Yoma 20

Human microphone.

Today’s daf takes us into the world before sound systems. How could attendees at a lecture hear the speaker? How were crowds coordinated without megaphones? 

The Talmud relates an instance in which Rav Sheila was giving a lecture but there was no disseminator on hand to relay his teaching to the public. According to Rashi, the role of a disseminator is to listen to a teacher speak quietly in Hebrew and then loudly translate his words into the vernacular for all to hear — a human microphone, with added translation benefits. 

The downside, of course, is that the human microphone has opinions. This is where the daf gets meta, because Rav Sheila and the human microphone (who turns out to be Rav) wind up debating the meaning of the term keriat hagever, which the mishnah tells us was the alarm clock of the Temple, the indicator of the proper time for the priests to remove the ashes of offerings from the altar. Was the time keeper a rooster or a human? 

Naturally, Rav, the man acting as a human microphone, thinks that the Temple’s alarm clock was human too. In a beraita cited in support of Rav’s opinion, the Talmud even gives that human a name: Gevinei the Crier. 

What did Gevini the Crier, who was an appointee in the Temple, say in his proclamation? Arise, priests, to your service, and Levites to your platform, and Israelites to your non-priestly watch. And the Gemara relates: His voice was so strong that it could be heard at a distance of three parasangs (slightly more than eight miles).

Gevini’s voice was so powerful that a passing king once heard his voice and was so impressed that he sent him gifts. But even Gevini was not the owner of the loudest voice of all. That distinction belonged to the high priest

And there already was an incident where the high priest recited, in his confession that accompanied the placing of hands on his bull on Yom Kippur: Please God, and his voice was heard in Jericho. And Rabba bar Hana said that Rabbi Yohanan said: The distance from Jerusalem to Jericho is ten parasangs. 

In a world before sound systems, there were systems of sound, systems by which people made themselves heard, whether by lifting their own voices or lifting the voices of others. 

There’s something lost when sound can be magnified at the turn of a dial. Rav suggests there’s something lost when sound is outsourced, even to a rooster. People rarely these days train their bodies and respiratory systems to fill up with a full-bodied, passionate sound. But there’s a unique capability to unfiltered human sound, filled not only with content, but resonances of purpose, responsibility, emotion — and holiness. 

Read all of Yoma 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 1st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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