Have you sensed it yet? That chill in the air signaling the changing of the seasons?

Each year, I marvel at the timeliness of the Jewish holidays, how each is placed exactly at the time of year when the seasons begin to turn, when the summer moon is at her brightest, or the winter at her darkest. In this moment, right now, the crispness of autumn has begun to cool the air in a foretaste of winter.

In this moment of change, I am beset by questions. The foremost on my mind is this: what is the meaning of the timely and oft-quoted concept “HaMelekh b’Sadeh”, The King is in the Field? I hear this notion bandied about all through the weeks leading up to Rosh HaShanah, but it is not an idea that makes perfect sense on the face of it. For the life of me, it has been an idea that has puzzled me for years.

In essence, this allegory seeks to describe how the King of the Universe, namely G!d, is closer to creation, and especially to the Jewish People, at this time of year. The metaphor is usually understood this way: Instead of being found in his palace, where he normally dwells behind high walls and armed guards, in this time of year the king chooses to make his way out into the countryside, where the common people are able to glimpse him, perhaps even greet him, and make requests of him. The King is closer, more accessible, now than during the rest of the year.

Yet, if we probe this notion a bit, the concept seems to fall apart. Is it not so that G!d is always near to us, even perhaps closer than we realize?

The divine is in our blood, our breath, our brain.

In the Torah, we learn that life is in the blood. Our blood powers our bodies to move, sense, and interact with the world around us. It is that same living pomegranate-colored fluid which carries platelets and plasma, nutrients and waste, oxygen and carbon-dioxide all around the body, and without which we cannot survive for even an instant.

In Jewish philosophy, G!d blew the breath of life into the first humans’ nostrils. This is the same breath that symbolizes the soul, a spark of godliness, that powers our physical battery. It is the same breath that powers the blast of the Shofar, which we just heard at the climax of the Neilah service, mere moments before the gates of Yom Kippur eased shut. It is the same breath one must inspire constantly in order to remain on this side of eternity. Without the renewing breath, we can exist for only minutes.

Our intellect, teaches our rabbis, was G!d given. The ability to reason, think, determine, decide, is a divine faculty, a very spark of that divinity. Our words, says Mishlei, are a creation of mankind but our eloquence comes from HaShem.

My sense is that God is not any closer to us, or to creation for that matter, at this time of year than any other time of year. In fact, there is a concept that if G!d removed His presence from any part of creation, that thing would immediately cease to exist.

How much closer could a creator be to us when He is already present in each cell, each heartbeat, each thought, each breath? Can G!d be closer to us than this?

An answer comes to us in the form of the letter Shin.

If we explore the name, form, and symbolism of this penultimate Hebrew letter, we will discover a plethora of approaches to comprehending the potency of this King in the Field metaphor, as well as techniques to use our senses to tap into the limitless potential of this special time of year.

The Shin

A modern Sefardi ‘Stam’ script, from Ada Yardeni, The Book of Hebrew Script

Shin (also the letter Sin when punctuated differently) is a three branched letter standing on a flat base (or pointed or rounded, depending on the scribal tradition). It is the twenty-first letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet. It is worth 300 according to its numerical equivalent.

Let us explore the form, meaning, and name of this letter to see what insights Shin can give us to help us understand the paradox before us.

Letter Form

The form of the Shin is rather like a Rorschach test: open wide to interpretation and reflective of the viewer’s perceptions. According to our Masorah, our tradition, the essence of the Shin is that of a flame (Ginsburgh 310), a flickering flame with three heads. This would make the Shin into a letter of fire.

Personally, when I look at the Shin, I see an orchid plant, or an acacia tree, reaching heavenward. It reminds me of the Bonsai trees that my great-grandmother trained. She taught me that a bonsai must have three main branches in a cascade of three different heights, symbolizing Heaven, Man, and Earth. The Shin also reminds me of a praying man, his head the central branch and his arms trained heavenward in supplication or in praise.

Orchid plant with Shin-like leaves, AI art generated by the author

Another interpretation: the Shin is a crown. No less than the divine crown of the King of Kings.

