Almost exactly a month ago, following years of dedicated work by the Israel Land Fund, a three-generation Palestinian family was evicted from its East Jerusalem home of more than 50 years. Other evictions are in process; several families in the neighborhood have already been served with documents.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been preoccupied by two seemingly unrelated questions. The first is one of those broken-record type of questions that revolves in your head without a resolution. Why is it almost impossible to find religious expressions of compassion for the Shamasneh family and others in their predicament in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem?
The second question is more like a rock with a diamond inside – you chip patiently away, and little by little the answer is revealed. What’s the connection between the three central cycles of shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana and the piyut, liturgical poem, that follows them?
When, just after Yom Kippur, I saw the answer to the second question in its entirety (more or less), I understood that my questions were related: the answer to the second was also an answer to the first. As you’ll see if you manage to get to the end of this (apologies to readers who’ve told me they prefer short and sweet), the connection turned out to be not so surprising.
The single mitzvah, commandment, that’s unique to Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year is hearing the shofar, the ram’s horn.
The sound of the shofar evokes one of the Bible’s most powerful narratives, Akedat Yitzhak, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), in which Abraham is almost required to sacrifice his beloved son, but is given a last-minute reprieve and offers up a ram instead.
Not coincidentally, the Akedah is one of the Rosh Hashana Torah readings. In Sephardi synagogues, it’s present too in the form of a powerful piyut, liturgical song, that, as Spanish and Portuguese hazzan-extraordinaire Daniel Halfon put it, is almost as important to many Sephardim – and Sephardim by choice! – as the shofar itself.
More generally, the shofar is a call to prayer – or, better, attentive prayer – for human worshippers. It’s also a call to God: remember us, turn your face in our direction, show us compassion! In keeping with its function as an instrument of assault on both earth and heaven, the shofar has an otherworldly sound.
In most communities, the shofar is blown a hundred times on each of the two days of Rosh Hashana. The blasts come in short cycles comprising three distinctive sounds:tekiyah, an optimistic call;shevarim, a broken howl;and teruah, a cry of alarm.
The central cycles of shofar blowing take place during the Shemoneh Esrei of the musaf, additional, service on the mornings of Rosh Hashana. These cycles are followed, in both Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, by the same short piyut (indicating that the piyut is ancient). This is how it appears in the Sephardi machzor, prayer book; the Ashkenazi version has a couple of small variations. Click here for Hebrew.
Today is the birthday of the world; today all the world’s creatures stand in judgement, either as children or as slaves. If as children, the compassion you show us is like the compassion a father shows his child. If as slaves, our eyes hang on you, until you take pity on us and bring to light our verdict.
The piyut proposes two positions in which we stand before God on Rosh Hashana: as a child before a parent, and as a servant before a master. Some commentators emphasize the differences between these two – it’s better to be a child than a servant, they say. But the similarities are arguably more significant than the differences. In both cases, the verdict will rest on a prior connection that can be expected to secure special treatment. We are not inclined to judge people for whom we are responsible and in whom we have an investment (that included servants/slaves in the ancient world) as harshly as we judge strangers.
Piyutim are tapestries of biblical citations. Anyone who knows the Bible by heart – as did the paytan, composer, and his original audience – will quickly identify the verses from Psalms that are the source of its two central images.
The biblical source of the image of standing before God like a child before a parent is Psalm 103 (Hebrew here):
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him (Psalm 103:13).
The broader context of this verse fits the Rosh Hashana piyut like a glove:
8The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who are in awe of him; 12 as far as the east is from the west, that far he removes our transgressions from us. 13 As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. 14 For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103)
Again and again on Rosh Hashana we appeal to God’s compassion and graciousness (capacity for pity). We don’t want justice – the verdict we deserve – on the day of judgement. We want compassion and pity, that is, favorable treatment.
The source of the slave/master relationship is Psalm 123, where again it’s linked to the divine attribute of pity. (Hebrew here)
2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their masters, as the eyes of a female slave looks to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he takes pity on us. (Psalm 123)
This is beautiful, not least because it suggests that the paytan had in mind both men and women. But we are none the wiser about the connection between the piyut and the shofar; we must keep chipping away.
In addition to the two verses from Psalms, this short piyut has (at least) four other biblical citations. The paytan begins by defining the dual context in which the plaintiff stands before the judge on Rosh Hashana: the ‘birthday of the world’ (New Year), and the day of judgement.
