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    Blowing our own trumpet

    shofarThe shofar is the unique Jewish musical instrument. Its sound ricochets through the synagogue. It pierces the heart of the most blase. It awakens thoughts and emotions we thought we never had. It gives Rosh HaShanah an electrifying power.

    It is Judaism’s means of calling Jews back to their past, probing their present, and passionately yearning for their future.

    The shofar must come from a kosher animal, such as the sheep, goat or gazelle, but not from the cow, because of its association with the sin of the golden calf.

    The preferred animal is the sheep because the curved shape of the ram’s horn symbolises bending the will to the word of God. In addition, the ram recalls the binding of Isaac, the story read on the second day of the festival, with its lesson of eager obedience to and trust in God.

    A shofar must be at least four inches long and without holes. It must not be painted so as to change its colour, but it can be decorated with designs and Hebrew words; in some places the custom is to engrave the name of the individual or the community whose shofar it is.

    Blowing the shofar is chochmah v’einah m’lachah – “skill but not work”. It requires a special knack, because there is no mouthpiece to assist the production of the sound.


    In ancient times the shofar was sounded on many occasions other than Rosh HaShanah. It was used at coronations (“They blew the ram’s horn, and all the people said, ‘Long live King Solomon!'”). It was sounded as an alarm (“Shall the horn be blown in a city and the people not tremble?”).

    At the end of the 49-year cycle, it ushered in the jubilee year (“On the day of atonement shall you make proclamation with the horn throughout your land”).

    These were amongst the national occasions when its call was heard. In addition, it was part of the musical component of worship (“With trumpets and the sound of the horn, shout ye before the King, the Lord”). It ushered in the Revelation at Sinai (“All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the horn”).

    When the Messiah comes, the great shofar will sound; the dead will arise, the Divine presence will be manifest and the Temple will stand again on its hallowed site.

    The shofar was often used when an announcement needed to be made, something like the town crier with his bell, it would announce a death. It would proclaim an excommunication. It would announce the arrival of Shabbat.

    But only on Rosh HaShanah is the shofar a mitzvah, an indispensable religious obligation. Hence the festival is called in the Torah Yom T’ruah – “the Day of Blowing the Horn”).

    All the critics in a congregation automatically pretend to be great experts and pass judgment on how well – or badly – the Ba’al T’kiah has performed. It is like the folk saying that every Jew can sing better than the Chazan… except that today he has a cold!

    But to be a Ba’al T’kiah, whose sacred task it is to blow the shofar, is a grave responsibility. It is not only that his skill may make all the difference in arousing the penitence, prayer and charity of the congregation. The task requires unblemished piety, unquestioned integrity, and the deep learning to understand the mitzvah and its rules.

    No Baal T’kiah will ever boast of his expertise, because this Rosh HaShanah may be the one when nerves overtake him, or the shofar simply does not co-operate, or the spiritual ambience is just not right.

    Learning, integrity and piety are also required of the Makri, who prompts the Ba’al T’kiah by calling the shofar notes. This is also not a responsibility to be undertaken lightly. In Chassidism, it is often the greatest rabbis who act as Ba’al T’kiah or Makri, and much soul-searching takes place to ensure one has the correct kavvanot (intentions).

    Most traditional Jewish occupations have produced characteristic Jewish surnames, e.g. Rabbinowitz (from Rabbi), Chazan or Cantor, Shochet, Dayyan, etc. There is also a theory that Shapiro or Shapira derives from shofar; the alternative view derives it from the town of Spiers or Speyer in the Rhineland.


    The sounding of the shofar, like every other mitzvah, should be carried out as early as possible; the sages say, “When a mitzvah comes into your hand, let it not become stale,” and “Those who are eager, perform mitzvot early”.

    Why, then, do we not blow the shofar during Shacharit but only after the Torah reading and during Musaf?

    The Talmud states that Shacharit was, in fact, originally the time for the shofar, but the Romans posted sentries in the synagogues to ensure that the shofar would not be sounded. Not until the sentries had left, apparently satisfied that their watching brief had been carried out, could congregations begin – rather clandestinely – their shofar-blowing.

    The Jerusalem Talmud reports that during the Roman persecutions, the occupation troops suddenly heard trumpet blasts emanating from the synagogues, thought it was a Jewish call to arms, and invaded the synagogues and attacked the worshippers.

    Learning from this lesson, the Jews subsequently moved the shofar blowing to later in the service when it was obvious that an innocent act of worship was in progress and sounding the shofar was not meant as a military signal of any kind.

    The shofar is sounded on both days of Rosh HaShanah, but is omitted on the first day if it happens to be Shabbat – not because the sounding of the shofar is hard work, but because one might be tempted to carry it through the streets.

    Carrying objects from place to place is not permitted on Shabbat, and this rule illustrates the immense respect given to the Sabbath as a mark of faith in the Almighty who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

    What is the mitzvah of shofar? Not to blow it, but to hear it (lishmo’a kol shofar). Hence everyone has to be attentive to the sounds of the shofar and not to engage in conversation from the first b’rachah of the shofar until the final notes have been sounded at almost the end of the whole service.

