Right after the shofar is blown we recite a set of verses. The first of these is “Ashrei ha-am yodei teruah…” from Psalms 89:16. Based on the time of the recital, we get the impression that the first four words mean: “Happy is the nation that knows how to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.”
A deeper interpretation of this phrase is found at Leviticus Rabbah 29:4: Unlike other nations, we are the nation that knows how to influence the Creator with a “teruah” on Rosh Hashanah and change Him from judging with midat hadin to midat harachamim. This interpretation is followed by Rashi to Psalms 89:16 and cited in the ArtScroll Machzor.
But the context of the phrase in Psalms is not Rosh Hashanah. What is the plain sense of the phrase in Psalms?
The full verse is: “Ashrei ha-am yodei teruah, Hashem be-or panecha yehaleichun.”
In order to get a handle on our phrase, we first have to address the meaning of the word “Te-R-U-A-H.” This word, in its various forms, appears over 30 times in Tanach.
Almost all the time in Tanach it is used as a word derived from the root resh-vav-ayin, which means a “loud sound.” But there is still a large ambiguity. The word can sometimes refer to a loud sound of war or threats. But other times it can refer to a loud sound of joy or praise. (For the former, see, e.g., Josh. 6:5, Zeph. 1:16, Amos 1:14, and Jer. 4:19. For the latter, see, e.g., I Sam. 4:5, Job 8:21, Ezra 3:11, and Ps. 150:5.)
There is also at least one time in Tanach, at Job. 33:26, where the word derives from a different root: Resh-Ayin-He. There it means something like “friendship, closeness.”
So we have three possible understandings of our word “teruah.” Let us see how some of our commentators have understood our phrase at Psalms 89:16.
The translation in the Soncino edition is: “Happy is the people who know the joyful shout.” The commentary mentions various joyful sounds that occurred in our religion in ancient times: the sounding of trumpets, the sound of the shofar that acclaims a king, and the happy cries of pilgrims on festivals. It explains that “Israel has been privileged to know them all as God’s people.”
Daat Mikra views the word “teruah” as a symbol for the initial acceptance (=inauguration) of a king. (See, e.g., Psalm 47, and particularly verses 2-3.) It suggests that the meaning of the verse is “How fortunate is the nation that knows how to inaugurate Hashem as a King.” (The commentary does not mention Rosh Hashanah, and does not seem to be referring to the yearly teruah/symbolic acceptance of God as King that occurs on Rosh Hashanah.)
Radak focuses on the “war/threat” meaning of the word “teruah.” He believes the import of the phrase is something like: “Fortunate is the nation Israel who have God on their side and who can sound the “teruah” that symbolizes military victory over their enemies.”
But a few of our commentators understand the verse as using the “friendship, closeness” meaning of the word “teruah.” They suggest a meaning like “Fortunate is the nation that knows how to be close to God.” See, e.g., Metzudat Tzion, Metzudat David and Malbim.
How do we decide which view to prefer? Often it helps to look at the parallel in the balance of the verse. Here the latter part of the verse reads: “Hashem be-or panecha yehaleichun” (=they walk in the light of Your face). But this phrase can be parallel to many of the suggestions above, so it does not significantly help us.
As mentioned earlier, the “closeness, friendship” meaning of the word “teruah” is a rare one. It is certainly the meaning of the word at Job 33:26. It also may be the meaning of the word at Numbers 23:21, a verse like ours, where the meaning of the word “teruah” is ambiguous. There we have a statement by Bilam: “Hashem Elokav imo, u-teruat melech bo.” Rashi and many other commentaries give “teruah” the rare “friendship, closeness” meaning there. (Note the first part of the verse: Hashem his God is with him.”) But others disagree. (This verse deserves its own article, very similar to this one!)
So we may have two instances in Tanach of “teruah” meaning “friendship, closeness” to balance out over 30 times where it means “a loud sound.”
So what should we conclude about the meaning of our phrase at Psalms 89:16? The problem with all the “loud sound” suggestions is that our phrase is too short. It does not give any clues as to what kind of loud sound the “teruah” is referring to. Perhaps the shortness of the phrase is evidence in support of the “friendship, closeness” meaning! In this meaning, the phrase did make its point in those four brief words.
On the other hand, “teruah” with the meaning “friendship, closeness” is the rarer meaning. Moreover the next verse, 89:17, begins with the following phrase: “be-shimcha yegilun kol hayom” (=in Your name they rejoice all day). This nearby parallel suggests that the “teruah” of 89:16 should be given the “loud sound of joy” meaning.
Sorry, but I cannot leave you with a clear conclusion here. I appreciate any thoughts and will perhaps revisit this in a future column.
It bears repeating that the biblical terms for Rosh Hashanah are “yom teruah” and “zichron teruah.” (See Num. 29:1 and Lev. 23:24.) The various possible meanings of “teruah” (loud sound of war/threats, loud sound of joy/praise, friendship/closeness) raises the same issue of meaning there. (In that case, because of the presence of the word “zichron,” a word that often has a sound-related meaning, the “friendship/closeness” meaning is less likely.) As I wrote last year, one reasonable interpretation of the meaning of “yom teruah” interprets it as a day of a loud, ominous sound (made by the shofar) that announces a preparatory period of 10 days before Yom Kippur. Something like this is stated by Rambam in his Moreh Nevuchim, part III, ch. 43, p. 353 (Friedlander edition).
I mentioned earlier that there is a root resh-ayin-he that means “friendship, closeness” (i.e., to be a friend to, be close to). These three root letters also have the meaning “to pasture/tend to animals.” A fundamental issue is whether these two meanings have a common origin. Perhaps the verb originally meant “tending to animals” and then expanded to “befriending humans,” or perhaps vice versa. Over the centuries, many believed one or the other of these scenarios. But nowadays the majority view rejects any common origin.
When I think about this issue, I am always reminded of a humorous scene from a very famous comedy movie made by a very famous comedian in 1972. (I do not wish to mention the name of either the movie or the comedian in this paper.) This section of the movie was a brief story of a man who fell in love with a sheep. After they surprisingly broke up (I don’t recall the reason offered in the movie!), the man was sitting forlornly on the outside steps of his building. Usually rejected lovers are portrayed as sitting on outside steps while consoling themselves by drinking from a bottle of alcohol. But in this comedy, the man was depicted sitting on outside steps and consoling himself by drinking from a bottle of “Woolite”!
By Mitchell First
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He keeps himself busy writing articles for The Jewish Link, and has not been to a movie in 20 years. That’s why he can only refer to movies from decades ago! He can be reached at [email protected]
For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.