1. Shofar And Time

…If all time is eternally Present, All time is unredeemable… T. S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

Central to, or lurking behind, if you will, any discussion appropriate to Rosh Hashana is the problem of time. For while we all talk of Rosh Hashana as a celebration of the “New Year”, the texts, biblical and talmudic, are rather ambiguous as to what the actual date of creation is. One thing is certain- Rosh Hashana is not meant to signify the date of the creation of the world per se, but more likely, to commemorate the creation of humanity, at best, according to a talmudic debate. The talmud offers the following alternatives: Was the world created in Nisan, half a year away from Rosh Hashana, or was the world created the week before Rosh Hashana, that is, Rosh Hashana commemorates the sixth day of creation, and as such is meant to celebrate the creation of humanity?

Perhaps this ambiguity about the events of the New Year, Rosh Hashana, which in the proof text of Psalm 81:4 is referred to as bakeseh, the “hidden” or “mysterious day”, is meant to teach a greater lesson about time and its unreality.

Let us ponder that verse, Ps. 81:4 for a moment, as it also contains a link to the other critical symbol of this holiday, the shofar- The verse reads:

Tik’u bahodesh shofar, Sound on the day of the new month the shofar, bakeseh, when the moon is hidden, l’yom hagenu, on the festival day.

The Talmud in BT Rosh Hashana 8. proves that the new year corresponds to Tishrei by virtue of the link in this verse between the shofar and the hidden moon, which as Rashi points out is astronomically related to this season. There is a link between the beginning of time and the shofar.

This link is compounded in BT Rosh Hashana 16. :

…and on Rosh Hashana say before me malchuyot, zichronot and shofarot- Malchuyot- you shall crown me King over you; Zichronot- your memory shall rise before me for the good; and how? via the Shofar!

In this text, an extra association is added. The New Year links God, memory, and the shofar. First of all, I should like to point out, as an aside, something frequently overlooked in the approach to this set of prayers, and that is its dialogical nature. By our act of ‘crowning’ God, via the shofar, we alter our relationship with God. The Talmud suggests that prayer is not just human lip service, not just something we do because we must do so, but rather defines prayer is a dialogical act which evokes a response. Our recognition of Gd’s “kingship” evokes a reciprocal recognition of our sentience. At any rat, returning to our discussion of time, note that the Talmud creates an association linking Gd, memory, and the shofar to our consciousness of time, symbolized by the new year.

Before we proceed, however, we should define a term. What does “consciousness of time” mean? Philosophy has been interested in the time, well, since time began. However, the issue of the consciousness of time, from the standpoint of human subjectivity, as opposed to a naturalistic questioning of what time is per se, is a more recent inquiry; it really has its roots at the turn of this century, with Meinong and Brentano. Without getting too technical, we can explain the question in the following manner. How is the game “Name That Tune” possible? The game is predicated on my ability to recognize an entire sequence of notes based on the first few notes. But how is recognition of a tune even possible? I hear a tone, and then another one. What allows me to keep the “past” tone in consciousness and link it to the following tone, in the “present”, and extrapolate the third tone, the “future”? When do isolated tones become, say, the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth, so clearly delineated in four notes?

Meinong felt that perception was always only of immediate moments, but that a separate act of consciousness occurs at some point which “embraces” the previous perceptions and creates the continuum, the melody. But that isn’t really how we experience a tune, is it? We don’t have sudden explosive moments at the end of a series of tonal pulsations, and we are also able to intuit the upcoming notes, otherwise we couldn’t play Name That Tune. Hence Brentano felt that there was some kind of immediate memory in which each tone is altered, in memory, by the preceding and upcoming note; the second note reproduces the original in memory and appends the current note, creating an alteration in the perception of the first note.

Husserl attacks this entire approach by pointing out how stuck in the immediate it is; how Brentano’s approach does not allow for a memory of the past (in other words, I can only understand all three notes if my brain somehow makes all three notes present and associated in the now). Thus, Husserl struggled throughout his life with attempting some sort of phenomenology of time; at the end of his life he developed an interesting system of an “absolute time constituting flow of consciousness” which cannot be perceived directly as an object (since that apprehension would also be in time, and flow cannot be fixed in time like that), which is capable of “primal impression”, which is perception of the present, “retention”, which is in memory, and “protention”, which is a way of anticipating the future.

