Chaim Ingram

The still small voice

I recall some years ago seeing Dudu Fisher in concert in Sydney and hearing his famous story of how, when offered the leading role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway, he made his acceptance conditional on being excused from all Shabbat and Yom Tov performances – to which the producer agreed.

There’s an apocryphal tailpiece to that faith-affirming story. On Rosh HaShana during the Broadway run (which that year did not fall on Shabbat), Dudu’s understudy forgot it was a Jewish holy day and failed to turn up for the performance. Imagine: a full audience, all the props in place, all the cast waiting in the wings ……. except the main player of the show!

A similar story is played out every so often on Rosh HaShana in every synagogue in the world! A full shul, the whole “cast” in place – rabbi, chazanim, choir, shammas, gabbaim, security staff, youth service leader, crèche supervisor …. Everyone except the star of the show.

The Shofar is missing!

That’s exactly what happens whenever the first day of Rosh HaShana coincides with Shabbat, as it does this year

We all come to shul to hear the Shofar – the Jean Valjean of Rosh HaShana. But in such years, the Shofar, like Dudu, has an agreement. On Shabbos it doesn’t perform.

How come?

Many think it is because we are not allowed to sound a musical instrument. But the rabbinic fiat that disallows an instrument on Shabbat – and on Yom Tov for that matter – is waived for the sake of a mitsva as it was in the Temple where instrumental music accompanied the offerings. Proof of this is manifest every Yom Kippur. On this most sacred day of the year, one blast of the Shofar is prescribed prior to the day’s conclusion, while it is still Yom Tov, before we have made havdala ending the holy day.

The key to why the shofar is absent on Shabbat Rosh HaShana lies elsewhere.

Simply: the rabbis were afraid that a person in his zeal for the mitsva may forget it is the Sabbath and carry his instrument through the public thoroughfare (which isn’t permitted on Shabbat) to an expert for guidance.

Let’s just get a handle on this! Shofar is a mitsva of the Torah. We’re hardly told anything about Rosh HaShana in the Torah bar we must blow the Shofar. And now we can’t even do that!

Why not? Because some shmendrik might forget himself and carry his instrument in the street? Who told him to get selective amnesia? Can’t he be expected to be more careful?

Say our rabbis: no. If there is the slightest chance that Shabbat, our weekly guest, will be violated, the whole annual grand sound show is cancelled!

The climactic Unetane Tokef prayer of musaph proclaims: “The great Shofar is sounded – and the still small voice (kol dmama daka) shall be heard”.

Shabbat is that still, small voice, scarcely audible. Our constant companion through the trials and tribulations of the year.

We tend to minimise it, imagining instead that the big performances, the Jean Valjean moments, are what it’s all about. But no, it’s the Shabbat Shaloms, the blessings we give our children, the weekly Kiddush, the Lekha Dodi we sing each week that count for even more!

An extremely powerful lesson of which the calendar reminds us from time to blessed time by mandating Rosh HaShana, yom terua, to be without its star performer, at least for one day!

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of five books on Judaism. He is a senior tutor for the Sydney Beth Din and the non-resident rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. He can be reached at
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