Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Shofar but Were Afraid to Ask

At this time of year you are probably getting used to hearing Happy New Year, Shana tova, and the words Rosh Hashanah bandied about and wondering what is this exactly. Rosh Hashana is a combination of penance and joy. It is hard to explain so I will share a short (2 1/2 min.) video I recently discovered that explains this weird holiday, and also contains the blowing of the shofar – the ram’s horn – which I will talk more about after the video.

Now you are probably wondering what is the meaning of the shofar? The shofar is a ram’s horn which is reminiscent of human vocal expression and is supposed to awaken us to do the work of self-evaluation and introspection regarding the world and our place in it during the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, and also integral to the High Holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) services. And by the way it’s harder to get a sound out of it than it looks. (Yes I tried and failed). But here are some examples of people who succeeded.

The longest shofar blast.

And a totally new initiative, the shofar flash mob, groups who got together at different places in the world to blow shofar together.

And last but not least, here is an adorable video of my nieces and nephew wishing you all a happy Rosh Hashanah. Shana Tova!

 

 

Thoughts and Reflections on the Eve of Yom Kippur

A few short weeks ago on August 23rd, 2010 I attended and videotaped an amazing conference organized by CIJR (Canadian Institute for Jewish Research) here in Montreal.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Wiesenthal Center gave the lunchtime address. He started by commenting that in the face of intellectual giants who were presenting during the day such as Professor Wistrich of Hebrew University and Professor Small of Yale University, he did not feel compelled to exert himself on the intellectual plane. And so he shared three incidents which resonated powerfully with me, one of which I will share with you today, as it feels particularly apt on the eve of our annual Yom Kippur observation.

Rabbi Cooper shared that he has traveled extensively internationally, meeting with government officials, the Pope, and the public on issues of concern to the Jewish people. For example, he shared that he has traveled to Japan and many other countries to educate about the dissemination of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and to shut down its publication.

After one of these talks to a group of Japanese businessman, the Rabbi respectfully asked, “Are there any questions?” As Japanese audiences are known for their polite reticence, he was very surprised as one CEO stood up and said ‘Yes, Rabbi, I have a question. Rabbi Cooper, we understand now that Jews don’t get together to plot world conspiracies and financial domination in their synagogue, but can you tell us what do Jews do in synagogue? Do Jews pray?” This question stopped him in his tracks, and it stopped me in my tracks as well. I think of it especially now as we Jews begin our twenty-five hour annual stint of fasting and prayer. How do we explain what happened there?

How do you share a five thousand year tradition while standing on one leg?

For now I refer you to the following website of Beliefnet: for a hands-on explanation of the key elements of Yom Kippur as well as a description of the actual service. But on a deeper level, how does one share a five thousand year practice that has evolved with each generation continuing to maintain its loyalty both to the past and the future?

On September 10th, 2009, I participated in a webinar with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg on the prayer service of Yom Kippur. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Rabbi Kimmelman share how the ritual of the Yom Kippur prayer service is connected not only to the individual Jew but also to the community and all nations. He shows us how the prayers are carefully crafted to pray for peace not just for the individual but for all nations and all people in the universe, and to be realized under the rule of law, truth, and justice. And these are not mere empty words but also a prescription for achieving it.

The amazing thing about our tradition is that it has been evolving for five thousand years with loyalty to the past, the present, and hopes for the future.

The main refrain on Yom Kippur is “Tshuva, tefillah and tzedaka, maavirin et roah hagzera.” I say this in Hebrew transliteration because each word is multilayered, powerful, and significant and difficult to translate but I will attempt it. Tshuva, (return to our sources) tefillah (prayer) and tzedaka (doing just acts) can have the power to mollify evil outcomes.

To be continued… gmar tov: traditonal greeting at the end of Yom Kippur – May our prayers be fulfilled for good in the next year and within our lifetimes.

May we all pray together this Yom Kippur for the tshuva (improved behaviour) of every Jew, every human being, every government, and all peoples in the Universe. Even a slight improvement in each individual’s awareness and behavior can have a major impact on all of us.

Shana tova oometukah.

Wishing you a good and sweet year during this coming year.

Purim Today – 2012

Esther ScrollToday I attended the CIJR Colloquium on the Iranian question. Three professors, Prof. Frederick Krantz, Chair (Concordia University), Prof. Harold Waller (McGill University),
and Prof. Norrin Ripsman (Concordia University) all spoke on the topic of Syria, Egypt and the “Arab Spring”: Israel’s Security Situation, following an introduction by  Rabbi Yonah Rosner.

The Rabbi spoke using the drama of the Purim story as a backdrop. (This week will host the Jewish celebration of Purim, March 7th & 8th). Yesterday, in synagogues, in Israel and all over the world, Jews participated in Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim which each year reminds us of the injunction “to remember and not to forget” those who have attacked our innocents in the past, (Deuteronomy 25:17-19) or the dangers that these kinds of enemies pose at any time. In my own synagogue Rabbi Aigin also spoke about these issues.

Iran has made open and clear threats to annihilate the Jewish people, to wipe Israel off the map. Both Rabbis reminded us of Queen Esther’s injunction, and the importance of Jewish unity in the face of these kinds of threats. Our history reminds us that threats are serious. And as Prof. Krantz (a historian), pointed out, the only difference between pre Holocaust times and post Holocuast times is that the Jewish people now have a state, the independent State of Israel, and a well trained army and armaments to address these kinds of threats.

However, we are also reminded that the Book of Esther, never mentions G-d, but only the acts and foibles of men and women, some ordinary and some in authority, Kings and Ministers. Tomorrow President Obama addresses AIPAC, (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) the annual gathering of heads of American Jewish institutions and ordinary folk. We will all have to judge, is Obama Ahashverosh – the weak and easily influenced vacillating King described in the Purim Story who first has his Queen Vashti killed for insubordination, i.e. refusing to appear before his party in the nude, and then gives Haman permission to murder all Jews in his Kingdom on a certain day in spring, the day we celebrate as Purim, in exchange for ten thousand ducats. – not a very wise or compassionate King, although in the end he sees the error of his ways. But rulers are not always wise or compassionate. This we see clearly in our our own time. Most of them seem to be focused clearly on acquiring wealth and retaining power at any cost.

Prof Krantz reminded us of the heavy responsibility that Prime Minister Netanyahu now carries on his shoulders, the responsibility of guarding over six million Jews in Israel and the fate of their brethren in the Diaspora as well. For our fates have and always will be linked. Esther in the Purim story reminds us that if Jews have any hope for redemption they must be united, especially in times of crisis.



The Purim scroll is called the Megillah, and it is a tradition to have fun and to put on satirical plays on Purim, they are called Purimshpiels in Yiddish. Another Yiddish expression is “man tracht und G-t lacht.”  Man works and G-d laughs or the English idiomatic equivalent is “Man proposes G-d disposes”.

This article: Remember: The Answer to Terrorism has a deep message regarding how to respond in the face of threats.

Happy Purim to all.