A crowded shul triggers my anxiety. What’s my minimum shofar requirement? - Matan - The Sadie Rennert

A crowded shul triggers my anxiety. What’s my minimum shofar requirement? Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

September 2022 | Elul 5782

Topic : Yamim Noraim ,

She'ela

After not having been in shul for Rosh Hashana two years in a row due to Corona regulations and personal anxiety, this year I hope to attend davening and hear the first 30 shofar blasts in my shul. I am nervous about staying indoors for the entire davening exposed to many people including small unvaccinated children. My question is regarding the remaining 70 shofar blasts – should I put myself at high risk of an anxiety attack in order to hear them? (This question was asked by a woman)

Teshuva

You are not alone in your concern, many people describe anxiety about returning to shul or other group activities in the wake of Corona. Anxiety can be both a normative, useful, adaptive tool and also a debilitating, harmful condition depending on the danger of the situation and the magnitude of the mental and physical response. There is a definite difference between people with mild to moderate anxiety and those who face overwhelming anxiety and anxiety attacks.[i]

Unless there are circumstances you haven’t shared, the type of debilitating anxiety you’re describing is considered an illness. In other situations, a halakhic answer might need more medical information to determine what is halakhically obligated or allowed, but since you think you are able to briefly attend to hear some of shofar, we will see that such details are not necessary in this case. It is important to note that someone who does not feel able to cope with even a small amount of time in shul has the same options as many other Jews coping with illness on Rosh Hashana – such as standing outside or asking someone to come and blow for them at home (or outside their home). There are many valid options as long as one listens to the shofar with the intent to fulfill the mitzvah and the shofar is being blown to fulfill the mitzvah for those who hear it. (Shulchan Aruch OC 586:6)

The mitzvah to hear shofar

Torah obligation

In the Torah the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) is called as Yom Teruah (Bamidbar 29, 1) and Zichron Teruah (Vayikra 23, 25). The Talmud draws a parallel [gezeira shava] between the teruah of Rosh Hashana and the shofar of Yovel (Vayikra 25, 8-9) to teach the Torah mitzvah of the Rosh Hashana blasts, concluding that the shofar is used to blow three sets of three blasts of tekiahteruahtekiah (TRT).[ii] (TB Rosh Hashana 33b)

Traditional fulfillment

This is a total of 9 blasts (kolot); how did we get from here to the 100 we hear today? How many do we have to hear to fulfill our obligation?

The Gemara continues to relate three traditions for the teruah blast sandwiched between the tekiah blasts– a series of short ululating cries (yelila) like women in mourning now called teruah (TRT), slightly longer sighs or moans (genuchei g’nach) known as shevarim (TST), and a combination shevarim-teruah (TSRT). (33b-34a)

Rambam explains that this Gemara reflects a dispute as to the correct way to blow the shofar, and as there is no final ruling, we blow the shofar according to all three opinions to make sure we properly fulfill the mitzvah. (Hilchot Shofar v’Suka, v’Lulav 3:2) Rosh explains that the Gemara brings three alternative traditions that are all kosher, but because people may not understand that a different tradition is valid, one unified custom emerged that blows all three.

Whether to fulfill the Torah mitzvah beyond a doubt or to prevent the perception of dispute, the modern understanding is that at minimum one should hear the following series of blasts (Shulchan Aruch OC 590:1-2):

TST x 3 =9

TRT x3 =9

+ TSRT x 3 = 12

9 + 9 +12 = a total of 30 kolot

So why do we blow shofar for 100 blasts? The Gemara describes a custom to blow shofar at different times during the mussaf service. Current custom is in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam and Rema – 30 blasts at the beginning which fulfills the obligation immediately after reciting the blessings and 3 sets of 10 blasts (TST, TRT, TSRT) after each section of mussaf – for a total of 60. Additional blasts are added at other points, customs differ depending on community, to total 100 or 101, the number is connected to the wails of the general Sisera’s mother as related in the midrash. (Sefer Ha-Aruch 274, 1))

Women’s obligation

The mitzvah to hear shofar on Rosh Hashana is included in the category of positive time bound commandments; women are typically exempt from such commandments. (TB Kiddushin 33b) Despite this formal exemption throughout the centuries women voluntarily took it upon themselves to fulfill the mitzvah, and there are those who maintain that their commitment created its own form of obligation to hear shofar. Although this is not the same as the Torah obligation for men to hear shofar, if there are extenuating circumstances that prevent a woman from hearing shofar some are of the opinion she has to perform hatarat nedarim (release from vows). (Maharil Hilchot Shofar, Magen Avraham OC 489:1, Ben Ish Chai Shana Rishona Nitzavim 17)

So what should you do?

