Parshat Nitzavim: The Difference Between the Covenants

“You stand here today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d, the leaders of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, al the men of Israel.” (Devarim 29:9)

In the first pasuk of parasha, Moshe explains to the people that the entire nation of Bnai Yisrael is standing before Hashem. Moshe continues to explain that the nation will now enter into a covenant with Hashem. Moshe had previously facilitated a covenant between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael. This previous covenant was created at Sinai. What is the difference between these covenants? How does the covenant described in this week’s parasha differ from the covenant of Sinai?

According to Rashi, the covenant at Sinai preceded the receiving of the entire Torah. With this covenant, the people made a commitment to observe those commandments that had been revealed prior to Sinai. These commandments included the seven mitzvot that Hashem had revealed to Noach and the mitzvot that Hashem had revealed to Bnai Yisrael before their arrival at Sinai.[1] Bnai Yisrael made this commitment with the declaration na’aseh ve’nishma – we will hear and we will do. In return for this commitment, Hashem revealed the Torah in its entirety to Bnai Yisrael.

In contrast, Rashi interprets the covenant in this week’s parasha as the creation of a relationship with between Bnai Yisrael and Hashem. Bnai Yisrael agrees to accept Hashem as their G-d and Hashem agrees to accept Bnai Yisrael as His nation. There are two elements to this relationship. Presumably it includes a commitment by Bnai Yisrael to accept the Torah and to observe its mitzvot. But in addition to this commitment, the covenant involves an acceptance blessings and curses that Moshe has previously described and to which he again makes reference in this week’s parasha.[2] Observance of the mitzvot will be rewarded with abundance in the Land of Israel. Neglect of the commandments will be punished by suffering, exile and persecution.

Nachmanides offers a different interpretation of these two covenants. He explains that the covenant at Sinai was a commitment by Bnai Yisrael to observe the entire Torah. However, although the Torah outlines punishments for the violation of many of the mitzvot, the original covenant did not include an acceptance of the blessings and curses outlined in Sefer Devarim. These blessings and curses establish a relationship between the welfare of the nation – in its entirety – and its commitment to the observance of the Torah. In other words, with the acceptance of this covenant Bnai Yisrael – as a nation – accepted that the future wellbeing of the people would be determined by its observance of the Torah.[3] In short, the covenant at Sinai was a commitment to observance of the Torah. The covenant in this week’s parasha is an acceptance of the consequences for observance or neglect of the Torah.


“It is a positive commandment of the Torah to hear the sounding of the Shofar on Rosh HaShanna as it states, “A day of Shofar blast it should be to you.”
(Maimonides, Mishe Torah, Laws of Shofar 1:1)

One of the mitzvot that is strongly associated with Rosh HaShanna is the sounding of the Shofar. According to the Torah, we are required to sound nine blasts – the combination of Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah three times. This is represented by the following table:

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However, in order to fulfill this obligation, we are required to sound thirty blasts. How, does the Torah obligation to sound nine blasts translate into an obligation to sound thirty blasts?

There are two factors at play in this conversion of a requirement to sound nine blasts into the requirement to sound thirty. The Torah requires that we sound the series of Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah three times. Part of this obligation is easily understood. The Tekiah is an uninterrupted blast. There is little or no room for uncertainty regarding its character. However, the Teruah is a sound characterized by interrupted notes. This is a much more complicated sound. Complication leaves room for doubts. What is the exact description of the “interrupted” blast? The Sages identified three possibilities. First, the Teruah may be a series of minimal sounds – the sound we refer to as Teruah. Second, the true Teruah may be a more substantial sound that is interrupted – the sound we refer to as Shevarim. Finally, the true Teruah may be a combination of these first two possibilities – the sound we refer to as Shevarim/Teruah. In short, the Torah requires that we sound the combination of a Teruah preceded and followed by a Tekiah three times – a total of nine blasts. However, this nature of the central Teruah is unknown. The three central blasts that we sound – Teruah, Shevarim and Shevarim/Teruah – are actually three possible identities of the true Teruah required by the Torah.[4] The following table represents the result of the doubt regarding the exact nature of the central Teruah sound:

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How many sounds are there in the above table? One might reasonably conclude that the above table includes 27 sounds. However by convention, the Shevarim/Teruah sound is counted as two sounds. So, traditionally this table is described as including 30 sounds. This calculation is represented in the following table:

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The dispute over the true nature of the Teruah is somewhat curious. It is clear that the Sages are certain that the character of the Teruah contrasts with the character of the Tekiah. Therefore, because the Tekiah is an uninterrupted blast, the Teruah must be an interrupted sound. However, how can we account for the development of these three alternative interpretations of the specific nature of the Teruah?