This absolute flow, it seems to me, is pretty much what we call the soul. Thus, an inquiry into the consciousness of time from a philosophical position suddenly lands us back into the world of theology.

Perhaps this is what the Talmud is trying to enlighten us about. The Sefat Emet is rather emphatic about the relational nature of the shofar, in attempting to explain why all these matters are linked to the shofar. Why does the shofar bring about this dialogue between humanity and the Creator?

The Sefat Emet quotes the Talmud in Rosh Hashana 26. There, in what appears to be a halachic midrash, is recorded the following debate:

Why can we use a shofar from any animal except the cow? The Rabbis say: it is as Rav Hisda taught. Rav Hisda asks: Why does the High Priest not wear the “priestly uniform of gold” into the Holy of Holies? Because a “prosecutor” cannot become the “defense attorney” (The gold in the outfit would recall the sin of the golden calf, thus the shofar coming from a cow, would also recollect the golden calf just on the day when we ask for forgiveness- Rashi…)

Fine, but that is true only of the moment when the Priest enters the Holy of Holies- certainly we know the High Priest can wear the gold uniform outside the Holy of Holies, and no one seems to recollect the past sin of the golden calf! So all we can derive is that a shofar made of cow horn can’t be blown in the Holy of Holies, but should be allowed in any other place on Rosh Hashana! The reply is: since the shofar’s role is for awakening “memory”, once it is blown on Rosh Hashana, no matter where we are it is as if we are in the Holy of Holies; the shofar signifies a transcendence of place and of time.

How does that happen? How does the shofar come to symbolize that which is outside of time and space? I think the answer is suggested by the following discussion in the Talmud (BT Rosh Hashana 32.):

Mishna: we do not say less than ten verses each for “malchuyot”, “zichronot” and “shofarot”. Gemara: Why ten?…R Yohanan says: The ten verses correspond to the ten utterences with which the world was created (utterances starting with “vayomer” such as: let there be light). However, the Talmud notes, if you actually count them, there are only nine utterances listed! The Talmud answers- the word “B’reishit” (In The Beginning) is also an utterance…

What kind of utterance is this word “in the beginning”? It is a pre-utterance utterance, the sense of intention and meaning that arises deep within prior to being limited by words. As a personal example, shared by most humans, we all know the feeling of inadequacy evoked when one wants to express the deeply felt affection one has, say, for a spouse; the emotion is felt with the sum total of ones existence, and yet when one tries to express this sentiment in words, the words come out trite, commonplace, and not expressive of what one “really wants to say”. The preverbal utterance of “In the beginning” expresses Gd’s will to do Good in creating the universe. This attempt to express one’s true being, which inevitably is devalued by speech, marginalized by social pressures, or corrupted by the other issues in life that keep us from recognizing that which is most authentic about ourselves, is what is symbolised by the shofar, the non-verbal cry of true self recognition. And this undifferentiated place, prior to the atomization into words, is one that is outside of time and space. The recognition of this ur-place, whereby there are truths deeper than the flow of time, is also what allows Teshuva, repentance, to take place, as we will see in the Yom Kippur shiur.

So what does this mean, that there is a place of truth beyond time and space?

In order to actualize this metaphysical sounding phrase, let us return to the discussion of the date of Rosh Hashana. While most people think of Rosh Hashana as a day of Judgement read: a sad solemn day, the Talmud presents a list of things that happened around Rosh Hashana that suggests an entirely different mood (BT, Rosh Hashana 10:,Pesikta D’Rav Kahana):

…In Tishrei the Avot (Avraham, Yitzhaq, and Yaaqov) were born, as they were the beginning of the new world after the sins of the earlier generations. On Rosh Hashana Sarah, Rachel, and Hanna were “remembered”, as they were barren and Gd remembered them so that they should conceive. On Rosh Hashana Yosef was freed from the prison where he had been imprisoned for twelve years, and his light began to shine. On Rosh Hashana the work load was lifted from our ancestors in Egypt and the start of their redemption was perceived…

It is interesting that the text the Talmud uses to prove that Joseph was freed from prison on Rosh Hashana is the same used to link the shofar and Rosh Hashana, and unlike the Talmud editor’s usual practice of quoting just a few words of a verse, the Talmud quotes all three verses almost in their entirety, starting from “sound the shofar on the day of keseh” until the proof text, “a testimony to Yehosef…” which is meant to relate the liberation of Joseph to the shofar as well as to the day of Rosh Hashana.

