The Cry of the Heart

  • Harav Yehuda Amital

Based on a sicha by Harav Yehuda Amital zt”l 

Adapted by Aviad Hacohen



The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 26b) discusses the desired shape of a shofar and its connection to one’s attitude in prayer:


R. Levi said: ‘The religious duty of Rosh Ha-shana and Yom Kippur is performed with a curved (kafuf) shofar, and on other days in the year with a straight shofar.’


But we learn, ‘The shofar of Rosh Ha-shana was a straight one (pashut) of antelope’s horn?’ ...


What is the basis of this dispute?


One authority holds that on Rosh Ha-shana the more a man [so to speak] bends his mind, the more effective [is his prayer]... The other authority holds that on Rosh Ha-shana the more a man straightens his mind the better the effect.”


Rashi comments:


“‘The more a man [so to speak] bends his mind’ during his prayers, his face being directed towards the ground, the more effective [is his prayer] because ‘My eyes and heart shall be there [at the Temple] perpetually’ (I Melakhim 9:3); therefore, since the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana serves as an instrument of prayer and of arousing the memory of the binding of Yitzchak, a curved shofar is required.


‘The more a man straightens his mind, the better the effect’ – because ‘Let us lift up our heart with our hands [to God in the Heavens]’ (Eikha 3:41), therefore [the mitzva is performed] on Rosh Ha-shana with a straight [shofar], because it is for prayer.”


In these texts, the sages tried to teach us a fundamental principle of prayer. Sometimes, it is actually the pashtut - the straightness, directness and simplicity of a cry from the heart - that adds a deeper dimension to prayer. “Their heart cried to the Lord” (Eikha 2:18).


Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa further developed this idea when he reinterpreted the words of the morning prayer “Who chooses musical songs [shirei] of praise” as “Who chooses the remnants [shiyarei] of praise,” to teach us that God desires specifically those remnants that remain deep in the heart of a person, the elements that represent the truth that is within him.


The Talmud Yerushalmi (Taaniyot 2:1) gives further expression to this concept:


“Why do we blow [the shofar] using horns? To say: Relate to us as if we are bellowing like animals before You.”


The reference to bellowing “like animals” represents the natural cry that bursts out, that is born of fear and comes straight from the heart.


We find a similar phenomenon expressed in the redemption from Egypt. The verse, “And their cry rose up to God from the bondage” (Shemot 2:23), is explained by the Or Ha-chaim:


“‘From the bondage’ does not mean that cried out to God to save them, but rather, that they cried out from anguish, like a person who cries out in pain.


The text informs us that this cry of theirs reached God, as it says ‘their cry ... from the bondage,’ i.e., the cry was from the pain of their work.”


A similar idea is inherent in an understanding of the different ways in which we blows the shofar. The rule that “The length of a teru’a blow is the equivalent of three sobs,” is learned in the Gemara from the cries of Sisera’s mother (Rosh Ha-shana 33b):


“It is written, ‘It shall be a day of teru’a unto you,’ and we translate [in Aramaic], a day of wailing [yevava], and it is written of the mother of Sisera, ‘Through the window she looked forth, and moaned [va-teyabev] through the lattice’ (Shoftim 5:28).”


The Tosafot  here (s.v. Shiur teru’a) adds in the name of the Arukh that even the law stating that we are required to hear 100 sounds of the shofar is learned from this same text, corresponding to the “one hundred sobs that Sisera’s mother cried.”


This is actually very surprising. Could not the sages have found a better source for the sound of our cry before God on the Day of Judgment, than “the voice of a mother” – of a gentile mother? (Of course, it is possible that this derivation comes precisely to stress the universal nature of Rosh Ha-shana, the day on which all people – and not just Jews – are judged.)


Perhaps the sages are telling us that even within the culture of Sisera, of lies and falsehood, it is possible to find -- after searching and sifting, clarifying and purifying -- the “voice from the heart,” a sincere voice, that is natural and true, and breaks forth from the heart; and there is certainly nothing that more appropriately expresses this idea than a sound expressed by a mother who is worried about the fate of her son.


In this context, it is not coincidental that the sages compared the voices of two very different mothers: Sisera’s mother, and our matriarch Sarah. These two individuals may have differed in a thousand ways, but nonetheless in this one area, they had something in common.


One could conclude, therefore, that the blowing of the shofar expresses that which is most fundamental and basic to prayer: pashtut, simplicity.


