The Breath of Life
Rabbi Shlomo Schachter is a shaliach of the Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Institute serving as the Associate Rabbi of Congregation Schara Tzedeck in Vancouver, Canada
As a general rule of thumb in Judaism, the more important something is to us, the more rules we have about it. Shabbat, for example, is the archetype of holiness in time and a central pillar of Jewish practice. We have an entire tractate of Talmud dedicated to the laws of Shabbat, going into great detail about what is obligatory, what is permitted and what is prohibited. We even have another whole tractate on Eruvin, a Rabbinic enactment aimed to facilitate community by allowing us to carry… on Shabbat. Food is heavily regulated with complex laws about what foods are and are not kosher, what blessing to say before and after and how to conduct oneself during a meal. Accordingly our sages say (Brachot 55a) that today, a person’s table brings atonement like the sacrificial order did when we had a Temple. Sexuality is regarded as a sacrament, with the Cherubim in the Holy of Holies depicting angels in a lovers’ embrace. Consequently there are ‘family purity’ laws which govern marital intimacy. Business, agriculture, clothing, the list goes on. Even the most seemingly trivial elements of life such as how to conduct oneself in the washroom and how to put on your shoes have rules. Having more laws about something draws our attention to it more closely and invites us to approach it with more intentionality. Halakha (Jewish law) thereby allows us to engage even the most mundane, normative and “non-religious” aspects of life in a mindful and Holy way, thus elevating everyday occurrences by filling our actions with mitzvot.
Ok, then what about breathing? Breathing is the most mundane, common and unremarkable thing we do, and yet it’s absolutely essential to life. We each take approximately 20,000 breaths a day without thinking about it. Wouldn’t it make sense for the Torah to draw our attention to our breathing as a way of connecting to Hashem? Is not all breath a gift from The Creator? Wouldn’t an injunction to conscious breathing be an essential ingredient in cultivating spiritual consciousness? Across the world, devotees of nearly all spiritual traditions emphasize conscious breathing as an essential practice. Conceptually, there is clearly a connection between breathing and spirituality. In fact, almost all of our words for spiritual matters are breath related. The very word spirituality comes from spirit – breath, like respiration.
In Hebrew the innate connection between breath and spirituality is even more pronounced. The three words which the Torah uses that are usually translated as ‘soul’: ruach, neshama and nefesh, are all words about breath. Neshama comes from נשימה (neshima) which quite literally means breath, and more specifically to draw breath in. נפש (nefesh) is closely related to the verb לנשוף which means to exhale. Ruach can be translated as wind or spirit, but is most often used to mean breath as in (Genesis 7:15) “They came to Noah to enter the ark, two by two of every creature which had in it the breath of life”. Ruach also used to describe being filled with the Spirit of God, as in when Pharoah meets Joseph and proclaims (Genesis 41:38) “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” or (Numbers 27:18) “Joshua ben Nun, a man in whom there is spirit”.
It is not accidental that breath is associated both with human respiration and the Divine presence. Looking back at the creation of Adam, we find (Genesis 2:7) “The LORD God formed Adam of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living creature”. More on this verse later, but for the moment suffice it to say that the very act of breathing inherently connects us to God. The mystical tradition takes this verse a step further, such as when the Ramban wrote, “The One who blew, blew some of his own essence”. Meaning, the spirit which was blown into Adam was not only the breath of life, it was also God’s Divine Spirit which is now permanently invested into each person. Our neshama – the part of us which breathes – is a spark of Godliness.
This makes a lot of sense on an intuitive level. Just as we always keep breathing whether we are conscious of it or not, so too God is always with us, whether we are conscious of it or not. Even if we were to consciously choose to not breathe for a time, eventually we would lose consciousness, and our soul’s innate will to live would take over and we’d breathe again, even against our conscious will. This is analogous to the statement of our Sages that (Pirkei Avot 4:22) “Involuntarily you were created, involuntarily you were born, involuntarily you live…” The ‘choice’ to breathe and to live is not being made by our conscious mind, it is our neshama, embedded within us by God, and like God, even when we neglect it, it continues to be there for us whether we like it or not.
Just because we can’t control our neshama doesn’t mean we can’t be active participants with it. The more attention we invest in our breathing, the more meaningful it becomes. Noticing one’s breath is the cornerstone of nearly all meditative practices. Becoming conscious of our breath merely requires actively directing our mind to it. It is an act of mindfulness, and effectively places us in the presence of God, recognizing each breath as a summons to life from the Divine. In his book Jewish Meditation, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan z”l describes a basic meditation in which Hashem’s Holy Name is spelled out in each breath. י Yod is a single point, potential without any expansion – the empty lungs between breaths. ה Heh is the expansion of the in-breath, bringing potential into actualization. ו Vav is the distribution of breath within the body and the exchange of gasses in the bloodstream. ה Heh is the contraction of the outbreath, giving vitality back to the world. With this meditation we fulfill the familiar verse, (Psalm 150:6) כל הנשמה תהלל י-ה, “All souls praise Hashem, Haleluyah!” However, with this understanding we can now translate it as “every breath praises Hashem” or “the entire breath praises Hashem, Haleluyah”.
