“The azan is one of Islam's oldest customs,” says Najeh Bqerat, director of the manuscript department of the Al-Aqsa library, and one Mohammed reportedly adopted to avoid using the shofar or the bell. One of his followers came up with the azan in a dream, and the text was taught to Bilal, the first muezzin.
“The melodies of the azan differ regionally,” Dr. Bqerat says, although he also insists that its wording “has never changed and is identical everywhere,” which seems to reflect wishful thinking more than reality. Shiites have added two sentences to theirs that Sunni Muslims consider a sacrilege – the central bone of contention between the two.
Sound also betrays the divisions in Jewish society. For example, some young members of the ultra-Orthodox community can be heard before they are seen. Their vans are equipped with huge loudspeakers that emit a unique blend of hip hop and Hassidic music. They also irritate other drivers because, at every red light, ecstatic youth leap into the intersection and demonstrate how much fun it is to be devout with a brief dancing frenzy.
Jews also differ over how best to inaugurate the Sabbath. For millennia, the occasion has been marked by blowing the shofar or a trumpet to remind men to stop working and women to light candles. In largely secular Tel Aviv, this task was traditionally done by volunteers or trumpeters paid by the rabbinate until September, 1938, when they were replaced by the blare of air-raid sirens.
In the early 1950s, however, so many residents had been traumatized by war that the rabbis hired cab drivers to cruise around and honk their horns instead.
Now 84, Moshe Bendet still has the large board he used to place on the roof of his Coronado to show when the Sabbath was to begin. His divine mission lasted 20 years and he recalls it as “real fun – the women would run to the balconies to know when to light their candles.”
Eight other drivers performed this job until, in 1992, the left-wing government of Yitzhak Rabin ruled that cars could honk only to indicate danger, thus launching a culture war between those eager to begin the Sabbath with a bang and those who want a day of rest to begin quietly.
Just this week, citizen protests silenced the Belz Synagogue in central Tel Aviv, which several months ago began marking the occasion with a brief blast of a 16th-century Sabbath song from its rooftop speakers. Elsewhere in the city, clandestine “patrol cars” still cruise the street with the same song blaring.
As extremists on all sides try to drown each other out, others see the battle to dominate the soundscape of the Holy Land as little more than background noise.
“I never had a problem with Jews or Christians,” says Firas Qazaz, the soft-spoken muezzin. He admits that some of his colleagues “actually sing horribly off-key,” would not object if azans were regulated and says he quite likes both the shofar's lament and the clear sound of church bells.
All of which will be clearly audible throughout the holiday season because, fearing an emotional backlash and international opprobrium, the government has shelved Anastasia Michaeli's controversial bill for at least the next two weeks.
Gil Yaron is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv.