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How does the shofar operate on a spiritual plane?

Obviously the shofar has its effect in the spiritual realm. What exactly does it do? The Rambam addresses that question, not in Hilchot Shofar, but rather in Hilchot Tshuva. There, in Halacha 4, he notes that blowing the shofar is first and foremost a written statute (“gezeirat hak’tuv“), i.e. the meaning behind the shofar is not necessarily something we need to delve into. However, he explains, a hint to its significance can be found in a Biblical verse.

עורו עורו ישנים משינתכם, והקיצו נרדמים מתרדמתכם

This is a reference, writes the Rambam, to those who forget the truth in the pursuit of emptiness, as time passes by, and in their slumber they chase after emptiness that has no purpose.

The mashgiach of Yeshivat Mir-Brachfeld explains that when a house catches fire and someone is asleep inside, the real danger is if he does not wake up. But once he wakes up, smells the smoke and sees the flames, he leaps onto his feet and runs out the door. Once he’s a wake, he knows what to do. So really all he has to do is hear the shofar, internalize the meaning and the message, and depart on a new course.

However, he adds, citing Rav Yisrael Salanter, waking up is a multi-phase endeavor in our day and age. We’re like people who sometimes wake up in a daze, not sure where we are — or even who we are — and take a while to come to our senses.

Leveraging the Sound of the Shofar

I heard an observant woman say recently, “The shofar has no real effect on me.” It seems she is under the misconception that along comes the blast of the shofar and sets you onto the right course automatically, pushing you along.

That may be true, to some extent, but only if you have your sail is unfurled!

The Sefer HaChinuch, in Mitzvah 405, explains that Rosh Hashanah is about pleading for clemency. To achieve this, first one must be fully cognizant of the gravity of the situation. To awaken to this reality we have a powerful tool at our disposal: the shofar. The sound of the shofar has the power to stir the heart of those who hear it. And even more powerful is the sound of the terua, the broken blast of the shofar.

Interestingly, in Mitzvah 331, the Sefer HaChinuch seems to take a different tack. There he contrasts the mitzvah of blowing the shofar to declare freedom in the Yovel year to the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashana, which he explains is meant to encourage us to contemplate Akeidas Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac), and to imagine ourselves doing the same for the love of Hashem. As a result, a positive remembrance will arise before Him, i.e. we will be acquitted before Him.

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Why the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashana

The Torah does not explicitly mention the shofar in conjunction with Rosh Hashana. The verse only tells us

יום תרועה יהיה לכם

The key word here is teruah. However, a verse elsewhere tells us that the proclamation of the Jubilee Year is accomplished with a “shofar teruah.” Therefore the Talmudic Sages extrapolated that both of the teruah soundings in the seventh monthof the year (i.e. Tishrei) are done with a shofar (Rosh Hashana 33b).

Ram’s Horn Shofar

The Rambam writes that a shofar must be a bent ram’s horn. The Raavad and other Rishonim take issue with him, arguing that although a ram’s horn shofar may be ideal, other types of shofars, including a kudu horn, may also be used, with the exception of a cow horn.

Kudu horn shofarIn the Beis Hamidkash (the Holy Temple) the shofar player was flanked by two trumpet players, as described in the verse (Tehillim 98:6):

בחצוצרות וקול שופר הריעו לפני המלך ה

Apparently this applied elsewhere in Jerusalem, but not in the rest of the Land of Israel.

A shofar that has been used for idolatrous purposes should not be used, but if it was blown on Rosh Hashana, those who heard it did fulfill the mitzvah. Likewise, a stolen shofar should not be used, but if it was, then the mitzvah is fulfilled. The reason is that the mitzvah is to hear the sound of the shofar and the concept of theft does not apply to a sound. Indeed, the blessing recited is שמוע קול שופר .

The Raavad adds that even if theft did apply to sound, the mitzvah, as noted above, is to have a יום תרועה.

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Can you use a stolen shofar on Rosh Hashana?

Can a stolen shofar be used to fulfill the mitzvah on Rosh Hashana?

Obviously a stolen shofer should not be used on Rosh Hashana, based on the established Talmudic dictum, אין מצוה הבאה בעבירה, i.e. we do not carry out a mitzvah if doing so would involve committing a transgression. However, if someone did indeed steal a shofar and use it to fulfill the mitzvah, he does fulfill the obligation.