The source of the paytan’s surprising and difficult term for ‘birthday of the world’ is a dark passage in the book of Jeremiah that’s also about a birthday. Beaten down by God’s relentless anger towards his people, Jeremiah curses the day he was born. More shockingly still, he curses the man who announced the news of his birth, wishing that he’d killed Jeremiah in his mother’s womb on what became his birthday. (Hebrew here)
14 Cursed be the day on which I was born! The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed! 15 Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father, saying, “A child is born to you, a son,” making him very glad. 16 Let that man be like the cities that the Lord overthrew without pity; let him hear a cry in the morning and an alarm at noon, 17 because he did not kill me in the womb; so my mother would have been my grave, and her womb forever great. 18 Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame? (Jeremiah 20)
The Hebrew word olam means both world and forever, eternal. For Jeremiah, harat olam signifies an everlasting pregnancy – the baby has died and will never leave his mother’s womb. The Hebrew word for womb, rehem, shares a root with compassion, rahamim – perhaps because compassion is exemplified by the feeling a mother has for her child.
The paytan must have thought very carefully about opening his piyut with harat olam, a term which occurs only here in the Bible. A justification for his choice soon emerges. Jeremiah wishes that the man – a kind of town crier, perhaps – who joyfully announced his birth – heralded presumably by the cry of the healthy newborn – will be punished by hearing a cry (of alarm) every morning and a wail (of distress) every noon. His word for wail, teruah, is one of the three calls of the shofar on Rosh Hashana. By alluding to the biblical passage that contains the word teruah, the paytan has created a link in a chain that connects his piyut to the shofar blowing that precedes it.
Rosh Hashana is both the New Year and the day of judgement or, as the paytan has it, ‘the day on which all the creatures of the world will stand in judgement’. The notion of being judged by our creator occurs often in the Bible, including in Psalm 103 as above. It’s also in Isaiah 27, where human guilt and the divine attributes of compassion and pity are again emphasized. (Hebrew here)
9 Therefore by this the guilt of Jacob will be expiated, and this will be the full fruit of the removal of his sin … 11 … For this is a people without understanding; therefore he that made them will not have compassion on them, he that formed them will show them no pity. (Isaiah 27)
The situation sounds utterly hopeless, but, in a moment, Isaiah turns it all around:
12 On that day the Lord will thresh from the channel of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt, and you will be gathered one by one, O people of Israel. 13 And on that day a great trumpet will be blown, and those who were lost in the land of Assyria and those who were driven out to the land of Egypt will come and worship the Lord on the holy mountain at Jerusalem. (Isaiah 27)
The turning point is the optimistic blast of the shofar that will signal the beginning of Israel’s return from exile. Isaiah’s term for ‘blow’, yitaka, shares a root with tekiyah, the second type of shofar call specified on Rosh Hashana. The paytan’s allusion to Isaiah 27 is another link in the chain that connects his piyut to the shofar.
The form of the verb the paytan chooses to indicate that all created beings will stand, ya’amid’, in judgement is unusual. It’s easy to see which one of its few biblical occurrences he had in mind: Proverbs 29. He cites another distinctive word from the same verse – be’mishpat (in judgement or in justice). (Hebrew here)
1 One who is often reproved, yet remains stubborn, will suddenly be broken beyond healing. 2 When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when the wicked rule, the people groan. 3 A child who loves wisdom makes a parent glad, but a shepherd of prostitutes loses his substance. 4 By justice a king gives stability to the land, but one who makes heavy demands ruins it. (Proverbs 29)
But where is the shofar in Proverbs 29? The chapter opens with a warning that a person who remains stiff-necked when chastised will be ‘broken’ (ne’shaver) beyond repair. Shevarim, ‘breaks’, is the third call of the Rosh Hashana shofar – another link in the paytan’s chain.
Proverbs 29 has in mind a human king, but for the paytan, the king is God. This fits well with Rosh Hashana’s triple emphasis on kingship (malchuyot), remembrance (zichronot) and the shofar itself (shofarot), and indeed these three concepts form the framework in which the shofar is blown.
Almost miraculously, each of the biblical passages in which the paytan locates a shofar call also contains a word that resonates with one of these three concepts. Proverbs 29 speaks of a king (malchuyot, kingship); Isaiah 27 mentions a shofar (shofarot); and Jeremiah’s messenger tells the prophet’s father that he has a male child, ben zachar. The Hebrew word for ‘male’ shares its three root letters with the word for ‘memory’, zecher (hence zichronot, remembrance). Exegesis based on the similarity in Hebrew between ‘male’ and ‘memory’ is found elsewhere.
We take it for granted that the mitzvah, commandment, associated with the shofar is hearing it, not blowing it. That’s lucky for me. My late husband Peter, z.l., may his memory be for a blessing, and my sons Jacob and Jonah blew the shofar in our synagogue in Cambridge, England, but I have never been able to elicit a single peep. The paytan, however, did not take this for granted. In another difficult phrase, he alludes to Isaiah 51. (Hebrew here)
1 Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. 2 Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. 3 For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song. 4 Listen to me, my people, and hear me, my nation; for a teaching will go out from me, and my justice for a light to the peoples. (Isaiah 51)
The paytan’s difficult totzi le’or mishpatenu (bring to light our judgement) alludes to three words in Isaiah 51:4, tetze, u’mishpati and le’or. This verse also contains two words that mean hear or listen to, hakshivu and ha’azinu; the entire passage begins with the command, hear, shimu. Finally, verse 3 includes the word kol, voice or sound, which is precisely what we are commanded to hear on Rosh Hashana, kol shofar, the voice of the shofar.
