The Return of the Horn: Commentary for Rosh HaShanah 5783
By: Rabbi Jonah Rank, Hebrew Seminary President & Rosh Yeshivah

Whether or not we will feel ready, we will soon proclaim the new Jewish year with the blast of a ram’s horn[1]—and we are supposed to feel sheepish.

Se’adiah Ga’on, who led the Jews of Sura (in modern-day Iraq) from 928 until his death in 942,[2] associated sheep with feeling humbled. This Babylonian Jewish sage wrote a lengthy composition that directed its readers to the Hebrew prayers he deemed most fitting for the different days of the Jewish year.[3] His כתאב ג׳אמע אלצלואת ואלתסאביח (Kitāb Jāmi` aṣ-Ṣalawāt wat-Tasābiḥ, “The Comprehensive Book of Prayers and Praises”) in Judeo-Arabic was among the most influential medieval guides to Jewish worship.[4] In the section he devoted to the Hebrew prayers to recite on Rosh HaShanah, Se’adiah critiqued the many holiday-themed poems that had been composed but were, in his mind, undeserving of publication.[5] Se’adiah however looked into the past and recommended that communities recite a few poetic insertions from Yose ben Yose, a פַּיְּטָן (payyetan, ‘Jewish-prayer-poet’) who lived nearly 500 years before Se’adyah.[6]

The ancient poet imagined himself praying to God from the perspective of a whole different species:

בַּקּֽרֵֽנִי; דָרְשֵֽׁנִי; שֶֹה פְזוּרָה אָנִֽי. נִגְזַֽזְתִּי וְנֶאֱלַֽמְתִּי, בְּלִי לְהָרִים קוֹל

בֶּאֱמוֹר גּוֹזְזַי, ״נִדָּחָה הִיא; שׁוֹמְרָהּ וְצִלָּהּ לֹא יִשְׁאַג בְּקוֹל.״[7]

Shepherd me[8]; seek me; a scattered sheep am I. I have been shorn, and I have been muted, so as not to raise a voice

When those who shear me say, “She is forsaken; her Guardian, nay her Protector, shall not roar a voice.”[9]

Se’adyah includes this פִּיּוּט (piyyut, ‘prayer-poem’) during the שׁוֹפָרוֹת (Shofarot, “Ram-horns”) service on Rosh HaShanah morning. In transforming the supplicant into a sheep during this moment of prayer, the payyetan personalizes the שׁוֹפָר (shofar, “ram horn”). The shofar is no longer a horn that came from some other animal. The horn may be our own—or, more properly, it may have once been our own. Somewhere along the way, we lost that appendage. If only we could raise our voice and make a sound—if only taking hold of the shofar were all it would take to gather the lost pieces of ourselves—we could become whole again. But here we are. We are stripped of our wool, our natural coating, our security, and our security guard. We who chant these words are vulnerable, unprotected.

Truthfully, in this millennium-and-a-half-old piyyut, we are not depicted as sheep in each line, but we are still hardly human. The payyetan declares his intention to praise God as a bird might: “אֲצַפְצֵף לוֹ בְקוֹל” (“I will chirp for God in voice”).[10] So too the Israelites will receive good news from “תּוֹר יַשְׁמִיעַ קוֹל” (“a turtledove sounding its voice”)[11] and embody both “צִפּוֹר מִמִּצְרָֽיִם” (“a bird out of Egypt”) and “יוֹנָה” (“a dove”).[12] The payyetan seeks to end its time as a caged bird (“צִפּוֹר בַּיִת”, “a domestic bird”) and to restore the lost voice of the dove (“יוֹנַת אֵלֶם,” “the dove of silence”).[13] Evoking mystical dream-visions in the Book of Daniel, the payyetan trades places with a דוֹב (“bear”) and faces אַרְבָּעַת רָאשֵׁי נָמֵר (“a four-headed leopard”).[14] The payyetan assumes the form of a sheep yet again before the end of the piyyut,[15] and he even attributes a few animalistic qualities to God.[16]

Before God created humans,[17] God made all the other animals.[18] According to both evolutionary theory and the Book of Genesis, the animalistic preceded the human. In the minds of our rabbinic forebears, Rosh HaShanah marked the anniversary of many beginnings,

including, according to differing traditions, God’s creation of either the world[19] or of humanity.[20] The rabbis agreed though that a few key events in the story of the Jewish people did take place on Rosh HaShanah:

בראש השנה נפקדה שרה, רחל וחנה.
בראש השנה יצא יוסף מבית האסורין.
בראש השנה בטלה עבודה מאבותינו במצרים.

On Rosh HaShanah, [the matriarch] Sarah, [the matriarch] Rachel, and [Samuel’s mother] Hannah were remembered [and blessed] by God.
On Rosh HaShanah, Joseph emerged from prison.
On Rosh HaShanah, slavery was expunged from our ancestors in Egypt.[21]

In other words, Rosh HaShanah was the day when God and history recognized humanity time and again. Before God took special notice of these women who wished to be mothers, no children could be borne by Sarah,[22] Rachel,[23] or Hannah;[24] God blessed these women to become (according to the measure of an antiquated patriarchal society, of course) fuller female humans by becoming mothers.[25] Whereas imprisonment isolated Joseph from all his relationships—no masters, no siblings, no parents—escaping prison enabled Joseph to begin his path of reconnecting with and forging new humanizing relationships.[26] Until the Israelites were liberated from serving their masters in Egypt, our ancestors’ human dignity was nearly equal to that of animals; liberation granted them humanity.[27] Before Rosh HaShanah, the world that existed—whatever world that may have been—was a very unhuman world. Rosh HaShanah gifted us humanity.