The reason is because, technically speaking, the mitzvah is actually not to blow the shofar, but to hear the sound of the shofar blown. What we really need is the sound produced by the shofar, not the shofar itself, and there is no such thing as stealing sound.

Can you use a borrowed shofar or do you have to be the owner, i.e. do you have to buy your own shofar? To do the mitzvah of taking hold of the Four Species on Sukkot, you must be the owner of the Four Species, since the verse which prescribes the mitzvah includes the word לכם (Vayikra 23:40), which comes to teach us that the Four Species must actually belong to you.

Likewise regarding shofar we find the word לכם (Bamidbar 29:1). However, regarding the mitzvah of shofar, the verse is a bit different.

יום תרועה יהיה לכם

Here we are told that there is to be a day of תרועה, of shofar blasts. Had it said ולקחתם לכם שופר — and take for yourselves a shofar, like the Torah instructs us to take hold of the Four Species on Sukkot — then we would understand that the shofar must belong to us. Since the shofar does not have to be yours, even if you do not buy a shofar, but borrow it without permission you can fulfill the mitzvah, since we have a rule that it is to one’s advantage to allow another person to perform a mitzvah with his possessions.

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Why is the shofar blown twice?

The Gemara asks why the shofar is blown twice: first, after the Torah reading and then a second time, divided into three sets, during Mussaf. The Gemara then answers, “to confound the Satan.”

The Ran explains that here the Satan refers to Yetzer Hara, and “to confound the Satan” means to subdue or vanquish the Yetzer Hara.

Shofar blasts on Rosh HashanaThe Tur presents two ways to understand the dynamics at work here: 1) To confound the Satan right away during the initial set of shofar blasts so that it is incapable of lodging claims during Mussaf. 2) To overwhelm the Satan during the initial shofar blowing, leaving the Satan reeling during the latter shofar blasts.

The Talmud Yerushalmi cites two verses: “He will swallow up death for ever…” (Yeshayahu 25:8) and “And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great horn shall be blown; and they shall come that were lost in the land of Assyria, and they that were dispersed in the land of Egypt; and they shall worship the LORD in the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (Yeshayahu 27:13).

The Gemara then proceeds to present the following interpretation: “When [the Satan/Yetzer Hara] hears the first sounding of the shofar it is startled, but unfazed, saying, ‘Perhaps the time for the Great Shofar has arrived.’ [But] when [it] hears the second time it says, ‘Certainly the time has arrived’ and it becomes confounded and is no longer free to serve as Prosecutor.”

The Smag explains that the Satan will not conclude that the time for the Great Shofar has arrived. However, it does serve as a reminder that when the time comes the Great Shofar will decimate him, therefore it is akin to a person who sees a dead person and therefore starts to contemplate his own end.

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Shofar training program

Spiritual preparation for Rosh Hashanah officially begins at the start of the month of Elul, and one way to engage in spiritual preparation is by practicing the shofar. Indeed, the custom is to sound the shofar at the end of the daily Shacharit services (except on Shabbat).

Sounding the shofar at services is a practical way of preparing for the “real deal” on Rosh HaShanah. In addition, this period serves as a reminder to orient one’s focus on repentance.

Warm-Up

Warming up is crucial. This should not be left to chance nor treated lightly by a serious musician on any instrument. Most brass players have several routines. For shofar sounding, warm up by blowing the fundamental note. In simple terms, a noise from a musical instrument plays more than one note, called harmonics, but the principal musical tone produced by vibration (as of a string or column of air) is the fundamental or most prominent tone.

Then, focus on your attack (how you articulate the note). Then play the TekiahShevarimShevarim-Teruah, and Tekiah. Your warm up should be at home because the shul does not offer privacy. In shul, you should hold the Shofar between your arms so that the horn will become the same temperature as your body because the instrument should be at least room temperature. A cold note becomes flat (off-tune or atonal).

The shofar’s sound is similar to that of a brass instrument (e.g. trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn) in that the lips vibrate, thereby creating a “buzzing.”

