Follow by Email

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

CONSIDERING THE SHOFAR

The High Holy Days are just around the corner, so I want to change topics.

It is the sound of the shofar that gets my attention. My friend, Yussel may be the best player I have ever known. All the suffering of the ages found expression in the plaintive cry of his shofar sounds. When the Torah commands us to “hear the sound of the shofar,” it is his playing that echoes in my mind.

Most people I know are more concerned about the shofar sound than they are about how it is made. I have known people to use trumpets and bugles, even conch shells, in place of a shofar. Yes, they know that it is called a ram’s horn. For various reasons the alternatives have drawn them away; some for ease of playing, some for the quality of the sound. Regardless, their main concern has been the ability to get the sound right.

Two mishnahs from chapter 3 of Rosh HaShannah focus on the material of the shofar more than the sound. The first mishnah (26a) states “All shofars are kosher except for those from a cow because that is called a horn.” A linguistic discussion follows on the distinction between a shofar and a horn. A page later (26b) the next mishnah sharpens the focus a bit more. The anonymous voice of the Mishnah declares that “the shofar from Rosh HaShannah [in contrast to other occasions] comes from an antelope and is straight.” Later in the mishnah Rabbi Judah disagrees and argues that “the shofar for Rosh Hashannah comes from rams,” without comment on whether it should be straight or curved. Rabbi Levi, in the gemara, immediately adds that “the shofar for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur should be curved.” The material, the particular kind and shape of the horn becomes key in this discussion.

What is going on? The material does not noticeably affect the tenor of the notes that are heard. The sounds produced by a long, twisty Yemenite shofar are deeper and more resonant than those from a short, straight Ashkenazi one. I presume a blindfolded listener might detect the difference if a trumpet or conch shell were substituted. But the differences are small. And if the reason for sounding the shofar is as Maimonides says: “Awake from your slumber, and rouse yourselves from your lethargy. Scrutinize your deeds and return in repentance…” (Mahzor Hadash, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, The Prayer Book Press, 1978, pg. 242), then surely the material of the horn should not matter. It is the sound, the hearing of the call, which breaks through our conscience.

Moreover there is nothing intrinsically different about one kind of horn and another. The gemara does try to differentiate the cow’s horn from all others. Abaye argues (26a) that a cow’s horn grows in layers, meaning it appears as if it were several horns nested one inside the other. Since the command is to sound a shofar, not many shofarot, the cow is excluded. But that is quickly dismissed. Rabbi Yosi already rejected such facile distinctions in the mishnah when he said: “All shofarot are called horns.” A horn is a horn is a horn.

But perhaps not. Maimonides offers a clear, rational explanation for the inchoate sound of the shofar. It is, after all, merely sound. If you heard the call in a different place, at a different time, you may not accord it any meaning. It means what we say it means. By the same token our sages differentiated one horn from another. They found meaning in the material of the shofar itself, if only we understood the significance.

The ram our sages recall was snared by the bush on Mt. Moriah, awaiting Abraham and Isaac on the day of the akedah, when Abraham bound Isaac on the altar. Rabbi Joshua, according to one midrash, taught that “an angel brought [the ram] from the Garden of Eden, where he had been grazing beneath the tree of life.” The ram had been there since “twilight at the end of the six days of creation,” waiting for just this moment. (The Book of Legends, Bialik & Ravnitzky, trans. William G. Braude, Schocken, 1992, pg 42) This ram epitomizes the purity of creation, the faithfulness of Abraham, and the suffering of Isaac. As we prepare for the Day of Atonement, these are the virtues we wish to embrace.

By contrast, the cow, or calf, recalls the nadir of our history. The Golden calf calls to mind the orgiastic celebration and the declaration that, “this is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (Exodus 32:4). That event derailed our entry to the Holy Land by a generation. Not a memory we wish to dredge up as we prepare to ask for forgiveness.

