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Erev Rosh Hashanah 5771
The Sound of Silence

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
8 September 2010


Folks, we have a problem. The problem is similar to that which we had with this current Gregorian year. Do we call it 2 thousand and ten or twenty-ten? In long-hand we have no problem. The year 5771 is, as Rabbi Hillel announced at the beginning of the service:

Chameishet alafim u’shva mei’ot v’shivim v’echad

However, we get into problems when we try to abbreviate the year assigning the associated Hebrew letters in place of numerical values. For 5771, we use a hey to stand for 5000, the letters having multiple uses as they are simply not enough of them for each value and so 5 stands for 5000. For 700 we have the taf equalling 400 added to the shin, 300. Next we get the ayin for 70 and the alef for 1. All seems okay but try pronouncing them as an acronym. Hatash…. What do we do with the two silent letters at the end?

Realising the problems that would strike a few years after the retirement of the now Emeritus Rabbi, the Council of NPLS sought Rabbis both of Ashkenazi and Sephardi descent. They were successful and we shall now see how necessary it is for such a momentous occasion as this, when only someone descending from Sefarad will do!

In the Ashkenazi world, the ayin is silent, but in some Sephardi communities, a sound is given.

I am no linguist so apologies to anyone who is but my understanding is that the alef is glottal stop. A glottal stop is a momentary block or catch in the air stream at the glottis or epiglottis that results in no sound being emitted. An ayin for the Ashkenazi world is also a glottal stop – we afford it no sound either.

However, for the Spanish and Portuguese and Italian Jews, a sound is pronounced, a voiced pharyngeal fricative creating a velar nasal sound. If you have not understood that, as I have not, it may be transliterated with ‘ng.’ Rabbi Hillel, will now demonstrate….Thank You!

Apparently, you know when you are pronouncing it properly in the pharynx cavity, when the neck muscles become noticeably tense, the tongue retracting as far as possible, or reasonably so. It cannot stop the airflow, try as it may, but it can get things so tight that a distinct hollow hissing can be heard. If the muscles bunch in the throat and the mouth is "open/free-flowing" then you have an ayin.

One of my Hebrew teachers at Leo Baeck College, Rabbi Colin Eimer, tended to render it from the throat ‘ung.’ Rabbi Hillel disagrees with this Ashkenazi travesty of a pronunciation, correcting it to the sound he makes when asked to say ‘ah’ in the doctors. Rabbi Hillel, if you might once more demonstrate…Thank You!

So you can see that we are lucky to have a Sephardi Rabbi, who will pronounce the year 5771 in its acronym…Thank You! However, it still leaves the majority of us with a problem. How do we pronounce the acronym of 5771 with the two silent letters most of us acknowledge. I am sure that you will be rushing back to me with your own utterances of this acronym but for now, all I want to utter is tashhhh.

Perhaps 5771 is not a problem after all but a unique, New Year gift? The year seems to be encouraging us to do two things. The first is to perceive the silence and the second is to ponder our future.

Tashhhhh. A wonderful paradox is expressed in a central prayer to the Rosh Hashanah experience, Un’taneh Tokef. Describing the moment of hearing the shofar, we will read: “And a great shofar will be sounded and a thin whisper of a sound will be heard.”

How can anyone hear the blast of the shofar as a ‘thin whisper of a sound,’ Joel Hoffman’s translation of the phrase from the First Book of Kings (19:12), kol dammah dakah. We more usually translate this phrase as, ‘a still small voice’ or ‘a soft murmuring sound,’ or should we read Paul Simon’s ‘Sound of Silence?’ Please keep in your mind the translation, even image or sound that works for you.

To the author of Un’taneh Tokef - alleged to be Rabbi Amnon or Rabbi Kalonymous ben Meshullam, both of C.11 Mainz - when he heard the shofar, it was not the sound of the ram’s horn that was heard but God, and God’s voice is the voice of silence. To perceive the silence might mean, to perceive the special language that God created through the sound of the shofar, one used solely to described a moment, and experience that is sublime, divine, awe-inspiring.

For some our way of reaching God is to free ourselves of all distractions, noise not being exclusively aural. We might use meditation, spiritual exercise by ourselves or in the company of others. For some the place might also be of consequence, the noise, the sensation of nature a catalyst to reaching our one Creator. When we reach the Source of our spiritual quest, it is sublime, divine, awe-inspiring.

Others might follow an alternative and equally valid interpretation of the phrase in Un’taneh Tokef: “And a great shofar will be sounded and a thin whisper of a sound will be heard.”

We do not need to be in silence, free of all sensational noise to perceive God, for it is there commingled the shofar blast. Indeed it can be found in the most raucous of moments. For the sport fanatic it may be experienced in a heaving stadium, for the religious in the act of communal worship, the theatre buff in having witnessed a moment of outstanding acting, the music fan the perfect combination of notes and musicianship, the volunteer or employee in the aftermath, the knowledge that one has made a difference to another persons life, for good. When we reach that special place, it is sublime, divine, awe-inspiring.

Tashhhhh. During these special services of the Yamim Noraim, may we perceive the silence, in the silence or the noise. May we reach that special place that is sublime, divine, awe-inspiring. Tashhhhh, seek the One.

Tashhhhh also encourages me to fill the space of the silence. Tashhhhh is everything that is potential for this year, not now. Not right at this moment but over the coming days, the year. Let us consider that together on Shabbat Shuvah. Just now, Tashhhhh.

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