Letter Names: Shin

I have shared four potential shapes of the Shin, and now I share eight meanings: Shin literally means ‘shen’, or tooth. The ancient proto-Hebrew form of this letter does, in fact, look quite like two rounded front teeth. Shin also means ‘to sharpen’, ‘scarlet’, ‘ to teach’. Shin means its own opposite: both ‘to not change’ and ‘to change’. Shin means ‘year’. Shin embodies Shuvah, ‘to return’, the central concept of this period of the year, in which we seek to return to the proper path.

Letter Meanings

Clearly, this letter is complex, multilayered, fascinating. You or I could easily write a book on the subject of Shin alone. But the clock on my wall ticks away the hours, and I have only a short time before I must move on to the next task at hand. For the sake of time, I will focus on just one (alright, five!) aspects of the letter Shin, how it relates to the King metaphor, and then, with HaShem’s help, return to this subject in future.

Shin as a Letter of the Senses

It seems to me that Shin is a letter of the senses. Alongside the normal five senses that are commonly cited (taste, smell, vision, touch, hearing), we have a huge range of others: balance, locomotion, orientation, navigation, audiovisual speech perception, multisensory perception, sensory deprivation, chemosensory interactions, and more (See the fascinating book by Bremner et al, Multisensory Development). But for the sake of simplicity, we will concern ourselves with the five, and how our letter relates to these.

Shin, the tooth, represents our sense of taste, as it is through the tooth we are able to take all sorts of nutrients into our bodies. Our teeth, Shenayim, have the ability to grind up food and macerate food so that we can taste and enjoy it and gain energy from it. This sense is also connected to olfaction, our sense of smell, since taste and smell are woven senses.

As Shin literally means ‘red’, the letter is therefore also connected to the sense of sight. (And, if you are a cook, you will know that the role of the visual (color) cues have an effect on our perception of taste and flavor!)

Shin means sharpen. This is touch – if we interpret it literally. Metaphorically, of course, we could be sharpening something other than a blade: our intellect through learning, or our wit, or our tongue through oration or practicing positive speech.

Now, about hearing. I think that the name of Shin meaning ‘change’ fits well here. As does the name that means ‘year’. Can we hear change? Can we hear year? Absolutely.

Matter changes through many means. Our world is in a constant state of change, being that change itself is the only constant.

Let us think of autumnal sounds.

The falling of leaves and their rustling across the earth marks change. The wind. The falling of rain. The crackle and pop of a warming fire at the hearth. These are all changing sounds, sounds that mark the changing of the year. The ocean waves shake up the shore and bring nutrients to the surface for the ocean-going creatures…this, too, is a shushing sound of change. Tides mark the changing position of the moon, which herself marks the changing month within the year.

What other changes can you hear?

Autumn by the Sea, AI artwork generated by the author

In truth, the notion that our senses are separate from each other is rather silly. They all work together with our intellect to give us as much information as possible about the world around us, and how we might respond to the state of the world before us.

The Shin teaches this: our senses are all rooted together, branching out in sensitivity.

At this point, I should quote a network of biblical passages to support these concepts, but time is short so I will only choose one source. However, dear reader, please consider these questions and share your thoughts in the comments below, including any verses that come to mind.

There is a large Shin, called a Shin Rabbati, in the Torah. It is writ larger than all the surrounding letters, and it appears as the first letter in the first word of the book Shir haShirim: Song of Songs.

Shir HaShirim / Song of Songs 1:1-4

שִׁ֥יר הַשִּׁירִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לִשְׁלֹמֹֽה׃

יִשָּׁקֵ֙נִי֙ מִנְּשִׁיק֣וֹת פִּ֔יהוּ כִּֽי־טוֹבִ֥ים דֹּדֶ֖יךָ מִיָּֽיִן׃

לְרֵ֙יחַ֙ שְׁמָנֶ֣יךָ טוֹבִ֔ים שֶׁ֖מֶן תּוּרַ֣ק שְׁמֶ֑ךָ עַל־כֵּ֖ן עֲלָמ֥וֹת אֲהֵבֽוּךָ׃

מׇשְׁכֵ֖נִי אַחֲרֶ֣יךָ נָּר֑וּצָה הֱבִיאַ֨נִי הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ חֲדָרָ֗יו נָגִ֤ילָה וְנִשְׂמְחָה֙ בָּ֔ךְ נַזְכִּ֤ירָה דֹדֶ֙יךָ֙ מִיַּ֔יִן מֵישָׁרִ֖ים אֲהֵבֽוּךָ׃ {פ}

(1) The Song of Songs, by Solomon.
(2) “Oh, give me of the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is more delightful than wine.
(3) Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance,
Your name is like finest oil—
Therefore do maidens love you.
(4) Draw me after you, let us run!
The king has brought me to his chambers.”
“Let us delight and rejoice in your love—”
“Savoring more than wine—Like new wine they love you!”



