Take a deep breath for Rosh Hashanah


On a hot summer's day at the end of August, I climbed mount Hohliecht. I was on holiday in Switzerland with family and friends. Rising 2,168 metres above sea level, it took four of us more than three hours until we could even see the summit. As we neared the peak, I remember being very focused on my breathing. Only when out of breath do you really begin to think about the experience of breathing.

We all know the science. Every breath sucks air into your lungs, oxygenating blood which is pumped round the body by your heart to enable your organs and muscles to function. But how does it actually feel?

Try holding your breath for 30 seconds and then breathing out slowly. Close your eyes and focus on how your body responds. Notice the sensation of energy returning. Adults breathe in and out 12 to 20 times a minute, and more than twice that when we exercise. That adds up to about a billion breaths in an average lifetime.

How conscious are we of this little miracle that sustains us at every moment? The answer reveals the essence of our New Year festival.

There is really only one mitzvah to do on Rosh Hashanah. There's no succah to sit in or chanuciah to light, just a ram's horn that needs to be blown: "Speak to the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with horn blowing" (Leviticus 23:24). In fact, the name Rosh Hashanah, "Head of the Year", does not occur even once in the Torah. It's only called Yom Teruah, the "Day of Horn Blowing" (Numbers 29:1). Through comparing biblical verses (eg Leviticus 25:9 and Numbers 10:5) our sages derived the different sounds that need to be made - tekiah, shevarim, teruah - and the instrument to be used, the shofar.

The shofar is the sound of a human being breathing again and again

To be precise, the mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is to "hear" the shofar, not to blow it; "hear the sounding of the shofar" are the words of the blessing recited before it is blown. At that moment the synagogue goes silent as we wait in anticipation for that unearthly sound, the first of 100 blown each day of Rosh Hashanah.

But what exactly are we hearing? You might think it is the shofar itself, but it is not. Our rabbis proved this by comparing the shofar to the lulav we wave on Succot. They asked: could you use a stolen one? Surely you cannot perform a mitzvah with a stolen object. But Rabbi Eliezer discerns an important difference between the shofar and the lulav (Jerusalem Talmud, Succah 3:1).

Concerning the lulav, the mitzvah centres on the object itself; it must be waved. However, the mitzvah of the shofar is not centred on the horn itself, but rather on the sound that emanates from it. The ruling of Maimonides is conclusive: "The laws of theft cannot apply to a sound" (Laws of Shofar 1:3).

Of course, because we make a blessing with God's Holy Name before we blow, a stolen shofar should be avoided (Magen Avraham 586:4), but the essential and profound point here is that this mitzvah is simply the sound itself, just vibrations in the air. Why is it so insubstantial?

We are taught that the shofar reminds us of the story of the binding of Isaac, when Abraham showed commitment to God by his willingness to sacrifice his son who was replaced by a ram at the last moment. This is a significant association made by the sages (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 16a) but, again, if the sound, not the horn, is the crux of the command, then it cannot be the primary reason for this mitzvah.

I would like to suggest an alternative. The mitzvah of the shofar is simply human breath. We become aware of this as we hear the sound it makes as it reverberates through the ram's horn, but the source of that sound is the breath that the ba'al tekiah, shofar sounder, blows into it. The shofar is the sound of a person breathing, again and again.

This really begins to make sense when we recall the historical origin of Rosh Hashanah. In the special Mussaf Amidah prayer we say, "This day is the beginning of Your deeds, a memory of the first day". A misconception arises from here that this is the anniversary of the first day of Creation.

In fact, our sages are clear that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the birth of humankind, on the sixth day of Creation (Midrash Vayikrah Rabbah 29:1). It is "a memory of the first day" because it is the first day that we humans could remember. It is the day humankind was created, gained consciousness and began to have memories.

What has this to do with human breath? Remember the story of how we came to life on that day long ago in Eden: "God made the human from the dust of the Earth and breathed into its nostrils the soul of life, thus the human became a living being" (Genesis 2:7).God gave us life though breathing into us.

This life-giving perpetual process was initiated on the first Rosh Hashanah. How can we thank God for this? How can we show our appreciation for every breath we take? Simple, by blowing back. Every sound of the shofar signals another human breath. On this day God breathed life into us so we show our gratitude by breathing out purposefully into a shofar.

That is why we say this verse immediately after the first round of shofar blasts: "Happy are those who understand horn blowing, by the light of Your Face they will go" (Psalms 89:16). We are happy that we know that our life breath comes from God. And that means that our awareness of God will be with us wherever we go, because we know God's breath is inside us.

This idea has helped me get through many a Rosh Hashanah. The services can be long, there are many prayers and it's easy to get distracted. When that happens, I give my own little prayer to God, though not in the form of words. I simply… breathe. I inhale slowly and purposefully, hold for a moment, and then gradually exhale. As I do this, I try to become aware of every little sensation that my body is experiencing.

That's my secret for surviving Rosh Hashanah services. With every conscious breath I thank God for my life, remember my human origin in the Creation story and commit to living meaningfully. It's so simple, and it works every time. If you lose focus in the services this year, you may want to try it.

When we finally reached the summit of Mount Hohliecht, the view was magnificent. Looking down below, we could see the beautiful towns of Klosters and Davos. Ahead the pure white Silvretta glacier was visible and the Alps stretching into Austria.

"Halleluyah! Praise God… for snow and mist… for mountains and all hills…" (Psalm 148). I say those words every morning as part of the shacharit service, but that day, standing up there among the clouds, they meant so much more. Thank God I made it up to see this. And I breathed a sigh of relief.

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