By Cantor Jonathan Friedmann, PhD,’10, Academic Dean, MJS Program & Rabbinical School
Our capacity to pay attention fluctuates throughout the day. We concentrate more closely when we are wide-awake than when we are sleepy, when a situation is momentous than when it is mundane, when a task is challenging than when it is simple. Our focus is pulled by momentary intentions: factors that seem important at any particular time. We cannot help but pay attention when taking a difficult exam, navigating an unfamiliar road or engaging in stimulating conversation. The mental effort demanded in these instances leaves little space for the mind to drift. Yet, even when we are fully absorbed in the task at hand, we can be distracted by sudden changes in our surroundings. One momentary intention abruptly supplants another.
The tendency to jump from one attention-grabber to the next gave rise to our instinct to shout. Few things catch our notice more effectively than a loud burst of vocal noise. This is the reason we scream for help, bark out orders and yell across crowded rooms. It is also the reason our ancestors began blowing horns—instruments originally devised to emulate human shouts.
The link between shouting and horn blowing is apparent in Parshat Emor, more specifically, Leviticus 23:24: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” This day became known as Rosh Ha-Shanah, the autumnal New Year, and its primary ritual was the sounding of the shofar, or ram’s horn. Not coincidently, the term used for “loud blasts” is teru’ah, which literally means “raise a shout.”
The Israelites conceived of the shofar as an amplified human voice. When an event was especially prodigious or gathering especially large, vocal chords were insufficient for commanding collective heed. Thus the shofar was blown. Its raw and purposeful tone resembled that of an urgent voice, and its function was much the same. The attention-grabbing effect of the shofar and other horns made them fixtures at large-scale activities ranging from religious rites to military parades.
It was also believed that the shofar could summon the divine. In the Priestly conception, Rosh Ha-Shanah—the annual “Day of Shouting”—was an occasion for reminding G-d of His special relationship with Israel. As a result, the practical aim of drawing communal focus was joined with theological intent. Just as the sound of the shofar attracted Israelite notice, it was thought to tug at the ear of G-d.
Israel was not alone in thinking that loud noises could invoke supernatural forces. Many cultures of the ancient Near East considered high-decibel sounds to be potent instigators of divine blessings and holy interventions. When shouting was not powerful enough, most cultures availed themselves of percussion instruments. But Israel used the shofar, the blast of which mimics and magnifies a fervent cry.
This coincides with Israel’s high regard for the human voice. More than neighboring civilizations, Israel understood the voice to be an instrument divine. They put it to frequent use in sacred songs, poetry, shouts and utterances. They knew how difficult it was to ignore these forms of heightened speech, and envisioned G-d reacting to them in a similar way. Like the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah, this conviction has persisted throughout Jewish history. Whether the sound is a melody or screech and whether it emanates from a mouth or ram’s horn, its ability to capture our attention is undeniable.