    Interesting halachic questions surround the hearing of the shofar. Are women, who are generally exempt from time-bound positive mitzvot, obligated to hear the shofar? (Yes; they long ago accepted the obligation upon themselves).

    Can the mitzvah be fulfilled by hearing the shofar through a microphone or over the radio? (No, because what you hear is considered an echo and not the original sound itself.)

    What notes are blown on the shofar? Their names are t’kiah, sh’varim and t’ruah. The most important note is t’ruah (the Biblical command calls the day yom t’ruah). Hence, what one should hear is the t’ruah preceded and followed by the drawn-out t’kiah (“blast”).

    But the definition of a t’ruah is a matter of scholarly dispute. Is it like our t’ruah, a series of sharp, staccato sounds, or our sh’varim, three sighing notes – or a combination of both? To cover all views we offer all three versions.

    Many fascinating lessons have been read into the sequence of notes as they finally developed. One is that t’kiah rouses us from our lethargy; sh’varim sees us sighing when we realise our foolishness; with t’ruah we burst out sobbing with remorse; and finally, God assures us in the final t’kiah that He has forgiven and we can march confidently into the future.

    A total of a hundred notes should, it is suggested, be sounded. This is said to reflect the hundred weeping sounds of Sisera’s mother, though a view has been advanced that the original wording referred to “our mother Sarah”. Since, however, the Talmud tries to elucidate the meaning of the t’ruah by reference to Sisera’s mother either weeping or sighing, it would appear that the Sisera theory is correct.


    1. Philo
    The Alexandrian philosopher, Philo, remarked that the shofar was a reminder of the giving of the Torah and also the battlefield signal to advance or retreat. The blowing of the shofar is thus a call of thanksgiving to God, who halts the wars between nations and between the elements of nature, and thereby brings harmony and peace to the world.

    2. Maimonides
    The great Maimonides declared, “Although the blowing of the shofar is a command of the Law, there is in it this further meaning: ‘Awake, you slumberers, from your sleep, and rouse yourselves from your lethargy. Search your deeds and return in repentance. Remember your Creator, you who forget truth in the vanities of the moment, who go astray all your years after vain illusions which neither profit not save. Look to your souls, mend your ways and actions; leave your evil path and unworthy purposes, and seek the way of God’.”

    3. The Zohar
    “When human beings repent of their sins, they blow the shofar on earth. Its sound ascends on high and awakens the heavenly shofar, and so mercy is aroused and judgment is removed.”

    4. Rav Kook
    Rav Kook, the mystic, poet and philosopher, noted that the shofar, the oldest-known musical instrument, is ready to hand. With very little preparation it can produce penetrating notes, unlike normal trumpets which need much more attention to manufacture and mouthpiece. The shofar represents the natural resources which God has made available to human beings, and it represents man’s direct access to the Almighty.

    Today, the shofar stands for the direct call of the Divine, the call to a life of less complication and complexity but greater depth and spirituality, emphasising values and virtues over status, success and possessions.


    Rosh HaShanah is a mosaic of moments. It is greeting cards, flowers and fruit, meals after the services, cherished family and friends.

    It is colourful symbolism – white vestments, piercing shofar blasts, hallowed melodies, heirloom Machzorim, historic prayers… even the sheer size of the milling yom-tov crowds.

    Above all, it is spiritual exaltation, crystal-clear perception of God and insight into ourselves, the full-throated chorus of faith, the snatches of silence when we are oblivious of the service and hear our own heart-beat. All belong to the uncanny fascination of the day.

    Rosh HaShanah is also major themes for thinking. In particular, the shofar.

    God calls with the shofar. The voice of the Lord takes many forms – the sun and stars; the winds and rushing waters; the love and laughter of human beings; the capacity of mind, heart and hand; the work of man in art, music and poetry; the wonder of life itself.

    God calls with the shofar. People are sometimes deaf to His call in other forms. But none can pretend that they do not hear the piercing blast of the shofar.

    God calls with the shofar. From Sinai, to proclaim the commandments. Through the prophets, to speak forth the dictates of truth and justice. To announce the Sabbath and the serenity which is a foretaste of the world to come.

    Man calls with the shofar. It is our answering response to God. With the shofar we proclaim our alertness to moral duty, our love of God’s law, our loyalty to our tradition.

    Man calls with the shofar. We assure God that it is frailty and foolishness that enmesh us in the frivolities of the moment, but once aroused by conscience we seek His forgiveness and forbearance.

    Man speaks with the shofar. We pray that God may recall His promise, “In every place where I cause My name to be remembered, there will I come to you and bless you.”

    God calls with the shofar. He answers man’s call. He blesses His creatures more than they deserve. He renews His promise that He will send the Messiah, and final redemption will dawn.

    O God, who calls with the shofar, help us to hear the sound of Thy call. May we respond to Thee with love and loyalty, and merit Thy revelation and redemption when Mashi’ach will come to mankind and all the world will come to serve Thee and call upon Thy name.

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