May 20, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

It is the prophet Amos who devotes the opening verses of his eponymous biblical book to asking seven rhetorical questions. Among those questions we find “If a shofar is sounded in a city, shouldn’t the people tremble?” Beginning this morning, the blasts of the shofar resound in cities throughout the world. Ideally, those shofar sounds mark the beginning of a month of soul-searching sonorous sounds. And even if those sounds have not yet penetrated our souls, perhaps the time has come for us to look at a number of words that reflect the much hoped-for reaction of our people.

Trayslen (quiver). An age-old aphorism reminds us that Rosh Chodesh Elul trayslen afiloo fish in vahsser. An explanation found in a book of Yiddish aphorisms asks “If, with the approaching Days of Awe, Jews quiver, then why shouldn’t fish quiver in its habitat of cold water?” Being far less sanguine about our people, I pray that Jews worldwide perceive the no-nonsense message of the sounding of the shofar.

Tzitteren (quake). The term “helicopter parent” has been around since the late 1980s. It refers to an overly concerned parent who hovers over a child, hoping to shield the child from all the bumps and bruises of growing up in this world. As a child, I recall my mother employing a rudimentary term for “helicopter parent.” My mother spoke of how her uncle and aunt hobben getzittert (past tense of tzitteren) over their daughter. Having suffered the death of one of their sons in a freak accident, my mother’s uncle and aunt simply wouldn’t permit themselves to relax and let their remaining daughter grow up like all her contemporaries.

Zorg (worry). It was the Salanter Rov (Rabbi Yisroel Lipkin 1810-1883) who lamented “We spend our time worrying about our physical well-being and the state of our neighbor’s soul. Better we should spend our time worrying about our neighbor’s physical well-being and the state of our own soul.” Perhaps the time has come for us to stop fretting and address our concerns! So too with the advent of the month of Elul. Unless it produces positive results, zorg produces dangerous health effects. Put differently, zorg oon yohr mahchen groy die hohr (worry and age turn our hair gray).

Tzahpplen (squirm). At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, the final blast of the shofar will be sounded. How does that final blast in Tishrei differ from the first blast in Elul? In addition to the enlightening halachic stipulations and explanations offered by our sages, permit me to suggest the following: The first shofar blast heard in Elul reminds us that the time has come for spiritual tzahpplen. The final blast of the shofar heard in Tishrei reminds us that it is time to replace tzahpplen with faith in HaShem. Hopefully, we have addressed our personal shortfalls and become vigilant of life’s pitfalls.

Shokkel (shake/sway). Among the many differences that accentuate Orthodox from non-Orthodox davening is shokkeling. For many Orthodox Jews, their bodies assume the rhythm of their davening; hence the swaying to and fro while engaged in prayer. But shokkel has other meanings as well. To shokkel mitten kopp means to give consent. Telling someone to gib a shokkel is to stir that person out of complacency and to tell that individual to get a move on. And perhaps that is the ultimate message of the shofar. The sound of the shofar exhorts each one of us to gib a shokkel.

Upon hearing the daily (except for Shabbat and the day that precedes Rosh Hashanah) sounding of the shofar throughout this month of Elul, each of us will respond differently. For some of us, the shofar sound will result in tzahpplen. For others, the response will be tzitteren. Then there will be those of us who will be filled with zorg. For all too few of us, there will be trayslen with faith in HaShem. But regardless of our emotional response, Hashem prays that, upon hearing the shofar, we gib a shokel. If that were to ultimately occur, it is quite possible that it will be Hashem who trembles … with joy.


Rabbi Shawn Zell has recently returned to New Jersey, after serving at a pulpit in Dallas. He possesses certification in teaching Yiddish. Rabbi Zell is the author of three books.

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