On the first day of Rosh Hashana I was invited to call the kolot (sounds) for the shofar. I must admit, I didn’t have a clue what I was getting into.
Our shul differs from many others – rather than having the rabbi call the kolot, prominent members of the community alternate doing so. The rabbi, however, is always present to make sure the process is done kadat v’kadin (according to law). Having a woman call some of the kolot was not a decision taken lightly by our shul. This was the end of a seven year-long discussion amongst the rabbis and the lay leadership. Honestly, this hadn’t been a battle I was very involved in fighting. It just seemed like an odd thing to be pushing for. First of all, it felt a bit like pushing against air. There was absolutely nothing I could even imagine was vaguely halakhically (legally) problematic with a woman reading out the kolot before the shofar was blown. As a learned, if perhaps tone-deaf, rabbi once said about the halakhic issue of a woman reading the ketuvah at a wedding: “A monkey could read the ketuvah.” Well yes. And one could argue that a monkey could call out the kolot for tekiat hashofar (sounding of the shofar). And yet, we don’t give the reading of the ketuvah or the calling of the kolot to monkeys. Both are seen as serious kibbudim that are reserved to individuals who are important to the community.
The other reason I never made it my business to lobby to have a woman call the kolot is that I kind of never noticed what a big deal it was. I mean, I saw the presidents, past presidents, and other significant member of the shul get called up, but I guess it never really made a significant impression on me. So while every few years I would politely bring up the subject with the rabbi, or with members of the board, asking what the reasoning could possibly be not to include women, I never really made it a rallying cry.
But a few weeks ago, our rabbi made a public announcement. After learning sources with the congregation and after serious consideration of both the possible halakhic concerns and (in this case, more importantly) sensitivity to communal norms, the shul had made the decision to have women, standing on the women’s side of the mechitza, call half of the kolot.
So here it is, first day of Rosh Hashana, and one of our assistant rabbis, Rabba Anat says to me, “Would you please call the first kolot for the set of kolot during Shmona Esrei?”
And then mild panic set in.
“What? Seriously?” I had a sudden flashback to 25 years prior, the first time I led tefillah (prayer) at a women’s tefillah group. After attending shul for 20 years, I realized that had no idea what I was involved in leading the kahal (community). Twenty-five years ago I was quoted as saying “you can be a passenger in a car for years on the same route. And you never actually learn the route until you are driving the car.” What was true then, turned out to be true now.
How loudly do you call the kolot? Should just the ba’al tokea (person blowing shofar) hear you or the whole kahal? Shevarim and Truah are called together, right? How do you know when the ba’al tokea is actually ready? These were the question flying through my head as I took my place, down in the women’s sections, standing below the bima where the tokea stood. I probably needn’t have worried. The rabbi was standing by making sure all was well. As Rabba Anat stood next to me I grabbed her hand and squeezed: “Tekiaaaa.”
And suddenly it hit me. This was actually a big deal.
Throughout history we have been blowing the shofar. And throughout history men have been taking ownership of the process. Women don’t have the same chiyuv (obligation) as men in hearing the shofar, but this is clearly a case where we have taken the mitzvah (commandment) upon ourselves as a community in a serious way and, as a result, the mitzvah has resounding depth to women as well as men. And now, a woman’s voice could be heard as an integral part of the process.
I’ll admit, tears were blurring my vision, but when they cleared and I looked up and saw a young boy, maybe 7 years old, standing next to the ba’al tokea and looking at me quizzically, I couldn’t help but smile at him. Yes. This would be his new reality. This shul has made space for women to be part of this mitzvah.
After me, I saw a woman take her place to call the kolot, and I saw her granddaughter come running over to hold her grandmother’s hand. And I saw the look of love and pride in that little girl’s face. And suddenly my recollection of years of watching fathers and sons, grandfathers and grandsons standing there, holding hands, calling the kolot came into clearer vision. This kibbud (honor) had allowed me to step into a sacred space. A ritual which I had been watching from the sidelines came into clearer focus.
You know how they say that you often don’t appreciate something until it’s gone? Well, in this case, I realized the opposite: that I couldn’t really appreciate the deep symbolism and meaning of this kibbud until I took part in it.
This article originally appeared in My Jewish Learning on October 6, 2016.