All this represents an extraordinary achievement on the part of the paytan, but there’s more. We can demand justice (though we might not get it), but we can’t demand compassion and pity. We can only try to elicit them. Between them, the biblical passages to which the paytan alludes constitute a brilliant rhetorical strategy for eliciting divine compassion.
Jeremiah tells God that it would have been better not to be born at all than to live with God’s relentless anger, much as the Israelites complained that God should have let them die in Egypt if they were going to die in the wilderness anyway (Exodus 16:3). Isaiah reminds God that he made the Israelites the way they are, much as Moses reminded that he didn’t conceive or give birth to the Israelites (Numbers 11:12); And Proverbs praises a just king, much as Abraham asks, rhetorically, if the God of all the world will not do justice (Genesis 18:25). When the paytan alludes to biblical the passages that express these muted criticisms, he is enlisting them in his own arsenal of persuasive weapons.
But why wasn’t the paytan more straightforward, more direct? The answer is that the stakes were too high! Perhaps God would take offense at the paytan’s hubris, and take it out on all those who had the temerity to repeat his words every Rosh Hashana. Nevertheless, it was worth a cautious gamble; if he succeeded in eliciting God’s compassion, the game would be over. Once compassion and pity are in the picture, the supposed rights and wrongs, the legal ins and outs, the ‘he dids’ and ‘she dids’, fade into insignificance.
This brings me to my question about the near-total lack of expressions of compassion in religious circles for the Shamasneh family and their neighbors, who are also living under threat of eviction.
When the subject of the Sheikh Jarrah evictions is raised in religious circles, the discussion usually turns to what the Shamasnehs did and did not deserve. They didn’t pay rent, did they? Surely, they would have been granted protected status if they were entitled to it? Didn’t their ancestors leave their West Jerusalem homes in 1948 to fight Jews? Didn’t they refuse to accept compensation?
Property disputes, especially in conflict zones, are notoriously bitter, protracted and challenging to resolve. In most cases, the answers to questions like those above are complex, open to interpretation, impossible to reconstruct. But that’s not the point I want to make here.
The Shamasnehs and their neighbors are losing their homes not because their tenancies are illegal, or because they refused to pay the rent They are losing their homes because they are on the wrong side of a political/religious project to remove Muslims from East Jerusalem and repopulate it with Jews. All this is crystal clear in a Rosh Hashana announcement from the Israel Land Fund, the organization responsible for the Shamasnehs’ eviction.
This extract makes the point (my bold):
One Small Step…
September 5th 2017, 6:30AM The Israel Land Fund, in coordination with the Israeli Police, removed the illegal occupants of a Jewish owned home in the Nachalat Shimon neighborhood of eastern Jerusalem. This operation represents the culmination of a 7 year legal battle to reclaim this strategic property in the heart of our holy, eternal capital. Palestinian flags were removed from the premises and the Israeli flag is now flying high. The new Jewish residents are in and the home has been secured and security cameras installed. The cameras are extremely effective in deterring terrorists and identifying those who do attack. Several terrorists have already been positively identified and will be prosecuted thanks to the security cameras installed at the site. These camera systems cost about $3600 to install and covering the cost is a significant challenge for us here at the ILF. If you can help us cover the cost of this system, you’ll be saving Jewish lives and fighting terror in a very real and immediate way.
I had been struggling to understand why even those Jews who are totally behind this project, and see it as the only way forward, can’t feel compassion and pity for its victims. But now I think I get it.
If compassion and pity weaken even God’s resolve to punish us as we do, in fact, deserve, how much more will compassion and pity weaken the resolve of mere human beings, who can only guess what other human beings to and do not deserve. No wonder so many people respond to the events of Sheikh Jarrah by looking past the family removed from its home of fifty years and talking instead about just deserts.
On the second night of Rosh Hashana, the Shamasnehs and their neighbors hosted a dinner for their Jewish friends and supporters.
The residents insisted on preparing the food themselves, and even chose the menu.
I didn’t take part in the Sheikh Jarrah Rosh Hashana dinner, but I am in awe of those people whose capacity for compassion and pity, and commitment to justice, contributed to that extraordinary occasion and enabled it to take place. This year, sitting in synagogue, I learned something about compassion and pity from the Rosh Hashana machzor. It was a lesson they already knew.