There is another important source in the Talmud in which the shofar and liberation are linked. BT Rosh Hashana 33: -34., derives all the laws of the shofar on Rosh Hashana from the Jubilee year, the 50th year of the Hebrew calender in which all slaves go free, all land returns to its original owners, and “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land…” This linkage might suggest, that the expression of one’s truest self as conveyed by the shofar, of our sounding the note of that truth which is beyond time and space, acts as an “auto-emancipation”, of our being freed from our own personal “prison sentence” (Ibn Ezra points out that Joseph in that verse refers to all of us, not just the historical Joseph), the prison sentence of time. Rosh Hashana as personal liberation is best expressed in the following aphorism from the Jerusalem Talmud (JT Rosh Hashana 4:8).

R. Lazer son of R Jose said in the name of R Jose bar Kussrita: In all other sacrifices the Torah states “and you shall sacrifice” but here (Rosh Hashana) the phrase “and you shall do/make” is used. Gd says- since you have entered before me for judgement on Rosh Hashana and you have left in peace, I look upon you as though you have recreated yourselves anew.

In summary, the Rosh Hashana experience, contains within it a blurring of concepts of time and place. This ability to see beyond the effects upon us of time and place may point us back to our most true self, as our “situation” is sometimes really the cause of our failures to be the individual we most truly want to be.

The shofar, that pre-verbal cry of personal authenticity, enables us, then, to listen to our deepest, truest voice, and as a result enables us to recreate ourselves in a more authentic existence, “to recreate ourselves anew”. Now we can return to the passage from the BT Rosh Hashana 16. quoted above, in which by our act of evoking Gd’s transcendence, we create a response in which we are remembered. We noted that this passage suggests that somehow a dialogical relationship between ourselves and Gd is facilitated by the shofar. In the auto-emancipatory nature of the shofar experience, through the recognition of a truth beyond the limitations of time and place, we are awakened to our own personal truth liberated from the limitations of reality as we have experienced it (or suffered from it), and recognize that there is an endless capacity for transfiguration, where we can create new worlds, new situations, and thus bring about personal and universal change. Let us greet one another this year with “shana tova”- literally, a wish for a good year, but let us read it as “shana tova”, shana sharing the root of shinui, change, transformation, and may we be the ones to bring about some positive change, now, this year, the sooner the better!


A thought for those not facing the holidays eagerly, based on the above texts…

And what if despite the social pressure, the Facebook need to present a happy face, the mandatory good cheer demanded at holidays, you don’t feel joy or awe facing Rosh Hashana? What if the sheer thought of contemplating what your life is or has become, leaves you emotionally cold, now more than any other time? What if all you want now is music that hurts? Perhaps you find yourself thinking, maybe this would be a good year not to get included in the book of life? For some these days, there are obvious causes for a lack of joy at this time, but for many of us, is there not just some kind of deep sense of distress, malaise, something gnawing at our consciousness and our beliefs? What can we do, how can we feel this facing judgment when we don’t really feel that either outcome would be more favorable?

In my own personal little moment of darkness I stumbled across a wonderful teaching by the Sefat Emet. In this teaching, the Sefat Emet rethinks that quote from the Talmud in Rosh Hashana 16. that we cited earlier in this essay:

(Say before me ) Zichronot- your memory shall rise before me for the good

And wonders (year 5639), First of all, why would this day of judgement require humanity to say anything? Do not all the traditional texts teach that whether we choose to participate or not, this is the universal day of judgment? Furthermore, who can guarantee that the judgment will be for the good? Does not the concept of judgment by definition imply, a cold impartial moment of thumbs up, thumbs down? Who says that we really have any say over the final judgements rendered?

The Sefat Emet offers an intriguing response. He says that the important moment we are reminded of by this text is that in order for there to be judgment there must be memory. And that by the act of choosing to step forward during these days of judgement, of submitting, as it were, to judgement, “that alone is worthwhile simply so that we shall evoke our remembrance before Gd” .

We know how often in the aftermath of tragedy we are counseled, “life goes on”, and “you’ll get over it” but we all know that of all our lives experiences a trace is left behind, even when we have consciously forgotten what has provoked our sadness or anxiety there is a trace that remains, what Lyotard in his “Heidegger and ‘the jews’” describes as:

…a past located this side of the forgotten, much closer to the present moment than any past, at the same time that it is incapable of being solicited by voluntary and conscious memory- a past Deleuze says that is not past but is always there… (pp 12)

Lyotard continues that this trace is what Freud called “unconscious affect”. But what can that mean, a feeling that we have that we are not aware of, what is a feeling that is not felt?

