Note: The Ten Days of Repentance begin in the weeks and months beforehand, as members of the Jewish community prepare themselves spiritually for the period of introspection, and communal leaders focus on their individual responsibilities. In this week’s issue and next week we focus, through the eyes of five individuals, on some of the most prominent features of the High Holy Days: shofar blowing, the tashlich ceremony, the sermon, prayer and repentance.
No one had pressed the emergency buzzer, but a nurse came rushing into the hospital room. She had a worried look on her face.
"I thought I heard someone crying," she said.
Nothing is wrong, I assured the nurse, standing at a patient’s bedside. No one is crying: it’s just the shofar.
I held the ram’s horn in my hand, and didn’t know whether to feel embarrassed or proud.
Embarrassed that I had disturbed a nurse on this Rosh Hashanah afternoon. Proud that the tekiahs and teruahs and shevarims I had just made on the shofar, for the patient’s sake, had sounded like a voice crying.
That’s what a shofar is supposed to sound like.
I offered an explanation to the nurse: Today is Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year; it is a tradition for Jews to hear a series of blasts on the shofar; the ram’s horn is a reminder of the animal that G-d provided on Mount Moriah when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac on an altar; the sounds of a shofar are supposed to draw a Jew to repentance.
The nurse was satisfied. Wishing me a happy holiday, she returned to her station. And I went to the next room.
In synagogues, the person serving as ba’al tekiah is usually a rabbi or cantor or an experienced shofar blower.
In hospitals, where patients frequently are not allowed to leave for religious services, even at a chapel an elevator ride away, they are still obligated to hear shofar. The shofar blower, many times a freshly trained layman, comes to the patient.
As a volunteer ba’al tekiah, first at Maimonides Medical Center in Borough Park, then for one year at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center on Manhattan’s East Side, and for the last several years at Lutheran Medical Center in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, I am an unexpected-but-welcomed visitor in the rooms of dozens of Jewish patients.
Carrying two small shofars in a plastic bag, along with some photo-copied prayers in Hebrew and Russian (many of the Jewish patients at Lutheran Hospital come from the former Soviet Union) and some spare kipas (few of the hospitalized Jewish men have their own, but some want one on their heads when they hear the shofar) and a few small bottles of Kedem grape juice (the hospital provides it, for patients who want to make kiddush), I walk down every hall, stopping at the rooms on the hospital’s computer printout of Jewish patients, and checking each door for Jewish-sounding names. Intensive care and ER are part of my annual pattern.
Hello, I say quietly, in English or Hebrew or simple Russian, depending on which language I guess the patient understands. "Today is Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. Would you like to hear the shofar?
Almost everyone says yes.
It’s a heavy responsibility: a Rosh HaShanah without shofar is an incomplete Rosh HaShanah. And, since Lutheran is a couple of miles from the nearest shul, the patients and their relatives probably won’t hear the sounds (they probably won’t make it to services) if I don’t come.
I better do it right. They, and the heavens, are listening.
A shofar blower, according to Jewish tradition, is supposed to be a pious, God-fearing adult who has all sorts of kabbalistic intentions in mind when he blows each note. I can’t speak for my piety. But, remembering tales of chasidic rabbis who praise their followers’ naive sincerity, I simply try to make sure each note is kosher: long enough and loud enough.
I try out new shofars whenever I find a new Jewish bookstore. Most don’t feel right, don’t easily produce a sound. My old favorites are a ribbed, jet-black shofar, and a marbled-brown horn.
I start practicing on them (and worrying) a few months before Tishrei.
And I’ve trained with the best. Not musically inclined, for several years I accompanied my friend Heshy Friedman, a college professor who has blown shofar for the ill and homebound for a score of years, on his rounds of Maimonides. And, before I felt ready to set out on my own, I went with Jerome Hornblass, then a State Supreme Court judge, to Sloan-Kettering; nothing compares with the intensity of spending a day of judgment in a cancer hospital.
Everyone is supposed to consider his or her mortality on Rosh HaShanah, but in a hospital, monitors beeping and flashing figures in the background, the reality of one’s death is more tangible. The shofar, evoking a call to battle (in this case, against one’s evil inclination) enhances the feeling.
Tears come easily.
I will start blowing, and patients, particularly the elderly, start sobbing.
I offer a tissue.
Sometimes a hospital chaplain or administrator comes with me, and I explain why such a simple sound has such a profound emotional effect.
For some people, shofar blowing comes easily. For me, it’s work, puffing my cheeks, pressing my lips on the shofar’s ovalish opening, trying to coax out sounds. I find myself wiping my brow with a small cloth I stow in my bag.
Before I blow, I introduce myself to the nurses on duty, and explain the ritual to non-Jewish roommates. If other patients are asleep, I keep the sound as soft as possible. Sometimes I blow the shofar (at a relative’s initiative or my own) for a Jewish patient who is asleep or comatose.
When I leave, I wish each a l’shana tova or "a better year."
The patients thank me; one woman, on a breathing tube in ICU, removed the tube for a second to mouth a silent thanks. Some offer to pay me; I decline, saying it’s a free service, that they can send a donation to Bikur Cholim of Boro Park, which dispatches me each year. One elderly woman, returning from a medical test, smiled and applauded as she lay on a gurney.
There are requests for blessings; I respond with some words in English or a misheberach in Hebrew.
Often, the patients, lonely on one of the holiest days of the year, want to talk, about their life, about their health, about their family. The shofar loosens their tongue.
"Are you a rabbi?" they ask. No, a journalist, I answer.
A shofar blower like me has no chaplaincy training, but for a few hours, as a Jewish authority figure, we are de facto chaplains, bringing a little yom tov spirit to dreary surroundings.
One year, on the first day of Rosh HaShanah, I ended up in a physical therapy unit. A young man, on my list of Jewish patients, in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast, was doing some exercises.
Did he want to hear the shofar?
Did he want to go to his room?
He put one of my silk kipot on his head, announced to the other patients and therapists that he was about to say the blessings on the shofar. Then he belted out the words in Hebrew, at the top of his lungs, like a trained cantor.
He thanked me and went back to his exercises, keeping the kipa.
The next day he was back in his room. He offered to keep me company on the ward. He wheeled himself from room to room, introducing me to each Jewish patient.
An old Russian lady in one room wanted to hear the shofar. As I was about to blow, a middle-aged woman in the next bed, with a decidedly non-Jewish name, asked if she could listen.
Sure, I said.
Then she started saying the brachot, in Hebrew.
She saw I looked surprised. "I’ve made some mistakes," she said.
She had not led a Jewish life, she said, but this day, she wanted her share in Rosh HaShanah.
I blew the shofar.
I stayed for a few minutes; we talked, in English and Russian.
Outside the door, doctors were making their rounds, meal carts were wheeling down the hall, announcements were sounding over the intercom.
We did not notice.
Rosh HaShanah had come to four Jews in one room of Lutheran Medical Center.
Everyone was crying.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at The Jewish Week.