Though the poem attributed to Yose ben Yose today is omitted from nearly all contemporary High Holiday prayerbooks, we moderns can learn from the notion that, before we allow the rituals of Rosh HaShanah to transform us, we have some evolving to do. The High Holiday themes that beckon us to reflect on our actions from years past and to resolve to do better in the year ahead compels us to make moral commitments few animals could make. In the absence of the religious and ethical frameworks that contextualize our lives, we can shed our human skin and lose our humanity. If we are merely dehorned rams, then we can find meaning in taking hold of the shofar; we can become fully formed.

Through missteps and misdeeds, we may have found ourselves broken along the way, as lesser than humanity. Let us let the shofar lead us to our greatest potential, our wholeness.[28]


[1] Blowing the ram’s horn, though traditional, emerges from the hearing culture that dominated ancient rabbinic circles. The resonance of this blast can be less relevant in Jewish Deaf communities. At Congregation Bene Shalom: Hebrew Association of the Deaf, Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer of blessed memory instituted the playing of a timpani or kettle drum that produces a powerful deep sound far more palpable to Deaf Jews than the high pitches of the ram’s horn. I thank Rabbi Shari Chen for sharing this insight. For other conceptions of how Deaf Jews can connect with rituals surrounding and paralleling the ram’s horn, see Pamela Barmash, “The Status of the Ḥeresh and of Sign Language,” p. 17, as accessed at on September 22, 2022; and Sara Herschander, “For synagogues serving deaf congregants, the shofar service means getting creative,” as accessed at on September 22, 2022.
[2] Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), pp. 235 and 239.
[3] Cf. Simcha Assaf, “מבוא” (“Introduction”), in Israel Davidson, Simcha Assaf, and Issachar Joel; סדור רב סעדיה גאון (Siddur R. Saadja Gaon) (in Hebrew), pp. 18–41, esp. p. 19.
[4] E.g.; Norman A. Stillman, “The Jewish Experience in the Muslim World,” in Judith Baskin and Kenneth Seeskin (eds.), The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture (Cambridge, England; Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 93.
[5] Davidson, Assaf, and Joel; ibid, p. 225.
[6] For the dating of Yose ben Yose, see, e.g., Leon J. Weinberger, Jewish Hymnography: A Literary History (London, England: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2000), p. 7.
[7] The vocalization and punctuation I understand to be correct for this piyyut do not entirely match with what has been suggested by Davidson, Assaf, and Joel; p. CCXXXI, lines 3–4; or by Laura S. Lieber, “Let Me Flee to My Helper: A Rosh Hashanah Love Poem,” as accessed at on September 20, 2022. The consonants are from Davidson, Assaf, and Joel, ibid; however, note their comments on textual variants (ibid).
[8] The Hebrew בַּקּֽרֵֽנִי (bakkereni, translated here as “Shepherd me”) more typically means “Visit me,” but, in the animal landscape of this poem, the payyetan likely was punning. Bakkereni shares the same root as בָּקָר (bakar, “cattle”), suggesting that the poet wanted to be treated like an animal that could be tended to by a farmer or some other rural master. Another translation of the term, more closely approaching the Hebrew punning, may have been “cattle-ize me” (‘catalyze me’)—asking God to grant the poet strength to become a catalyst (a ‘cattle-ist’) for what is good and necessary.
[9] Translation my own.
[10] Davidson, Assaf, and Joel; p. CCXXX, line 2.
[11] Ibid, p. CCXXXII, line 25.
[12] Ibid, line 35; images based in Hosea 11:11.
[13] Ibid, line 36. Although Lieber (supra) highlights a version of this piyyut mentioning here “the dove of silence;” Davidson, Assaf, and Joel (ibid) highlight the variant language of “יוֹנַת סֵֽתֶר” (“the dove of secrecy”) and preserve in their notes yet another variant: “יוֹנַת סֶֽלָע” (“the dove of the rock”). Both of these latter variants allude to Song of Songs 2:14.
[14] Ibid, p. CCXXXII, lines 21 and 22; cf. Daniel 7:5 and 7:6.
[15] Ibid; p. CCXXXI, line 8.
[16] Ibid, lines 6, 17, and 20.
[17] Genesis 1:26.
[18] Genesis 1:20–1:25.
[19] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 10b.
[20] Cf. e.g. Vayyikra Rabbah 29:1 and Pesik’ta DeRav Kahana 23:1.
[21] Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 10b.
[22] Cf. Genesis 18:1–16 and 21:1–2.
[23] Cf. Ibid, 30:22.
[24] Cf. I Samuel 1–20.
[25] See, e.g., Helena Zlotnick, Dinah’s Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible or Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p. 5; and Joel Baden, “God Opened Her Womb – The Biblical Conception of Fertility,” as accessed at on September 21, 2022.
[26] Cf. Genesis 41:14–50:26 and, e.g., Maria Diaz, “An Exploration of Identity Change during Incarceration and Parole” (dissertation) (San Diego, CA: Alliant International University, 2018), esp. pp. 2–3.
[27] Cf. Exodus 1–16 and David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006), esp. pp. 2; 3; 28–34; 37; 40; 45–46; 52–59; 62; 64; 68; 74–75; 92; 95; 146; 156; 160; 178–179; 187; 239; 253; 255; 338, n. 29; 341, n. 3; and 346, n. 53.
[28] When Mishnah, Rosh HaShanah 3:6 details a variety of ruptures to a shofar that can render the horn unfit for ritual use, it seems that the rabbis of old were concerned that the instruments we use to make ourselves whole should themselves be whole.