…Something, however, will make itself understood, “later”… but without the subject recognizing it. It will be represented as something that has never been presented…as a symptom, a phobia…This will be understood as feeling, fear, anxiety, feeling of a threatening excess whose motive is obviously not in the present context…

To Freud, of course, the way to deal with these affections, these traces left upon the unconscious emotional makeup of the person is to in some way bring some aspect of this to consciousness, to discover in what way these traces impinge upon our behavior. To the Sefat Emet, we might say, it is the act of coming forward in memory. He explains that the simple act of standing forward and presenting oneself as an individual to be observed, to be heard and considered before Gd, that alone is already transformative, to make, as it were, Gd move from a severe point of view (we can translate in this context the Hebrew term din “severity”, as “anxiety”) to a merciful perspective, a view upon this world which is one of healing. The Sefat Emet summarizes:

…Being remembered by Gd as part of judgment is itself a great gift of goodness…

So perhaps for those approaching the holiday with a heavy heart, for those who know that why they are at this moment without joy and for those who don’t know why but only sense an anomic emptiness, the response offered by the text is to stand forward, as you are. Simply being present means being seen and considered. The positive concept of being remembered means that you are not alone, and that alone may sometimes be good enough. Or it may help each and every one of us to remember that we matter.


II. Behave! Don’t You Know the Book of Life is Open?

The liturgical and ritual richness of the High Holiday season has produced a number of vibrant symbols which seem to maintain their ability to reverberate in consciousness repeatedly through the ages. After all, the theme of the period is the interplay of creation and judgment, reflection and repentance, concepts at the core of human existence; after all, it is traditional to look at Rosh Hashana as the day which determines life or death, as it were, for the coming year.

So one would imagine that the prayerbook would, over the generations, become a listing of things people want for the coming year, a catalog of needs to pray for. However, reading through the prayerbook one would quickly see that there’s very little petitionary prayer regarding mundane needs; the mystics in particular insist that the life we pray for on is not primarily the physical but the spiritual (cf Tikkunei Zohar 6).

Interestingly, the attempt to repress what is clearly on most people’s mind led to even more creative re-symbolization such as the punning use of blessings over various fruits and vegetables to symbolize potential blessings for the upcoming year, of which the apple dipped in honey has taken on independent life as a signifier. The Sefat Emet adds another level of signification to these symbols, pointing out that much the way that we extract these spiritual hints from the names of the fruit, we should become accustomed to see the possibilities of spirituality in every physical object. Perhaps it is the experiential sense we have of these layers upon layers of meaning during the experience of the High Holidays that makes them a particularly moving time.

One image that is strongly associated with these holidays that has become particularly evocative and metonymic for the entire season is that which grew out of this Talmudic teaching:

R. Cruspedai taught in the name of R. Yohanan: Three books are opened on Rosh Hashana, one of the totally wicked, one of the totally righteous, and one for those in-between. The righteous are immediately inscribed and signed off in the book of life, the wicked are immediately inscribed and signed off in the book of death, and those in-between have their fate suspended until Yom Kippur- if they are worthy, they are inscribed in the book of life, and if not, in the book of death (BT Rosh Hashana 16: ).

The imagery imagined in this text, of the book of life, has evolved into a central motif of the holiday, with the phrase sefer hachayim, “book of life”, appearing multiple times in the liturgy, as well as becoming part of the standard greeting for the holiday, aside from appearing in countless greeting cards and supermarket advertisements.

A dear friend tells me that as a child, if she would get restless during Rosh Hashana services, her mother would shoosh her saying “don’t you realize that the Book of Life is open?” What is it about this symbol of a “book of life” that resonates so deeply?

This image of a ‘book’ of life in which individual fates are inscribed, can be broken down into its component parts, such as the book itself, the act of writing, the content inscribed. The Kedushat Levi is struck by the need for a “book”, and suggests that it is the act of inscribing that is crucial to the symbol. In fact, he says, the book is secondary, as evidenced by the way this concept was incorporated into the liturgy. We say, multiple times during this period

zachrenu l’chayim melech chafetz b’chayim, remember us for life, king who celebrates life, v’katvenu b’sefer hachayim, l’maancha elokim chayim, and inscribe us in the book of life for your sake, the living Elokim”.

