19:53 The final minute of the closing hour of Yom Kippur

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 6 September 2018

It’s going to be 7:53 this year when we hear the Shofar for the final moment of the Neilah service.   When that elemental sound tell us that it is time for Havdallah and the day is over it is going to be pretty much as late as it can be.  The blast of the Shofar is bound to feel a relief as well as a spiritual release.

There is an ongoing controversy at Alyth as to what that final blast should be.    Should it be, as a couple of authorities say a Tekiah Gedolah of the length of no more than three tekiyah blasts?   Should it be a blast for as long as its sounder can make within one passionate breath as other authorities say?   Should it be sounded by one person or should we invite as we did once everyone with a Shofar to join together?

The longest Tekiah gedolah I could find in preparing for this sermon, recorded on You Tube, is one minute and twenty-five seconds in duration, sounded on a long antelope horn and certainly achieved by circular breathing by which a skilled player can make one breath appear to last almost indefinitely.  I grew up with a Shofar blower at Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue, Alan Lewis, who was a go long man.   I know I shouldn’t have timed it but what twelve-year-old wouldn’t.  He was regularly over thirty seconds and it was a mighty way to end Yom Kippur, well worth waiting for even if at the time I was too young to really appreciate the meaning of the services.

Like all aspects of our worship the blast of the shofar and the unique sequence of words which preceded them have been a long time in developing to the state that we now have in our 1985 Machzor, Days of Awe.    As the editorial group which I lead creating our new Yom Kippur Machzor begins to work on the Neilah service of the future, we have been looking at how what we currently do came to be.   For this we have had substantial help from the eminent liturgist Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman.   His article in this summer’s CCAR journal, “The climactic end to N’ilah: the making of a tradition” is a great summary of his research.

The first thing to know is that what we do in our Tent at Alyth at the end of Neilah is actually the distillation of a number of choices which developed over the centuries and through the countries in which Jews lived.    At Alyth we come to the very end of Yom Kippur by saying the first line of the Shema once,  then Baruch Shem Cavod, the second line of the Shema, three times and Adonai Hu HaElohim, the Eternal One is God from the first Book of Kings, seven times.  Then we blow the Shofar one Tekiah Gdolah blast.

This is essentially the Minhag Polin – the way that Polish Jews prayed, with the omission of one element which is saying the Kaddish between Adonai Hu HaElohim and the Tekiah G’dolah, which we don’t do in Reform practice currently.     There is a different Minhag Sepharad – the way that Spanish and Portuguese Jews prayed = which is still followed in many places.  For Sephardim Kaddish is said first, Shema is said once as is Baruch Shem C’vod, Adonai Hu HaElohim is said seven times and then the Shofar is blown rather differently.

Rather than the poor Shofar blower having to give their Tekiah G’dolah with no run up, in the Sephardi Minhag they get to blow Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah and then Tekiah G’dolah – which I know as a shofar blower myself makes it a lot easier to do a great Tekiah G’dolah.

Although hearing the ram’s horn blown on Yom Kippur has a sound literally as ancient as the hills, it is not actually a very ancient custom.    It has always been part of Rosh Hashanah from Torah times but not Yom Kippur.   It is first found in our sources well after the Talmudic era in the Seder Rav Amram from the Ninth Century.  It also appears in the twelfth century Machzor Vitry, our source text for our current festival services.

Why was it done?   There are a number of explanations in our sources.   Chai Gaon for example says that one of its purposes is to confuse Satan at the end of Yom Kippur so that the eternal adversary cannot get God to change the divine mind about our cleansing from our sins (Satan can’t work out what day it is due to the Shofar sounding!).   Rabbi Isaac b Samuel of Dampierre suggests that we sound the Shofar at the end of Neilah for a very practical reason.  Traditionally Neilah is not the end of Yom Kippur – there is still Maariv to pray before Havdallah – and blowing the Shofar was a signal as far as he was concerned for women to go home and get the dinner on for fast breaking while the men stayed to pray.

Avraham ben Natan of Lunel in the thirteenth century says that the blast of the Shofar is similar to the way in which a defence lawyer and defence team would celebrate at the end of a successful legal case – as God closes the Book of Life with our names inscribed for good as he sits on the seat of mercy not judgement. At the end of Neilah – we celebrate with the blast of the Shofar.

It’s pretty clear that there are lots of possible interpretations for the end of Neilah Shofar blast – Jacob Klausner in Hungary in the fourteenth century says that it is sounded because it was on Yom Kippur that Moses came down from Mount Sinai – and must have blown the Shofar when he got down since its seems from the Ten Commandments narrative that he took one up with him!

The Minhag Polin that we follow at Alyth is codified by Moses Isserles of Cracow in his seventeenth century glosses on Joseph Caro’s sixteenth century statement of Sephardi practice, the Shulchan Aruch.   One Shema, three Baruch Shem Cavod and seven Adonai Hu.

But why these numbers – for that sixteenth century Prague and Posen Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe provides a beautiful explanation.   Shema once – because God is one!   Baruch Shem Cavod – we praise God whose glorious rule is for ever and ever three times because the Eternal God was, is and will be.  Yom Kippur connects us to our past traditions, our present reality and propels us cleansed towards our future.    Adonai Hu seven times because God’s presence, the Shechinah, has truly dwelt amongst us since we came together for Kol Nidre.   It is time for the Shechinah to go home through the first heaven, the second heaven, the third and all the way to the seventh heaven.   If you studied the heavens with me in our Elul half hour you will understand the significance of this journey.

That leads to the final and most popular reason in our sources why we blow the Shofar at Neilah.  Nothing to do with Sinai and Moses, nothing to do with getting the dinner on, nothing to do with being on trial by God.  Rather it is for a reason that is very clear in the Torah in Leviticus chapter 25 verse 9.   We blow the Shofar on Yom Kippur to announce the beginning of the Jubilee Year.

Every fifty years according to Torah everyone should be able to return to their ancestral land holdings, all slaves were to be freed, all debts released, the land would not even be cultivated for a year.  Everyone would be free again.

In the Machzor Vitry, the writings of Eleazer ben Judah of Worms, Joseph  Caro in Safed, Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau of 15th Century Vienna, Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe in C16th Century Prague, all say that the main reason why we blow the Shofar this special blast on Yom Kippur is Zecher l’yovel – so that we never forget the Jubilee Year, whose start was announced in Torah times by the shofar on Yom Kippur.

But the Jubilee only comes once every fifty years so why sound it every year?    Because we have absolutely no idea which year in the cycle of fifty we might be in.  So it might be this year.  And secondly, we don’t even observe the Jubilee year outside the Land of Israel.   This is not the physical Jubilee but rather the spiritual Jubilee.   When we get to Neilah we can feel that our souls are now free of sin and our bodies free of guilt.   We can hold in our hearts a vision like the vision of the Jubilee of the better world that we are going to try to foster in the year ahead.

In many communities they even say L’shanah haba’ah b’irushalayim at this point – next year in Jerusalem – as if the moment you hear the shofar sounded you know that a better future is possible.    That was the meaning of Yom Kippur.

As Rabbi Hoffman writes, when we hear the shofar, however long its Tekiah Gedolah, “whichever version of Judaism’s eschatological hope we prefer: the whole point of the High Holy Days, actually is expressed in that blast, “Life renewed beyond our wildest dreams.”