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Mishnah Rosh HaShanah, Chapter 3

Rosh Hashanah
 Chapter 3

ראש השנה
פרק ג’


m. Rosh Hashana 3:8

“And so it was, when Moshe raised his hand, Israel prevailed…” (Exod. 17:11) Do Moshe’s hands make or break war? Rather, this teaches: Whenever Israel would look upward And direct their hearts to their Father in heaven – they prevailed And if not – they fell. You can say similarly: “Make a copper snake and place it on a pole, and everyone bitten who sees it will live” (Num. 21:8) Does the snake cause death or revive? Rather: Whenever Israel would look upward And subject their hearts to their Father in heaven – they healed; And if not – they were harmed

This mishna addresses a severe theological difficulty that emerges from Scripture’s stories about Moshe’s hands and the copper snake. Biblical miracle stories often condition the miracle’s occurrence on some symbolic act on the part of the prophet, as we see regarding the plagues in Egypt, the splitting of the sea, and more. In the two incidents described here, however, salvation depends on constant action – Moshe lifting his hands and gazing at the copper snake – thus giving the impression that the act was “almost magic.”

But if the Mishna’s theological question is clear, its answer requires explanation. At first glance, any alternative to the view that Moshe’s hands and the copper snake possessed magical properties would need to emphasize the sovereign action of the One Who makes miracles and dwells in the heavens, but the Mishna actually emphasizes the actions of Israel, who direct their hearts toward heaven.

In order to understand the Mishna’s answer to the question and its ideological meaning, we will first attempt to understand the relationship between this mishna and its parallel in Mekhilta, as well as its halakhic context (Rosh Hashana 3:2-7). Scrutinizing these points will expose us to a wealth of spiritual and moral questions that occupied the Tana’im, allowing us to understand more deeply the meaning of our mishna and the methods by which the Mishna’s editor interweaves halakha and aggada.

A)   Comparing Rosh Hashana 3:8 with its parallel in Mekhilta

A comparison of our mishna with its parallel in Mekhilta will sharpen and deepen the question we posed at the beginning of this essay. The differences between the Mishna and Mekhilta are highlighted when the two texts are placed side-by-side:

Rosh Hashana 3:8


Do Moshe’s hands make

Do Moshe’s hands make Israel prevail 

or break war?

or break Amalek?

Rather, this teaches: Whenever Israel

Rather, as long as Moshe

would look upward

raised his hands upward


Israel would gaze at him

And direct their hearts

and have faith

to their Father in heaven

in the One Who appointed Moshe to act

they prevailed

and God performed miracles and mighty acts for them

And if not – they fell.

The answers offered by these two sources to a common question that they raise could not be more different, despite their exterior similarities. The difference applies both to the purpose of Moshe’s actions and their results:

  1. i) The purpose of the act – in Mekhilta Israel gazes at Moshe’s hands and, contemplating them, arrive at faith in God. Moshe does a strange act, and the Israelites who contemplate it realize that there is no explanation for Moshe’s behavior unless he is obeying a divine command. This realization gives them faith in the Commander. In the Mishna, Israel does not look at Moshe’s hands, but through them, toward heaven. Moshe lifts his hands as though indicating upward, thus directing Israel’s gaze heavenward. Israel’s upward gaze is designed to direct their hearts, too, toward heaven. In short, in Mekhilta Israel contemplates Moshe himself to achieve faith, whereas in the Mishna, Israel gazes in the direction that Moshe indicates, upward, to direct their hearts toward their Father in heaven.
  2. ii) The results of the action – in Mekhilta, God performs miracles and wonders for the people, whereas in the Mishna we learn that the Israelites prevail. I believe that this difference is the direct result of the difference in understanding the purpose of the act. In Mekhilta, Israel is enjoined only to have faith in God, in the sense of: “God will fight for you; you remain quiet” (Exod. 14:4). The Mishna calls Israel to a different action – directing their hearts toward heaven. This bolsters their strength, and they prevail over Amalek and over the snake’s venom.

