Full disclosure. My alarm clock finally gave up on me and I got a new one in time for Yom Tov. But even before hearing the new sounds of morning, I was awakened to a more profound message about the season and its own sounds.
There is a minhag not to sleep during the day of Rosh Hashanah (Rama 583). The Ben Ish Chai (Nitzavim, No. 11) even warns us to rise before dawn so that one is not, in effect, sleeping during the Yom Hadin. However, many poskim (Halichos Shlomo, page 20; Teshuvos Vehanhagos 1:339; Shiurei Halacha, page 150) note that it is common practice not to be scrupulous about this concern. The reason seems to be that in ancient times, the normative functional day was dawn to dusk. These days, when people often arise after alos hashachar, the only prohibition is to “go to sleep” during the day, not to sleep past a certain time. Rav Chaim Kanievsky (Derech Sicha, page 378) even goes so far as to rule that it is only forbidden to go to sleep in a bed, but if one falls asleep while sitting in a chair on Rosh Hashanah, he hasn’t done anything wrong.
What is the meaning of these sleep restrictions? The source seems to be the words of the Talmud Yerushalmi that “one who sleeps on Rosh Hashanah will oversleep his mazel.” This quote is not found in our editions of the Yerushalmi, but is quoted by the Maharatz Chayos (Megillah 12a) and other poskim and meforshim.
To understand this minhag more deeply, we must turn to a well-known Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (3:4): “Although the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a Biblical decree, nevertheless, there is a hint [as to its meaning]. ‘Arise O you who are sleeping from your repose and you who are slumbering from drowsiness. Search your actions, repent and remember your Creator.’ This refers to those who forget the truth in the foolishness of the time and waste their days in emptiness and inanity, which accomplish nothing and will not save [anyone]. Scrutinize your soul carefully and improve your ways and follies. Every one of you should abandon your evil ways and thoughts which are not virtuous.”
Now, of course, each of the Rambam’s words here are carefully chosen and impart infinite lessons and guidance for life in general and Rosh Hashanah in particular. However, let us focus for a moment on the concept of a spiritual awakening. Two Brisker stories have been pointed out as paradigms of the importance of being alert to matters of importance. In a story replete with insights into the thinking of Torah giants, Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz was delivering a shiur in his yeshiva in Kaminetz when the Brisker Rov arrived for a visit. After the shiur, Rav Boruch Ber asked the Brisker Rov what he had found objectionable. The Rov was shocked, “What makes you think I had any problem at all with the shiur?” he asked. Rav Boruch Ber responded immediately, “I noticed that you fell asleep a bit during the shiur.” The Rov was equally quick to explain, “That doesn’t prove anything. I was merely exhausted from the long trip I had just completed.” However, Rav Boruch Ber was undeterred. Finding criticism with himself, not with his visitor, the great rosh yeshiva explained, “If the shiur was totally valid and genuine, you would not have fallen asleep.”
This is Hashem’s complaint to us as well, “Is it to Hashem that you do this, O vile and unwise people?”(Devorim 32:6). The Targum explains that this refers to those who have received the Torah but not gained all the wisdom that can be derived from its words. If one hears the devar Hashem, there is no sleeping and no excuse for slumber. Furthermore, when one hears the truth, there must be a moment of stopping to contemplate and wonder at the beauty and splendor of the message one has heard. Rebbetzin Feinstein, daughter of the Brisker Rov, once heard two people arguing about which of her father’s talmidim is greater. She instantly declared one of them to be the superior of the two. “How could you know that?” both men demanded. “The answer is simple,” the wise rebbetzin responded. “Both are beloved and respected disciples of the Rov. However, when the first hears my father raise a question, he immediately springs to offer an answer. However, the second pauses for a moment to contemplate the brilliance and wisdom of the question. He is therefore the greater of the two.”
