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Monday, August 17, 2009


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


Simcha said...

Welcome back!
I think you are right to assume that broken-ness of the shofar, as the mishanh refers to is probably symbolic to the call for repairing one's deeds and one's soul. I especially love your assertion that a shofar of shards calls us to gather up the pieces [of our life]. I would like to add to this the sound as well. I think that the sound of the Shevarim in the middle is another reminder of our broken-ness, which is repaired by the last solid blast!
But – maybe the shofar in the past was not the same as today? Maybe it was made of clay, or wood that IS possible to assemble together? A trumpet was a popular musical instrument in many cultures, and perhaps this was used. There is no evidence that the shofar was used in the temple itself. In addition I think that the Mishan and Talmud were finalized many years after the second temple destruction. Was it not?
Are you familiar with the inscription "לבית התקיעה" that was found in the west-south corner of the Temple Mount (Second Temple period)? Josephus mentions that there was a stone at the southwest corner of the Temple Mount from which one of the priests would blow the trumpet on Friday afternoons to announce the start of the Sabbath. That stone has been found, with the Hebrew inscription "Lebeit hatekia Lehach(kriz)" meaning: "to the trumpeting place to [proclaim?]".

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Simcha, you are correct that both shofars and trumpets were used in the 2nd Temple. Shabbat 36a even suggests that post-destruction the terms for the two were often confused:
Said Rav Huna: These three things shifted names after the temple's destruction -- (1) the trumpet and the shofar. Why does it matter, because of the shofar for Rosh Hashannah.

The implication is that it is important to keep the Rosh HaShannah shofar a real shofar, that is, a horn from a ram.

I agree, however, that their practice is not ours, and we need to be careful to distinguish between what they were creating and what we have inherited. Our practices developed over time, changing from ancient days to the Middle Ages into our own day, and it still goes on.

I have heard of the inscription you mention, but could not find reference to it on the web. Please post a link, if you have one. It is exciting to see where the text appears in the archeological record.

Elul begings today, ushering in the Holy Days. L'Shanna Tova -- May you be inscribed for a good year.

Simcha said...

R. Rieser;
I typed a whole response directly to the box, and it disappeared…. So this is the second time I am expressing my ideas… in a shorter format…
The information I have about this inscription comes from my personal connections with the Israeli Antiquity Department in Israel. I am waiting for them to send me more information, which I will be happy to share with you perhaps, via a different way of communication. In the mean time, you are right – there is not much on the web, except some fresh political implications and debates of this finding. You can find something in the The Jerusalem Post link, which published last month an article on this matter.
I appreciate the contemporary meaning that both of you try to express and teach. There is much value in this. As you noted, the cultural nuances and the daily life of the Jews during the Mishnah times changed. But what we do here is something that looks like “ignoring” this side of the picture and basically use homiletically tools to make up new contemporary meanings.
Even if we want to understand the meaning of the fixing of the shofar, or the case of sounding of the shofar in a pit [R. Amy’s post] should we not take into consideration how it actually was useful to them in the past? Trying to make sense of sounding a shofar in the pit is as far remote from us as you can imagine… and yet we force meaning into it. Are we doing justice to tradition when we detach it from what it was and find our own ways to understand these practices?
All in all – these discussions make me think…
Are there any resources to learn about life during the Mishanh time that you can recommend?
May this Rosh Chodesh be a blessing for new beginnings
and Shabbt Shaolm,

Simcha said...

Rabbi Rieser;
I hope you are still interested in the inscription of “The Trumpeting Place” - Beit Hatekiya. I got some info from Israel regarding the inscription –. It is all in Hebrew and I can provide some translation.
Here are few details-- In general, it is a stone indicated the place where the priests in the 2nd Temple period were to stand and blow the trumpet/shofar. They announced the beginning and the end of Shabbat. The shape of this block with the inscription indicates it was originally placed at the top corner of the Temple Mound. The inscription was carved into the inner face of the stone.
There are many missing words… and there are a few suggestions for them. But archaeologists use Josephus description in The Jewish wars iv, 9.12. All we have is “to the place of trumpeting to … ”לבית התקיעה להב... “
The inscription was found in the seventies by Prof. Mazar in the south-west corner of the Temple Mount. The stone itself is displayed in the Israel Museum.
Let me know if this is helpful to you.
Shanah Tova~

Rabbi Louis Rieser said...

Thanks so much for this detail. I remember hearing about this, but only second hand.

Based on your comments I went to the Israel Museum site to see if they had a link. They do.
You can see the stone and read a description. The inscription is very clear. Amazing. It gives me goosebumps to see it, even in the picture.

When I read the Talmudic text I try to imagine what their life was like. But the text is in a book printed a few decades ago according to a layout that is only a few hundred years old. It is an exercise in imagination. All of a sudden you see a stone or another artifact that they would have known and used; it makes it so much more tangible and real.

Thanks so much.
L'Shanna Tova

Simcha said...

I am delighted that you have found this information exciting. This makes two of us and hopefully others as well. Even more so -- a way to go with finding it in the museum's catalogue.

Indeed, the beauty of archaeology is that it sheds so much light on the written. And this is why I keep asking you and R' Amy how can we make sense of the Gemara if we have such little knowledge of the material culture of that period [which no one responded back... :-))]. Imagine living in Israel and seeing all these archaeological sites which provide so many windows to the Biblical and other pasts.

I own a set of books by Daniel Shperber, The Customs of israel. There are wonderful discussions of the Jewish laws and how they were interpreted in different parts of the world in different times of history. The discussion about the shofar in this set also gives another facinating dimension to what you are trying to do here.

Thanks for your response.
May you continue to explore and teach with this excitement,
Shabah Tova, Simacha

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...


I recommend a book by Miriam B. Peskowitz entitled "Spinning Fantasies: Rabbis, Gender, and History." She weaves together material archaeological data with literary and religious data -- paying attention to the most minute details of daily life -- in a remarkable way. She is especially interested in the Mishnaic period, so this might not be precisely what you're seeking. I loved the book -- Peskowitz does a remarkable job; I'll never read a text the same way again. In addition, these recommendations from my daughter: Steven Fine has two books out concerning the Jewish material culture in the ancient world, but mostly in the Greco-Roman period in Eretz Yisrael ("This Holy Place" and more recently "Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World"). When we ask about Mesopotamia, the problem there is that it lies between two rivers and hence is wet; there is much less archaeological evidence. Most of what we know comes from what is written in the Talmud itself (highly self-confirming, I know).

Simcha said...

Just to thank you, R' Amy, for your recommendations. I will be looking for these resources as soon as the HH will be behind us. Also thank your daughter for me as well.

I hope you had a meaningful Rosh Hashanah and that you are back running.


Rabbi Amy Scheinerman said...

You're more than welcome. I wish I had more of precisely what you seek to recommend. Yes, Rosh Hashanah was renewing, and I ran 7.5 miles today (mechiyah!). Thank you.

I hope your Rosh Hashanah was wonderful and the new year will be filled with health, peace, and success for you. Have an easy fast.

Trenton Jewish Historical Society 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