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September 9, 2011 / 10 Elul, 5771
(Part I)

By Rabbi Wayne Allen

Mishnah: If the shofar was blown in a cistern or in a cellar or in a large jar (pithos) and a man heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation; but if he heard only an uncertain noise he has not fulfilled his obligation. (Translation by Herbert Danby)

Commentary: The casual reader will be struck immediately by the rather unusual circumstances described by the Mishnah. It seems odd that the text considers a case where on Rosh HaShanah the shofar is blown in a cistern (= deep and large underground water reservoir) or a basement or even a jar capable of housing a human being. This text needs to be read for its historical background and as well as its legal content.

Today, we imagine that all Jews attend synagogue on Rosh Hashanah where shofar blowing is a central part of the day's prayer service. That would have been the case at the time this Mishnah was developed were it not for the fact that unlike today, when Jews are largely free, the Mishnah reflects a period in Jewish history when any outward observance of Judaism was dangerous. In the face of persecution, Jewish religious practice literally went underground. Thus the shofar was blown where Jews were hiding: in cisterns and cellars and even in jars (think of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves).

When precisely this occurred is not certain. Neither Rav Hai Gaon nor Maimonides say anything more than during a time of destruction (shemad). But it very well could be the period preceding the celebration of the first Hanukkah. The apocryphal First Book of Maccabees (2:31) tells how during the oppressive reign of Antiochus Epiphanes (second century B.C.E.), Jews “had gone down to hiding places in the wilderness.” Archaeologists have subsequently discovered networks of Hasmonean caves, many dug out of the limestone hills of Judaea, where rebels constructed elaborate underground living quarters that included wine presses, olive presses, storage rooms, and living quarters all interconnected with narrow tunnels easily defended by single soldiers.

The observance of Shabbat and holidays was important to the Jewish resistance movement. In fact, they were initially reluctant to even defend themselves on Shabbat thinking it a violation of the sanctity of the day. So it is highly likely that in their hiding places they observed the only Scriptural requirement for the observance of the New Year, namely, the blowing of the shofar. But there was a problem. The fulfillment of the obligation of hearing the sound of the shofar requires hearing the shofar distinctly. And in an enclosed space, it is just as likely that a person would hear the echo as the sound of the shofar itself. Thus the Mishnah rules that only when the actual shofar is heard can the mitzvah be fulfilled.

In more recent times, Jewish legal authorities have cited this Mishnah as the precedent for disallowing the blowing of the shofar over a public address system since, they argue, the sound congregants hear is the amplified sound rather than the actual sound. Hence, in some synagogues the shofar blower steps away from the microphone.

So this Mishnah offers a glimpse into Jewish history as well as an insight into contemporary Jewish practice. A final comment: the clever reader would no doubt realize that blowing the shofar in a cistern would inevitable reveal the hiding place - the sound would have been heard by enemies! One answer possible is that the hiding place would be revealed only to those who were nearby, that is, within earshot. But a better answer is that sometimes Jews must take risks when it comes to keeping our religious practices alive.

This week's Haftarah commentary was written by Rabbi Wayne Allen, Ph.D.,
He is the author of Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues, Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Israel, e-mail: Books@schechter.ac.il.
Rabbi Allen is editorial board member, The Unraveller.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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Blessings our Loved Ones in this Modern Day

There is no greater act that we perform each week on Shabbat then blessing our Loved Ones.

Yet, in our modern society, we often find our children and loved ones not living close enough to share this wonderful Shabbat tradition each week.

At our recent Convention in California, a group of men discussed how we can perform these Blessings on Shabbat, despite the absence of our children and family at the Shabbat table.

In our modern day, an email, a text or a tweet, can often be a simple electronic connection, bringing the family together in anticipation of Shabbat. Many in our group have continued this modern day means of communicating each week, when it is just difficult to reach all of our family by phone before Shabbat.

Perhaps your Men's Club can send out a reminder each week to Bless Your Loved Ones.

Give it a try, there is nothing like getting that text back, “Shabbat Shalom Dad”.

Alan Sussman

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