In this particular discussion the sages only allude to these connections, they will get more explicit elsewhere. Here (26a) they are content to cite an anonymous teacher who argues that we avoid the cow’s horn because “the accuser [the Golden calf] cannot act as defender [as we do the work of repentance].”

The shofar, then, is no mere horn. The hearing required of us is not merely the sound, but the echo of our history. The Talmudic discussion that follows (what animal is proper as the source for a shofar, should a shofar be curved or straight) reveals that the medium is the message.

Why should this matter for us? I noted above that the sound of the shofar is merely sound. The horn is merely a horn. They have no intrinsic meaning. Rather, they are a symbolic language we inherit from earlier generations. These texts remind us to uncover the layers of that symbolic language so we can understand what lies underneath. For some the discovery of what lies under the surface may yield a precious legacy.

(c) 2009 Rabbi Louis Rieser

9 comments:

Simcha said...

Thank you for your sag way to the HH. Rabbi Reiser. The debate over material versus sound is interesting, and I wonder whether it is not related to the certain time of history that each argument is presented.
My own reflection on the shofar has to do with sound and not material. To me, the sound is very powerful. When the shofar is blown I feel my whole body vibrates. It’s a sound that penetrates my deep essence and reconnects me with our tradition that must be preserved. When I hear the Shevarim sound in particular, I reflect on a significant place of brokenness in my life and wait for the Truah Gedolla, as a hopeful sign for repair.
I do think that a horn is essential, but not sure if I would stress over what kind of a horn. I just returned from Jerusalem and bought myself a Yemenite medium size shofar. Now it is time to learn how to blow it…
Shabbat Shalom,
Simcha

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Hi Simcha. Your comment that this could be a historical difference is intriguing. Some of my work, including part of the research for my book, involved asking how the sages in the Land of Israel differed in their approach from those the Babylonia. There were differences, as there are between the concerns of the Talmudic sages and Rashi in the Middle Ages. And we certainly have our own modern concerns and approaches which show up in the ways we confront traditional questions -- whether suffering or shofars.
I suspect that our understanding of the shofar is heavily influenced by Maimonides, simply because he is cited in so many Mahzors. His approach was rational in all ways, and that meant that he disregarded some other appraoches that found expression in the Talmud. He focused on the sound and the way it awakes us to do the work of Teshuva.
Good luck on learning to sound the shofar. There is brief but (I think) useful intro at http://www.ajudaica.com/guide_shofar.php

Simcha said...

" Some of my work, ...involved asking how the sages in the Land of Israel differed in their approach from those the Babylonia".

R' Reiser: is this book about the shofar in particular, or are you writing about a general approach?

"There were differences, as there are between the concerns of the Talmudic sages and Rashi in the Middle Ages".

I think that if we look at the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, we can see right away these differences, especially in the areas (masakhtot) that each chose to focus on. And of course, I think the Rishonim and the Acharonim are another example. Rashi's grandsons already shifted away from his literary interpretation of the Talmud.

"And we certainly have our own modern concerns and approaches which show up in the ways we confront traditional questions -- whether suffering or shofars".

Of course. I wonder what Maimonides would say if he heard Shlomo Gronich in concert using the shofar for a modern take on liturgy. (I heard Shlomo last year in Jerusalem, and it was rather a special way to reconnect spirit with the divine).

"I suspect that our understanding of the shofar is heavily influenced by Maimonides, simply because he is cited in so many Mahzors. His approach was rational in all ways, and that meant that he disregarded some other appraoches that found expression in the Talmud. He focused on the sound and the way it awakes us to do the work of Teshuva".

Here is the quote: "Wake up! Wake up, everyone who is asleep! Remember your Creator! Instead of going around doing things that are not important or worthwhile, take some time to think about what you can do to make yourself into a better person. Give up doing bad things!" (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 3:4).

