4.26. Nelly Sachs, poem ‘Someone Blew the Shofar’ (1947)

The poem Einer war, / Der blies den Schofar (“Someone Blew the Shofar”) *“Someone Blew the Shofar” from The Seeker and Other Poems by Nelly Sachs, translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead and Michael Hamburger. Translation copyright © 1970 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Reproduced by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. by Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) originates from the collection In den Wohnungen des Todes (“In the Habitations of Death”), published in 1947. This chronotope is the German extermination camp with its “earthly habitations,” from which the prisoners passed through the narrow chimneys to ascend to the chronotope of God’s heavenly habitations, the “fair dwellings,” mentioned in the Bible and the prayer book. *Num. 24:5: “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, / Your dwellings, O Israel!” These words are spoken on entering the synagogue; cf. The Koren Siddur 20. Nelly Sachs escaped the concentration camps by fleeing Germany on the last plane to Sweden in 1940. This chronotopic meaning is confirmed by the beginning of the first poem *Sachs, O the Chimneys 2 of the collection:

O the chimneys
On the ingeniously devised habitations of death
When Israel’s body drifted as smoke
Through the air—

In Someone Blew the Shofar, the Past in the form of historic events in far and recent history is altered by the Present through the poet’s point of departure, the belief in the survival of the Jewish people after the Shoah, symbolized by the shofar, which cannot be silenced. The poem does not contain any direct reference whatsoever to the “habitations of death;” it has a highly schematical and abstract character and is written in a detached and noble style. The literary historians David Roskies and Naomi Diamant call the poems of this collection “liturgical poems, . . . culminating (as in the prayer book) in the redemptive voice of the Holy Land.” *Roskies and Diamant, Holocaust Literature 229.

The sinking occurs for the sake of the rising

Book of Sohar

Someone blew the Shofar—
Threw back his head
As the deer do, as the stags
Before they drink at the spring.
[5] Blows
Death departs in the sigh—
The seed descends—
[10] Teruah
The air tells of a light!
The earth circles and the constellations circle
In the Shofar
Which someone blows—
[15] And round the Shofar the temple burns
And someone blows—
And round the Shofar the temple falls
And someone blows—
And round the Shofar the ashes rest—
[20] And someone blows—

The poem begins with the image of a shofar blower who raises the ram’s horn with every blast, moving his head as a drinking deer. The drinking deer refers to Ps. 42:2: “Like a hind crying for water, / my soul cries for You, O God” and the source here is Jewish religious tradition. The water from the source is one of the four classical elements in the poem: the air appears in v. 11, the fire in v. 15, and the earth indirectly in the falling seed in v. 9. The four elements play a part in the Zohar, mentioned in the motto, and are considered the base materials of both the earth and the human body. *The Zohar, Vol. 3: 262 and 318. The four classical elements also appear in Henry Brant’s Prophets. Chapter 4.59. Just as the earth cannot be annihilated, human life, consisting of the same elements, cannot be annihilated. After v. 4, the individual shofar blower turns into a universal shofar blower. The “sigh” in v. 7 might allude to the last breath of a man or to an expulsion of death, to the cyclic breathing of the shofar blower or to the blasts of the horn. In the Talmud, the shevarim and the teruʿah are sometimes compared with sobbing or weeping. *Talmud Rosh Ha-Shanah 34a: “He [R. Abbahu] was in doubt whether it [the sound of teruʿah] was a kind of wailing or a kind of groaning.”

In a letter from 1946, the year in which Someone Blew the Shofar was completed, Nelly Sachs gave a short explanation of the three traditional shofar blasts: “The words from the shofar poem are the blowing manners tekiʿah (watchman’s call), shevarim (singing call), and teruʿah (flourish) is blown on New Year’s Day, ascending of the angels, renewal of the world, that is the rough explanation.” *“Die Worte aus dem Schofargedicht sind die Blasweisen Tekia (Wachtruf), Schewarim (Singruf), Terua (Geschmetter) wird am Neujahrstag geblasen, Aufsteigen der Bittengel, Erneuerung der Welt, so ist die ungefähre Erklärung.” Sachs, Letter to Gudrun Dähnert, September 28, 1946. In Dinesen and Müssener, Briefe der Nelly Sachs 65. Quotation translated from the German by KvH. It is difficult to link these shofar blast characteristics to the sentences in which the blasts are mentioned; whereas “someone” (passim) could be seen as a watchman, the “sigh” in v. 7 can hardly be compared to singing, and an interpretation of the movements of the “stellar constellations” in v. 12 as a flourish seems far-fetched. While there are no ascending angels in the poem, “renewal of the world” or, more precisely, a renewal of the Jewish world according to a particular mystic world view, is indeed the overall theme.