You should practice buzzing; brass players do this by playing the mouthpiece alone. In the case of Shofar playing, you can buzz by shaping your thumb and forefinger in the shape of a mouthpiece and blowing into it to stimulate your embouchure.

(See The Art of French Horn Playing by Philip Farkas, The Complete Method by Milan Yancich, and Embouchure Building by Joseph Singer.)

Professional brass players warm-up every time they get the instrument out of the case to play. The first warm-up in the morning is the most important, as it sets up your embouchure for the rest of the day. The second and third warm-ups are usually shorter, but still needed to maintain and build the embouchure.

How to play the shofar

If time allows, the serious brass student or professional usually practices three times a day for no more than one hour per session. A shofar sounder, not being a professional in the brass instrumentalist sense of the word, should practice each day at the same time of day. Always practice standing up, because sitting down will change your embouchure.

Initially, practice the fundamental note until you feel your muscles are adjusted. Do not play much beyond this level. If they tire, your muscles are telling you that they have had enough. By repeated playing, however, your musculature will develop a capability for high quality sound and endurance. Ten minutes is the usual limit.

Once, you have mastered the one fundamental note, you should concentrate on the attack. The quality of an attack is determined by the position of the tongue’s touching the lips. In some cases, the tip of the front of the tongue can be the part of the tongue used to tongue the attack. In other cases, you can use the side of your tongue. Some use the side of their tongue and move it back. The technique that is most effective for the sounder – and still allows maintenance of the correct embouchure – is the correct way.

Week 1

During the first week, work on your embouchure (muscle tone of your lip and surrounding facial muscles) by sounding the most prominent note (fundamental). Start with no more than five minutes per day, gradually increasing this practice time as you build and tone your embouchure.

Week 2

The tekiah is a single, solid blast. Some shofar players end it with a small ‘up’ note, but this is not necessary.

The shevarim is three moaning sounds. In music we call these slurs. They begin with a low note and slide up to the dominant note. You accomplish this by tightening the lips.

The teruah is comprised of nine staccato notes. To avoid confusion, count the nine notes as three triplets: — — —. The notes are articulated by touching the tongue to the tip of the shofar nine times.

Tonguing requires practice and repetition in order to become natural.

You may suffer “lip fatigue” – your lip will tire and will not respond the way you desire.

Week 3

Continue practicing the phrases for as many times as you can In doing so, you will memorize the association of the sounds and their names. Also, you will build stamina and embouchure definition. Note that you will need a certain amount of stamina and lip strength to beat fatigue.

Week 4

Work from the siddur to practice each series of sounds. Some congregations sound 30 notes; others, 90; most, 100 shofar sounds.

You should try to arrange times to work with the the person who prompts the sounds so you can coordinate your activities. You also will “get a feel for one another,” as so often happens in musical schemes.

On the day before Rosh Hashanah, do not practice. Jewish law forbids such practice, and from a musical perspective it enables your embouchure to rest on the day prior to performance, just as soloists rest prior to musical recitals.

Adapted from an article by Arthur L. Finkle, who has served as a shofar sounder for over 30 years.

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Sounding the Shofar at the Western Wall in 1967

Below is a transcript of a live broadcast on Voice of Israel Radio, June 7th, 1967, as IDF forces liberate the Temple Mount and the Western Wall. The recording is now housed in the archives of the Avi Yaffe Recording Studio in Jerusalem.

In addition to the sounds of gunfire, commands, singing and weeping, the shofar was sounded, first by Lt.- Col. Uzi Eilam and later by Rabbi Shlomo Goren. Until then, during the Ottoman and the British occupation of Jerusalem, Jews were not allowed to sound the shofar at the Western Wall. The dramatic moment when Rabbi Goren blew the shofar inspired Israeli poetess and song-writerlyricist Naomi Shemer to add a line to her famous song, Jerusalem of Gold, that reads, “A Shofar calls out from the Temple Mount in the Old City.”

Colonel Motta Gur [on loudspeaker]: All company commanders, we’re sitting right now on the ridge and we’re seeing the Old City. Shortly we’re going to go in to the Old City of Jerusalem, that all generations have dreamed about. We will be the first to enter the Old City. Eitan’s tanks will advance on the left and will enter the Lion’s Gate. The final rendezvous will be on the open square above.

