Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Shofar of Theseus (Rosh Hashanah 27a-b)

The Mishnah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah considers the question of what constitutes a kosher shofar:

"A shofar that cracks and is put back together is not kosher. If one sticks together various broken shofar pieces to make a shofar, it is not kosher."

The first case refers to a shofar that is broken and then restored; the second case refers to a shofar made of the component parts of other shofarot. According to the mishnah, neither may be used in fulfilling the obligation of hearing the shofar blast.

The Gemara explores the ram-ifications of this ruling:

"If one adds on extra materials to put together the shofar, whether of the same type of material or a different type, it is not kosher. If one seals up a hole, whether with the same type of material or a different type, it is not kosher. Rabbi Natan says: With the same type of material it is kosher; with a different type of material, it is not.

With the same type of material it is kosher, says Rabbi Yochanan, in the case that the majority of the original shofar remains intact. And from these principles we can conclude that if it is put together with a different type of material, even though the majority may remain intact, it is not kosher.

Some apply this principle to the end of the statement [of Rabbi Natan]. With a different type of material it is not kosher, says Rabbi Yochanan, in the case that the majority no longer remains. And from these principles we can conclude that if it is put together with the same type of material, even if the majority no longer remains, it is kosher."

This mishnah calls to mind the ancient Greek paradox known as the Ship of Theseus, which deals with the question of whether an object which has had all its component parts replaced remains fundamentally the same object. Consider a ship that is comprised of wooden planks. One plank decays, and is replaced by a new plank. Then another plank decays, and it too is replaced. This process continues until none of the original planks remain. Is the vessel still the same ship?

This paradox was first recorded by Plutarch in the first century:

“The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”

In light of this philosophical paradox, we might refer to the shofar of our sugya as the Shofar of Theseus, since it, too, remains intact only by having its parts replaced (or at least re-assembled). When considered in this light, it becomes clear that this is a sugya about when things change and when they stay the same. When is a shofar still a kosher shofar, and when is it changed beyond recognition?

I find this an interesting way of formulating the question because the shofar, of course, is the instrument of change. We blast the shofar during the month of Elul and on the high holidays that follow so as to remind ourselves that the time of teshuva is upon us. We must mend our ways! This is the time to cast out all those parts of ourselves that we are better off without, and to replace them with smoother, shinier spares. How do we remain true to ourselves amidst this rigorous self-analysis and self-reconstitution? How do we, in spite of the many refrains of "we have sinned, we have sinned," view ourselves as more than just pieces of dust? To invoke the language of Humpty-Dumpty: When all the King's horses and all the King's men have examined our every inner chamber, how do we put ourselves back together again?

Perhaps the challenge of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is to be able to tear ourselves apart with our intense introspection, and yet nonetheless to remain whole. To remain true to ourselves even while changing ourselves. If this sounds like a paradox, at least it is not without philosophical (and prophetic!) precedent. From down in the bowels of Theseus' ship--from the belly of Sheol in whose depths we, like Yonah, are cast--may we learn to cry out to God in true prayer and may we be delivered.


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