Today I taught an online class on the Fall Holiday Cycle, aka the High Holy Days. I did a demonstration of shofar blowing and gathered a crowd here in the house. The dogs are fascinated by the shofar but a bit shy of its sound.
If you have ritual objects in your home, keep in mind that shofarot smell like fabulous chew toys, as do scrolls and the klaf in your mezuzah. Keep the shofar, etc. out of reach of pets.
The only clear mention of Rosh HaShanah in the Torah – and then not by name! – is the Zichron Truah [Memorial Horn-Sounding] of Leviticus 23:24 and the Yom Teruah [Day of Horn-Sounding] of Numbers 29:1. The sound of the shofar and our obligation to hear it is right at the heart of Rosh HaShanah, the mitzvah [commandment] for the day.
The shofar itself is a very plain object: the horn of a kosher animal, hollowed out so that it can work like a bugle. The halakhah [Jewish law] is clear on this: it has to be animal horn and it cannot be fitted with a metal mouthpiece or other fancy fittings.
The person who blows the shofar is called the ba’al or ba’alat tekiah [master or mistress of the blast.] It is an honor to sound the shofar for the congregation.
Sometimes you may see a shofar that has been plated with gold or silver, but those shofarot are decorative objects. The kosher shofar is a simple animal horn. Under no circumstances should it have a metal mouthpiece.
According to tradition, the shofar should be a ram’s horn, or that of a greater kudu (used by Yemenite Jews) both of which are curved. Occasionally you may see the horn of an ibex or a gemsbok (oryx), but they are relatively rare and quite expensive.
The curved horn is required because the text for Rosh HaShanah is the story of the Binding of Isaac from Genesis 22. Near the end of the story, Abraham lifts his eyes and seems a ram caught in the bushes by his curved horns, a substitute for the human sacrifice. When we see the curved shofar, we are reminded of the story and the mercy of God.
Someone asked recently how a Deaf person can fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. At Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, they have come up with an ingenious way to allow even those with no hearing at all hear the shofar. Before the service, congregants inflate plenty of balloons. Then, when it comes time for the sound of the shofar, all who need help hearing the sound hold a balloon in their hands. The vibrations of the shofar cause the balloons to vibrate (just as it makes the eardrums of a hearing person vibrate) and so the Deaf congregants can hear it with their hands.
Thank you to Rabbi Michal Loving of Temple Beth Orr, Coral Springs, FL for the photo featured with this article. I use it by permission of Rabbi Loving, and all rights to its use are hers. The shofar pictured is in the Yemenite style, made from a kudu horn.
If you go to a synagogue with weekday services, you’ll hear it: the primitive sound that comes from a raw-looking piece of animal horn. It’s meant to wake up your soul. When you hear it, just shut your eyes and let yourself feel it. Let the vibrations shake you up.
Jews have listened to that sound since the earliest days; there are records of the shofar sounding in the Torah, as the Hebrews traveled through the desert. We know the shofar was blown in the Temple. The sound echoes down the centuries.
On Thursday, Sept 5, 2013 we’ll hear it again: there’s a whole short service dedicated to it in the Rosh Hashanah Day service.
Here are some basic facts about the shofar:
The singular is SHOW-far, the plural is show-fa-ROTE.
The commandment for Rosh Hashanah [New Year’s Day] is to hear the sound of the shofar.
No, you do not have to blow it yourself.
Do not ask to blow someone else’s shofar. It’s as personal as a toothbrush (and full of their spit.)
The shofar is usually a horn from a ram or kudu, but never a cow.
Most shofarot are plain, with no decoration or separate mouthpiece.
A man who blows the shofar is a Ba’al Tekiah (bah-AHL Teh-kee-YAH).
A woman who blows it is a Ba’alat Tekiah (bah-ah-LAHT Teh-kee-YAH.)
Hear, O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One!
When I served Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf in Southern California, I worked to learn how to say my prayers in ASL, American Sign Language. As is always the case with translation, there were some tricky bits about making the words of the prayers truly available to the congregation. The first word of the Shema, the central prayer of Judaism, is usually translated “hear.” The problem is that to say that word to a group of Deaf people would lose the very essence of the prayer, because it immediately exclude them.
This dilemma is handled in various ways in various Deaf Jewish communities, but at TBS, they use the sign for “understand” to translate “Shema.”
This led me to think about other ways to translate the Shema into English. “Hear, O Israel” always seems formal and, well, rather passive, and the passage itself, (Deuteronomy 6:4) is emphatic, not passive. Here are my thoughts:
Listen, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.
LISTEN UP! Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!
Get it straight, Israel: Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.
Or perhaps the best translation I can imagine would be:
When I hear the sound of the shofar [ram’s horn] it seems to echo down the centuries.
The first time I heard it, I was surprised at the rawness of the sound. The shofar is not a fancy musical instrument. It is merely the hollowed-out horn of a ram. There is no mouthpiece, no reed, no metal in it whatsoever.
If you have the opportunity to handle one, you will see that it is just an old piece of horn. And yet this simple object can work wonders on the Jewish heart. It wakes up our souls during the month of Elul. It thrills us on Rosh HaShanah. On Yom Kippur, it shakes us to our core. It awakens ancient memories.
When you hear the shofar, close your eyes. Feel time drop away from you. You are one with all the Jews of history: one with Joshua, one with David, one with the Maccabees. Feel the disturbance in your soul, the urgency of the shofar’s call.