While the comparison with Mekhilta highlights the unique features of the Mishna’s exegetical approach, it also deepens the question with which we began: what solution does the Mishna propose to the whiff of magic that exudes from the stories of Moshe’s hands and the copper snake? Is Israel’s strength to overcome Amalek or snake venom any less magical than if this strength were contained in Moshe’s hands or the copper snake?

a) Rosh Hashana 3:8 in its context

In order to address this difficulty, we must consider the context into which the editor of the Mishna embedded this mishna. Our mishna deals with a non-halakhic issue, but like other aggadic mishnayot scattered through the Mishna, it is embedded in a halakhic context. The main topic of Chapter 3 of Rosh Hashana is the laws governing the shofar. Of course, our mishna does not address the shofar, though the linguistic connection that binds our aggadic mishna to the preceding halakhic mishna (3:7) is clear:

Or whose house was adjacent to a synagogue And heard the sound of the shofar Or the sound of the scroll [of Esther]: If he directed his heart              – he has fulfilled [his obligation] But if not                                 – he has not fulfilled [his obligation] Even though this one and that one both heard, this one directed his heart, and that one did not direct his heart.

Prof. Jonah Fraenkel has already discussed the connection between these two adjacent mishnayot:

No doubt, mishna 8 follows mishna 7 because of the common expressions “direct his heart” (“mekhavein et libo”), “direct their hearts” (“mekhavnin et liban”). The difference in meaning between the two expressions is the difference between halakha and aggada. One who directs his heart “behind the synagogue” focuses his mind on the defined, legal matter of the mitzva, whereas those who “direct their hearts to their Father in heaven” fill their “hearts” with completely religious feeling.

The intention of the Mishna’s editor, Fraenkel continues, is to allude that one who hears the shofar should not be content with formal “halakhic kavana (direction/intent)”; rather, he should make an effort to achieve, through the shofar blasts, “aggadic kavana.” We can add to his words: halakhic kavana accompanies and defines the performance of a mitzva, whereas aggadic kavana is the result that develops from the performance of a mitzva. Thus, these two types of kavana should not be viewed as parallel planes of consciousness, but as cause and effect: halakhic kavana is a prerequisite for attaining aggadic kavana, and the spiritual goal of halakhic kavana is aggadic kavana. Thus, halakha and aggada are not merely complementary, but are also intertwined.

This understanding of the function and meaning of mishna 8 is reinforced by the full sequence of mishnayot in Chapter 3 (we will not relate to mishna 1 here, as its placement in this chapter is problematic):

  1. 2)   All shofars are acceptable, except that of a cow

                                                       Because it is a horn (“keren”)

                      Rabbi Yosi said: But all shofars are called “keren

                                                       As it states, “upon a long blast from the ram’s horn”

  2. 3)   The shofar of Rosh Hashana – is of an ibex, straight Its mouth is coated in gold, And there are two trumpets alongside The shofar [blast] extends while the trumpets cut short

                                                                   Since the mitzva of the day is with a shofar.

  3. 4)   On fast days                                            – of a ram, bent Their mouths are coated in silver, And two trumpets are in the middle The shofar cuts short and the trumpets extend

                                                                   Since the mitzva of the day is with trumpets.

  4. 5)   The Jubilee year is equivalent to Rosh Hashana with regard to blowings and blessings. Rabbi Yehuda says: On Rosh Hashana           – we blow with those of rams And on the Jubilee– with those of ibexes.
  5. 6)   A shofar that was cracked and glued                 – [it is] unfit [If one] glued fragments of shofars                          – [it is] unfit [If it was] pierced and he stopped it up: If it impedes the blast                                        – [it is] unfit But if not                                                          – [it is] fit.
  6. 7)   One who blows into a cistern Or into a barrel Or into a pit: If he heard the sound of the shofar – he has fulfilled [his obligation] If he heard the sound of an echo – he has not fulfilled [his obligation.

How did the editor of the Mishna organize the laws pertaining to the shofar in this unit? After mishna 2, which discusses the origins of the shofar (“All shofars are acceptable, except that of a cow…”), mishnas 3-5 further discuss these origins (ram vs. ibex), but in this case the importance of the shofar’s source relates to its shape – straight or bent. In addition to establishing the proper shape of the shofar used on each occasion where blasts were sounded (Rosh Hashana, fast days, the Jubilee year), the Mishna adds other details pertaining to the shofar’s external appearance: the material used to coat its mouth and its placement relative to the trumpets.

