Illustration of Rosh Hashanah. Arthur Szyk 1948.

Directing the Heart to God: Moses’ Hands, Brass Serpents, and the Shofar

How the Mishnah’s version of a tannaitic homily advances a more active human role in divine deliverance.

Dr. Rabbi Avraham Walfish

The Requirement to Direct the Heart
to Hear Shofar

The laws of shofar in the third chapter of m. Rosh Hashanah conclude1 with a requirement for the act of hearing to be intentional (כוונת הלב, lit. directing the heart):2

משנה ראש השנה ג:ז

וכן: מי שהיה עובר אחר בית הכנסת, או שהיה סמוך ביתו לבית הכנסת שמע קול שופר או קול מגילה: אם כיון לבו –  יצא; ואם לאו –  לא יצא.

m. Rosh Hashanah 3:7

So too, someone who was passing behind a synagogue, or whose house adjoins a synagogue, and he heard the sound of the shofar, or the sound of the megillah, if he directed his heart, he discharges his obligation, but if not, he has not discharged his obligation.

This is followed by an aggadic homily regarding two theologically enigmatic passages from the Torah:3

משנה ראש השנה ג:ח

‘והיה כאשר ירים משה ידו וגבר ישראל וכאשר יניח ידו וגבר עמלק’ (שמות י”ז, יא). וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או ידיו שוברות מלחמה?        אלא כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלים כלפי מעלה    ומכוונין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים – היו מתגברים; ואם לאו – היו נופלין.

וכיוצא בו: ‘עשה לך שרף ושים אתו על נס והיה כל הנשוך וראה אתו וחי’ (במדבר כ”א, ח) וכי נחש ממית, או נחש מחיה?           אלא כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלים כלפי מעלה ומשעבדים את לבם לאביהם שבשמים – היו מתרפאים; ואם לאו – היו נמוקים

m. Rosh Hashanah 3:8

“And it was, when Moses would raise his hand then Israel prevailed, [but when he lowered his hand Amalek prevailed]” (Exodus 17:11). Did the hands of Moses make the battle or did his hands break the battle? Rather, as long as Israel gazed upward and directed their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed; but when not, they fell.

Similarly: “And the Lord said to Moses: Make for yourself a fiery serpent and place it on a pole and whoever is bitten may look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8). Does the serpent kill or does the serpent grant life? Rather, as long as Israel gazed upward, and subjugated their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they were healed, but when not, they perished.

A Theological Approach to the Connection between Mishnah 7 and 8
Jonah Frankel, a leading twentieth century scholar of aggadah, argues that the Mishnah does not cite this non-halakhic homily merely because of an associative, mnemonic connection with the term “directing the heart.” Rather, the text is teaching us that while discharging the halakhic duty of hearing the shofar requires “directing the heart” in the sense of framing the auditory experience as a mitzvah, we should strive for a higher spiritual register – directing the heart to “our Father in Heaven.”4

My purpose in this article is to expand Frankel’s insight, and investigate more deeply the thinking behind placing this homily in the third chapter of m. Rosh Hashanah, in order to understand both the techniques and the overarching theological goals of the Mishnah’s redaction.

Comparing Other Versions of
the Mishnah’s Homily

Parallel versions of this homily5 appear in the two tannaitic midrashic works on Exodus, the Mekhilta of R. Ishmael (henceforth: MRI) and the Mekhilta of R. Simeon    bar Yohai (henceforth: MRSBY), which were compiled in the middle of the third century but preserve earlier material. Examining them alongside one another helps us appreciate the Mishnah’s distinct theological program here:6

ראש השנה ג:ח
מכילתא  דר”י
מכילתא דרשב”י
וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה
וכי ידיו של משה מגברות ישראל
וכי ידיו של משה מגברות ישראל
או ידיו שוברות מלחמה
או ידיו של משה שוברות את עמלק
או שוברות עמלק
אלא כל זמן  שישראל
אלא כל זמן שהיה  משה
אלא בזמן  שישראל
מסתכלים   כלפי מעלה

מגביה את ידיו   כלפי למעלן
היו  ישראל  מסתכלין בו

עושין רצונו שלמקום
ומכוונין את לבם
לאביהם שבשמים
במי שפיקד את משה לעשות כן
במה שפיקדו המקום למשה

היו מתגברים… היו נופלין

M. Rosh Hashanah 3:8

Did the hands of Moses make the battle or did his hands break the battle?

Rather, as long as Israel gazed upward, and directed their hearts to their Father in Heaven, they prevailed; but when not, they fell.

והמקום עושה להם נסים וגבורות

Mekhilta de-RI

Did the hands of Moses cause Israel to prevail or did his hands break Amalek?

