Lasting lesson

This year on Rosh Hashanah at Mussaf (the latter part of the morning service) I found myself doing a mental review of the structure of the service, which has three main parts: Malchios (Kingship), Zichronos (Remembrances), and Shofaros (Relating to the Shofar). 

Malchios reflects the theme of the High Holiday season, in which we are reminded that Hashem (G-d) is the King of Kings. Zichronos is both a reminder that Hashem remembers everything – poignantly, He “eternally remembers all forgotten things” – and asks Him to recall the righteous deeds of our ancestors. Shofaros focuses on the role of the shofar in the Biblical history of the Jewish people and in our prayers.

Every year, as I flip through the pages of the machzor, I “hear” the voice of the teacher from whom I first learned about the structure of the service. Erudite but patient, brilliant but able to present complex topics in the simplest of ways, he passed away in January 2023. His name was Rabbi Moshe Kahn, and he was a long-time professor of advanced level Judaic studies at Stern College for Women. He was most known for teaching Talmud classes to women, both at Stern and at the Drisha Institute.

I never enrolled in any of his classes because I did not have the Hebrew/Judaic background to understand the material. Even if I had, I am not sure I would have had the focus and dedication to engage in the literal hours of preparation and chavrusa (partner) study that was needed weekly to keep up in his classes. When studying in the Stern beis medrash (Judaic study hall), I often overheard his students reviewing material or discussing how to resolve a challenging problem in the text. I had great respect for their brilliance and grit.

But before I knew him by reputation, I had the opportunity to learn from Rabbi Kahn during orientation Shabbos of my first week at Stern. Fresh from public school in Charleston, West Virginia, my first few days on campus were a disorienting blur of adjusting to the culture of a Jewish women’s college in New York, getting to know my four roommates (crammed as we were into our room in Brookdale Hall), navigating the class registration system, and suppressing my natural tendency to smile at strangers as I passed them on the city’s busy streets. 

I was also coming to terms with being placed in “Elementary” level Judaic studies. This was necessary because I did not have the Hebrew or text-based skills to enroll in higher level classes. The Elementary level was small – we were a handful of first-year students. Some, like me, were public school graduates, others were recent immigrants or international students, and a few were graduates of Jewish day schools with weaker Hebrew curricula. Most of the rest of the incoming students at Stern enrolled in classes on the Intermediate, Upper Intermediate, and Advanced levels because most had the benefit of 12 years of Jewish day school education plus a year of seminary study in Israel. They were light years ahead of me.

Learning the basics is necessary, but I was disappointed to discover that the Judaic classes in which I could enroll would involve wrangling with Hebrew grammar and basic concepts, which was technical and tedious. This was not the intellectually and spiritually stimulating experience I had envisioned. I was overwhelmed, homesick, and frustrated, but I was still excited to be pursuing the Jewish education I wanted so badly.

For the first Shabbos of the school year, most of the first-year students stayed on campus to participate in a Shabbaton. Rabbi Kahn was the scholar in residence, which meant he would deliver a handful of drashot (lectures) on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t know who he was, but I was eager to hear what he had to say.

One of his drashot, which I recall to this day, was an explanation of the obligation to hear shofar blowing, and how tradition evolved to include 100 shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. On its face, the topic had the potential to be somewhat dry, but in Rabbi Kahn’s hands it was fascinating.

Since childhood I had known the names of the sounds produced by the shofar. Tekios were the long sounds, Shevarim were short and broken, Teruahs were sharp stuttering sounds, and Shevarim-Teruahs were an amalgam of the broken and the stuttering sounds. From Rabbi Kahn, I learned that the different short sounds resulted from a Talmudic debate about how to create a Teruah sound (Shevarim, literally “broken,” being the name for one of the possibilities). Since the rabbis of the Talmud were unsure which variation of sound was correct, they incorporated all of them.

The Talmud further mandated that each Teruah sound be preceded and followed by a Tekiah (long) sound, and that three sets of sounds be produced during the Mussaf service (9 total blasts of sound). Because of the debate about which version of Teruah was correct, this quickly resulted in multiplying by three, and because Shevarim-Teruah was actually a combination of two sounds, the grand total for the service was 30 sounds.

But then, there was a question of when the shofar should be blown during the service. The shofar sounds were attached to the three parts of Mussaf (Malchios, Zichronos, and Shofaros). At one time in Jewish history, it had been the practice for congregants to pause in their personal recitation of the silent Mussaf Amida after each of these sections and to wait for the baal tokea to blow the shofar (there are some communities that still have this custom). At some point, the rabbis placed the initial shofar blasts before Mussaf. These became known as tekios d’mushav (the shofar blasts that occur while the congregation is seated, though paradoxically most congregations have the custom to stand), and another full set of sounds, tekios d’meumad (the sounds to be heard while standing) were blown after each of the three sections during the chazzan’s repetition of the Mussaf Amida (adding up to 60). Finally, an additional 40 sounds were added at the conclusion of the service to add up to 100.

Rabbi Kahn imparted all this knowledge in a way that was organized, accessible, and stimulating to students of any Judaic background. Readers should know that my recounting is certainly flawed by gaps in memory and education (and augmented by some online research), and certainly does not do justice to Rabbi Kahn’s transmission of the information. But in my consciousness, at every Rosh Hashana I think back to his words, the pride and amazement I felt at following the thread of his lesson, and the fondness I felt for the Talmudic wisdom behind what had previously been an underappreciated custom.

Over the last two and a half decades, I have heard other rabbis or teachers explain the same lessons regarding shofar blowing, and none have been quite as succinct or clear as Rabbi Kahn in his brilliant summary of the Talmudic discussion. I couldn’t appreciate the depth and breadth of his Torah scholarship then, but looking back, I am profoundly grateful to have had an opportunity to learn from him at such a pivotal moment in my education. 

While my Hebrew skills gradually improved over my years at Stern (and have continued to improve since then), four years was not enough to reach the level of enrolling in Rabbi Kahn’s classes. However, I have come to appreciate the wonderful opportunity I had to be adjacent to greatness in Torah study, and to have gleaned some life-long lessons from the briefest of exposures to Rabbi Kahn. May his neshama have an aliyah (may his soul ascend) in the merit of the impact he had on so many students, and may all our tefillos (prayers) connected to the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana be answered for the good.


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Susan Jablow, Free-lance Writer

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