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Echoes of Ancient Melodies

Jul 26, 2023

A Jewish man in a traditional prayer shawl blowing the shofar (

לַמְנַצֵּ֬חַ ׀ עַֽל־הַגִּתִּ֬ית לְאָסָֽף׃

For the leader; on the gittith. Of Asaf.

lam-na-TZAY-akh al ha-gi-TEET l'-a-SAF

Psalms 81:1

The words of King David’s Psalms echo through time, resounding in the hearts of billions around the globe. The Psalms served as the musical bedrock of the Temple service. And though we still recite them daily, we find ourselves in an era distanced from the physical elements of that bygone period, leading to a cloud of mystery surrounding many of its aspects. One such mystery lies at the heart of Psalm 81, in the form of the elusive gittith.

Psalm 81 begins with the words “For the leader; on the gittith. Of Asaph”. What is the gittith that King David alludes to at the beginning of this psalm?

The term gittith, which appears three times in the Psalms – in Psalm 8, Psalm 81, and Psalm 84 – has been the subject of many thoughtful interpretations. The great medieval sage Rashi, drawing on the work of Menahem ben Saruq, suggests that a gittith is a musical instrument. He then connects the gittith to Gath, a Philistine city known to us from the Bible. Based on this understanding, a gittith would have been made by a Gittite, a craftsman from Gath. Perhaps David discovered this unique Philistine instrument while seeking refuge in Gath as he fled from Saul (I Samuel 21).

Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, another medieval scholar, sees the gittith as an instrument crafted for the Levite descendants of Obed-Edom, a Gittite.

Although we may not know exactly what a gittith looked like, these interpretations suggest it was a stringed instrument, perhaps similar to a lyre.

But the gittith is not the only intriguing instrument in Psalm 81. The Psalm also calls attention to the shofar, or ram’s horn, whose sound resonates with so many of us:

“Blow the horn on the new moon, on the full moon for our feast day. For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob” (Psalms 81:4-5).

The shofar is blown on the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). Rosh Hashanah is a time of repentance and return to God, and the shofar serves as both a spiritual alarm clock as well as a wordless plea to God for mercy.

The act of blowing the shofar has been a command deeply cherished by Jews throughout the ages. Many Jews have risked their lives to heed this command and experience its haunting sound. A poignant example from Holocaust researcher, Dr. Judith Tydor Schwartz, involves her father, Chaskel Tydor, a prisoner at Auschwitz. In 1944, Chaskel was responsible for arranging the work schedules of his fellow inmates. Recognizing the importance of Rosh Hashanah to his fellow Jews, he arranged for a group of devout men to undertake less closely monitored tasks that day. This gave them the opportunity to quietly recite the High Holiday prayers. What Chaskel didn’t know was that they had managed to bring a shofar with them and they sounded its call, a forbidden act punishable by death had they been caught. As the camp was later evacuated, this very same shofar was entrusted to Chaskel for safekeeping.

Jack Kliger, the president and CEO of the Museum of Jewish Heritage and a child of Holocaust survivors, also recalled being told by his parents’ friend about the sounding of a shofar at Auschwitz. In his words:

“If there’s an artifact that symbolizes the Jewish soul, you’d be hard-pressed to find something more indicative than a shofar.”

Remarkable stories, like that of Chaskel Tydor in Auschwitz, reveal the bravery and dedication of those who risked their lives to honor this cherished tradition. The shofar’s significance echoes far beyond its musical notes; it symbolizes the resilient spirit of the Jewish people, surviving and thriving even in the darkest of times. The shofar remains a poignant reminder of the enduring faith and indomitable spirit that have carried the Jewish people through trials and triumphs alike, a symbol of hope, resilience, and a timeless bond with our ancient heritage.

Related Names and Places: Shofar

Relate Bible Verses: Chapter 81

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