Throughout the month of Elul we blow a short series of shofar blasts in preparation for Rosh Hashanah. Yet we are taught that on the day before Rosh Hashanah we do not blow the shofar. The traditional reason given is to establish a separation between the blowing of the shofar in the month of Elul which is an enactment of the rabbis and the Torah mandated mitzvah to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. An additional reason is also cited: “in order to confuse the Satan.” This additional reason needs explanation.
The name Satan in Jewish tradition is associated with the primordial snake in the garden of Eden, negativity, opposition to holiness and the evil inclination. Nothing confuses the Satan more than breaking free from the web of complacency, rote action and thoughtless routine. Blowing the shofar for an entire month or in fact any spiritual act, let alone mundane actions, can also take upon the aspect of routine. By not blowing the shofar on the day before Rosh Hashanah “confuses the Satan” who thinks we have fallen once again into thoughtless routine. This teaching it is critical for approaching a new year. It reminds us of what we discussed above regarding the need for each person to be totally and completely present on Rosh Hashanah.
It is interesting to note that before we blow the shofar for the first time on Rosh Hashanah we recite a series of six verses. The acronym of these six verses spells out the phrase Kra Satan, ” rip [destroy] Satan.“ Here we see an additional aspect of “confusing the Satan” who gets used to people not fighting back against the forces of negativity and defeat. Before we blow the shofar we declare in no uncertain terms that it is our greatest desire to rid ourselves from the debilitating and dark energy associated with unadulterated ego, selfishness, small mindedness and pettiness. Then, through the enabling power of the shofar we break through the forces of negativity that hold us back from being all that we can be.
In order to understand the role Satan plays on Rosh Hashanah we need to delve deeper.
The Hebrew word for “Satan” is 359; and the numerical value of the word “nachash” (the primordial snake in the Garden of Eden) is 358. The Kabbalah teaches that in tabulating the numerical value of a word, the number one may be added to represent the entire word. Therefore “Satan” and “Nachash,” both equaling 359, may be viewed as alternate names for the same evil energy. It is important to note that it was on Rosh Hashanah that the snake tempted Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Subsequently, Adam also ate from the tree and as a result both were exiled from the garden of Eden. Fittingly, the spiritual counterbalance to the primordial snake and Satan is the Mashiach, whose name also equals 358 (without adding a one).
These primordial energies of good and evil, the snake and the Mashiach are played off once again in the overall story of Jacob and Esau and especially in the incident when Jacob wrestled with was Esau’s angel; who according to tradition, was none other than Satan himself.
Jacob’s very name alludes to this battle for he was born holding onto Esau’s heel. The word “heel” was first mentioned in the Torah after the snake had convinced Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and Adam ate as well. God cursed the snake and concluded by describing the eternal battle between humankind and the evil inclination (the snake): “He will pound your head and you will bite his heel” (Genesis 3:15).
The archetypal image of Satan biting at humanity’s heel comes to life in Jacob holding onto Esau’s heel, determined to prevent Esau from “biting his heel.” The wrestling match that Jacob waged on that auspicious night was indeed a fight to the eschatological end: Satan versus the Messianic spark in Jacob, that spark of potential which had been waiting Jacob’s entire life to be awakened.
At this point an important clarification must be made: in Judaism, Satan is not an evil force independent of God, competing with Him for the throne of glory. The role that Satan, the snake, and the evil inclination play throughout history is not one of their own making but a role God, Himself, has ordered them to play. God has decided that in order for human beings to have free will and truly fulfil their destiny of having been created in His image, there must be a force to seduce, tempt, and try them so that they can grow through trial and error. Thus, the battles between Jacob and Esau and between the Mashiach and Satan are ones God has set up to allow humanity to ascend in spirituality. Indeed, Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh teaches that the numerical value of the two words “Jacob” (182) and “Satan” (359) equals that of “Israel” (541)!! The wrestling match between them actually allowed a new dimension of Jacob to be revealed, allowing him to become Israel.
On Rosh Hashanah we also engage in a wrestling match: with the outer forces in the world represented by Satan, with our own inner evil inclination and negativity, with all our fears, and our potential. On an even deeper level we, just is Jacob did, wrestle with God to understand all those existential questions that need answering. The sounds of the shofar are powerful and potent allies to defeat all our outer and inner enemies, allowing us to break through in ways we may never have imagined.