Aruch HaShulchan offers an interesting explanation. He bases his explanation on a comment of the Sages. In the passage above from Mishne Torah, Maimonides quotes the pasuk in the Torah that is the source for the obligation to sound the Shofar on Rosh HaShanna. The literal translation of the pasuk is “a day of Teruah it should be for you.” Unkelus translates the word Teruah in the passage as crying – “a day of crying it should be for you.” The Talmud explains that the Sages’ understand Unkelus’s translation as providing a description of the Teruah. The Teruah imitates the sound of crying. However, crying can take three forms. Sometimes, one cries in long sobs. The Shevarim sound is an imitation of this form of crying. On other occasions, one cries in short shrieks. This form of crying is imitated by the sound that we refer to as Teruah. And sometimes crying combines these two forms of crying. This last possibility is imitated by the Shevarim/Teruah. In other words, the Sages know that the Teruah mentioned by the Torah is an imitation of crying.[5] However, they differ in precisely which of the various forms of crying the Teruah is intended to imitate.

Aruch HaShulchan suggests that the Talmud’s comparison of Teruah to crying is not merely intended to provide a description of the character of the sound. Instead, the Talmud is telling us that the Teruah is intended to express the activity of crying. In sounding the Teruah, we are engaging in an act of crying. We are expressing anguish. The dispute in the Talmud is over the nature of the anguish that we are required to express through the Teruah. According to Aruch HaShulchan’s interpretation the Shevarim sound expresses groans of pain and the conventional Teruah sound expresses the cries of lamentation.[6] Apparently, he maintains that pain and lamentation are each component themes of Rosh HaShanna. The dispute between the Sages is over which of these themes is to be reflected in the Shofar sound or if both themes are to be reflected.

Although this approach to explaining the debate of the true nature of the Teruah is interesting, it presents two problems. First, it is difficult to identify the actual alternative themes in Rosh HaShanna to which the various interpretations of the Teruah refer. In other words, we can easily understand that on Rosh HaShanna we should lament our condition and even anticipate with anxiety the coming judgment we will receive. But it is difficult to identify how this experience can be alternatively interpreted as an encounter with pain, an expression of lamentation, or both.

The second difficulty stems from a comment of Rav Hai mentioned by Aruch HaShulchan. Rav Hai maintains that all three of the interpretations of Teruah are valid and proper. There is no actual dispute regarding the character of the Teruah sound. Instead, all three interpretations essentially fulfill the requirement of sounding the Teruah sound. On a Torah level, any one of these three interpretations is acceptable.

However, in different communities different interpretations developed. The Sages wished to establish uniformity in the interpretation of Teruah. The Sages did not wish to choose one of these interpretations for universal implementation and suppress the alternatives. Instead, in order to establish a uniform, universal practice, they required that the Teruah should be sounded according to all of the various valid interpretations.[7]

Rav Hai’s position is difficult to reconcile with Aruch HaShulchan’s explanation of the three alternative interpretations of the Teruah. It is somewhat unlikely that each of these interpretations is a reference to an alternative theme in Rosh HaShanna – as Aruch HaShulchan suggests – and to maintain that each of these interpretations is valid according to the Torah! Certainly, the Torah is not unconcerned with the theme or themes of Rosh HaShanna that we are to express through the Shofar and leaves it to us to decide!

These problems suggest and alternative interpretation of the discussion in the Talmud. As noted above, the Talmud interprets the term Teruah to mean “cry.” Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili – Ritva – suggests that the Talmud is not suggesting that the Teruah is intended to express crying. Instead, the Talmud is only providing a description of the Teruah sound. The intention of this description is to communicate that the Teruah is a broken sound. The discussion is the Talmud is over the specific nature of this broken sound.[8]

Ritva’s approach suggests that the discussion in the Talmud should be interpreted as an analysis of the character of a “broken” Shofar blast. This broken character can be created by sounding a series of minimal notes that emerge as a Shofar blast through being sounded in series. This is the conventional Teruah. Alternatively, the “broken” character can emerge through breaking the Tekiah into smaller components – at least three components. This interpretation is expressed in our Shevarim. In other words, the character of a “broken” blast can emerge from the inherent minimal nature of the component notes – the conventional Teruah. Alternatively, the broken character can emerge from the relative length on the component notes as compared to the Tekiah – our Shevarim. Finally, it is possible that the true Teruah must include both of these alternative interpretations – our Shevarim/Teruah.

This explanation of the Talmud allows for the discussion to be interpreted as a dispute between the Sages. It is also consistent with the position of Rav Hai. In other words, it is possible that the Sages are in agreement that the Teruah of the Torah is a broken sound but they dispute the exact character of this broken sound. It is also possible – as Rav Hai maintains – that the Torah merely requires the sounding of a broken sound but does not specify the precise manner in which we should create this sound. All of our interpretations of Teruah are valid and fulfill the Torah requirement.

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 24:3.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 29:12.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 29:9. Commentary on Sefer Shemot 24:1.

[4] Mesechet Rosh HaShanna 33b – 34a.

[5] Mesechet Rosh HaShanna 33b.

[6] Rav Aharon HaLeyve Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan, Orech Chayim 590:2-3.

[7] Rav Aharon HaLeyve Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan, Orech Chayim 590:4.

[8] Rabbaynu Yom Tov ben Avraham Isbili (Ritva), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Rosh HaShanna 34b.