Yossi Ronen: We are now walking on one of the main streets of Jerusalem towards the Old City. The head of the force is about to enter the Old City. [Gunfire.] There is still shooting from all directions; we’re advancing towards the entrance of the Old City. [Sound of gunfire and soldiers’ footsteps; yelling of commands to soldiers; more soldiers’ footsteps.] The soldiers are keeping a distance of approximately 5 meters between them. It’s still dangerous to walk around here; there is still sniper fire here and there. [Gunfire.]

We’re all told to stop; we’re advancing towards the mountainside; on our left is the Mount of Olives; we’re now in the Old City opposite the Russian Church. I’m right now lowering my head; we’re running next to the mountainside. We can see the stone walls. They’re still shooting at us.

The Israeli tanks are at the entrance to the Old City, and ahead we go, through the Lion’s Gate. I’m with the first unit to break through into the Old City. There is a Jordanian bus next to me, totally burnt; it is very hot here. We’re about to enter the Old City itself. We’re standing below the Lion’s Gate, the Gate is about to come crashing down, probably because of the previous shelling. Soldiers are taking cover next to the palm trees; I’m also staying close to one of the trees. We’re getting further and further into the City. [Gunfire.]

Colonel Motta Gur announces on the army wireless: The Temple Mount is in our hands! I repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands! All forces, stop firing! This is the David Operations Room. All forces, stop firing! I repeat, all forces, stop firing! Over.

Commander eight-nine here, is this Motta (Gur) talking? Over.

[Inaudible response on the army wireless by Motta Gur.]

Uzi Narkiss: Motta, there’s nobody like you. You’re next to the Mosque of Omar.

Yossi Ronen: I’m driving fast through the Lion’s Gate all the way inside the Old City. Command on the army wireless: Search the area, make sure to enter every single house, but do not touch anything. Especially in holy places.

[Lt.- Col. Uzi Eilam blows the Shofar. Soldiers are singing ‘Jerusalem of Gold’.]

Uzi Narkiss: Tell me, where is the Western Wall? How do we get there? Yossi Ronen: I’m walking right now down the steps towards the Western Wall. I’m not a religious man, I never have been, but this is the Western Wall and I’m touching the stones of the Western Wall.

Soldiers: [reciting the ‘Shehechianu’ blessing]: Baruch ata Hashem, elokeinu melech haolam, she-hechianu ve-kiemanu ve-hegianu la-zman ha-zeh. [Translation: Blessed art Thou Lord God King of the Universe who has sustained us and kept us and has brought us to this day]

Rabbi Shlomo Goren: Baruch ata Hashem, menachem tsion u-voneh Yerushalayim. [Translation: Blessed are thou, who comforts Zion and bulids Jerusalem] Soldiers: Amen! [Soldiers sing ‘Hatikva’ next to the Western Wall.]

Rabbi Goren: We’re now going to recite the prayer for the fallen soldiers of this war against all of the enemies of Israel: [Soldiers weeping; Rabbi Goren sounds the shofar.] El male rahamim, shohen ba-meromim. Hamtse menuha nahona al kanfei hashina, be-maalot kedoshim, giborim ve-tehorim, kezohar harakiya meirim u-mazhirim. Ve-nishmot halalei tsava hagana le-yisrael, she-naflu be-maaraha zot, neged oievei yisrael, ve-shnaflu al kedushat Hashem ha-am ve-ha’arets, ve-shichrur Beit Hamikdash, Har Habayit, Hakotel ha-ma’aravi veyerushalayim ir ha-elokim. Be-gan eden tehe menuhatam. Lahen ba’al ha-rahamim, yastirem beseter knafav le-olamim. Ve-yitsror be-tsror ha-hayim et nishmatam adoshem hu nahlatam, ve-yanuhu be-shalom al mishkavam [soldiers weeping loud]ve-ya’amdu le-goralam le-kets ha- yamim ve-nomar amen!

[Translation: Merciful God in heaven, may the heroes and the pure, be under thy Divine wings, among the holy and the pure who shine bright as the sky, and the souls of soldiers of the Israeli army who fell in this war against the enemies of Israel, who fell for their loyalty to God and the land of Israel, who fell for the liberation of the Temple, the Temple Mount, the Western Wall and Jerusalem the city of the Lord. May their place of rest be in paradise. Merciful One, O keep their souls forever alive under Thy protective wings. The Lord being their heritage, may they rest in peace, for they shalt rest and stand up for their allotted portion at the end of the days, and let us say, Amen.]

