I am still settling back from traveling, including a week at the National Havurah Summer Institute, a wonderful week of Jewish peer learning and living with 300 folks in attendance. I recommend this annual retreat to your attention. You can read more about this year’s Summer Institute on the Jewschool blog. I share my travels both because I believe the NHC Summer Institute is a remarkable experience, but also as a way of explaining why I have not had much time of late to write for the blog.
More reflections on the shofar.
The discussion on B. Rosh HaShannah 27b considers modifications and repairs that might be made to a shofar. Some modifications are acceptable:
If [a shofar was] too long and one shortened it, it is valid. [If] one sanded it down until it’s coating was very thin, it is valid.
Some adaptations go too far:
[If] one plated it with gold, including the mouthpiece, it is invalid. ...[If] one overlaid it with gold on the inside, it is invalid. [If one did so] on the outside—if the sound is altered and unrecognizable [as a shofar], it is invalid.
Some just seem bizarre:
One who turned a shofar inside out [by softening it in hot water] has not fulfilled [the
obligation]. Said Rab Pappa, “Do not imagine that one turned it inside out like a coat, rather if one stretched the narrow part and widened the broad part, [it still is not valid].
To remain a valid shofar the modifications may not change the quality or timbre of the sound or render the shofar unrecognizable. All quite reasonable if the goal is to preserve the constancy of the shofar sounds.
One other example, found in the mishnah, fascinates me.
[If] one stuck together the shreds of shofars, [the resulting shofar] is invalid.
I am sure my interest does not mirror the Mishnah’s concern. When I read this line I envision a shofar cobbled together from a pile of shards, leftovers from destroyed shofars. I wonder how a shofar, which is so hard, could get so broken. I wonder why someone would even consider creating such a composite shofar.
Here is my fanciful reconstruction of this mishnaic teaching.
The Mishnah is the earliest Rabbinic document we possess, so it offers the first Rabbinic opportunity to respond to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. Nonetheless there are few overt responses to the destruction found in the Mishnah; more explicit responses are found in Tosefta, the Midrashim and in the Talmuds. Still the authors of the Mishnah could not have escaped the emotional sense of loss.
The shofar seems to my untrained eyes to be nearly indestructible. It bounces when dropped. It can withstand knocks and other abuse. I haven’t tried, but I can’t imagine how much force it would take to shatter a shofar. If I am right, the shofar could make an interesting symbol of constancy and faithfulness. In the destruction of Jerusalem, when the walls of the Temple were tossed over like Legos, even shofars could be shattered to pieces.
I can imagine someone searching in the ruins of Jerusalem and finding the remains of broken shofarot. An artisan might wish to preserve these fragments by reconnecting them to construct something like a shofar. I cannot imagine finding pieces of horn that would fit neatly together, like a jigsaw puzzle, nor can I imagine shaping the pieces so expertly that they fit together seamlessly. Rather, I envision a mosaic; tiled pieces that may come from multiple horns. They would be connected not edge to edge, but tiled with some sealed to the bottom of other pieces, some on top. The uneven surface of the reconstructed shofar would project the image of the destroyed shofarot.
It seems impossible to me that such an instrument could meet the requirements that the horn both preserve the recognizable timbre of a shofar and that it be recognizable as an “intact” shofar. Rather I imagine that such a creation would necessarily project brokenness and the impossibility of a perfect repair in this world. The broken shofar would, to my mind, sound the cry of a broken people looking for stability and faithfulness in an unstable world.
We sound the shofar on Rosh Hashannah to herald the beginning of a new creation. The words of the Musaf Amidah remind us that on this day the world was birthed, HaYom harat olam. But there are years when even the most devout must question the ability of the world to regenerate itself. There are times when brokenness overwhelms the hope for repair. Perhaps for those times a shofar of shards calls us to attention and urges us to gather up the pieces. The work of repair falls on our shoulders. The world awaits our best efforts at renewal.
© Rabbi Louis Rieser, 2009