From your question it sounds as if you’re comfortable (or are hoping to be) to go into shul briefly, but you are worried that forcing yourself to stay longer might escalate your anxiety. As we’ve established, the Torah mitzvah is to hear 30 shofar blasts, there is a halakhic tradition that women have voluntarily obligated themselves to fulfill this mitzvah, and it does not seem like your health precludes you from that at this time. Since the first set of 30 blasts begins with the proper blessings and then immediately fulfills the mitzvah it seems that those are the optimal set for you to prioritize.[iii] And while there is a connection between the shofar and the mussaf blessings, each mitzvah stands on its own and in this case you do not need to push yourself to stay in shul for the blasts during or after mussaf. (Rema OC 593:2)

While hearing shofar should elicit an emotional response, the anxiety that you describe is not helpful to one’s physical, mental, or spiritual wellbeing. It can also interfere with concentration and inhibit a meaningful prayer experience. As a woman you have an obligation to pray daily but you do not have an obligation to attend communal prayers and therefore, aside from hearing the 30 shofar blasts, I encourage you to plan the time you have to pray in whatever way will most enhance your Rosh Hashana prayers and spiritual journey.[iv] That might mean praying at home, or finding an outdoor or “safe space” where you can hear shul services, or testing your boundaries inside the sanctuary. Take some time to think about what is best for you. As we have seen you have no halakhic obligation to make yourself sick to stay in shul longer, but you do have a halakhic obligation to maintain your physical and mental health. Please feel free to be in touch with any other questions.

Wishing you a meaningful and healthy Rosh Hashana. K’tivah v’chatimah tova!

Footnotes

[i] There’s only so much we can control with our mental health. And the journey to balance takes time and energy. Without knowing your exact circumstances – if you or people you see regularly are high risk, if your shul takes any precautions, if you generally deal with anxiety or mental health issues – I can’t know how adaptive your anxiety is. If anxiety is preventing you from doing something you and/or those who know you well deem important it may be worth looking into therapeutic approaches to improve your situation.

[ii] The staccato, alarming teruah blasts that usually signify war and danger are preceded and followed by a simple tekiah blast of triumph and celebration; together these are a zikaron, a remembrance before God, as we celebrate our King’s coronation and pray for mercy and salvation.

[iii] If you miss those for some reason you fulfill the mitzvah with any set of 30 – so the blasts during mussaf (3 sets of 10) or the 30 sounded after mussaf. Additionally, you can “mix and match” your 30, and take breaks in between, as long as you have intention to fulfill the mitzvah when you hear them. (Shulchan Aruch OC 588:2)

When someone misses the congregational blessing for shofar – men and women who recite blessings over positive time bound mitzvot may recite the blessings to themselves before fulfilling the mitzva. (Shulchan Aruch, Rema, OC 589 6-7)

[iv] For more about a woman’s obligations in prayer and minyan see https://www.matan.org.il/en/qna/if-i-a-woman-arrive-at-shul-on-shabbat-during-torah-reading-should-i-daven-shacharit-or-listen-to-torah-reading/

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.

A few words about the project שאלה - כתובת נשית לשאלות בכל תחומי ההלכה. מי המשיבות שלנו? בוגרות תכנית הלכתא - תכנית שש שנתית ללימודי הלכה במתן. לכל המשיבות רקע עשיר בלימוד גמרא והלכה והן משמשות כתובת לשאלות ופניות בקהילה ובבית המדרש. כל התשובות נידונות בקרב הוועדה ההלכתית של 'שאלה' בה, יחד עם המשיבות, יושבים הרב הדיין אריאל הולנד והרב יהושע מאירסון.

Support Shayla