Kedushat Levi sees these two phrases of melech, “king” and Elokim, “God”, as reflecting two realities. In the true state of things, where our relationship with God would be direct and unimpeded, we would be like friends sharing things freely, and our shared gifts would be remembered without need for accounting. However, since we live in an unperfected world of sin and error, our actions need to be recorded, as in a court of law or an accounting audit, so that if there are prosecuting doubts, the written record can be provided.

Thus, when we invoke God as king (melech) which is a more direct relationship, memory (zechira) is adequate, but if we are in the more distant relational state represented by the divine name Elokim, which is the divine name traditionally signifying God in the relationship with humanity of “judgment”, then we need the recourse to the printed record, the “book of life”. When the good is recorded as in a book, signed and sealed, that will cause those things that hinder our spiritual development to “back off” (his words, yasigu achor).

In turning to the “content” of this “book”, there is the obvious question, if indeed this teaching is to be read literally, then one must conclude that this book of life is a book without much impact. After all, our experience teaches us that this book doesn’t seem to make a difference, the evil don’t seem to perish nor do the righteous necessarily live on. So what then is the book of “life” about? Or let us ask, what actions or “events” make up the content of this book?

The concept of “the event” has become a hot topic of contemporary philosophical discourse, prompted by Alain Badiou’s book L’etre et L’evenment. In his presentation, our normal existence is constituted by the infinite items of our experience, undifferentiated and given, some things in our life are presented but not represented (things that don’t always fit into our given framework of lifestyle, society, etc.). However, according to Badiou, there are transformative Events, which often appear to be ex-nihilo, since they appear to come out of the “void”, the component of the normal situation which is often suppressed or repressed (so in his case of the French Revolution, it would be the rabble that was not accounted for in the usual presentation of what French society at the time was). However, when the Event occurs, it becomes recognized as such by giving itself a name (i.e. the French Revolution) suddenly it gives retrospective meaning to the “void” (that excess of non-comprehended aspects of the pre-event life, i.e., the exploited rabble), and most importantly, it actually “creates” the subject who participated in the Event (who are now Revolutionaries of the French Revolution).

For our purposes, we can say that there is a circle established between the Event, the recognition that an Event has transpired by those who “wager” that something transformative has happened, and the subject who is now in a sense transformed by the action that the subject participated in (or chose to recognize as such). Thus, not everything that happens in the normal flow of existence is an Event, the being of an Event is determined by those involved and is, at the same time, constitutive and transformative of those involved in retrospect.

In this light, we can return to the “book of life”. The Tiferet Shlomo explains, that the good we do in our lives makes up the ‘events’ of our lives. It is the actions we do, with the proper motivation, to improve the world, done not for reward, that make up the text of the book of life. These actions are registered in the “book of life” because actions of this sort are like living breathing organisms, full of chiyut, “vital life force”, that outlive our mere physical existence.

Furthermore, explains the Tiferet Shlomo, at this time of New Year, we examine our lives, our actions, and can “edit” our past actions and thus elevate them as well, his phrase is “give them wings to soar upward”. In this way, he reads the line from the liturgy cited earlier in connection with the Kedushat Levi as reading “write our actions in the book, the living ones (reading “write them in the book of life” as “write them in the book, the living/vital ones), the ones done for your sake Elokim…”

The Sefat Emet, following in this path explains that the life we are asking for on Rosh Hashana is not physical life, but the life of the soul, spiritual vitality. The 3 books mentioned in the Talmud correspond to the balance between material and spiritual in each individual. The book of “life”, of spiritual alive-ness, represents those who have transcended the physical, as in the Talmudic dictum that the righteous even in death are considered “alive”, certainly one can understand how spiritual achievements take on an infinite life of their own beyond the mere physical existence of the body.

On the other hand, those who have surrendered entirely to their physical being, are in the book of death, because of the ineluctable progress of the body towards aging sickness and death. Those who are in the middle ground, have the opportunity with the newness of the new year, Rosh Hashana, to evaluate which element of themselves will predominate and bring themselves as a totality over rekindled spiritual awareness and “life”.

And this, according to the Sefat Emet, is a reciprocal process- the spiritual chiyut (vitality) we choose on Rosh Hashana, the text of the book of life that we ourselves are the authors of, is the spiritual life we are rewarded with in the coming year!

May we all become great writers for this year’s book of life. Shana Tova to all, and may all have a vital live year!



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