Rather, as long as Moses raised his hands upward, Israel gazed upon him and believed in the One Who commanded Moses to do so; then God performed for them miracles and mighty deeds.

המקום עושה להן ניסין וגבורות

Mekhilta de-RYBS

Did the hands of Moses cause Israel to prevail or break Amalek?

Rather, as long as Israel did the will of God and believed in that which God had commanded Moses God performed for them miracles and mighty deeds.

The Homilists’ Concern:
Miracles versus Magic

Many ancient readers7 alongside the tannaim found these particular biblical miracles disturbingly close to the magical events characteristic of the pagan world. The explanations proposed in the two Mekhilta compilations, that it is not some kind of magic at work but the miraculous deliverance of the One God, are remarkably similar8 in emphasis, language, and theological outlook.9

The Distinctiveness of the Mishnah:
Faith or Directing the Heart?

Yet, while the Mishnah shares this concern with magic, it diverges from the two Mekhilta homilies in the following respects. In the Mishnah:

  • Moses’ hands guide the gaze of the people heavenward, apparently away from the hands themselves.
  • There is no presupposition on the part of the people – or the homilist – that Moses’ action was preceded by a divine command. Rather than a response of faith in the command, the people’s response to the heavenward gaze is to direct their hearts towards their Father in heaven.
  • Most remarkably, unlike the homilies in MRI and MRYBS, which explicitly characterize the deliverance of Israel as a miraculous divine response, the Mishnah does not explain how “direction of the heart” leads to deliverance.

The Mishnah’s Theology:
Direction of the Heart as a Natural Process

This last point is crucial to understanding the mishnaic homily, since it calls into question the main goal of this exegetical line of thought: If “direction of the heart” leads automatically to deliverance, how has the homilist laid to rest the specter of a magical performance?10 This homily, while certainly less straightforward in its anti-magical message, does provide a distinctive theological viewpoint. The onus of magical activity is removed, or at least mitigated, by positing that the immediate effect of Moses’ hands is not the battlefield success, or the healing effects of the brass serpent, but the impact on the religious consciousness of the Israelite warriors and those recovering from snake venom, which then allows them each to succeed in healing and battle

The exact causal connection between the divinely-focused heart and physical performance is –  perhaps purposely – not spelled out in the Mishnah. The reader is invited to ponder whether the heart connected to God psychosomatically impacts on his physical capacities or rather awakens a divine response which flows imperceptibly to the human recipient and imbues him with divinely-inspired powers – or perhaps something of both.

Be that as it may, the Mishnah detects in these biblical passages a theological-religious message that diverges from that of the Mekhiltot. If the message of the Mekhiltot is quietist – have faith in God and He will miraculously deliver; the message of the Mishnah is activist – Israel must overcome their enemies, but only connecting with God by directing your heart to Him will ensure success in this endeavor.

Literary-Associative Approaches for
the Inclusion of m. R.H. 3:8

Returning to the question of why the Mishnah redactor included  this homily in m. Rosh Hashanah 3:8, let us note that the key term “directing the heart” appears only in this version of the homily, and not in the Mekhilta versions.  Furthermore, other points that differentiate this version of the homily from the Mekhiltot actually provide additional links between this mishnah and other parts of the tractate.

1. Condition Clauses
The deployment of the twin conditional clauses, כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלים כלפי מעלה… היו מתגברים; ואם לאו – היו נופלין “when Israel gazed… they prevailed, and if not they fell”, links this aggadic mishnah to the three preceding halakhic statements:

מ”ו: נקב וסתמו: אם מעכב את התקיעה – פסול; ואם לאו  –   כשר

מ”ז: התוקע לתוך הבור או לתוך הדות או לתוך הפיטס: אם קול שופר שמע  –  יצא; ואם קול הברה שמע  –  לא יצא.

וכן…: אם כיון לבו  ואם לאו –  לא יצא.

m. 6: When [the shofar] is pierced and he sealed the hole: if it hinders the blowing, it is not valid; but if not, it is valid.

m. 7: One who blows in a pit or in a cranny or in a barrel: if he heard the sound of the shofar, he discharges his obligation, but if..

So too…if he directed his heart, …but if not….

2. Heavenward Gaze
The depiction in this version of the homily of Israel’s heavenward gaze echoes the opening mishnah of our chapter:11

ראוהו בית דין וכל ישראל נחקרו העדים ולא הספיקו לומר מקודש עד שחשיכה הרי זה מעובר
If the court and all Israel saw it [the new moon], [or] witnesses were interrogated, and they did not manage to say “it is sanctified” until nightfall, the [old] month is extended [for another day].

