Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Shofar

The significance of the two holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur rests on our desire to recount our sins before G-d and ask for forgiveness. We were given the capacity to sin, and G-d wants us to choose the the 'good' path. But He also wants us to be humble enough to admit when we have sinned and ask for forgiveness.

We blow the shofar  to recall the shofar blowing that accompanied our original acceptance of the Torah and remind G-d of Israel's acceptance of it, so that G-d forgives us all our sins and inscribes us for a year of goodness and life. The sound of the shofar is a call from G-d to his people to gather and participate in this process, kind of a wakeup call to bring us out of our spiritual slumber; but it is also a call from the people to hearken G-d to listen to our repentance and forgive us.

The shofar is such an important part of the celebration of Rosh Hashanah that the day is also called Yom Teruah which means 'day of the shofar blast'. The first mention of the shofar in the Torah is in the story of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, and in fact, it is that story that is read during the Torah service on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is also mentioned in the story of Joshua  who circled the walls of Jericho with seven priests blowing ram's horns for seven days which caused the walls tumble down.

The shofar is blown one hundred times on each of the two days of Rosh Hashanah.  Ir's a very difficult instrument from which to coax a meaningful sound. There are three different blasts: Tekiah -  an unbroken last of about three seconds, Shevarim - a Tekiah broken into three segments, Teruah - nine rapid fire blasts, and Tekiah Gedolah - A triple Tekiah lasting at least nine seconds, but many shofar blowers (called Tokea) will go significantly longer (just to show off).

The shofar is also sounded on Sukkoth, which occurs several weeks after Rosh Hashanah. I had the opportunity to photograph a rabbi performing that ritual several years ago on the next to last of the eight days of Sukkoth, called Hashanah Rabbah. Because Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are such high holy days taking photographs are frowned upon (actually not permitted at all). So, being Jewish, I've never been able to capture the ritual during a service. It's been a handicap for me for several other  important holidays (Simchat Torah and Pesach in particular) that I need to document for my ongoing project. There was a performance in Central Park at the Naumberg bandshell yesterday to re-enact the    shofar blowing ritual. I went in to see and photograph it, and when I talked with the rabbi he clearly told me he was not happy about my taking pictures. So I was caught in a conundrum. Should I or shouldn't I. I should note that there were many other people attending that were snapping away shots on their mobile devices, but that is not offered as any kind of justification for me to do so.

However, I want to note, not defensively, that over the years of me working this project and recently of me posting the images on the internet I've received a lot of feedback. Every once in a while I get a response from an anti-Semitic bigot, or an arab/muslim casting aspersions on me, my people, and my work. But overwhelmingly, the comments and emails that I get are positive. The comments on Facebook and Google+ are very often from non-Jews, including a significant number of arab/muslims, who have never seen images like mine or who know nothing of the traditions and rituals of Judaism and they thank me for enlightening them. Most importantly though, and I offer this as reason for doing the entire project and in particular for making the effort to attend the ceremony yesterday, I get responses from viewers who are Jewish but who are deeply assimilated or lapsed in their spiritual practice. They tell me that the photographs brought them back to their childhood and they are reminded of being with their parents or grandparents on those occasions, and that the photographs stirred deep memories in them. I can't describe my feelings when I get a response like that.

In the final analysis though, I had to respect the rabbi's request. To do the work on this project for so many years and to go into the depth that I aim for, I have to respect the wishes of the people I photograph. So for what it's worth, here's some images of the people who attended the Central Park shofar blowing:

This kid was really amazing. As difficult as it is to blow the shofar, he could really let loose with a mighty blast:



The tokea showing his shofar to the audience. The ram's horn, pictured above is the usual instrument in use by descendants of Eastern Europeans. The curled horn, shown below, from an ibis is most often used by sephardic Jews.



And a great time was had by all: