Service of the Heart (עבודת הלב): Exploring Prayer

This week's column was written by Rabbi Samuel Barth, Senior Lecturer in Liturgy and Worship, JTS.

The Great Shofar, the Gentle Murmur: A Journey in Sound and Time

The 10 days from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur are a journey that we undertake through symbols and memories, through words and melodies—one that engages our minds, our hearts, and our souls. There are legs of this journey that we know and understand (or think that we do), but there are others that bring us to mysteries, ancient symbols, and our dreams of the future. We encounter these symbols as individuals, but also as members of families and communities, and as a People. Several weeks ago in his extraordinary essay—wise, spiritual, and learned—Dr. Alan Cooper offered guidance based upon Psalm 27 on some of the paths of preparation for the weeks prior to Rosh Hashanah.

Let us turn to one phrase within the powerful, challenging, and disturbing Unetaneh Tokef that is at the heart of the Musaf (additional) service on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. "Uvashofar gadol yitaka . . . vekol demmamah yishama" (and the Great Shofar will be sounded, and the soft murmuring sound [still, small voice] will be heard). The "sounding of the great shofar" (from Isaiah 27:13) will announce the return of the exiles to serve God in Jerusalem, a metaphor of triumph and exultation for the entire People. But the "soft murmuring sound" (older translations render this as "still, small voice") evokes the transcendent and paradoxical experience of Elijah (1 Kings 19:12) for whom God is not to be found in the whirlwind, the earthquake, or the fire. Elijah finds God only in the "soft murmuring sound"—all this taking place at the mountain of Horeb, which is Sinai.

Note the paradox and irony—for Sinai (Exod. 19) is where the Jewish People encountered God through the sound of the shofar, the trembling of the ground, and the burning of the mountain itself with fire and smoke. For Elijah, Sinai/Horeb becomes, after his 40 days of fasting, the place where he finds God in the stillness of a murmuring sound (murmur is an onomatopoeic word that embodies—sounds like—what it describes).

Perhaps this paradox holds true for us also. There are great, powerful sounds and promises—the literal sounding of the shofar, the needs of our families and communities, and our ongoing return as a People to Jerusalem. But we come to these 10 days also retracing the journey of Elijah, and the "soft murmuring sound" does not appear upon command. For some, the traditional texts of the mahzor will speak clearly and guide our thoughts and prayers, and for others the melodies and emotions uncovered and shared by the hazzan will carry us forward.

Yet there will be those who seek their own way, following in the footsteps of Elijah and religious seekers of all ages. There is the pathway of silence, and our own book of memory. For it is not only God who reads from the "Book of Memory," but in these Days of Awe, this book is open for each of us. In the liturgy of Zikhronot on Rosh Hashanah, we too are invited to remember. I have often invited congregations to pause during Zikhronot, sharing some minutes of silence, an opportunity for deeper personal prayer and reflection to examine the course of our lives—even, perhaps, to hear our own echo of that "soft murmuring sound," a soft echo that has abided for eternity, waiting for each of us.

The text and melodies of Unetaneh Tokef have been a source of inspiration for centuries. I cannot commend too highly the book Who by Fire, Who by Water, edited by Professor Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, which explores almost every aspect of this text.

There are many beautiful cantorial settings, yet recently I have been captivated by an Israeli composition by Yair Rosenblum, rendered below by the famous singing group of the kibbutz movement, Hagivatron (listen for our phrase near the two-minute mark).


In contrast—and certainly taking many liberties with the theology, traditional structure, and meaning of the text—many are engaged by the work of Leonard Cohen, whose piece "Who by Fire" is obviously inspired by Unetaneh Tokef. It is performed here at his 2009 concert in Israel.


I am, as always, interested in questions and reflections arising from this essay. I can be reached by email at sabarth@jtsa.edu.