Both texts depict Israel gazing heavenward. The apparent implication of this linguistic-thematic link between the opening and closing mishnahs is that the “directing of the heart to our Father in Heaven” serves as an aggadic finale to the sanctification of the New Moon, as well as to the blowing of the shofar. 12 The envelope structure in our chapter thus connects with a broader theme embedded in many of the structural and literary features of the tractate – the interrelation of the Sanctification of the New Moon (months) and the laws of the New Year (years).

Thematic Approaches for
the Inclusion of m. R.H. 3:8

1. God Judges our Hearts on Rosh Hashanah as Troops
A more thematic consideration that may have guided the selection of this homily to conclude chapter 3 is a striking parallel between this mishnah and one of the two opening mishnahs of tractate Rosh Hashanah. Presenting Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgment, m. 1:2 utilizes both a metaphor and a prooftext: 13

בראש השנה כל באי העולם עוברין לפניו כבנומרון, שנאמר (תהלים לג) היוצר יחד לבם, המבין אל כל מעשהם.
On Rosh Hashanah          all who enter the world pass before Him as a battalion,14 as it says: “Who creates together their heart, scrutinizes all their actions.” (Psalms 33:15)

We can readily perceive how the homily that concludes chapter 3 echoes both the military metaphor (“battalion”) and the prooftext (“heart”) mentioned at the opening of the tractate. Moreover, the “scrutiny” of m. 1:2 is a mirror image of the heavenward gaze of m. 3:8 – the gaze of the heavenly Judge/Commander, scrutinizing the heart as well as actions, is mirrored in the heavenward gaze and the “direction of the heart” to God, by the battling Israelite troops whose lives hang in the balance.

By selecting this specific homily regarding Moses’s hands and placing it at the conclusion of chapter 3, the Mishnah redactor has come full circle to the characterization of Rosh Hashanah at the beginning of the tractate – the divine judgment, announced by blowing the shofar, reminds people of the need to accompany all their endeavors with the proper intention, directing their heart towards their Father in heaven.

2. Human Responsibility in m. Rosh Hashanah
A final angle that might account for the redactor’s selection of this homily is rooted in another core idea of the tractate, which is a dominant theme of chapters 1-2 in m. Rosh Hashanah: the human responsibility for establishing the sanctity of the festivals by Sanctifying the New Moon.

The most dramatic affirmation of this idea appears at the conclusion of chapter 2. Following their sharp controversy as to whether the witnesses who testified to sighting the New Moon of Tishre were credible, R. Joshua agonizes over whether or not to accede to Rabban Gamliel’s demand to publicly desecrate the day which R. Joshua believes to be the astronomically-ordained Yom Kippur. R. Akiva, R. Joshua’s leading disciple, reassures him that the sanctity of Yom Kippur is determined by the human court, not in the heavens, arguing that –

שכל מה שעשה רבן גמליאל עשוי, שנאמר, (ויקרא כג) אלה מועדי יי מקראי קדש, אשר תקראו אתם, בין בזמנן בין שלא בזמנן, אין לי מועדות אלא אלו.
whatever R. Gamliel has done is done, as it says: “These are the set times of the Lord, sacred occasions, which you shall proclaim at their times” (Lev 23 : 4) —  whether at their time or not, I (i.e. God) have no set times beside these.

In this remarkable teaching, R. Akiva asserts the primacy, regarding sanctification of the festivals, of human proclamation over the “set times” established by the divine order governing the appearance of the new moon. Given the emphasis in our tractate on human responsibility, which God Himself is said to follow, it seems plausible that, at the end of chapter 3, the Mishnah’s redactor had an ideological reason for selecting or shaping the homily of “directing the heart” in a way that is different from the parallel homilies in MRI and MRYBS. Again, rejecting the quietist message contained in these two homilies, the Mishnah emphasizes the value of human action, provided that it is guided and informed by “directing the heart” to our Father in heaven.


Rabbi Dr. Avraham Walfish received his B.A. in philosophy from Yeshiva University, and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Talmudic Literature from Hebrew University, writing his dissertation on Literary Phenomena in Mishnah and their conceptual significance. He received semicha from Rabbi Zalman Nehemiah Goldberg, and has taught in many institutions of Jewish learning, including Drisha, Pardes, Matan, and Bar Ilan University. Currently he teaches at Herzog College in Alon Shvut, at the Hesder Yeshiva in Tekoah, and heads the M.Ed. program in Talmud and Jewish Thought at Jerusalem College for Women (Michlala). Most of his publications deal with literary interpretation of Mishnah and other Talmudic works, and his literary commentary on tractate Berakhot will soon be published by Tvunot Press. 

