The unintended ritual

What thoughts and feelings should accompany the shofar on Rosh Hashanah? Or is this even a valid question? Is there a “right” motivation for any religious ritual? If, for example, hearing the shofar is purely an esthetic experience, without the slightest devotional content, is that enough?

The rabbis of the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 28a) addressed this very scenario, wondering if someone who blows a shofar on Rosh Hashanah “for song” — with no intention of fulfilling a mitzvah — has satisfied the obligation. Is proper mindfulness a necessary condition of religious practice or is performance sufficient?

It may seem obvious, especially to the spiritually or philosophically inclined, that ritual must never become ritualistic, in its worst sense. If it is an expression of worship, then ritual detached from religious consciousness must be effectively meaningless. “God desires the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b).

Others will argue that the religious gesture can stand on its own. Rather than a means to something else, ritual has its own religious value independent of soft qualities like motivation (lishmah) and intent (kavanah). Aren’t the mitzvot inherently valuable, such that intent should be optional? Practical considerations are also relevant: Customs passed down from one generation to the next are the mainstay of religious continuity, while states of mind are subjective and therefore secondary.

As might be expected, these questions are not easily answered. The Talmud is inconclusive on whether, as a rule, “mitzvot require intent” and after centuries of halakhic discussion and debate, the problem remains for the most part unresolved.

What might sound like a theoretical problem has had lasting historical impact. This was one of the defining controversies over Hasidism, which required its adherents to declare their intent with a kabbalistic formula (leshem yihud) prior to performing a mitzvah. And the issue is by no means unique to Judaism, as evidenced by the violent clashes in early modern Europe on, among other issues, the relative merits of faith and works.

Of course, it isn’t necessary to pose the dilemma in binary terms. Between the extremes of unintentional and hyper-spiritualized ritual lies a full range of possibilities. The optimal point along that spectrum will vary by personality and circumstance, but if I had to choose a starting position, it would be consistent, if sometimes uninspired, practice.

I am not suggesting that we make a virtue of rote performance, but that we maintain our ancient traditions while searching for their spiritual core. The quest for meaning in the mitzvot and their overlaid customs should be continuous, but the discovery of meaning may take a lifetime. It is a process that unfolds in fits and starts. For the process to succeed, we should not suspend ritual observance until the spirit finally moves us to act.

Shofar is a unique and ironic example in this discussion because its entire purpose is to demand your attention and elicit a disruptive emotional response: “Shall a shofar be blown in the city, and the people not tremble?” (Amos 3:16). The shofar blast is a siren — a call to gather, mark a holiday, or prepare for battle. As cited in the holiday’s Musaf prayer, the shofar also represents divine revelation on a historic scale, at Mount Sinai and in the end of days. It would seem impossible just to hum along to the tune.

Still, even the most sensitive person will not always respond to a siren, especially when they know it is about to be sounded. Inspiration can hardly be scheduled but, ready or not, Rosh Hashanah still comes around annually. This and other holiday rituals, observed year after year, lay down fertile soil in which to cultivate meaning.

What about our shofar virtuoso who played it on Rosh Hashanah like a musical instrument, with no sense of obligation? The major halakhic codes (Maimonides, Shulhan Arukh) rule that since kavanah is essential, neither the player nor his listeners fulfilled the mitzvah. However, later halakhists (Hayyei Adam, Mishnah Berurah) add that it all depends on context. If someone who is committed to mitzvot clears their work calendar months in advance, prepares the holiday meals, arrives at shul on Rosh Hashanah anticipating the shofar, and yet, at the critical moment, somehow becomes distracted, they have observed the mitzvah in full. The intent is obvious.

As with any long-term commitment, the search for religious meaning begins with showing up. Occasional inattentiveness is a fact of religious life and spiritual gratification is often delayed. If the call of the shofar and of other traditional practices does not resonate immediately, it may eventually, by repetition and reflection, sing in harmony with the soul.

About the Author
David Zinberg lives in Teaneck, NJ with his wife and three sons and works in financial services.
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