Shir haShirim illustrated scroll, artwork by Shem Tov ben Shlomo

Rabbi Akiva teaches that the letter Shin is here large because of all the sacred books in our biblical library, Shir HaShirim is the holiest. There are many ways to parse this. In our case, I would say that Shir HaShirim is a lovesong, a duet, between two lovers which is interpreted rabbinically as a duet between G!d and Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).

However you choose to look at it, literally or metaphorically, it is clear that Shir HaShirim is a lovesong which incorporates and heightens every human sense into a spontaneous, effortless, multisensory, slow motion explosion of gently mellifluous amorous imagery. Read it, and see.

This world is a world of the senses. We, as post-scientific revolution twenty-first century thinkers, have been trained to believe that what we see, feel, hear, taste, touch is the only truth. For a person of faith, this is not true, as we accept that there are divine forces beyond our sensory perceptions. And because the next world can only be perceived by spiritual senses. But that is a topic for another time.

In this world, teaches the Shin of Shir HaShirim, when we employ our physical senses appropriately, for dvar she’beKedushah (sacred reasons), such as becoming a loving partner in a marriage of equals, we achieve the serenity of Eden.

And yet, not all in life is beauty. Pain is real, and so are terror and evil. These things, very sadly, are also sensed by ourselves on a daily basis, connected as we are to the world around us more immediately through modern technology than any human beings to have ever lived before us in history.

Tuning In

To conclude, the reason the King seems closer at this time of year, I think, is because our senses are more attuned to His royal presence in this season than any other. Like a radio station that is always broadcasting, but has no listeners until people tune their dials to that wavelength, such is the King during the Days of Awe.

The music of the divine is always available to anyone who tunes themselves in. But at this time of the changing of the year, it is easier to remember to do so, easier to access, especially because we do so as a member of a larger group. When we stand in schul (synagogue), it is like we are a group of people huddled around a single radio, sensitively turning the dials to find the right station to tap into the King’s broadcast.

Or, to use a more contemporary example, like a crowd in an museum exhibit, each holding up his or her smart phone to the QR code on the wall (hold it still! hold it still!) to tune in to the voice of the Curator. Or, imagine a concert in an outdoor amphitheater whose audio is streamed over the wifi: each audience member is waving their phone, searching for that elusive wifi signal so that the group can all reconnect to, and hear, the streaming audio of the Concert for which they have all gathered.

Tuning in to the radio broadcast, or getting on the divine wifi, if you will, though, is only the first step. Actually, tuning in to the signal is two-way: it is more like being in a radio recording booth or being a guest on a podcast.

Once you’re on the air, what will you say to the ear that listens? What to ask for, for oneself, and what to ask for, for others? (Or should we reverse that order?)

We have a past precedent. One final pair of interpretations to take with you: The three branches of the Shin correspond to the three patriarchs: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaacov.

Guess what? Sometimes, the Shin is writ with four branches. Yes, four. On the outside of the box of tefillin. In that case, the four-branched Shin corresponds to the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, Leah.

Four Branched Shin, on Tefillin

We stand here on this first day of the rest of the New Year, the day immediately after Yom Kippur, when, we believe, G!d has wiped clean our collective slate. What we choose to write upon it from this point on, how we choose to employ our senses, whether we speak or listen, eat or abstain, laugh or leer, shout or sing, tenderly touch or gouge, peer with a covetous, intolerant, wicked eye or a kind and forgiving and good eye, these are all choices that are entirely up to us.

The Shin is Shalom, peace. The Shin is Sheker, lies. The Shin is the spiritual shape of those who came before, the very founders of our faith, their prayers and, more vitally, our physical and genetic forebears. The Shin is the Shanah (the year), it is change, it is serenity, it is motion, it is stagnation, it is growth. The Shin is as changeful as a flame. It is as regal as a crown.

May the multisensory adventure that this autumn brings be a good and a sweet and a healthy one. May it be a year of peace, which brings only happy and easy and nourishing changes.

