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Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blow Away! (Rosh Hashanah 27a - 28a)

The preeminent mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the shofar sounded. But what does that mean? If the baal tekiyah (shofar blower) employs a home-brew amplifier, by blasting into a barrel or other resonant chamber to enhance the sound, and I hear the echo, does that count? When I first had a PDA years ago, a friend and colleague loaded a recording of the shofar blasts onto it. Does listening to this recording count? If I’m not keeping Rosh Hashanah but I happen to walk past a synagogue at the time the shofar is sounded, does that count?

In the mishnayot recorded on daf 27b we read:

One who sounds the shofar into a pit, a cistern, or a barrel: if he heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation. But if he heard the sound of the echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation.

And similarly, one who was passing behind a synagogue or whose house was adjacent to the synagogue, and he heard the sound of the shofar (or on Purim he heard the sound of the Megillah) if he directed his mind, he has fulfilled [the obligation to hear the shofar], but if not, he has not fulfilled [the obligation]. Even though this one heard and that one heard, this one directed his mind and that one did not direct his mind.

Yet even before introducing this mishnah, back on daf 27a, Gemara commented:

Why? [To the contrary] let him [be deemed] to have fulfilled his obligation [by having heard] the beginning of the blast, before it became mixed up with the sound [of the echo]! Rather two voices coming from a single person cannot be distinguished. [But two voices] coming from two people can be distinguished. Indeed, coming from two people can [separate sounds] be distinguished? But [suggesting the contrary] thus it is taught [in Megillah 3:20]: In [the public reading of] the Torah [in synagogue] one person reads and one translates [into Aramaic]. But [one should not read while two translate, nor should two read while one translates], nor should two read while two translate…

The Rabbis are concerned that we hear the sound of the shofar directly and intentionally, that in order to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar we must be actually listening for it, and desirous of hearing it. Given the religious agenda of Rosh Hashanah – to engage in cheshbon nefesh (an accounting of our souls) and teshuvah (repentance) – this makes perfect sense. Direct engagement and intention are essential to cheshbon nefesh and teshuvah.

Yet only a few dapim later (on 28a), we find Rabbah loosening the requirements:

If one heard part of a shofar blast inside a pit, and part of the blast at the edge of the pit, he has fulfilled [the obligation].

A comment a few lines later reveals that Rabbah is speaking about the shofar blower: if s/he begins the blast while standing in a pit, and walks to the edge of the pit and climbs out while still blowing the shofar, then a person standing on the edge of the pit, who initially heard the echo of the blast, and only comes to hear the blast directly when the shofar blower reaches the edge of the pit, nonetheless fulfills his/her obligation to hear the shofar. Surprising! This contradicts what we learned in 27a above, that one must hear the beginning of the blast directly. Could this possibly be more evidence of what Rabbi Rieser identified in his last post about the Rabbis reflection of the destruction of the Temple? Once we heard the word of Sinai directly, once we participated in the sacrifices directly, once we had access to the words of the prophets directly. Today we hear but an echo. Yet those who intend to fulfill the mitzvah and seek to experience the sound of shofar are credited with doing so, and we encourage people to participate to their fullest in the hopes they will find religious meaning and comfort in Jewish practices.

And perhaps Rabbah is also painting a picture for us of how Judaism is adopted and absorbed by so many of us: initially we stand at the edge of the pit, far from the center, listening and considering what meaning this has for our lives. Then the tradition moves closer to us and envelopes us and we feel its power far more directly.

May the power and potential of Elul -- which we welcomed this morning with the first blast of the shofar this season -- draw us all closer to God and closer to one another. May Elul bring repentance, reconciliation, and renewal.

© 2009 Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Mark Hurvitz said...

Many thanks to both R. Rieser and R. Scheinerman for bringing our attention to the tool that brings us to attention!

I especially like the metaphoric interpretation of "climbing out of the pit". I am a decent shofar blower, but I do not blow while climbing out of a pit. I wondered why what the ba’al tekiyah in the pit in the first place? Why did s/he go there to blow shofar, unless to cause an echo?!

Twenty-five years ago (in the early 80s) when I was rabbi of the New York Society for the Deaf and the Hebrew Association of the Deaf I determined (as my own rabbinic authority) that those who cannot feel the vibrations of the shofar in their ears could fulfil the mitzvah of hearing the shofar by feeling the vibrations of the shofar with their hands. I blew many times more than the required number in order to enable as many people who wanted to come hold the shofar as I blew. Those who were deaf and blind stroked the shofar to achieve a sense of its shape and proportion in addition to feeling the vibrations.

The experience was, perhaps, more powerful for me than for them.

`//rite On!
,\\ark Hurvitz

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

Kol hakavod to you, Mark! What a wonderful way to use and interpret Jewish ritual and tradition and bring the beauty and power of Judaism into people's lives. I can envision Rabbah applauding what you did.