In the midst of the fifteenth century, Spanish Jewish philosopher R. Yosef Albo formulated an unusual thesis. He claimed that each of the three central blessings of Rosh Hashana’s Musaf prayer, Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot, alludes to a cardinal principle of faith. Although Rambam had boiled down Jewish dogma to thirteen principles, Albo went further, compressing Rambam’s list to just three: God’s existence, Torah from heaven, and providence for reward and punishment. His succinct enumeration in hand, Albo added that these three axioms are encapsulated in Musaf’s three pivotal sections: Malchuyot, in which we coronate God, corresponds to God’s existence; Zichronot, when we beseech Him to recall us favorably, alludes to providence for reward and punishment; and Shofarot, in which we recall the Revelation at Sinai, embodies Torah from heaven.
While intriguing, Albo’s theory begs the question: why do we formulate these principles of faith particularly on Rosh Hashana?
Unexpectedly, an answer emerges from Albo’s own biography. Following a terrifying pogrom in 1391, the traumatized Jewish community of Spain never fully recovered, living in fear of their Christian neighbors until the eventual expulsion of 1492. Albo wrote during this ominous period. Many scholars have theorized that the philosopher condensed the Jewish principles of faith not merely as an act of intellectual study but also as an educational tactic meant to uplift his beleaguered brethren. Albo was conveying to Spanish Jewry, “At times of crisis, we return to the basics.” While we always aspire to higher levels of faith and practice, here are the most basic building blocks of Jewish faith. Hold fast to these, and we will make it through intact to the other side.
This practice of returning to fundamentals during times of crisis may have been partly what motivated Maimonides, who saw himself as guiding twelfth-century Sephardic Jewry through a period of similarly cataclysmic upheaval, to draw up his initial list. It is also embodied in the traditional recitation of the Shema immediately prior to an act of martyrdom.
Rosh Hashana, we may suggest, is similarly an et tzara, a time of personal and national crisis. Ramban, another great medieval Spanish thinker, proposes that it is for this reason that we blast the shofar for a second time during the Musaf prayers. After all, it is traditional to blow thirty blasts prior to the recitation of Musaf. In so doing, we have already fulfilled the biblical obligation to blow the shofar on the Day of Judgment. Why, then, asks Ramban, do we blow again during Musaf? He answers that sounding the shofar during Musaf is in fact rooted not in the halakhot of Rosh Hashana per say but in the laws governing times of crisis. In Parshat Behaalotcha, the Torah instructs that we must blow an instrument “when a war against an enemy comes upon you.” Musaf’s shofar blast is an cry that is particularly apt during times of crisis.
In light of Ramban’s characterization of Rosh Hashana as an et tzara, we may return to R. Yosef Albo’s striking theory. Through the recitation of Musaf, in a manner of speaking, we reenact Albo’s life story. Just as he recapitulated the Jewish principles of faith during a time of crisis, so too we formulate those selfsame ideals during our prayers on the day of personal and national et tzara. On the day when we wonder who will live and who will die, we formulate our own variation on Shema Yisrael, the martyr’s prayer.
We may now offer an additional interpretation for the meaning of one of Rosh Hashana’s primary appellations, Yom Hazikaron. Today, it is not only God who remembers. We too recall our own core values, the essence of our principles of faith that serve as our lighthouses, which enable us to navigate the periods of darkness in our own lives. By recalling those fundamental commitments, we remind ourselves each year of Albo’s soaring themes: God’s existence, Torah from heaven, and providence for reward and punishment.