by Rabbi Gila Caine
(September 2019) – Sounds not words.
The new moon of Tishrei (which we later learned to call Rosh Hashanah) holds one of our most ancient rituals, the blowing of the Shofar “…. In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbath, a commemoration with horn blast, a sacred convocation…” (Lev. 23:24). The “horn blast” here in English is a translation of “Zichron T’ruah” (the horn blast of remembrance, or, remembering the horn blast). It’s interesting to note that the most ancient name for this festival is “Yom Zichron T’ruah” – the day of remembering the loud blast.
OK, but how do we know that these horn blasts (T’ruah) refer to the Shofar? Some learn it from “And you shall send round a blasting ram’s horn, in the seventh month on the tenth day, on the Day of Atonement, you shall send round a ram’s horn through all your land” (Lev. 25:9). In Hebrew this reads as: Shofar T’ruah. So, from the Shofar of Yom Kippur we learn about the Shofar of the festival on the New Moon of Tishrei. But the horn sound of Rosh Hashanah is not just about sound, but also about memory and with it rises the question, why are we using a shofar to remember?
If you’ve ever blown a shofar, you might remember not just the feel of it in your hands and the sounds it makes, but also the smell of the animal horn as you bring it to your lips. Rabbi Arthur Green says of the Shofar: “While the liturgy of Rosh Hashanah is perhaps the most eloquent and poetic of the year, the raw emotion of the season (“Thank you for bringing us alive to this time! Give us another year to live!) is so elemental and primitive that it is better expressed by these unrefined cries of the horn than by words of great poets” (Green, These are the words, p. 204).
Rabbi Green touches upon something extremely important in our understanding of the liturgy of this day, echoing the words of the piyyut Un’taneh Tokef – “And a great shofar will be sounded, And a thin whisper of sound will be heard”. These are the two most important elements of the ritual of the New Moon of Tishrei, and all the music and poetry and words are paths leading us to the great sound of shofar and to moments of silence in between.
A few days ago, I was visiting a new mother and her tiny baby girl, and we were trying to imagine how does this little baby perceive the world. The mother suddenly asked, “What will she remember of this time in her life when she grows up?”. That’s a great question – how do you remember before being able to give words to your experience? Some say we don’t, other say we remember something in the very depth of our consciousness, while others say we remember in our body.
I would like to suggest that the sound of Shofar is supposed to throw all of us back to exactly that primordial moment – before words and a structured understanding of reality. On Rosh Hashanah we should focus all our energy into remembering the beginning moments of the world, and of our own life. This festival offers us an opportunity to revisit a time when nothing was polluted or hurt yet. A time when we could rest and explore and feel totally connected to all that was around us. To go there, we need something to tug at our memory (Zicharon) a blast of sound (and smell….) calling up ancient moments of our existence, and this has to be something stronger than words, something calling us from beyond grown-up and elaborate language.
To begin the New Year, find time to at least go and hear the Shofar, give yourself the gift of experiencing that ancient wild call. It might help you remember where you came from, where you are going and for what reason you are alive today.
May we all be blessed with a Healthy, Peaceful and Happy New Year.
Rabbi Gila Caine is the spiritual leader at Temple Beth Ora, Edmonton’s Reform Judaism congregation.