The next mishna (6) goes on to discuss other aspects of the shofar’s physical form and integrity. There are two parts to this inquiry: when the shofar is cracked or if it has been broken and reconstituted, the Mishna disqualifies it out of hand, since its physical flaw removes its status and identity as a shofar. If the shofar was pierced and the hole was then filled, the Mishna conditions the integrity of the shofar on the integrity of its sound – as long as the sound has not changed, the shofar is still considered whole

The discussion of the integrity of the shofar’s sound serves as a bridge to the next topic (mishna 7): only one who hears the shofar itself has fulfilled the mitzva. The mishna then continues (“Similarly…”) to the question of whether proper kavana must accompany hearing the shofar in order for it to be classified as a performance of the mitzva.

The thematic structure that emerges from this analysis can be summarized in the following chart:

Mishna 2 Origin of the shofar The type of animal from which the shofar was taken
Mishna 3-5 The shofar’s appearance The type of animal, the shofar’s coating and placement (relative to the trumpets) depending on the occasion (Rosh Hashana, fast day, Jubilee)
Mishna 6 The shofar’s integrity  
  a)   Cracked,     broken The shofar has no integrity, is unfit
  b)   Pierced and filled The shofar’s integrity depends on the integrity of its sound
Mishna 7 Hearing the shofar’s sound “If he heard the sound of the shofar, he fulfilled his obligation”
  Kavana to hear the shofar “If he directed his heart, he fulfilled his obligation”

Based on our survey and the chart, it is easy to see how this unit was created. The halakhot go from the outside in, from external and exterior aspects of the shofar to inner dimensions: the animal that serves as the shofar’s origin à a physical description of the shofar à the sound that comes from the shofar à listening to its sound à the kavana of the listener. It begins with the animal and ends in the heart of the listener, and every stop along the way is a link in the chain that connects the two.

Now we can consider the aggadic mishna 8 afresh and see how it fits into the thematic progression that emerges from the structure of this unit. Against this backdrop, the difference between the kavana of mishna 7, which connects the sound of the shofar to its listener and serves as mental confirmation of what the ear has absorbed, and that of mishna 8, which lifts the listener out of his inward focus and connects him to his Father in heaven. The halakhic unit of mishnayot 2-7 moves in the opposite direction of its aggadic addendum, mishna 8. The halakha describes an inward movement, from the outside into the heart of the listener, whereas the aggada describes kavana that leads from the inside out. The halakha describes how an external symbol can be absorbed in the ear and heart of one who hears it, whereas the aggada describes how man’s heart can take him out of his loneliness and connect him to his Father in heaven.

Understanding how the editor incorporated the aggadic mishna 8 at the end of a halakhic discussion of the laws of shofar enables us to understand the profound philosophical differences between the Mishna and Mekhilta. It seems that the placement and function of kavana in Chapter 3 of Rosh Hashana instructs us that kavana does not operate in detachment from the practical world. Halakhic kavana accompanies and characterizes action, while aggadic kavana is generated by action (Moshe’s hands) and returns to the practical world (Israel prevailed).

We can thus appreciate the difference between the two understandings of Moshe’s hands and the copper snake – that of the Mishna and that of Mekhilta. Both tannaitic sources presume that Moshe’s hands make salvations possible by directing Israel’s mind toward God; they differ over the mechanism by which God brings about salvation. According to Mekhilta, God salvation is miraculous. Man’s actions have no real impact; he is enjoined to merely have faith in Israel’s divine Rescuer. According to the Mishna, however, God brings salvation through flesh and blood agents; thus, Israel is enjoined, even in the heat of battle, to turn their hearts toward God so that their actions may benefit from divine direction and influence.

It seems that the differences between the Mishna and Mekhilta about how to understand these two historical events are rooted in a much broader and deeper question: What is man’s role in divine salvation? Is God the active agent, while man, the object of salvation, need only acknowledge the miracle and have faith in the One who made it? Or does God invite man into a true partnership, in which God acts only through His human partner?

