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A Time to Cry

by | Feb 19, 2004

Chemical analysis of human tears seems to bear out something we all innately feel: emotional pain and physical pain occupy different universes. The tears our eyes produce when they are irritated, or when the bodies we carry through life are hurting, have different components from those that trickle down our cheeks when it is our souls that ache.

Only humans produce the latter sort. As King Solomon wrote in Koheles: “The one who increases in knowledge increases in pain.”

Only one commandment in the Torah involves crying, though it is not readily recognized as such. For the crying is done by proxy, through the shofar (ram’s horn), on Rosh Hashana.

The shofar call is, of course, above all, a call to repentance, a sort of alarm clock of the conscience, as Maimonides describes it. But the rabbis of the Talmud characterized it as a literal cry. While the tekiah-sound is a call to attention, the truah, the central component of the Rosh Hashana shofar-sounds, they said, is either a wailing sound or a series of moans; we incorporate both opinions in our practice today. What, though, is the shofar crying about?

Rosh Hashana, to be sure, is the Day of Judgment, and so we are rightfully uneasy at the implications of that fact. But might there be something deeper to the shofar’s wailing and moaning than simple fear? A haunting Talmudic passage may hold a hint.

In the tractate Berachot, we are told of several instances of great scholars who became seriously, painfully ill; one was Rabbi Elazar. Rabbi Yochanan, renowned not only for his scholarship but for his ethereal handsomeness, came to visit and found his ill colleague lying in a dark room. He pulled up his sleeve, the Talmud recounts, and light spilled from his beautiful skin into the room. He saw Rabbi Elazar crying and asked him why.

If it was for the Torah he hadn’t been able to study – Rabbi Yochanan reassured the bedridden sage – that is no reason to cry; G-d judges people not by how much they accomplished but rather by whether they made their best effort.

And if it was because of the elusiveness of material success, “not every man merits to sit at two tables” – Rabbi Elazar may not have attained wealth in this world but surely had amassed much reward in the World to Come.

And, continued Rabbi Yochanan, if you are crying because of the death of your children, I have suffered more; ten of my own have perished.

Finally, Rabbi Elazar spoke up. “I am crying,” he said, indicating Rabbi Yochanan’s shining arm, “because this beauty is destined for the dust.”

“For that?” responded Rabbi Yochanan. “For that, indeed, it is fitting to cry.” And the two scholars cried together.

No one with warm blood running through his veins could read that account without a shudder born of the realization of what brought those sages to weep.

We all try to crowd our lives with enough diversions to minimize opportunities for reflecting on our mortality. But serious people cannot forever avoid the thought, and righteous ones make no effort to do so at all.

The late, revered dean of Yeshiva Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, perceived in the act of blowing the shofar a hint to the earliest event commemorated by Rosh Hashana: the creation of man. Shofar-blowing, he observed, involves a force of breath, recalling the animation of Adam – “And He blew into his nostrils the spirit of life, and man became a living soul.” The Jewish mystical tradition describes Adam’s physical state before his sin as “shining” with a special splendor – referred to as his “shufra,” or beauty.

It is the precise word Rabbi Elazar used to describe Rabbi Yochanan’s skin. Could it be the root of the word “shofar”?

Might the shofar, in other words, be crying out its own name, in memory of the perfection with which our ultimate ancestor was created – squandered by sin, destined for death?

“Shufra!” it may be calling from earth to heaven. “Beauty! The beauty that is a human being, that was once the perfect human being! Now subject to decay!”

For such, indeed, it is fitting to cry. And through our shofarot, we cry together.

Our crying, though, is not an expression of hopelessness. On the contrary, the very recognition of what sin has wrought is, according to our tradition, the first step toward regaining it, the first step on the road of repentance. When our regret of our individual loads of sin – as well as humanity’s for its collective one – are total and sincere, we are taught, then we will have utilized our pain for ultimate gain. Even death itself, as Isaiah foretold, “will be swallowed forever, and G-d will wipe tears from every face.”

And that same prophet describes that day, when death is erased and history ended. “And on that day,” he foresees, “there will be sounded a great tekiah shofar-blast.”


Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. The essay above is adapted from a longer version he wrote for The Jewish Observer in 1989. It is dedicated to the memory of his dear mother, Rebbetzin Pu’ah bat Rav Noach HaCohein, whose incredible righteousness and shufra still shine brightly in the hearts of all who knew her.