In translation, many characteristic sounds and rhythms of the poem are lost; not only the internal rhyme in v. 1: “Einer war, der blies den Schofar,” but also the rhythms from v. 4 onwards, which seem to be inspired by the sinking and rising in the motto. The verses about suffering end in a weaker, falling rhythm: Seufzer (“sigh”); Tempel (“Temple”); and Asche (“ashes”), whereas the verses about renewal, symbolized by the shofar blowing, the seed and the light end in a stronger, rising rhythm: Schofar; Das Samenkorn fällt (“The seed descends”); von einem Licht! (“of a light!”); and Und Einer bläst (“And someone blows”). Another important stylistic feature, the biblical parataxis in vv. 15-20, symbolizing the repetition of destruction and renewal, is retained in the English translation.

Simple but effective are the dashes after ten verses, suggesting unfinishedness, repetition, and continuation. The word “circle” applies to both the cyclic events in the cosmos and in the history of the Jewish people. These cycles are stressed in the second half of the poem. The three catastrophes to which vv. 15, 17 and 19 refer, and of which the first two are explicitly connected to “the temple,” are probably the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, the destruction of the second Temple in 70 CE and the Shoah in the 20th century. The shofar blasts are used to mark time and this is an idea also found elsewhere, notably in Avraham Yiẓḥak Kook, *(1865-1935), the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine who connects the shofar blasts with periods in world history. *Chusid, Shofar I 63-4. According to him, God has reigned before Adam’s sin and this period is symbolized by the simple tekiʿah. God reigns in the difficult time between Adam and the end of time, which period is represented by the broken sounds of the shevarim and the weeping sound of the teruʿah. God shall reign in eternity in the period after the end of time and this period is symbolized by the long, concluding tekiʿah gedolah.

In his analysis of Someone Blew the Shofar, the literary historian Ulrich Klingmann draws the conclusion that “The end of this poem points out that the Temple will be rebuilt; however, this conclusion is omitted, because the poem does not restrict itself to the concrete image of the Temple, but refers to the new coming into existence as well as to the renewal.” *Klingmann, Religion und Religiosität in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs 84. Quotation translated from the German by KvH. This is an argumentum ex nihilo, because an omitted conclusion cannot point out anything. Apart from this, building a new, third Temple replacing the destroyed first (v. 15) and second (v. 17) would imply the demolition of the Muslim Dome of the Rock, an idea, which is nowhere supported in Nelly Sachs’ oeuvre. *Cf. Chapter 4.40 about this proposal by the Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces.

Someone Blew the Shofar is a poem with a great chronotopic richness, in which time, expressed in the repeated shofar blowing, “as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible;” likewise, space, expressed in the circling of the earth and the constellations around the shofar and the Temple, “becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.” *Bakhtin, “Forms of Time and of the Chronotope” 84. The idea of the shofar as the center of a spherical universe already appears in the Zohar, in connection with upward and downward movements: “Sound of a sphere revolving from below to above; her braded chariots whirling, a sweet sound ascending and descending, drifting to the world. Sound of a shofar drawn out in depths of rungs, turning the sphere.” *The Zohar, Vol. 3 415. According to note 562 by Daniel Matt, the sphere corresponds “to the celestial sphere of medieval Ptolemaic astronomy, which moves all the other heavenly spheres. Here this sphere is linked with Shekhinah [divine presence] and revolved by various sefirotic potencies [emanations and manifestations of the Godhead]. The ‘sweet sound’ corresponds to the ancient philosophical notion of the music of the spheres.” Klingmann is right in concluding that “out of the shofar blowing a mythical cycle unfolds, warranting the sense of the abstract Zohar quotation.” *Religion und Religiosität in der Lyrik von Nelly Sachs 84. Quotation translated from the German by KvH. This motto, “The sinking occurs for the sake of the rising,” represents a well-known concept, which is also found in the song at the beginning and the end of Anski’s play The Dybbuk: “The seed of redemption / Is contained within the fall,” *Chapter 4.10 and which is based on the same idea of sinking as a condition for rising; only after her death and ascent to the “real world,” can Leah be united with her beloved Khonen. As a parody, the concept of an ascent to the heavenly “World of Truth” after a fall in the earthly “World of Deceit” is found in Perets’ short story Bontshe Shvayg, *Chapter 4.1 where the exploited protagonist is rewarded in heaven.

