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Yawning and Beginning

There’s one thing that all of us do several times a day. We do it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. It’s so infectious that when we see other’s doing it we immediately start doing it ourselves. All vertebrates do it, even birds and fish. We all yawn.

We yawn not only when we’re tired but also when we’re bored or hungry and before competing in sports. And, as this clip illustrates, we yawn (and present other physiological symptoms of tiredness) before performing on stage.

But why do we yawn and why is yawning so contagious?

No one really knows. Recent research has shown that yawning does not significantly increase oxygen levels in the blood or blood flow to the brain, as scientists thought previously. One current theory is that yawning resets the brain and prepares it to shift from one state to another. According to this theory, the evolutionary advantage of collective yawning may be that it enables group members to reset simultaneously and prepare together for a new activity.

(By the way, if you yawned in the last few minutes, it’s not because I’m boring you but because reading about yawning is enough to infect you – and that’s a scientific fact!)

So what does all this have to do with the start of a new year? Maimonides gives us a clue in his Laws of Repentance, Chapter 3, Law 4:

Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a decree, it contains an allusion. It is as if [the shofar's call] is saying: Wake up sleepy ones from your sleep! And arise, all who slumber! Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator!

In other words, the shofar is a kind of alarm clock that readies us to shift gears, prepare for change and reorganize our priorities.

In the year ahead, may we wake up, yawn, and infect one another with the will and strength to do good.

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