[Soldiers are weeping. Rabbi Goren sounds the shofar. Sound of gunfire in the background.]

Rabbi Goren: Le-shana HA-ZOT be-Yerushalayim ha-b’nuya, be-yerushalayim ha-atika! [Translation: This year in a rebuilt Jerusalem! In the Jerusalem of old!]

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What are the main shofar sounds?

Although it seems like the main mitzvah of hearing the shofar is the first set of 30 shofar blasts sounded in succession after the Shofar Blessing is recited, in fact the mitzvah is really to hear the shofar integrated with the Mussaf for Rosh Hashanah, therefore the central shofar blowing is actually the three breaks during Mussaf when the shofar is sounded.

This point is explained clearly in the Chayei Adam (142):

עיקר התקיעות הוא לתקוע על סדר הברכות כחוזר ה”ץ תפילת המוספים שתוקעים למלכיות ולזכרונות ולופרות ומדינא הוא לתקוע על כל ברכה תר”ת ולפי הספק שנסתפקו בתרועה היה לנו לתקוע על כל ברכה תר”ת פ”א ותש”ת פ”א ותר”ת פ”א וכן נוהגין במקצת מקומות אך כיון תקנו חז”ל לתקוע קודם מוסף והם נקראין תקיעות דמיושב ר”ל שעדיין הקהל יובין ולאעומדין בתפילה והטעם שתקנו כן לערבב השטן שלא יקטרג בתפילת המוספין ובתקיעותיהן

If we are required to hear Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah repeated three times, it would seem that at each of these junctures we should hear all three possible variations, i.e. the same 30 sounds repeated three times during Mussaf — in conjunction with Malchuyos, Zichronos and Shofaros.

Yet the prevailing custom is to play only a single variation of Tekiah-Teruah-Tekiah each time. Why is that considered good enough?

Confounding Satan

First we have to understand the reason for the initial 30 shofar sounds, known as Tekios D’Meyushav. This custom is intended to confound Satan so that he cannot act as  a Prosecutor during Mussaf and the Mussaf shofar blasts. For Satan is alarmed by the sound of the shofar, which is a reminder of the Great Shofar to be heard in the future Redemption.

And it shall comes to pass on that day that  a Great Shofar shall be blown, nd they shall come who were lost in the land of Ashur, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Lord on the holy mountain of Jerusalem. (Yeshayahu 27:13)

Upon hearing the Great Shofar the Satan, i.e. death and the Evil Inclination, will be eradicated from the face of the Earth.

And He will destroy on this mountain, the covering that is cast over all the people, and the veil that is spread over all the nations. He iwll destroy death forever and the Lord G-d ill wipe away tears from all faces… (Yeshayahua 25:8).

Since in essence the congregation fulfills the mitzvah through those initial 30 blasts, Chazal did not want to impose an unnecessary burden on the congregation by requiring them to be played another three times.

Andy why was the “Shevarim-Teruah” variation chosen? Because in a way it is the safest bet. If the true Teruah is “Shevarim” you hear it; if the true Teruah is what we refer today as Teruah, you hear it. The only problem is that perhaps you are hearing an extra note, rather than the three notes in succession. But this is considered a minor enough concern that we avoid imposing a burden on the congregation.

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The shofar in the Holy Temple

The shofar is the only Jewish musical instrument to have survived two millennia in its original form. The sound of the shofar, wrote Rabbi Saadia Gaon,  struck awe in the hearts and souls of the people. According to the Rambam, the sounding of the shofar served as a reminder to mankind of its obligations toward God, while the Holy Zohar notes that the sound of the shofar awakens the aspect of Higher Mercy.

The shofar is the musical instrument most frequently mentioned in the Tanach (72 times). It played a role both in the religious and secular lives the Jewish people. Only Kohanim (priests) Levites were permitted to sound the Shofar in the Jewish Commonwealth.