Rashi, as quoted above, connects the sages’ dispute regarding the desired shape of a shofar to the question of one’s posture during prayers. This latter issue, too, is the subject of a dispute between the sages (Yevamot 105b):


“R. Chiyya and R. Shimon b. Rabbi once sat together, when one of them began as follows: A man who offers up his prayers must direct his eyes downwards, for it is said, ‘And My eyes and heart shall be there perpetually’ (I Melakhim 9:3).


And the other said: The eyes of him who offers up prayers shall be directed above, for it is said, ‘Let us lift up our heart with our hands [to God in the Heavens]’ (Eikha 3:41).


In the meanwhile they were joined by R. Yishmael ben R. Yossi. ‘On what subject are you engaged?’ he asked them.


‘On the subject of prayer,’ they replied.


‘My father,’ he said to them, ‘ruled thus: A man who offers up his prayers must direct his eyes downward and his heart upward so that these two Scriptural texts may be complied with.’”


Rashi comments: “‘His eyes downwards’ – towards the Land of Israel, because the Divine Spirit rests there, as it is written, ‘And My eyes and heart shall be there’ (I Melakhim 9:3).”


Casting one’s eyes downward, towards the heart, symbolizes simplicity, the intention of the heart, the honesty that is demanded in prayer. “The heart knows the bitterness of his soul” (Mishlei 14:10). The heart is the source of pain, of feeling. But Rashi, following the lead of the Gemara, identifies the heart with the Temple: “And My eyes and heart shall be there perpetually” (I Melakhim 9:3) – “there” referring to the Temple of Shlomo, on the top of Mount Moriah.


The Temple represents two aspects of a single idea. It is a source of light; the light that emanates from the Temple lights up the entire world and benefits all of its inhabitants. The Temple symbolizes the public, society as a whole. The Temple was a place where the entire nation would gather without regard for an individual’s origins, social standing or family background. These issues were not relevant, because whatever one’s background, each person was simply “swallowed up” in the experience of being an integral part of society.


This sense of belonging to the community (represented by the Temple) then guarantees the resolution of a second issue (a direct consequence of the first): an ability to maintain the appropriate sense of proportion regarding what concerns are primary and what are secondary. When a person involves himself with society as a whole, and compares his own troubles to those of his fellows, he ends up with a different perspective that reflects a truer measure of appropriate values.


The central concept of the Rosh Ha-shana prayers is “I dwell among my own people” (II Melakhim 4:13).


The Chidushei Ha-Rim (Rosh Ha-shana, page 253 of the R.Y.L. Levine edition) quotes the Ari  as saying:


“On the first day of Rosh Ha-shana, one makes requests and prays only for matters of the soul; on the second day of Rosh Ha-shana, one makes requests for matters of the body.”


There is a substantive difference between the two days of Rosh Ha-shana, which certainly requires further clarification. Rav Tzadok Ha-cohen of Lublin mentions (Pri Tzaddik, Rosh Ha-shana, p. 172) in the name of Tikunei Ha-Zohar:


“However, everyone cries in their prayers of Yom Kippur like dogs, ‘Give, give (hav hav) us food’ ... And the meaning of this is as it says (Bava Batra 8a), ‘Sustain me like a dog.’”


What does this mean?


When a person’s prayers are entirely directed towards his own, personal good, he is like a “barking dog.”


But how different is it, when a person’s prayers are directed towards society as a whole! Then, even if a request is couched in a language that is personal and directed towards one’s own benefit, it nonetheless is intended (in the final analysis) to help society at large, since the individual considers himself subservient to the needs of society. You may ask something for yourself, so long as you intend to use it so that you will be able to help others.


If the goal would simply be spiritual elevation, there would be nothing wrong in requesting food so that one could successfully have this type of experience. “Where there’s no ‘flour,’ there’s no Torah” (Avot 3:17).


In contrast to an opinion that is commonly heard, it is impossible to separate spiritual problems from existential ones. When a person is sick, and his life is in danger, his Torah study and entire spiritual world are going to be damaged. This is true both in the private realm and in the public realm. At a time when an existential threat hovers over the nation of Israel, this also hurts the Kingdom of Heaven.


May God hearken to our heartfelt prayers and grant us a year of peace, blessing and growth.



[This sicha was delivered on Rosh Ha-shana 5745 (1984).]