The shofar teaches us about the meaning of life

Embedded in the legal discussions regarding the methods of prayer and the shape of the shofar is a fascinating theological debate regarding our priorities in life.

Simply put, should we focus on the physical aspects of our lives and the impact we can have on this world, or should we focus on the spiritual aspects of our lives and our connection to a higher world?

To answer this question, I would like to present and explain two debates – one concerning the manner of prayer, and the other, concerning shape of the shofar – from which we will derive some profound conclusions.

THE UPS AND DOWNS OF PRAYER

The Gemara[1] informs us of a debate between Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon Bar Rebbi concerning the correct approach to prayer.

The Book of Melachim (Kings) teaches us that “My eyes and heart shall be there all the days” [2] and it is from this verse that one of these sages deduces that when a person prays, they should direct their eyes downward.

However, there is a verse in Eichah (Lamentations) which states “Let us lift our hearts with our hands to G-d in Heaven” [3] from which the other sage derives that the act of prayer demands that we should direct our hearts upward.

Clearly, these two sages had two quite different approaches to prayer. One believed that the act of prayer should involve looking downward, while another was of the opinion that prayer demands that we look upwards. Put differently, one believed that prayer demands that we focus on the physical aspects of our lives and the impact we can have on this world, while the other claimed that we focus on the spiritual aspects of our lives and our connection to a higher world.

As the debate continued, Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon Bar Rebbi were interrupted by Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi. He asked them about the topic they were discussing and they replied that they were talking about prayer. Rabbi Yishmael then explained that he had received a tradition from his father that the correct behaviour during prayer is that a person should direct their eyes downward while directing their heart heavenward so that both verses can be observed. Once they thought about this a little longer, both Rabbi Chiya and Rabbi Shimon Bar Rebbi were satisfied with this conclusion, and we are actually required to pray in this manner.[4]  But how is this done?

According to Rabbeinu Yonah, this can be done through visualisation. He explains that ‘when you pray, you should view yourself as if you are standing in heaven. By doing so, this enables you to remove from your hearts any connection to this material world. Once you have achieved this level, imagine that you are standing in the Temple which is on earth.’[5]

I find this imagery very powerful, but beyond its beauty, it is also a halachic requirement, and as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, it may be a good time to try and incorporate this visualisation technique and thereby enhance your prayer experience. However, as explained above, the reason for adopting this approach to prayer is not only to help us concentrate. Instead, it is to teach us a deep lesson that the way for a Jew to influence their life in the physical world is through connecting with the spiritual world.

But is this always possible? To answer this question, I would like to share a second debate regarding the shape of the shofar.

STRAIGHT AND BENT SHOFAROT

The Mishna and Gemara[6] present two fascinating opinions regarding the symbolic significance of the shofar. One opinion offered by the Mishna states that we should use a straight shofar on Rosh Hashanah, while Rabbi Yehudah[7] disagrees and rules that a bent shofar should be used on Rosh Hashanah. Clearly this disagreement is not merely a reflection of style or personal preference, and therefore, the Gemara therefore seeks to identify the basis for this disagreement.

The rationale offered by the Gemara for the first opinion (which requires a straight shofar to be used on Rosh Hashanah) is that our priority on Rosh Hashanah is to straighten our attitude to life. Interestingly, Rashi provides a biblical support for this position from Eichah 3:41 (“Let us lift our hearts with our hands to G-d in Heaven”) which is the same verse cited above to support the contention that the act of prayer demands that we should direct our hearts upward.

The Gemara then seeks a rationale for the position of Rabbi Yehudah (who states that a bent shofar should be used on Rosh Hashanah), claiming that our priority on Rosh Hashanah is to nurture a sense of humility. Here too, Rashi offers a biblical support for this position, and cites Melachim I 3:9 (“My eyes and heart shall be there all the days”) which is the same verse cited from which we learnt that the act of prayer demands that we should direct our eyes downward.

By connecting these two discussions, Rashi appears to be teaching us that the shofar is also a means of prayer. However, in contrast to our discussion regarding our approach to prayer which concluded with the compromise offered by Rabbi Yishmael, a shofar cannot be both straight and bent. Given this, the great Talmudic master Rabbi Aryeh Leib Gunzberg[8] suggests is that the debate concerning the shape of the shofar is really a debate regarding our priorities in life because, just as a shofar cannot be straight and bent at once, a person sometimes needs to make choices. This means that embedded in this nuanced debate regarding the shape of the shofar is a profound discussion about our approach to life. According to the first opinion, our greatest priority in life is our connection to a higher world, while the second opinion claims that the greater priority is the impact we can have on this world. So how do we rule on this matter?

The Shulchan Aruch[9] rules that the ideal shofar should be bent, from which we can learn that while we must work on nurturing our connection to both the physical world and the spiritual world, our first priority is to lead a humble life while always considering how we can have a positive impact on the world.

[1] Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 105b.

[2] Melachim I 3:9

[3] Eichah 3:41

[4] See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 95:2

[5] Talmidei Rabbeinu Yonah on Brachot 25b, quoted by Aruch Hashulchan, Orach Chaim 95.4

[6] Talmud Bavli, Rosh Hashanah 26b

[7] as explained by Rabbi Levi in the Gemara

[8] See Turei Even on Rosh Hashanah

[9] See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 586:1


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