The Case of the Headless Man and Insufficient Repentance

Learn about a Kabbalistic tradition that will tell you if you have been sealed in the Book of Life or Death following the High Holy Days.

This woodcut appears in the book "Customs" ("Minhagim"), published in Amsterdam in 1661 by Uri Weibash

In 1661 a book of Jewish customs was published in Amsterdam. It was originally written in Hebrew, but, being a book of Ashkenazi traditions and customs, it was translated into Yiddish. The book contains woodcuts of Jewish practices as described by the 14th century Austrian Rabbi, Yitzhak Ternau, who provides an overview of the traditions of Ashkenazi Jews including the rituals of the High Holy Days and the festival of Sukkot.

One woodcut shows a man building his sukkah, the traditional hut built by Jews in celebration of the festival.

Building a sukkah

In another image, two Jews are seen examining arba’at ha’minim, “The Four Species” used in the Sukkot prayer services.

Carrying the plenty

The third woodcut depicts the custom of throwing fruit for children to pick up during Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that immediately follows Sukkot and which celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah.

Giving fruit to children

But of all the woodcuts in the collection, it was the fourth one that truly caught our attention. Why you may ask? Well, perhaps because it is simply so… eye-catching. The woodcut features two men holding one of the four species. One of them is inexplicably headless!

In our attempts to solve this mystery, we asked ourselves and everyone around us if they know why one figure had a head and the other seemed to have lost his?

The picture that piqued our curiosity.

For some, the image was bizarre and jarring but the National Library experts who came to our aid were surprised people weren’t aware of this common Kabbalistic practice.

Here is some of what we learned:

A discussion of common Sukkot practices


As per Kabbalistic tradition, on the night of Hoshana Rabbah, the seventh and last day of Sukkot and just one week after Yom Kippur, a devout Jew may find himself wondering, “Have I been sealed into the Book of Life or rather the Book of Death?”

What is a devout Jew full of uncertainty to do in such a scenario? An ancient Kabbalistic custom which can be found among the writing of Nachmanides from the 13th century offers a solution.

On the night of Hoshana Rabbah, one should step outside and examine the shadow they cast by the light of the moon. If the shadow that is cast is that of a whole person, then the believer should have no qualms, for he has been sealed in the Book of Life. If the shadow appears to be headless, the devout Jew should begin getting his affairs in order.

17th century Yiddish that reads, “He struck with the willow for he has no head.”

This custom seems to raise more questions than it answers. After all, according to age-old tradition, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the day when those of Jewish faith are judged and sealed into the Book of Life or Death by God. Kabbalistic tradition explains that, though we are judged on Yom Kippur, the verdict is only signed on the night of Hoshana Rabbah, and in this window of time it is said that we can catch a glimpse of what the final verdict will be.

Is the Shofar Really the Voice of God?

What is the Freudian complex behind the origins of this mysterious instrument? What is the shofar's connection to the High Holy Days? And does it have anything to do with music?

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

There is nothing like the cry of the shofar. The startling burst of sound will instantly grab the attention of any who hear it, and few will remain indifferent.

The shofar is the main musical instrument used during the Jewish High Holy Days, while also appearing in a number of key moments in the history of the Jewish people as well as in the lives of ordinary Jews – to this day it is customary to blow the shofar during funerals of Mizrahi Jews in Israel, among Yemenite Jews, for example.

The shofar first appears in scripture in the story of Jethro (Yitro), in the fifth Torah portion (“parasha”) of the book of Exodus, which tells of the Revelation on Mount Sinai, where the sound of the shofar was heard:

Chapter 19, Verse 16: “And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled.Verse 17: “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount.”

Verse 18: “And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly.”

Verse 19: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice…”

And again, after the giving of the Ten Commandments –

Chapter 20, Verse 18: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off…”

But what is the connection of the shofar to the High Holy Days? What is the connection between the shofar and Jewish “music” and is the shofar even to be considered a musical instrument?

Williamsburg Art Co., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The psychoanalyst and anthropologist Theodor Reik wrote an entire book titled “The Shofar,” in 1919, and in it claimed that the sound of the shofar was no less than the voice of God.

Is it possible that the only thing which makes the shofar special is that which is missing from it? Meaning: Is the shofar’s advantage and uniqueness as a vocal religious utensil derived from the fact that it is not a musical instrument at all, but rather nothing more than a primitive noise-making tool? Is its significance merely the result of the traditional religious tendency to glorify all that is ancient?

Theodor Reik, a Vienna-born Jewish student of Freud, was certain this was not the case, and he set out to explain, in a bold and original study, the secret holy magic of one the most central symbols in Judaism.

