How our body’s reaction to hearing the shofar’s blast
primes us for real change…
Each day of Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue services are punctuated by 100 calls from the shofar, a ram’s horn that reverberates with a distinctive, alarm-like cry. The shofar’s rousing blast speaks to us more intensely than words ever could. It’s a personal call to each of us to “wake up” and use the opportunity for change that Rosh Hashanah offers us.
Modern science has documented the human body’s physical responses to loud, resonant sounds such as the shofar blast. Sometimes called the “fight or flight” response, the physical changes we undergo when confronted with sudden, urgent alarms help us deal with immediate threats.
During Rosh Hashanah, these changes can help us see the world differently, giving us a different perspective and helping us identify areas in which we need to grow.
Sharpening Our Senses
When we’re startled, the hypothalamus in our brain immediately starts producing hormones, altering our physiological state. One of the first is Neuropeptide-S, a small protein that makes us more alert. It decreases our need for sleep, and sharpens our alertness and feelings of energy.
Our brains also send a signal to our adrenal glands to start releasing adrenaline and norepinephrine, two hormones that increase our heart and breathing rates and sharpen our sense of concentration. In a matter of seconds, we’re transformed into a new state of alertness, able to see dangers and details we overlooked before.
On Rosh Hashanah, these moments are invaluable. The energy we gain as we hear the shofar’s loud blasts gives us – for a moment –
a new, sharper state of consciousness, and a different way of looking at the world.
Another effect of sudden stress is simplification in our thought processes. When we’re startled, our brains release catecholamines, neurotransmitters which stimulate a part of our brain called the amygdale, a center that relies on emotional – rather than purely rational – thought.
This shift helps us to not overload on details or become bogged down as we make decisions. It’s the part of our fight-or-flight response that helps us decide to “run!” in times of danger. It can also give us the clarity to see our behavior clearly, without the rationalization that’s part of more nuanced, everyday thought.
Thinking with our amygdale in the moments after the shofar’s blasts helps us see ourselves more honestly, and perceive our behavior as it really is, good or bad, without rationalizations.
It can give us the courage to admit our shortcomings and the clarity to know what to do in the future.
Turning on Our Long-term Memory Switch
At the same time as our amygdale is stimulated, our brain’s nearby hippocampus, the region that stores long-term memories, is also activated. It helps make sure we don’t waste these moments and that we learn from the stress we’ve just experienced.
This means that anything we’re about to experience in our newly heightened state will make a lasting imprint on us, remaining lodged in our memories longer than ordinary experiences. This helps to ensure that our Rosh Hashanah resolutions have a more lasting impact. All our thoughts, emotions, resolutions and decisions to change – will all become a deep part of us, lodged in our long-term memory.
When we hear the loud shofar blasts, our brains become more sensitive. Knowing this can help make sure that we use these precious moments to embed positive messages and resolutions deep within our memories, from where we can draw them all year long to ensure that we live on a higher standard throughout the coming year.
Sending the Brain into High Gear
More generally, our overall brain activity increases during times of stress. The brain’s nerve cells receive more messages than normal, thus increasing its level of functioning so we can process much more information than we can during less intense moments.
The period when we hear the shofar’s call is very brief. Yet if we let it, it can stimulate us to think more deeply and make more lasting decisions than we’re accustomed to. Judaism teaches that it is possible to make even major decisions and change our lives in a single instant. The extra capacity we have for thought and mental activity during the period of shofar blowing makes change more possible.
As we listen to the urgent, loud sounds of the shofar, our bodies are perfectly calibrated to react to this loud, insistent call by giving us greater energy and focus. Let’s use it to analyze our past deeds and resolve to grow in the coming year.
Yvette Alt Miller is an author and a speaker. She has lectured internationally on Jewish topics. Her book ‘Angels at the table: a Practical Guide to Celebrating Shabbat’ takes readers through the rituals of Shabbat and more, explaining the full beautiful spectrum of Jewish traditions with warmth and humor.