The Music of Silence

The following was given as a sermon on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5781:

On a late summer day in 1952, the pianist David Tudor took the stage of Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York to debut a new three-movement piece by the legendary composer John Cage. He sat down at the piano and in front of a stunned audience closed the keyboard lid. After a minute or two he opened and closed it again, and then a few minutes later opened and closed it again. After 4 minutes and 33 seconds had passed without a sound from the piano, he opened it one final time to mark the conclusion of the piece. Critics were aghast. What was Cage up to they wondered? Could the absence of sound even be called music?

Just as it is hard for us to imagine a concert without music, the sound of the shofar is one of the first things we think about when we think of Rosh Hashana. This connection is of course not just based on our own experiences, the Torah refers to Rosh Hashana as Yom Teruah- a day of sounding. Despite this, we will not blow the shofar today because it is Shabbat, but why is this the case?

The most well-known answer is found in the Babylonian Talmud, which explains that although the shofar was blown on Shabbat in the Beit HaMikdash, the sages decreed that the shofar should not be blown in other locations, lest a person who does not know how to blow the shofar carry it outside in a public area to take it to an expert who could teach them how to sound it properly.

According to this explanation, when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, we lose the mitzvah of shofar in order to protect the sanctity of Shabbat. This is of course a less than ideal situation. Were it not for our innate weaknesses the sages would not have needed to prohibit blowing the shofar on Shabbat and we would be able to enjoy the fullness of Rosh Hashana. For the Babylonian Talmud, the absence of the shofar on Shabbat is just that, an absence and a void.

However, a very different explanation for why we don’t blow the shofar on Shabbat is found in the Jerusalem Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud explains that we don’t blow the shofar on Shabbat because abstaining from sounding the shofar on Shabbat is actually a mitzvah. Although in one place the Torah refers to Rosh Hashana as Yom Teruah – the day of sounding, in another verse it refers to Rosh Hashana as Zichron Teruah – the day on which the sounding is remembered. According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the latter verse refers to Shabbat. On Shabbat, the shofar is never supposed to be sounded, only remembered. For the Jerusalem Talmud, when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat nothing is lost. The absence of the shofar is not truly an absence or void at all, but rather the opportunity to perform a new positive commandment.

There is an inherent tension between these two positions. Is refraining from sounding the shofar on Shabbat an absence or an action?

At first glance, John Cage’s four thirty-three composition appears to be just the absence of sound, but those who were in the audience on that August day in 1952 quickly realized that was not the case at all. Instead their ears turned to the ambient noise of the crowd that surrounded them. There was an absence, but also a plethora of sounds that we all too often miss, and according to Cage these sounds could be music as well.

Life is not a musical composition, but if we listen closely in the moments where at first glance we hear only an absence and a void, we may hear something else as well. Although most halachic authorities accept the view of the Babylonian Talmud that we do not blow the shofar on Shabbat because of a rabbinic decree, the Jerusalem Talmud’s position is enshrined in our machzor. This morning in our tefillot, we referred to Rosh Hashana not as Yom Teruah, a day of sounding as we normally would, but as Zichron Teruah, a day of remembering the sounding. In this way our tradition offers us a framework for how to approach loss and absence. The loss of the Beit HaMikdash is a real loss, one that manifests itself in numerous ways including the fact that we can no longer blow shofar on Shabbat. This creates a real and painful void. However, even as we acknowledge what we have lost, we can also reimagine it. Our machzor reconfigures our condition so that it is not a loss, but an opportunity for us to embody the words of the Torah as we literally recall the blowing of the Shofar and hear a new sound in that void.

For many of us the last six months have been marked by absences. The moments and the people that we have missed. As I look around today, I can picture all of the people who are not able to be with us this year. For many this absence cuts deeper as it has meant the loss of a job and economic security. And for those who have lost loved ones to Covid, it is the horrific feeling of a void that will never be filled. But in this backdrop of absence, of missing family and important milestones, we also have heard sounds, music even, we may never have noticed before. There has been the sound of front-line workers, communities, including this one, ensuring that their most vulnerable members were cared for, and families finding new ways to maintain their bonds. Over the next few months, and perhaps longer than that, we will continue to feel a void and an absence in many parts of our lives, but let us also listen closely so that we may be attuned to the music that is there as well. And ultimately may the coming year be one of health and happiness for us all.

About the Author
Noah Leavitt has an MA in Jewish Philosophy from Yeshiva University. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
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