rivkele how to love Shabbos more than anything we own. We can love Shabbos so much that we give up our tekios and teruos, our standing and sitting blowing of the shofar, the thousands of sounds that can save our lives and help us receive whatever we need. All because we love our Shabbos. For this, we must prepare. Let us begin this Shabbos.