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Required shofar sounds on Rosh Hashana

The Torah describes the mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana tersely:

יום תרועה יהיה לכם

A day of “teruah” you shall have. The Gemara then explains, step-by-step, that we are required to hear nine notes:

Tekiah  –  Teruah  –  Tekiah
Tekiah  –  Teruah  –  Tekiah
Tekiah  –  Teruah  –  Tekiah

But today the halacha states that the mitzvah consists of 30 notes. How did 9 become 30?

The Gemara relates that R’ Abahu instituted a custom of blowing the shofar three different ways, with the same basic pattern of nine notes each time. In the first set the Teruah is played as a rising note, in the second set as a staccato note and in the third set as a combination of both (Rosh Hashana 34b).

Note that a ram’s horn shofar usually makes it easier to play staccato and to punctuate notes, whereas a Yemenite kudu shofar often has greater range.

R’ Hai Gaon

In a responsum, R’ Hai Gaon writes that it is wrong to think that doubts arose regarding the proper way to blow the teruah. He argues that different customs preceded R’ Abahu’s innovation and that all were in fact correct. However, since to those of limited understanding they seemed to differ substantially, a unified custom was introduced so that the entire Jewish people would blow the shofar in the same manner on Rosh Hashana.

Rambam

On the other hand the Rambam (Hilchot Shofar 3, 2)  writes that as a result of the Destruction of the Temple and the subsequent Diaspora, doubts did in fact arise regarding how to blow the Teruah properly. One type of Teruah is like the lamentations  of wailing women, and the other is the sigh or groan of someone who has a grave concern. The Beit Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch side with the Rambam’s approach rather than R’ Hai Gaon.

Under extenuating circumstances (e.g. a shofar blower going from one hospital ward to the next) it is permissible to reduce the shofar blowing to the bare minimum, blowing each way for a total of just ten blasts.

Tekiah  –  Shevarim  –  Tekiah
Tekiah  –  Teruah  –  Tekiah
Tekiah  –  Shevarim/Teruah  –  Tekiah

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