This is part of the lesson the Rambam is teaching us. First of all, we must become awake to understand what is occurring around us and in our lives. Secondly, we must analyze and take cognizance of what must done to improve ourselves. This concept explains a surprising ruling of the Magein Avrohom (584) in the name of the Shelah that one should recite the confessions (viduy) between the various sets of shofar blowings. Now, at first thought, we would think that would be a hefsek – an interruption – in the mitzvah of listening to the shofar. However, now that we have heard the “hint” of the Rambam that the purpose of the shofar is to awaken us to do teshuvah, our viduy is far from an interruption. It signals that we are totally alert to what we are hearing and our soul has been touched and awakened (see Sefer Hateshuvah 1:294, note 35).
We are now also in a position to resolve a famous apparent contradiction in the effect of the shofar. On the one hand, we find (Moed Koton 16a) that the shofar represents din, the ultimate power of judgment, and on the other we understood from the Rambam that the shofar offers us an opportunity for reflection and forgiveness. However, as Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Mikraei Kodesh) quotes from Rav Yitzchok Maltzan (printed in the Siddur HaGra), when we blow the shofar, indicating that we are aware of being judged and are acting accordingly, Hashem “arises from His throne of din and sits down on His throne of rachamim, compassion” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:3) It is our response to the shofar that effects change in heaven as well. When we walk sleepy-headed and unaware through life, Hashem must resort to frightening ways to awaken us. But when we respond to the pure sounds of the shofar with words of confession and regret, Hashem, too, takes pity upon us.
Rav Dovid Cohen (Ohel Dovid 5:112) notes that when Ezra and Nechemiah (Nechemiah 8:9) prepared Klal Yisroel for their first Rosh Hashanah back in Eretz Yisroel, they adjured them to do teshuvah, but not to cry. Rav Cohen explains that although Rosh Hashanah and the shofar are devoted to the process of teshuvah, it is to be done out of happiness and tears of joy. The happiness is that of one who has discovered the right way and is no longer lost. The tears reflect the relief of one who has wandered and wondered but now knows exactly what to do. Rav Cohen concludes that this approach seems to follow the opinion that there is a mitzvah of joy on Rosh Hashanah.
My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Pachad Yitzchok, Rosh Hashanah, Maamorim 20 and 27) places special emphasis upon the words havlei hazeman (“foolishness of the time”). In an involved exposition, he notes that man and time are generally enemies, since time is cyclical and man requires renewal and freshness. However, after the creation of Klal Yisroel and the giving of the first mitzvah in the Torah, that of sanctifying time, time itself can now be turned to man’s advantage. That is the magic of Rosh Hashanah. Although the months usually represent renewal and the years represent recurring cycles, Rosh Hashanah is our annual opportunity to renew, reinvent, and in fact recreate ourselves. For this reason, the Rambam warns us not to fall into the destructive aspects of time, which reflect repetition and habit. The shofar is literally the instrument that pulls us out of that dangerous pattern and sets us on the road to rejuvenation. Instead of repeating the mistakes of past years, it calls to us to remember past glories and future potential. It reminds us of what is best about our essence while allowing us to shed the errors of the past.
Another ruling of the Rambam grants us a practical way to concretize this approach. He teaches (Hilchos Mezuzah 6:13) that “one should be extremely careful to fulfill the mitzvah of mezuzah properly, for it is a constant obligation. Every time a person comes and goes, he will encounter the Name of Hashem and remember His love. [In doing so,] he will awaken from his slumber and mistakes in the foolishness of the time and will know that nothing exists forever except the knowledge of the Eternal One. Thus he will return to his senses and go in the proper path.” Here we see that the Rambam codified the avodah of Rosh Hashanah as a daily part of our routine. However, as Rav Hutner taught us, once we have heard the sound of the Rosh Hashanah shofar, we can renew each day with the simple act of going through the door of our home.
Let us therefore seize the opportunity this Rosh Hashanah to awaken from our doldrums and renew our very souls. Each step can be an exciting path closer to spiritual greatness and conquering mountains we dared not even approach before. Kesivah vachasimah tovah to all.