The way I understand Rambam's take on the shofar is that it is not only a way to do teshuvah, but it is also a mitzvah to hear the shofar during the HH. The idea that one is Yotzeh [fulfilled his obligation and mitzvah] just by hearing the shofar (instead of sounding it), echoes the idea that sound is more important than material. I assume that knowing more about Rambam's life and historical milieu in Egypt will shed more light on this theology of his.

"Good luck on learning to sound the shofar. There is brief but (I think) useful intro at http://www.ajudaica.com/guide_shofar.php "

Thanks for your wishes and link. I checked it out and it does touch on very basic exercise. I assume I will need more extensive work guide.

With thanks,
Simcha

Simcha said...

Just a technical tequestion: How do you get to publish your posts with fonts is different shapes and color? Mine did not show up after I copied and pasted it from word.

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Hi Simcha, First your technical question -- The form for creating a post is different from the form for leaving a comment. We have formatting options that are not available on the comment form. It says you can use some HTML tags in comments, but I don't know what that offers.

My book, The Hillel Narratives, examines the major tales of Hillel as literary creations and looks for the larger lessons they teach. There is a link on the blog to Amazon's listing of the book. One of the things I learned in researching the book was to listen to the nuances of the Talmudic text. It is much too easy to take what is said at face value and move on, when the message may be imbedded in the details of the account. It makes Talmud much more interesting for me.

One small example of the differences between Babylonia and the Land of Israel -- the Yerushalmi (Y. Ta’anit 4:2)includes some beautiful prayers for rain, praising each and every drop that falls. reasonable in a land in which water is a precious commodity. The Bavli, composed in a land blessed with water resources, has no parallel. These differences in perception and need lead to different discussion of the text. That continues through the Middle Ages and into the Modern world. We ask the text to respond to our contemporary needs -- and the brilliance of the text is how often it succeeds.

Maimonides does focus on sound, but also notice where the sound creates an impact. He might have suggested that the sound stirs God to move from the seat of Judgement to the seat of compassion. Or that the sound carries our prayers to heaven. He might have cited the notion from B. Rosh HaShannah 16b that the shofar is sounded to confuse Satan (a discussion for another time). But Maimonides directs the sound inward to one's own consciousness, its power is to awaken us -- no other -- to do the work of teshuva. That distinction is important.

Michael Chusid, RA FCSI said...

For your readers looking for more information on shofar, including how to sound one, please note that I have recently launched a website devoted to all things shofar:

www.hearingshofar.com

It contains a book I have written on shofar as well as the thoughts of Cantor Art Finkle, another shofar scholar.

Simcha said...

R’ Reiser;

I am interested to read your book. The Hillel Narratives are something that I would like to explore as well.

“to listen to the nuances of the Talmudic text” . Indeed, there is much of universalism in the Talmud, and perhaps we need to explore it the way you do. Just read about the story of the 2 in the desert who must decide how to allocate the water. Would they share and both die, or would one keep it all for himself and live, but the other dies. This in fact echoes human nature about decisions making. And today -- How we can make our health care reform decisions…? [Why we must ration Health Care – NYT) ----- sorry for the non relevancy to the topic.

“Maimonides directs the sound inward to one's own consciousness, its power is to awaken us -- no other -- to do the work of teshuva. That distinction is important”. I am wondering where is this theology coming from? Is this a Muslim influence? Why is he so interested in teshuva?
And last question; what in this discussion about the shofar is relevant to our daily life? How can we use this teaching as modern Jews?

Simcha said...

Michael:

Thank you so much for your informative website. I see that there is a lot of infrmation about the shofar.
I will make sure to try your guidance. Who knows - maybe by Rosh Hashana I will be able to be the Ba'al Tei'ah.

With peace,
Simcha

afinkle221 said...

We STILL have a teachable moment (if fleeting) to tell the story of Shofar. Its influence on prayer and its historical antecedents going back to the Temple sacrifices.

For full explanation, go to

Shofar Sounders WebPage

http://shofar221.com


http://www.hearingshofar.com