Shoftim: Confusing the Accuser – Part One

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18 Jan 2005
Rosh Hashanah

A theme which we encounter repeatedly in the mitzvah of Shofar is “confusing the accuser” (Satan). For instance:

  1. The Gemara tells us that we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana both sitting and standing “in order to confuse the accuser” (Rosh Hashana 16b).
  2. In the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon and in Machzor Vitry, this is given as one reason for the wide variety of different shofar calls we sound on the holiday.
  3. The Tur (OC 581) gives it as one reason for blowing the shofar every day in Elul;
  4. While the Maharil gives it as a reason why we stop sounding the shofar on the last day before Rosh Hashana.

Let us study the simple meaning and some deeper insights of this concept.

The word Satan in the Bible seems to mean merely “opponent”. For instance, the angel who obstructs Balaam’s progress is described as a Satan (Bamidbar 22:22), and the captains of the Philistines are afraid that if David fights by their side he will not be an ally but rather a Satan, an opponent (Shmuel I 29:4).

But many times we find it has a more specific meaning: an angel who is specially designated by God to act as a prosecuting attorney when He judges men (Zechariah 3:2, Iyov 1,2). Although God already knows all of our thoughts and actions, Divine judgment is described to us in Scripture as following equitable and transparent procedures, with advocates making claims and counterclaims, in order to educate us that this judgment it is not arbitrary but rather fair and balanced.

In the Talmud, we find an additional dimension: Satan is sometimes presented not merely as an accuser, but also as a tempter, someone who confronts our righteousness with trials in order to test us.

While we certainly try to avoid Satan and his judgment and adhere steadfastly to the mitzvot, the Gemara also teaches us that we have to respect his mission which is after all a necessary part of the administration of justice in the world. When the sage Palemo cursed Satan, Satan came to embarrass him and then rebuked him for his curses. It’s enough to ask Hashem to keep Satan far away; it’s not necessary to curse him (Kiddushin 81b).

Let’s return to confusing Satan by blowing the shofar. The Ran brings an explanation related to the idea of Satan as tempter, identified with “the evil urge”: The stirring sound of the shofar instills awe in the listeners and subdues their urges and temptations.

But most commentators seem to associate “confusing Satan” with the idea of Satan as accuser. For example, Rashi writes that sounding the shofar when the congregation is both sitting and standing impresses him with our devotion to the mitzvot; the result is that he is timid in his accusations. Tosafot explains that when he hears the persistence of the shofar (because it is blown so often) he will think that he is hearing the shofar of the final Redemption, when his job comes to an end (because righteousness will reign) (Rashi, Tosafot and Ran on Rosh Hashana 17b).

The Maharil (a Rishon who wrote a compendium of customs) gives a slightly different explanation: The shofar announces the Day of Judgment, which enables Satan to know when he is summoned to “court” to present his case against men. But when the shofar is blown so many times, he may become confused and “miss his court date”. Of course Satan is a loyal public servant and will keep coming back each time the shofar is blown in Elul, but then the shofar is omitted on Rosh Hashana eve and he may conclude that the case is over and he can just pack up.

Satan has shown himself to be a remarkably devoted and resourceful functionary, and it is probably not so easy to fool him. But we also must remember that his function is not to cause us suffering, but rather to create accountability in the world in order to motivate us to righteousness.

When we hear the shofar in Elul, it’s not only Satan who remembers that judgment day is approaching; we ourselves are reminded. We allow ourselves to be fooled into seeing the Prosecutor right away; thus we subdue our urges (as the Ran states) and are stirred to repentance. When we hear the shofar blast numerous times and ways on Rosh Hashana, staying in shul hours beyond what we are accustomed yet without impatience, we are astounded at our own devotion to mitzvot; this truly silences the accuser. (As we find in Rashi.) When we reach Rosh Hashana in a state of perfect repentance, we may find that our righteousness is so complete that we don’t win our case, we actually find it dismissed “for lack of public concern”. After all, the purpose of the judgment itself is only to give an incentive for right conduct; when we find ourselves independently motivated to act rightly the trial is superfluous and the prosecutor can go home. (As we find in Tosafot and the Maharil.)

The various customs of blowing the shofar have the effect of “tricking” us into preparing for judgment well in advance; thus we find ourselves well prepared on the Days of Awe and the prosecution will be muted and confused.

To be continued….

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.