The presentation of the motto of Someone Blew the Shofar: “Und das Sinken geschieht um des Steigens willen” (“The sinking occurs for the sake of the rising”) suggests that it is a quotation from the Zohar. The poem was written in 1945-1946. However, Nelly Sachs began to read the Zohar only in 1950. *Fioretos, Flucht und Verwandlung: Nelly Sachs, Schriftstellerin, Berlin/Stockholm 160. The literary historian Anne Heitschmidt *Heitschmidt, “‘Saiten die noch Tönen.’ Gertrud Kolmars Dialog mit der Bibel” 147-8 states that the motto is taken from a German anthology from the Zohar and reads as: “So steigt denn die eine Stimme hinauf und die andere herab, und davon erstarkt die Welt im Heile.” (“In this way, one voice ascends and the other descends, and by this the world is strengthened in salvation.”) *Der Sohar. Das heilige Buch der Kabbala, nach dem Urtext hg. von Ernst Müller (1932) 264. Quotation translated by KvH. Though the fundamental idea of this sentence is the same, the wording is very different. According to Heitschmidt, Nelly Sachs owned a copy of the Book of Zohar in the translation by Gershom Scholem, which contains the sentence “Und das Sinken geschieht um des Steigens willen” (“And the sinking occurs for the sake of the rising”); *Scholem, Die Geheimnisse der Schöpfung. Ein Kapitel aus dem Sohar (1935). Heitschmidt does not mention a page number. however, this sentence is found nowhere in the book.

It is, however, present in Martin Buber’s short story “Die Tröstung” in Die Erzählungen der Chassidim, *“Die Tröstung.” Die Erzählungen der Chassidim 289. English title: “Words of Comfort.” Tales of the Hasidim 173. The story and the motto are absent in Buber’s Hundert chassidische Geschichten (“Hundred Ḥasidic Tales”), which were released in 1930 and which Sachs could have read before 1947 which was released in 1949, two years after the poem was published. The ẓaddik in this very short story consoles his disciples, who have fallen prey to depression. He urges them not be distressed at the seeming death which has come upon them:

“For everything that is in the world, is also in the human being. And just as on Rosh Hashanah life ceases on all the stars and they sink into a deep sleep, in which they are strengthened, and from which they awake with a new power of shining, so those people who truly desire to come close to God, must pass through the state of cessation of spiritual life, and ‘the falling is for the sake of the rising.’”

A footnote to “The Tröstung” states that the source of the quotation is not the Zohar, but the Talmud. Talmud Makkoth 7b discusses the “down-to-earth” problem of the rung of a ladder giving way, as a result of which someone comes down and kills another person. Rabbi Abbahu says: “Was the death to be considered [a result] of an upward or a downward movement?” to which Rabbi Johanan replies: “You have indeed laid your finger on [an accident resulting from] a downward motion as a prerequisite of an upward movement.” Daniel Matt, translator and editor of the Pritzker Edition of the Zohar, states: “I don’t think this [Sachs’ motto] appears as such literally in the Zohar, but the basic idea is found often. For example, Abraham had to descend to Egypt (which symbolizes encountering the dark side) in order to be fulfilled spiritually.” *Matt, e-mail to the author, July 29, 2013. This idea is found in the Zohar, Parashat Lekh Lekha, as a comment on Gen. 12 about God’s command and promise to Abram. Before he could become the “share of the blessed Holy One,” Abram had to go down to Egypt to be refined. “Similarly with his children, when the blessed Holy One wanted to make them a unique and perfect people, to draw them close to Him: If they had not first gone down to Egypt and been refined there, they would not have become His unique nation.” *The Zohar, Parashat Lekh Lekha. Pritzker Edition, Vol. 2 28. Note 205 adds: “Through withstanding the power and temptation of the demonic powers symbolized by Egypt, Abraham was refined.” Whatever the actual source of Sachs’ motto, the fundamental idea is in harmony with the Zohar.


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