‘Now Exhale’ Rosh Hashanah 5781

The Mussaf Amidah prayer on Rosh Hashanah is the longest Amidah of the year. In some synagogues, it can be excruciatingly long. The reason for its length is that it addresses three topics: Malchuyot (Kingships), Zichronot (Remembrances), and Shofarot (Shofars). Each contains ten verses relevant to that particular topic. Furthermore, Malchuyot incudes additional references to the sacrifices offered on Rosh Hashanah. When you do the math, the result is an exceptionally long prayer, may G-d save us from cantors who draw it out even longer.

The requirement that the Mussaf Amidah address the three above-mentioned topics is found in the Talmud in Tractate Rosh Hashanah [16a]: “[Recite] ‘Kingships’ so that you will crown Me as King over you; ‘Remembrances’ so that your remembrance will rise before Me for good; and with what will the remembrance rise? It will rise with the shofar.” Rabbi Mordechai (Rav Moti) Greenberg[1], the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, noting that one of the key motifs of Rosh Hashanah is the coronation of G-d as King of the Universe, asks what makes Rosh Hashanah different than any other day of the year. Each and every day, we are required to recite the Shema prayer twice. According to the Mishnah in Tractate Berachot [2:2], one of the reasons that we say the Shema prayer is to accept upon ourselves “the burden of the Kingdom of Heaven (ol malchut shamayim)”. What do we do differently on Rosh Hashanah that we aren’t doing every other day?

Rav Moti begins his response by pointing us at a verse in the Book of Bereishit in which Joseph tells his brothers of his dream in which their sheaves of wheat bow down to his sheaf of wheat. Joseph’s brothers are unimpressed and ask him [Bereishit 37:8] “Do you mean to reign over us?! Do you mean to rule over us?!” Rabbi Elijah Kramer, better known as the Vilna Gaon, who lived in Lithuania in the eighteenth century, differentiates between the word “reign (maloch)” and “rule (mashol)”. The Gaon teaches that a leader “rules” forcefully over his subjects while he “reigns” only with their explicit consent[2]. Further, in order for a person to willingly accept another person as a ruler, intellect is required. One must be able to analyse the situation, to compare the pros and the cons, and to come to the conclusion that he is willing to waive some of his basic rights by accepting the dominion of the king. A person can “rule” over a cow or a horse even though it lacks basic intellect, but he can “reign” only over another human being. Rav Moti continues down this path, noting that Rosh Hashanah is not the anniversary of the creation of the world, rather, it is the anniversary of the sixth day of creation, the day of the creation of man. Only after man was created could G-d “reign” in our world and so to commemorate this, on Rosh Hashanah we willingly coronate G-d as King of the Universe and we add Malchuyot to the Amidah prayer.

Rav Moti is not done just yet. Man differs from all other life forms in the way in which he was created [Bereishit 2:7]: “[G-d] blew into his nostrils the breath of life”. The Zohar, the sourcebook of Jewish Mysticism, writes that “He who blew, blew from within Himself”. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, who lived in White Russia in the eighteenth century, illuminates this concept in his Magnum Opus, the Tanya. He explains that when a person blows, when he exhales air forcefully, he is, in some way, giving over a part of himself to the recipient of his breath[3]. Metaphorically, when G-d created man, He exhaled part of Himself into him. Indeed, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe describes the soul as “a piece of G-d Above”[4]. This Divine Breath separates man from beast. It is the source of man’s superior intellect and of his G-dly soul. It is what enables man to willingly accept G-d’s Dominion. On Rosh Hashanah, on the anniversary of his own creation, man acknowledges this Divine gift by “returning the favour”. We exhale forcefully right back at G-d. This is why on Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar and we add Shofarot to the Amidah prayer.

Anyone who knows anything about wind instruments knows that if you forcefully blow into a shofar, it will not make a sound. A shofar, similar to a trumpet or a didgeridoo, makes sound via what physicists refer to as “standing waves”. Similar to the way a guitar string makes sound waves by vibrating, a wind instrument makes sound by the vibration of the air inside a cavity. The initial vibration comes from the shofar-blowers lips. In order to blow the shofar, a person must make a “pfff” sound, which causes a column of air to vibrate inside the shofar in a standing wave. The diameter, length and curvature of the shofar determine its wavelength[5]. The longer the shofar, the longer the wavelength and the lower the sound.

The fact that the sound of the shofar comes not from the air exhaled into the shofar but from the resonance of the air inside the shofar can give us a different insight than the one proposed by Rav Moti. A human being is like a shofar. Both are essentially hollow cylinders. Both require an external force in order to function. With the shofar, that force comes from the vibration of a person’s lips, which drives molecules of air into sound waves that resonate with a sound determined by the contortions of the shofar. With a human, the driving force comes from G-d. We resonate with the Divine breath. We must contort ourselves in order to emit a sound that is pleasing to Him. We do this by living our lives according His wishes as laid out in the Torah.

Let’s return from the spiritual back to the physical. Not unexpectedly, there is a tremendous amount of concern this year about blowing the shofar. COVID-19 is transmitted via microscopic droplets called “aerosols” that are exhaled by an infected person. The distance that the aerosols travel is proportional to the velocity at which they are exhaled. Shouting, sneezing, and coughing significantly increase the distance that the aerosols travel. The social distancing “two metre rule” is meant to account for all but the most extreme cases. The question people are asking is what distance must a person stand from the shofar in order to acceptably reduce his chances of being infected. The rabbis are uncertain and are proposing “Maximum Constraint Rulings”. This means blowing the shofar outdoors with the mouth of the shofar covered by a mask[6]. Some rabbis are even reducing the required number of shofar blasts from 100 to anywhere between 30 and 60 in order to minimize aerosol exposure.

My brother is a professor of Biology at a prestigious Canadian university. He is also a “ba’al toke’a”, meaning that he is the official “shofar blower” at his synagogue. Knowing that the ba’al toke’a does not simply blow into the shofar, he ran an experiment. First, he took a piece of tissue paper and put it in front of his mouth. Simple speech made the tissue move. He then took the tissue and put it on the mouth of a shofar. He blew with all his might. Unsurprisingly, the tissue did not move. His conclusion was that the rabbis were being overly stringent. I replicated this experiment with three different shofars and in no case did the tissue paper move. I sent my brother’s findings to rabbis across the world and it, well, resonated.

And then I found a recent halachic ruling by Rabbi Asher Weiss, a leading halachic authority. When asked whether or not to cover the mouth of the shofar with a mask, Rabbi Weiss answered, “If the ba’al toke’a seems to be in good health and the congregation keep a reasonable distance from him and everyone wears masks, we can rely upon ‘one who keeps a commandment will not be harmed’, and may G-d help, save, and protect us”.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova, and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, David ben Chaya and Iris bat Chaya.

[1] Rav Moti’s lesson appears in “Yerach Ha’Eitanim”, a collection of shiurim sent to KBY alumni in time for Rosh Hashanah 5781.

[2] Applying this understanding to Joseph and his brothers, they were telling him that not only would they not consent to his rule, they would not let him forcefully impose upon them his will.

[3] Think of a person performing artificial resuscitation to another person. His own breath restores the life of the person he is resuscitating.

[4]Chelek E-loka mima’al

[5] This is known as the shofar’s “resonant frequency”.

[6] A friend of mine is one of those poskim. He bases his ruling on this paper: “Transmission of COVID-19 virus by droplets and aerosols: A critical review on the unresolved dichotomy” at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7293495/

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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