Reik felt, quite logically, that the traditional Jewish explanations of the significance of blowing the shofar during the festivals of the Hebrew month of Tishrei were unsatisfactory. Tradition, beginning with the Talmud, links the blowing of the shofar to the Binding of Isaac since the shofar is made of a ram’s horn and it was a ram that took the place of the beloved son on the altar at the last minute, thus certifying Abraham’s passing of the cruel test he was given, as well as certifying the special covenant between him and God. But is the memory of the covenant the only thing that passes through the hearts and minds of those who hear the sound of the shofar? Does it not have an awe-inspiring effect? Does the sound not call one back to a primeval point of deep religious emotion? It should not be forgotten that in biblical times the sound of the shofar was used to signal danger, to declare war, to accompany the anointment of a king and to celebrate redemption – so could it really only be an aid used to jog one’s personal and national memory?

Reik says no. To trace the sources of the shofar he turns to the book of Exodus, chapter 19, where he interprets certain verses differently. Verse 19, for example, reads: “And when the voice of the trumpet sounded long, and waxed louder and louder, Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice.”

Did God and Moses have a conversation, accompanied by the shofar in the background? Reik claims that is exactly what happened. He also shows that the biblical father of music, Yuval (Genesis 4, 21), is connected to the subject (his name can also mean “ram” in Hebrew), and points out that music itself was always used for religious or liturgical purposes in ancient times with its origins in attempts to imitate totemic animals. Thus, the shofar is actually the voice of God. What then does this say about the significance of the ancient ritual?

Reik delves into detailed psychoanalytical explanations that incorporate Freud’s theory of “Totem and Taboo,” which had been published in a book of the same name (1917), released only seven years before Reik’s study. Freud saw Totemism as a primitive form of religion (experienced by humanity in its early stages), in which a certain animal is chosen by a community to be its “Totem,” the embodiment of the community’s essence and power. The animal acts as a substitute for an ancestor who has become semi-deified over the years, an “alpha-male” who forcefully claimed ownership over the women of the community (including the mothers, whom the sons, according to Freud, lusted after). This “alpha-male” was then murdered by the other males, whom, once  overcome with guilt over the slaying of their father-figure, chose an animal as their new object of submission and obedience. In the later stages of religious development, Freud believed the animal was replaced by a human-like figure, who eventually ascended to the heavens to become the Father-God. For Freud religion was nothing more than an illusion triggered by niggling feelings of oedipal guilt.

The totemic animal of the ancient Hebrews, which Reik believes was either a ram or a bull (since the sound of the shofar resembles the mooing of a bull or cow), and the emergence of the shofar-blowing custom during the period of Jewish ritual sacrifice, indicates a subconscious need to remember the murder of the primordial ancestor and to ask for forgiveness.

Jewish Museum, N.Y., the Folklore Research Center, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

But even without all of the Freudian baggage which can at times appear unbearable, Reik’s study raises some fascinating points: Is the voice of God in the Hebrew Bible really the shofar? If this is the case, it sheds new light on well-known biblical events. It must be remembered that in the ancient period, the religious object embodied the full essence of its subject, and not just its representation. Meaning, the sound of the shofar did not just symbolize the voice of God – it was the voice of God. Only in later stages of religious development did a gap open up between artifacts and their meanings, with objects becoming symbols. As a result, it is clear to us that the very voice of God is what knocked down the walls of Jericho, and not the symbolism of the blowing of the shofar, as we might be led to believe by an anachronistic reading of the text.

Just as the object was charged with symbolic significance, so was the ritual charged with mythological significance. In other words, it was given a storied and historical interpretation such that today, when we hear the sound of the shofar, we know only that we are supposed to remember the story of the Binding of Isaac and the covenant with God bequeathed to us by our ancestor Abraham. Any other feelings brought forth by the cry of the shofar come from a different, hidden, place, withholding a truth our conscious minds may not have access to.

The Blowing of the Shofar, 1943, photo by Rudi Weissenstein, the Photohouse Collection

In her book “The Music Libel Against the Jews,” Ruth Hacohen discusses the Christian view which interpreted the sounds of the synagogue as noise. The sounds of prayers unaccompanied by musical instruments and lacking a conventional western melody were perceived as disharmonious cacophony from a musical point of view. Even the “instrument” known as the shofar which was used during prayers would emit unrecognizable foreign sounds that were heard as noise. As a result, Christian anti-Semites attributed nefarious magical powers to the Jews which they believed were used to cause harm to others.

The shofar heard in the synagogues during the High Holy Days brings about a union of the inner and outer voices of those who listen to it. To those who gather in prayer, the sound of the shofar is music to their ears, while to foreigners it is nothing but noise. To this day, in Jewish culture, the shofar remains unrivalled, sitting high above all other musical instruments.

A soldier wearing a talit and blowing a shofar. Photo by Uzi Keren, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel



How does one become a Baal Tokea – a master of shofar blowing? What should Rosh Hashana tekias sound like? Gila Flam interviews Calman Feinberg, a Baal Tokea for over 39 years who says he is the only person who can do it right!


Click here to listen to our collection of shofar recordings!

