Sermon: The Sound of the Summer

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 27 August 2010

What has been the sound of your summer? The splashing of the sea on a warm beach in some exotic location as you tried to forget about the hassles of life for a couple of weeks? Or maybe the noise of rain on canvas as you huddled for protection in a tent on another waterlogged British summer’s day? Or perhaps the strange quiet outside on the streets as the traffic dwindled in high summer?

For many of us, the lasting sound of the summer was the noise of the vuvuzela:  The ubiquitous horn that blighted our enjoyment of the World Cup in South Africa, drowning out the sound of the crowd, which normally adds such colour to the tournament – drowning it behind a monotonous drone like a swarm of wasps.

The origin of the vuvuzela is a source of some argument.  Some say that it is just a modern invention for sporting events – similar plastic horns have been marketed and available in the United States as “Stadium Horns” since the mid-1960s.  Others say it was introduced in the South African ‘Nazareth Baptist Church” in the early twentieth century, to be played in worship and on pilgrimages.

But others suggest that the vuvuzela has more traditional roots – that it is related to the kudu horn – sometimes known by football crowds as the kuduzela.  This was, we are told, used to summon distant villagers to attend community gatherings.

If this is true, then the vuvuzela is actually a distant relative of what we would call a Shofar.  Most shofarot that are long and twisted, known as Yemenite shofarot, are made from the horn of the kudu antelope.  And, like the kudu horn, one of the functions of the shofar in early Israelite life seems to have been to communicate over distance – to gather the people together in their towns – for special fast days – or in the biblical narrative to communicate to the people about when to stop and start.

But the shofar is, of course, so much more than that – it is a powerful symbol of this period of the Jewish year.  Just under a fortnight from now we will blow 100 blasts on shofar on Rosh Hashanah, in recognition of the Torah’s injunction to mark the day as Yom Teruah – a day of blowing of the horn.  And our shofar calls will serve also to heighten our awareness as we enter the period of repentance.  As the twelfth century philosopher and scholar Maimonides wrote in his  Hilchot Teshuvah – the Laws of Repentance the shofar calls out like an alarm clock: “Awaken you slumberers from your sleep!  Get up you who are sound asleep!  Search your deeds, do repentance, and remember your Creator!  Those of you who forget the truth by wasting your time with the unimportant and spend your year with things that have no value and cannot help—–look at yourselves and improve your ways and deeds!   In this vein, many communities sound the shofar every day but Shabbat during the month of Elul at the end of the morning service – for the whole month running up to Rosh Hashanah, they shout out a wake up call before the High Holy Days.

The shofar is inextricably linked with this period of the year.  And unlike the plastic vuvuzela, the symbolism of the shofar is not merely in its use but even in its shape and origin.  According to Jewish Law, any animal horn is considered to be acceptable for use except for that of the cow or ox, which brings with it the imagery of one of the low points in our story.  The Shulchan Aruch, the medieval code of Jewish law, states quoting the Talmud “The accuser must not be made to serve as a defender” and, it explains: “that it may not be said: Yesterday they made the Golden Calf and today they come to appease their maker with the horn made from it”.

Otherwise any horn may be used – and so you might see three different types of shofar. One is the traditional ram’s horn – a small shofar with a curve in it.  Another sort of shofar is a straight one – often taken from something like an ibex.  If you look on the front of the Around Alyth which should drop through your letter boxes this weekend, you will find a picture of an ibex making up the Y of Alyth (in fact a picture taken by my colleague Rabbi Mark).  You will see that the horns, though curved, are much straighter than a twisted shofar.  And the third is the kudu horn, with a twist to it.

All three are legitimate for use.  But there is disagreement about which is best for Rosh HaShanah.  Some authorities insist that the ram’s horn is the only shofar that should be used on Rosh HaShanah – to symbolise the story of the binding of Isaac – indeed that the shofar should be from a wild Ram, of the very sort that would have been caught in the thicket to be sacrificed in place of Isaac.

In the Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 26b, we find a different argument.  One opinion states – shofar shel rosh Hashanah shel ya’el pashut – the shofar of Rosh Hashanah is that of a wild goat – like our Around Alyth ibex – which is straight. Another opinion is found in the name of Rabbi Levi, who says, Mitzvah shel Rosh Hashanah bich’fu’fin – the commandment of blowing shofar on Rosh Hashanah is fulfilled with bent horns – ones with a twist – like this.

The anonymous narrator of the Talmud then asks the question that you are probably thinking: b’mai ka’mifl’gei  – what are they really arguing about?  In other words, if the mitzvah is to hear the shofar blown, what difference does it make if we use a horn that is straight or one that is curved?

The answer that the Talmud gives goes to the heart of the purpose of shofar on Rosh Hashanah – it is an argument about how best to engage in teshuvah, in repentance:  The one opinion is that a straight horn must be used on Rosh Hashanah to symbolise that our obligation on Rosh Hashanah is to straighten our minds, to stand up tall in prayer, reaching towards God, to remove any crookedness from our hearts.  On the other hand, that we must use a bent horn symbolises both a physical and an attitudinal bending at this time – that is, that on Rosh Hashanah we bend our will in the effort of repentance.  The correct way to engage in repentance is with humility, bowed down by the weight of our past year.

It is the latter view, ultimately, that prevails.  According to practical Halachah, on Rosh Hashanah we can fulfil the obligation of shofar with the hollow horn of any animal but a cow or ox – a plastic horn certainly won’t do.  Yet preferably we should do so with a bent horn, in line with the opinion of Rabbi Levi.  And then, as it happens, it is especially preferable to use a ram’s horn. The kudu horn – the Yemenite shofar – is not the absolute best we can do – a ram’s horn would be better – though much, much harder to blow – yet in its shape it is loaded with a enormous symbolism about the demand of this period for us as Jews.

We started the summer listening to the vuvuzela – the sound of a straight plastic horn blown to bend the opposition through a wave of noise. And we shall end it with the shofar – perhaps its ancestor but symbolically a million miles away – even its shape tells us a story. But if we are to do the next few weeks right then the real sound of this period is not the noise of a horn but the creaking of our wills as we bend in the effort of change