The shofar is first mentioned in Shemos 19:16, at the theophany on Sinai. It was also used to proclaim the Jubilee Year (Yovel) and the proclamation of “freedom throughout the land” (Bamidbar 25:9-10). It was sounded on Rosh Hashana, which is designated as Yom Terua (“A day of blowing” Bamidbar 29:1), and was sometimes used in processionals (Joshua 6:4),  as accompaniment for other musical instruments (Tehillim 98:6), as a signal (Shmuel II 15:10, Joshua 6:12), as a clarion call to war (Shoftim 3:27) and to instill fear (Amos 3:6).

When used in the Temple, the shofar was generally sounded in conjunction with the trumpet (chatzotzra).

The shofar had several religious roles recorded in the Tanach, such as the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Shmuel 6:15, Chronicles 15:28), notification of a New Moon (Psalms 81:4); the start of the new year (Numbers 29:1), the Yom Kippur (Vayikra 25:9), the procession preparatory to Sukkot (Mishnah Chullin 1:7), the libation ceremony (Mishnah  Rosh Hashana 4:9) and the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of a festival (Mishnah Chullin 1:7).

The shofar also served several secular roles, such as coronating a king (Shmuel II 5:10;  Kings I 1:34, Kings II 1:13) and for signaling in time of war to rally troops for an offensive, to pursue enemy soldiers and to proclaim victory (Bemidbar 10:9; Judges 6:4; Jeremiah 4:5 and Ezekiel 33:3-6).

On Rosh Hashana and other full holidays (i.e. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage fesitvals, Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos) a single priest performed two sacrifices in honor of the day.

On Rosh Hashana, something special occurred during the Mussaf sacrifice. According to one opinion, two shofar sounders played the long notes and one trumpet player played the short note. Rosh Hashana, therefore, is referred to as Yom Teruah (the Day of the Blast). Otherwise, the trumpets had “top billing.” Rosh Hashanah 27a, supports this claim: “Said Raba, or perhaps Rav Yehoshua Ben Levi: What is the scriptural source for this? It is written, ‘With trumpets and the sound of the shofar shout ye before the King in the Temple,’ therefore we require trumpets and the sound of the shofar, elsewhere not.”

Indeed, on Yom Kippur, the shofar was blown to announce the Jubilee Year (every 50 years Jews were granted freedom, forgiveness of debts and sold lands reverted to their original ownership. The shofar is first mentioned in connection with the Yovel (Jubilee Year –  Vayikra 25:8-13). Indeed, in Rosh Hashana 33b, the sages ask why the shofar sounded in Jubilee year.  Further support is found in Rosh Hashana 29a, where the Talmud speaks of trumpets for sacrifices, but the shofar in the Jubilee Year does not apply to priests who are exempt from the obligations of the jubilee.

Otherwise, for all other special days, the shofar was sounded for a shorter duration and two special silver trumpets announced the sacrifice.

When the trumpets sound the signal, all the people who are within the sacrifice area prostate themselves, stretching out flat, face down toward the ground.

The shofar was blown at the Temple to usher in Shabbat every week. On the lintel of the wall at the top of the Temple an inscription read, “To the house of the blowing of the trumpet [ i.e. shofar]”.  Every Shabbat two men with silver trumpets and a man with a shofar sounded three trumpet blasts, twice during the day.

On Rosh Hashana, the procedure differed.  The shofar is the primary trumpet. According to Vayikra 23:24 and Bamidbar 29, Rosh Hashana is the day of the blowing of the trumpets.  The original name is Yom Terua (the staccato sound of the horn, which also means  “shout”).  According to the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 16a, Mishnah Rosh Hashana 3, 3), the trumpet used for this purpose is the ram’s horn, not trumpets made of metal, as in Bamidbar 10. On Rosh Hashana a shofar is used for the first blast, a silver trumpet the second, and then the shofar follows with the third.

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Shofar: Biblical factory whistle

In the Babylonian Talmud we find that the shofar was blown every Friday, at the close of the day.

The academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught: On Friday afternoon we sound six shofar blasts announcing the arrival of the Sabbath.

Rabbi Yishmael was a Tanna from the third Tannaitic generation. His studied with Rabbi Akiva. After their deaths, the disciples of these two Torah giants continued their learning in the name of their famous teachers.