How exactly is the partnership to which the Mishna alludes executed in practice? How does this partnership avoid obtaining an aura of magic? The Mishna does not explain its theological conceptions in depth or detail, but it seems that the key to understanding it lies in the term “kavana.” The connection between man and God, generated by kavana of the heart, is a bilateral connection. Man’s distresses and desires rise before God, and it is from God that man draws the strength that enables him to fulfill his needs. This sheds light not only on Moshe’s hands, but on the mitzva of shofar – the kavana of the heart that is generated by the mitzva of hearing the shofar impacts man and actualizes powers that are latent within him.

b) Summary

Comparing the Mishna to Mekhilta sharpened the problem of understanding how the Mishna addresses the theological question with which it begins. An analysis of how an entire chapter of the Mishna is edited, paying special attention to the literary phenomena that integrate an aggadic mishna into a halakhic context, enabled us to understand the theoretical conception that underlies the Mishna’s statement – a conception diametrically opposed to that of Mekhilta.

The theoretical issue at stake in these sources is borne out in discussions of the character of aggadic kavana and the character of God’s salvation. On both of these points, the central question is whether directing man’s heart, which creates a bond between the human and divine realms, is supposed to precipitate divine action or human action. Mekhilta emphasizes divine action, whereas the Mishna, in contrast, emphasizes human action.

מסכת ראש השנה פרק ג

ג,א ראוהו בית דין וכל ישראל–נחקרו העדים, לא הספיקו לומר מקודש, עד שחשיכה–הרי זה מעובר. ראוהו בית דין בלבד–יעמדו שניים ויעידו בפניהם, ויאמרו מקודש מקודש. ראוהו שלושה, והם בית דין–יעמדו שניים, ויושיבו מחבריהם אצל היחיד ויעידו בפניהם, ויאמרו מקודש מקודש: שאין היחיד נאמן על ידי עצמו.

ג,ב כל השופרות כשרים–חוץ משל פרה, מפני שהוא קרן. אמר רבי יוסי, והלוא כל השופרות נקראו קרן, שנאמר “והיה במשוך בקרן היובל, כשומעכם את קול השופר” (יהושוע ו,ה).

ג,ג שופר של ראש השנה–של יעל, פשוט, ופיו מצופה זהב, ושתי חצוצרות מן הצדדים; השופר מאריך והחצוצרות מקצרות, שמצות היום בשופר. [ד] בתענייות–בשל זכרים כפופים, ופיהם מצופה כסף, ושתי חצוצרות באמצע; השופר מקצר והחצוצרות מאריכות, שמצות היום בחצוצרות.

ג,ד [ה] שווה היובל לראש השנה בתקיעה, ובברכות; רבי יהודה אומר, בראש השנה תוקעים בשל זכרים, וביובל בשל יעלים.

ג,ה [ו] שופר שנסדק ודבקו, פסול; דבק שברי שופרות, פסול. ניקב וסתמו–אם מעכב הוא את התקיעה, פסול; ואם לאו, כשר. [ז] התוקע לתוך הבור או לתוך החדות או לתוך הפיטס–אם קול שופר שמע, יצא; אם קול הברה שמע, לא יצא. וכן מי שהיה עובר אחורי בית הכנסת, או שהיה ביתו סמוך לבית הכנסת, ושמע קול שופר, או קול מגילה–אם כיוון ליבו, יצא; ואם לאו, לא יצא: אף על פי שזה שמע וזה שמע, זה כיוון את ליבו וזה לא כיוון.

ג,ו [ח] “והיה, כאשר ירים משה ידו–וגבר ישראל . . .” (שמות יז,יא), וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או ידיו שוברות מלחמה: אלא כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלן, ומכוונין את ליבם לאביהם שבשמיים–היו מתגברין; ואם לאו, היו נופלים. כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר “ויאמר ה’ אל משה, עשה לך שרף . . .” (במדבר כא,ח), וכי הנחש ממית ומחיה: אלא כל זמן שישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלן, ומשעבדין את ליבם לאביהם שבשמיים–היו מתרפאין; ואם לאו, היו נימוקים. חירש שוטה וקטן, אין מוציאין את הרבים ידי חובתן. זה הכלל–כל שאינו חייב בדבר, אינו מוציא את הרבים ידי חובתן.