7th-Graders Search for Meaning Through the Sound of the Shofar
  • Jewish Studies
Yair Bernstein, MS Hebrew and Jewish Studies

One of the main mitzvot of Rosh Hashanah is to hear the sound of the shofar. This year, as I was preparing to discuss Rosh Hashanah with the 7th grade, I thought to myself, "what does it really mean to hear a shofar?". Before we hear the sound of the shofar we say:

״בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעולָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוׂתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לִשְׁמועַ קול שׁופָר:״

“Blessed are You, Ruler of the World, who has made us holy with commandments, and who has commanded us to hear the voice of the shofar.”

Is it just a technical mitzvah—hear the sound and you’re done? Are there other components to this mitzvah? And what does it look like during the time of COVID-19?

I decided to bring these questions to my classes and explore them together. We started with a Mishnah that discusses the obligation to hear the sound of the shofar:

 שָׁמַע, לֹא יָצָא. וְכֵן מִי שֶׁהָיָה עוֹבֵר אֲחוֹרֵי בֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת, אוֹ שֶׁהָיָה בֵיתוֹ סָמוּךְ לְבֵית הַכְּנֶסֶת, וְשָׁמַע קוֹל שׁוֹפָר אוֹ קוֹל מְגִלָּה, אִם כִּוֵּן לִבּוֹ, יָצָא, וְאִם לָאו, לֹא יָצָא. אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁזֶּה שָׁמַע וְזֶה שָׁמַע, זֶה כִּוֵּן לִבּוֹ וְזֶה לֹא כִוֵּן לִבּוֹ:

If one sounds a shofar into a pit, or into a cistern, or into a large jug, if he clearly heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation; but if he heard the sound of an echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation. And similarly, if one was passing behind a synagogue, or his house was adjacent to the synagogue, and he heard the sound of the shofar or the sound of the Scroll of Esther being read, if he focused his heart, i.e. his intent, to fulfill his obligation, he has fulfilled his obligation; but if not, he has not fulfilled his obligation. It is therefore possible for two people to hear the shofar blasts, but only one of them fulfills his obligation. Even though this one heard and also the other one heard, nevertheless, this one focused his heart to fulfill his obligation and has therefore indeed fulfilled it, but the other one did not focus his heart, and so he has not fulfilled his obligation.

After exploring this Mishnah in Hevrutot, the students decided that the basic obligation is to hear a clear sound of the shofar that is not interrupted by an echo. They also realized that a person needs to “direct their heart” for the Shofar blowing “to count”. 

“What about the Megillah?” said one student. “Why does it talk about Megillah? Isn’t that a Purim thing?״ 

“And what if I directed my heart but heard an echo?” said another. “Why would someone blow the shofar into a cistern?” added the third. Fair point.

After discussing the Mishnah for a few minutes, we shifted the conversation to shofar blowing during these unusual times. How will it be different? Blowing a shofar during the pandemic can be dangerous as it can spread the virus. “How do we solve this problem?” I asked. Blowing it outside, via Zoom, or listen to a recording, were the most liked suggestions. 

“But isn’t via Zoom, exactly like the echo in the Mishnah?” suggested a student from the back of the room. Perfect segway to the next piece! 

We watched this video to help us understand how sound moves through technology. 

“So this means that the sound we hear on Zoom isn’t the original sound?” asked a student.  

“Exactly!” I explained, “so this is the problem we need to deal with here. Does hearing a shofar on Zoom “count”?”

“But it is the same,” argued a student by the door. “Even if it went through a phone, it is exactly the same sound.” 

“Not really. In the video you see that it turns into something else and then turns back to a sound wave,” countered another student.

“Right, but if someone turned into a dog, and then turned back into a human, they would still be the same person!”

“Not necessarily, they have memories from being a dog, which means their identity is different.” 

“Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe life is more important than how we hear the shofar,” said a student to my left. 

“You mean “pikuach nefesh,” I replied. “Meaning life is more important than almost all of the other mizvot.

“But—,” began a student by the window. “It is also a question of beliefs. Some people would care more about the technical parts of hearing a shofar and some would care more about the meaning.” 

“I agree,” I say. “Which brings us to my next question—how are you going to make this Rosh Hashanah meaningful, even with all the changes from “normal” Rosh Hashanah?”

So, how are you going to make it meaningful? 

Ma Nishma: Issue 19

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

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