Maria the Jewess: The First Century Maker of Gold

"One becomes two, two becomes three, and out of the third comes the one as the fourth," so goes the axiom of a sage of Alchemy, Mary the Jewess, quoted throughout the writings of the magical-science and as mysterious as the alchemical process itself.

Mary the Jewess - Michael Maier's Symbola aurea mensae, Frankfurt, 1617

Alchemists from the mythic Hermes Trismegistus to Isaac Newton sought to transmute lead into gold. It was believed that through the transformation of the material, they could attain wisdom beyond the limitations of man and create great works that would transmute themselves closer towards divinity through the Philosopher’s Stone and the Elixir of life.

None of that could be done without an ancient alchemist named Maria.

Recorded in the annals of ancient Alchemists, such as Zosimus of Panopolis, is Maria the Jewess, also called Maria the Prophetess or Maria the Hebrew, who lived in ancient Egypt around the first century CE.

She is credited with inventing an alchemical apparatus’ that copied the process of distillation in nature, what the alchemists believed provided the bedrock for the creation of gold in nature. This apparatus would become a staple in modern chemistry labs.

You probably know it as Mary’s bath, the Bain-Marie, which you can find in your kitchen.

We do not know much about Maria herself but she is thought to have started an academy in the city of Alexandria, where she taught alchemy. Like nearly every alchemist ever, Maria worked tirelessly to create or transform gold from base metals from the Earth.

One the key stages in the alchemical process of transmuting base metals into gold is the distillation,  a process which Maria is said to have perfected. It is described in the Emerald Tablet (the key writing of alchemy) as: “It rises from Earth to Heaven and descends again to Earth, thereby combining within Itself the powers of both the Above and the Below.”

An alchemical balneum Mariae, or Maria’s bath, from Coelum philosophorum, Philip Ulstad, 1528

Maria the Jewess is also known for coining other alchemical sayings beyond her axiom.

“Just as a man is composed of four elements, likewise is copper; and just as a man results from the association of liquids, of solids, and of the spirit, so does copper.”

As well as:

“Join the male and the female, and you will find what is sought.”

Union of Opposites – Rosarium philosophorum sive pretiosissimum donum Dei, 1550

As the scientific revolution progressed from alchemy to chemistry, glassware and copper tubes continued to be used in the process of distillation, for purposes that had nothing to do with gold. You may have had whiskey made through this process, and one hopes you have double boiled chocolate with it at some point.

Bain-Marie as Used by Alchemists From Manget Bibliotheca Chemica Curiosa, 1702


To Have and to Hold: The Wedding Between Children and the Torah

At the start of their studies, children in Morocco went through a symbolic wedding ceremony to bond them forever with the Torah

חתני כאתב. התמונה לקוחה מתוך ספרו של ד"ר מאיר נזרי, קהילות תאפילאלת סג'למאסא, כרך א, מעגל האדם, אוניברסיטת בר אילן תשע"ג

Throughout the generations, Jewish communities in the Diaspora have recognized the same historical truth that is quickly learned by all young parents: the first day of school is both exciting and a bit stressful.

Jewish communities across the world have developed their own ways of facilitating the start of Torah learning for young children when they begin their studies in Heder (Jewish school). At the southern tip of the Sahara Desert, in a region of Morocco called Tafilalt, one of the most interesting and special traditions of welcoming children to their studies in Heder was preserved until the 20th century.

A photo of a bride from the wedding ceremony. The photo is not dated. Image from the Heritage of Moroccan Jewry.

The second main event in a child’s life of every Jewish boy, after of course, his birth and Brit Milah (ritual circumcision), was an event called “Liktahb,” a term that means “entry to Heder,” in English. This central event in the child’s life is marked with a grand ceremony modeled after the mock wedding described in the Talmud that symbolically ties the youth to the Torah.

Every traditional Jewish wedding requires the participation of a bride and a groom- this was also the case in the ceremony held by the Jewish community in Tafilalt. The groom, just five years old, beginning his studies in Heder, was matched with a bride around the same age and they were joined together in a symbolic wedding ceremony.

The bride and the groom. The girl, Rachel the daughter of Hannah from Fes and the groom, Meir Turgeman from Erfoud. This picture was taken from Dr. Meir Nazri’s book, “The Communities of Tafilalt and Sijilmasa,” Volume I, The Human Cycle, Bar-Ilan University.

This unique ceremony had interesting variations within the Sephardic community. There were those who held a parade for the children down to the local river where each of the bridegrooms would throw an apple into the waters and there were those who would invite the bride’s family for dinner the night before the ceremony to eat a special, traditional dish. Some even held a special ceremony in their local synagogues that is typically reserved for a groom on the Shabbat before his wedding.

Like the tradition held in many communities where the child entering Heder licks honey off of the letters of the Aleph Bet, the wedding ceremony is also a symbolic ritual to connect the child with the Torah. The ceremony with honey symbolizes the sweetness of the Torah and the wedding ceremony symbolizes the marriage and commitment of the child to the Torah and his studies.