When it comes to ill, May the King of Kings break the teeth of evil with His staff of fiery coals three times over and remove evildoers from this and every world.

May we see only crimsons of pomegranate seeds and of bright flower petals and of fall leaves.

May we learn something new every day.

May we listen more than we speak.

May the tripartite Shin, which as Rebbi Akivah teaches correspond to the spirit, soul, and body (רוח, נשמה, וגוף) upon which each and every person is dependent, be nourished by three rivers of boundless brachot.

May we all tune in to that still, small, voice of our King on the radio,
not just in this time of heightened senses, but all the livelong year.


Shalom, Peace. Artwork by Ada Yardeni. From The Book of Hebrew Script.

Questions for Further Study:

  1. What do you think the letter Shin looks like? Does it, in fact, have to represent anything at all?
  2. Do you agree that the letter Shin represents all the senses? Why, or why not?
  3. The word Shin has a multiplicity of literal meanings: ‘tooth’, ‘scarlet’, ‘to sharpen’, ‘to teach’, ‘to not change’ ‘to change’, ‘year’. Of these meanings, how many biblical sources or quotes can you find? Share the chapter, verse, and your thoughts on each of them in your comment below. Make sure to share the Hebrew as well as the English versions of the text.
  4. Can you uncover other meanings of the letter Shin? Look to the books about the Hebrew Letters cited in the sources section below, or search for yourself. (See also the list of Study Sources from the dropdown menu of Masorah Library in the header of this website, above.)
  5. Did you know that certain letters of the Torah are written larger than all the others? Devorah gave one reason for why the Shin at the beginning of Shir HaShirim/Song of Songs is written larger, quoting Rabbi Akiva.
    – What other reasons can you think of for why this letter is so much larger?
    – If you are interested in finding the commentaries of other Jewish thinkers throughout history, where can you look? (Hint: look up commentaries to the Song of Songs, verse 1:1)
    Extra Credit:
    – Who was Rabbi Akiva, when and where did he live, and what else did he teach about the letter Shin?
    EXTRA EXTRA Credit:
    – What is a Petuha (indicated by a Pei at the end of the fourth verse of Shir HaShirim) and why is it here?
  6. Devorah mentioned that there is a perspective that the letter Shin represents Shuvah, the process of repentance. Based on the insights and evidence presented in this article, do you find this claim convincing? If so, why? If not, why not, and what do you think Shuvah, or Teshuvah, truly is?
  7. The letter Shin is worth 300 in Gematria (numerical values of the Hebrew letters). If you spell out the word Shin, you get Shin + Yud + Nun.
    – What would this new total numerical value be?
    – What, if any, is the significance or meaning of this new value?
  8. What, do you think, is the numerical value of the four-branched Shin? In other words, is it different from the value of a three-branched Shin?
Autumn Leaf Shin. AI Artwork generated by the author.


Bremner, Andrew J., et al. Multisensory Development. 1st ed., Oxford University Press, 2012.

Ginzburg, Yitsḥaḳ, et al. The Hebrew Letters : Channels of Creative Consciousness. Gal Einai, 1990. 309-322.

Jewish Publication Society of America. Tanakh : a New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to the Traditional Hebrew Text. 1st ed., Jewish Publication Society, 1985.

Munk, Michael L. The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet : the Sacred Letters as a Guide to Jewish Deed and Thought. 1st ed., Mesorah Publications, 1983. 207-213.

Raskin, Aaron L. Shin (Sin): The twenty-first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Chabad.org. Accessed Sep 26, 2023. <https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/137093/jewish/Shin-Sin.htm#Meaning&gt;.

Ron, Zvi. Ḳaṭan ṿe-gadol : otsar perushim ʻal ha-otiyot ha-ḳeṭanot ṿeha-gedolot ba-Tanakh. Ts. Ron, 2006. (The Book of Small and Large: commentaries on the small and large letters in the Hebrew Bible. Hebrew.) 257-260.

The Aleph Beit of Rebbi Akiva, Part Two. Yeshiva Beth Moshe Edition. Translated by Yaacov Dovid Shulman. Power Sefer Press, 5778/2018. 28-31.

Yardeni, Ada. The Book of Hebrew Script : History, Palaeography, Script Styles, Calligraphy & Design. The British Library ; Oak Knoll Press, 2002.