Kol d’mama vs Kol Shofar: The Sounds of the Almighty

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It is hard to hear the voice of God, in fact the old joke is that if you spend time praying, speaking to God you are religious, if you spend time hearing God answer, you are crazy.

But on Rosh Hashanah we are invited to hear God in two forms, the Shofar, and the kol d’mama, the pregnant pause described in the prayer unetaneh tokef.

The psychoanalyst and anthropologist Theodor Reik wrote an entire book titled “The Shofar,” in 1919, and in it claimed that the sound of the shofar was no less than the voice of God.

Shemot 19:16 is the first explicit mention of the Shofar:

(טז) וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כָּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
(16) On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.

Standing at Sinai, in the moment where we received and accepted the Torah in mass revelation, we hear the sound of the Shofar.

The Babylonian Talmudic Tractate of Berachot 6b, makes the statement that at the giving of the Torah, 5 voices of God were heard, the Shofar the most prominent of them.

In Tehillim 89:16 we see mention of the call of the Almighty:

(טז) אַשְׁרֵ֣י הָ֭עָם יוֹדְעֵ֣י תְרוּעָ֑ה יְ֝הוָ֗ה בְּֽאוֹר־פָּנֶ֥יךָ יְהַלֵּכֽוּן׃

(16) Happy is the people who know the joyful shout; O LORD, they walk in the light of Your presence.

Rashi comments on this by telling us that we know how to please our Creator on Rosh Hashanah, because as the Midrash says, we know how to speak to God using his voice, when we blow the Shofar during the three sections of Mussaf.

In discussing the Shofar in his book, Reik explains, that throughout history some Jews had attributed mysterious and magical powers to the Shofar, when in fact because it was the voice of God, it does not matter whether it is heard or not.

Now of course, a secular psychoanalyst’s opinion as to the necessity of hearing the Shofar is somewhat irrelevant to those occupying a religious space. What is surprising is that Rav Yehudah Amital, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, and perhaps one of the foremost theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, asks a similar question.

If the Shofar is so all important that it is a central mitzvah of the festival, and it is the sound of God’s voice, what do we do about Shabbat when we are prohibited from sounding the Shofar?

Rav Amital notes that in the midst of discussing the laws of the Shofar blowing, the Mishnah makes a tangent. Normally, based on similar thought patterns of other rule based actions, the Mishnah would normally talk about thought intentions, and yet in the discussion of Shofar, it shares a different thought.

מתני׳ (שמות יז, יא) והיה כאשר ירים משה ידו וגבר ישראל וגו' וכי ידיו של משה עושות מלחמה או שוברות מלחמה אלא לומר לך כל זמן שהיו ישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתגברים ואם לאו היו נופלים כיוצא בדבר אתה אומר (במדבר כא, ח) עשה לך שרף ושים אותו על נס והיה כל הנשוך וראה אותו וחי וכי נחש ממית או נחש מחיה אלא בזמן שישראל מסתכלין כלפי מעלה ומשעבדין את לבם לאביהם שבשמים היו מתרפאין ואם לאו היו נימוקים

MISHNAH: Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed [against Amalek]” (Ex. 17:11) – Do Moses’ hands make or break the battle? Rather, this teaches you that so long as Israel were looking upwards and subjugating their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were victorious; if not, they would fall. Similarly, we find, “Make a seraph figure and mount it on a standard; anyone who is bitten should look at it and shall recover” (Num. 21:8). Does a brass snake kill or cure? Rather, when Israel looked upwards and subjugated their hearts to their Father in heaven, they were cured. If not, they would wither.

Rav Amital asks why this is here, what does it come to teach us?

The answer seems to be that R. Yehuda HaNasi, who redacted the Mishnah and included this tangent, saw Jews in his day who believed that the shofar has some mystical power, some supernatural quality beyond our comprehension that arouses divine compassion. They thought that the actual sound of the shofar magically brought the memory of Israel before their Father in heaven. R. Yehuda HaNasi contradicted this view: the shofar is no different from Moses’ hands and the brass serpent, which did not magically save or heal the Jews. Only when Israel look upwards and subjugate their hearts to their Father in heaven do the gates of heaven open and welcome their prayers.

It is this understanding, that it is not the sound of the Shofar itself that is the voice of God, but rather the sound behind the sound, the ability to be inspired, and commune directly with God himself. That silence is the kol d’mama, that pregnant pause.

Rav Amital makes note that when Rosh HaShana falls on Shabbat is called “yom zikhron teru’a” – the day of remembrance of the teru’a. This means that we bring our memory before God not by blowing the shofar, but by recalling the sound of the shofar, by subjugating our hearts to the sovereignty of God.

I would implore you to lean deeply into the silence during today’s service, that sound of the absent Shofar, whereby we don’t hear the dramatic voice of God, but rather the still silent pregnant pause, full of hopes and aspirations of the year to come. And then tomorrow, when you hear the Shofar itself, perhaps take a moment to once again listen to the silent moments between the notes of the shofar, and understand that even in the boisterous nature of the Shofar, in amongst the drama, the kol d’mama is still there.

וְאָמַר רַבִּי חֶלְבּוֹ, אָמַר רַב הוּנָא: כׇּל הַנֶּהֱנֶה מִסְּעוּדַת חָתָן וְאֵינוֹ מְשַׂמְּחוֹ עוֹבֵר בַּחֲמִשָּׁה קוֹלוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״קוֹל שָׂשׂוֹן וְקוֹל שִׂמְחָה קוֹל חָתָן וְקוֹל כַּלָּה קוֹל אוֹמְרִים הוֹדוּ אֶת ה׳ צְבָאוֹת״. וְאִם מְשַׂמְּחוֹ מַה שְּׂכָרוֹ? אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי: זוֹכֶה לַתּוֹרָה שֶׁנִּתְּנָה בַּחֲמִשָּׁה קוֹלוֹת, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַיְהִי בַיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי בִּהְיוֹת הַבֹּקֶר וַיְהִי קֹלֹת וּבְרָקִים וְעָנָן כָּבֵד עַל הָהָר וְקֹל שׁוֹפָר וְגוֹ׳. וַיְהִי קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְגוֹ׳ וְהָאֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶנּוּ בְקוֹל״.
And Rabbi Ḥelbo said that Rav Huna said: Anyone who benefits from the feast of a groom but does not cause him to rejoice violates the five voices mentioned in this verse, as it is stated: “The voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, and the voice of those who say: Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for His mercy lasts forever, even of those who bring a thanks-offering to the house of the Lord. For I will restore the captivity of the land as it was in the beginning, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 33:11). These five voices in the context of a bride and groom correspond to the five voices mentioned in the context of the revelation at Sinai, as in Song of Songs, the day of the revelation at Sinai is alluded to by the phrase: His wedding day (Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto, Maharsha). What is his reward if he causes the groom to rejoice? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: He is privileged to acquire the Torah, which was given with five voices, as it is stated: “And it was on the third day, when it was morning, there were sounds [kolot], and lightning and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and the voice of the shofar (Exodus 19:16). The plural kolot indicates at least two sounds, while “the voice of the shofar” is one more. The passage continues: “And when the voice of the shofar grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God answered him by a voice” (Exodus 19:19). Along with the three previous voices, the second shofar and the voice with which God answered Moses amount to a total of five voices at the revelation at Sinai.
יודעי תרועה. שיודעין לרצות את בוראם בראש השנה בתרועה שמסדרים עליה מלכיות זכרונות ושופרות:

"Happy is the people who know the joyful shout" - For they know how to appease their creator on Rosh Hashanah with the teruah, which is ordered according to Malchiyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot.