It was a year ago in the hospital, sometime during the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when another nurse and I heard one of the more disturbing sounds we’d ever heard in the hospital coming from a patient’s room. It was like a strangled, low-pitched moaning, and we both went on instant and frightened alert.
On my floor all the rooms have glass windows set into the doors and we began cautiously peering into them as the haunted sound continued. The patient we saw through the first window was sitting comfortably in bed watching television. The second patient was clearly asleep and breathing normally. We moved to the third window in the row, expecting to see something unimaginably horrific and terrible—for what, short of a huge blood clot stuck in someone’s larynx, could cause such an inhuman sound?
We looked into the room together, and saw not a blue-faced patient struggling to breathe, but three men with big beards wearing white shirts, black hats and black suits. One of them was blowing on what looked like a ram’s horn. Quickly we realized that the ram’s horn was the source of the surprising sound.
To us, expecting to see an oxygen-starved patient possibly spitting blood (because that’s what my imagination conjured) and to see instead these three men, embracing the dress and customs of their century-old ancestors, was too much of a contrast. We both burst out laughing, and then hustled away as quickly as we could, hoping the Orthodox Jews who had come to share part of Rosh Hashanah with a hospitalized patient would not hear us.
There’s a large community of Orthodox Jews near where I live, and if you have cancer, we’re the hospital a lot of people come to. We’re close enough that Orthodox friends and family can walk to and from the hospital. It’s a long walk, but it means that Sabbath visits are possible for observant Jews who won’t drive on the day of rest.
Still, the ram’s horn that had caused the other nurse and I so much worry: what was that, I wondered. My husband is Jewish, but a self-described “Hebrew-school dropout;” he wouldn’t know from ram’s horns. So I asked another friend, one who’d served in the Israeli army.
“Oh, that’s a shofar,” he said, his tone implying “Everybody knows that.”
And it turns out the shofar isn’t that exotic, but in the context of the hospital, where anomalous sounds are always worrisome, the tones of this simple instrument, meant to herald the new year, were ominous.
The other nurse and I argued afterwards about what we thought the shofar had sounded like. She heard the moans of a sick cow, whereas I thought it sounded more like a cat stuck in the heating duct. It’s the nature of our work that odd sounds typically signal distress. When I told her later, “That ram’s horn is called a shofar,” she insisted that visitors should warn someone at the nurse’s station before playing such an unusual instrument.
This led to several jokes about hospitals needing to be shofar-free zones. However, knowing a little bit about Rosh Hashanah, what could be more appropriate than blowing a shofar on a cancer floor?
My understanding is that hearing the shofar wakes people up to the idea of judgment and to God’s sovereignty and power. According to tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the time when God decides which names will be written in the book of life for another year—who will live and who will die. Our patients are acutely aware that their fate is out of their hands, that they need all the help they can get to make it into that book. We offer them the most cutting-edge treatment available. But some patients will also find comfort in rams’ horns and their own time-worn traditions of religious community.
I think back on my surprise when I saw those three bearded black-hatted men trying to bring a little piece of their faith to our sterile hospital environment. I was so happy to see them, rather than a patient going through a physical ordeal horrible enough to make him produce such a sound.
Probably for the patient in the room, the shofar, an ancient instrument with years of accumulated cultural and spiritual meaning, sounded like hope. But there’s little space in the modern hospital for displays of faith. When one occurs so dramatically, and so audibly, the effect can be unnerving.
So when the other nurse and I laughed, we were expressing relief. We thought we’d look in the room and see a patient retching blood, but “Gottze dank, just three Mensches playing the Shofar,” transmitting a message we can all find meaningful. Here’s wishing all our patients another year in the Book of Life.