All of this only further reinforces the question: If being conscious of our breath is so foundational to spirituality, why don’t we have rules and rituals about breathing?
The first level answer is that rabbinic jurisprudence has a principle that “we don’t make a rule which the community cannot abide by”. Breathing is so autonomic that making rules about when to breathe and when not to breathe would likely only serve to instill needless guilt among those of us who fail to live up to whatever standard was set. We Jews have plenty of guilt already without being told that we’re breathing wrong. That being said, there are a handful of instances when we do in fact have customs regarding breath. One well known example is that when reading the megillah on Purim we customarily read the names of all 10 of Haman’s sons in one breath. Similarly, in the Yishtabach prayer there are 15 articulations of praise, and it is customary to recite them all in a single breath. Neither of these customs are ‘rules’ per say, but they are instances in which our attention is being purposefully drawn to our breath. These two however are when not to breathe, and neither is of any halakhic significance.
To the extent of my knowledge, there is but a single instance in all of halakha that specifically mandates taking a breath (according to Ashkenazi tradition). This singular moment of conscious intentional breath is during the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The Shulchan Aruch, the most authoritative code of halakha, reads as follows (Orech Chayim 590:5): “The 3 shevarim must all be done in a single breath, but the shevarim and terua, there are those (Ashkenazim) that say that they must be done in two breaths so long as there is no delay except to breathe…”
The Rema, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, who is the Ashkenazi editor of the Shulchan Aruch, adds, “And our tradition is to do it always in two breaths, and one must not deviate from it.” The following paragraph states: “If one blew Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah all in one breath, they have still fulfilled their obligation, but some (again, Ashkenazim) say you have not”. Anyone who has blown the shofar before knows that it is not difficult to blow the shevarim-teruah in a single breath, and even the Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah can also be done all in one breath without difficulty. We see clearly from both of these halakhot, that (at least for Ashkenazim) breathing during shofar blowing is not out of practical necessity, but is both mandatory and an essential part of the performance of this mitzvah.
Ok, why is this breath different from all other breaths? Why on Rosh Hashanah, and why during shofar blowing specifically is the halakha instructing us to intentionally breathe? Is there some inherent symbolic connection between hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and breathing?
Yes indeed there is!
The Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 29:1) tells us that the creation of the world began on the 25th of the month of Elul. As such, the first of Tishrei, the the day we now know as Rosh Hashanah is actually the anniversary of the sixth day of creation. The sixth day is when Adam and Eve were created, the day on which they sinned by eating the forbidden fruit and were judged by God. In our Rosh Hashanah rituals we reenact that fateful day of creation. We eat apples (this time with honey), Stand before Hashem to be judged and hearing the shofar. So what then is the shofar blowing reenacting?
Remember that verse we looked at earlier about Hashem blowing the breath of life into the dust of the Earth, imbuing the Holy spirit within him and bringing Adam to life as a living soul? The Sfat Emet, Shem MiShmuel and several other Chassidic masters all understand the moment of the shofar blowing to be not a mere reenactment of the investment of the Divine spirit into Adam, but rather the very moment when Hashem renews our souls for the coming year.
If indeed this is the moment in which Hashem blows our souls into us, how perfectly fitting that this is the one and only time in which there is a specific halakhic injunction to consciously breathe! We receive our soul anew and are essentially re-created every year on Rosh Hashanah. By the Torah mandating that the shofar blower breathe at just the right moments, he essentially serves as the conduit for God’s Holy Spirit to come into each of us through the shofar. While it’s true that the halakha only specifically mandates that the one actually blowing the shofar must breathe between the various intonations, nevertheless it is an incredible opportunity for us all to be aware of our breath as we literally inhale Godliness.
The word Tekiah comes from the root תקע which means to “insert”, like a tent peg ‘driven in’ to the ground. The Tekiah then is the moment of being breathed into by Hashem, our souls perfectly unified with the Source of Life and yet fully invested in our earthly bodies. The Shevarim and Teruah sounds are different ways to mimic human crying (which is always done in an outbreath) and symbolize the suffering the world endures because we are alienated from Hashem and our own Godly souls. Then we always return to the Tekiah, breathing in, reconnecting to our souls and returning to Hashem.
The shofar blowing, as the one and only moment of commanded intentional breathing, assures us that throughout the entire coming year, Hashem will never be further from us than our own breath.
This article was written as part of the “Journeys” series for Tishrei 5782