  1.  In its current form, the aggadic “conclusion” to our chapter is followed by an additional law concerning who is qualified to sound the shofar. I address the question of why this law is appended to the end of our chapter, after the apparent aggadic conclusion, in my dissertation, The Literary Method of Redaction in Mishnah based on Tractate Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001; available here), pp. 40, 145-149, 292-293.
  2. The Mishnah text presented here follows the reading of the Kaufman manuscript, with minor variations. All translations are mine.
  3. Whereas the Kaufman manuscript describes the heavenward gaze as engendering “directing the heart” ((מכוונין את לבם in the hands of Moses narrative and “subjugating the heart” (משעבדים את לבם) in the brass serpent narrative, the printed versions of the Mishnah read “subjugated their hearts” in both cases. However, all other textual witnesses that I have examined read “directed their hearts” in at least one of the two narratives, and some have this reading in both cases. For our purposes it is sufficient to note that the original text almost certainly read “directed their hearts” in at least one of the cases, and the printed versions are the product of mistaken homogenization of the two sections of the Mishnah.
  4. This idea is typical of aggadic conclusions to halakhic discussions. See Jonah Frankel, Darkhei Ha-Aggadah Ve-hamidrash (Givatayim: Yad La-talmud, 1991), pp. 484-485. Our mishnah is Frankel’s showcase example for how rabbinic texts convey the need to complement halakhic rulings with the “total religious emotion” illustrated in this homily.
  5.  Like the Mishnah, both midrashim understand the brass serpent and the Moses’ hands narratives in similar fashion. In the interest of space, we will confine our discussion to the narrative of “Moses’ hands.”
  6. The text of MRI and MRYBS is based on Menahem I Kahana, The Two Mekhiltot on the Amalak Portion (Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1999), pp. 166-167. In my analysis of these two homilies I have drawn freely on Kahana’s incisive analysis (pp. 255-261).
  7.  See the Second Temple apocryphal work Wisdom of Solomon 16:5-8, and the early Christian work, Dialogue with Trypho (Justin Martyr, second century {= tannaitic period}), chapters 90-91, 111.
  8. Kahana, The Two Mekhiltot, pp. 23-24, 255, argues that here, as elsewhere, the aggadic portions of the Ishmaelite and Akivan midrashic works (Ishmaelite MRI and Akivan MRYBS) tend to be similar, often derived from a common source, and by and large lacking the distinctive features of the two schools, as characteristically found in the halakhic portions.

    That said, the two homilies differ regarding one salient detail: the MRI describes Israelites faith in the One Who commanded Moses to lift his hands, but in MRSBY as faith in what Moses was commanded. This may be understood as a difference between a view that focuses the God-man relationship on direct faith in God Himself, and a perspective that filters the relationship through the medium of the divine commandments.

  9. Note that the homilists are extrapolating to the Moses’s hands narrative a detail that the Bible recounts only regarding the brass serpent – the divine command (Numbers 21:8). The homilists also freely extrapolate other details from one narrative to the other: (a) the assumption that the Israelites looked at Moses’s hands, absent from the account in Exodus 17:11-13, is extrapolated from the explicit statement that individuals bitten by serpents would gaze towards the brass serpent (Numbers 21:8-9); (b) it is far from clear that Israelites bitten by serpents would gaze upwards towards the brass serpent. The notion that gazing at the serpent was vertical was extrapolated from the narrative of Moses’s hands, raised on a mountaintop, which could have been seen from the battleground in the valley only by looking upward.
  10. Alon Goshen, Elohim V’yisrael K’av U-ven Be-sifrut Ha-tannaim (Dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem 1987), pp. 18-19, raises this question, and suggests a far-reaching philolological response which posits that the original point of the homily was lost in the process of transmission between its original version and its final mishnaic version. Safrai, Mishnat Eretz Israel, p. 390, suggests that the purpose of the mishnaic homily is “to obscure the magical significance that might have been ascribed to the event.”
  11. We will not address here the thorny question regarding the inclusion of this mishnah in our chapter (all the rest of which is devoted to blowing the shofar) rather than in the two chapters of the tractate devoted to the Sanctification of the New Moon. However, the following discussion may serve as the beginning of a response.
  12. This idea conforms nicely with Safrai’s conjecture (Mishnat Eretz Israel, p. 390) that m. 3:8 was positioned in our tractate initially as an aggadic conclusion to a version of the tractate that contained only the first three chapters. Safrai’s conjecture may be supported by the mirror image parallel between the opening of the tractate and m. 3:8 that will be discussed below.
  13. For fuller discussion of this mishnah, see my article on “Composing Rosh Hashanah as a Day of Judgement’ 
  14. Following the text attested to by the best textual witnesses: כבנומרון (like a numeron, a Greek and Latin word denoting a military unit).
Print Friendly, PDF & Email