The Tanna (“repeaters” or “teachers”) were the Rabbinic sages whose views are recorded in the Mishnah, from approximately 10 CE-220 CE, a time span also referred to as the Mishnaic period, lasting about 210 years. The first shofar sound summoned those who are working in the outer fields to return to their homes to welcome the Sabbath. These distant workers would then meet the workers in the more proximate fields to enter the town together.

The second blast is an order for commerce  to cease to welcome the Sabbath. At home, hot water would be heating in pots.

The third blast instructed that the pots be removed from the fires and the food should be insulated for the next day’s meal.

After the third blast, the Baal Tekiah (shofar sounder) would wait the the amount of time needed to roast a small fish over a fire, or to attach bread dough to the oven walls.

As a final alarm, the shofar sounder (who is attached to the synagogue) ends his blasts with a Tekiah, Teruah and another Tekiah ushering in the Sabbath.

Thus we have six blasts paralleling the number of work days in the week. On the seventh you shall rest.

The Gemara (Sukka 53b and Shabbat 35b) describes a series of six shofar blasts sounded shortly before Shabbat, alerting people to stop working, prepare food and light candles. One of the more fascinating finds originating on the Temple Mount is a stone from the southwest corner of the Temple platform (then one of the highest points in Jerusalem), with an engravement reading: “For the place of trumpeting.” Close to both the Upper City (now known as the Jewish Quarter) and the Lower City, this spot would have been an ideal place to herald the start of the Sabbath – and the daily Temple service.

Shofar in Jerusalem shortly before Shabbat
Shofar blowing late Friday afternoon on a balcony in Jerusalem’s Me’ah She’arim neighborhood, circa 1935

The Shulhan Arukh (Orach Chaim 256), the 16th-century codex compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo, reports that this pre-Sabbath tradition no longer existed in its author’s day, although he had heard of it. In Krakow, Karo’s colleague Rabbi Moshe Isserles recommended the practice accepted in his community, which had replaced the pre-Sabbath shofar blasts with a town crier. One of the few vestiges of this custom is music and an announcement played through the emergency loudspeakers in certain towns and neighborhoods in Israel 20 or 30 minutes before candle-lighting time.

Ongoing Shofar Tradition

The Tunisian island of Djerba is a rarity: a flourishing and even growing traditional Jewish community in a Muslim country. Every Friday one of the local Jewish residents circulates among the one- and two-story homes in the Hara Kabira neighborhood (hara is a Berber word of Greek origin meaning “segregated place”) where most Jews live, encouraging shopkeepers to lock up before Shabbat. Similar procedures were common in Jerusalem, Haifa and other localities in Israel circa 1900, except that in Djerba they also blow the shofar.

Shofar heralds onset of Shabbat in Djerba
Rabbi Biton on a Djerba rooftop. Photo: Ari Zivotofsky

The Rosh Hashana sequence of ten shofar blasts (various combinations of tekia, terua, and shevarim notes) is sounded twice – once about 10 minutes before candle-lighting, to remind people to halt all business, and once when the candles are to be lit. According to the locals, the practice was suspended in other communities for fear of the non-Jews. Living as they do in an essentially all-Jewish district, Djerba’s Jews have no such concerns.

Community rabbi Chaim Biton has been the shofar blower for almost 50 years, having inherited the role from a cousin while still in his teens. To this day, if you take up a listening position in the town square or a rooftop, you will see Rabbi Biton start glancing at his watch and then put the shofar to his lips. He repeats the shofar sequences for several minutes. Everyone in Djerba has watches and cell phones, so the Jews all know exactly what the time is, yet they savor this charming anachronism.

This article was based on material provided by Arthur Finkle and an article published in Segula Magazine

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Gideon’s might, military prowess and the shofar

But the spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon; and he blew a shofar; and Abiezer was gathered together after him. Judges 6:34

At first glance this verse seems to merely record how Gideon called up the troops, using the shofar like a bugle or another type of horn. But note that the summons to battle is juxtaposed with a profound spiritual change in Gideon. The classical commentators explain that Gideon was “enclothed” with a spirit of might and courage from G-d. Then he blows the shofar.

Gideon used the shofar to summon Aviezer, but to summon troops from elsewhere he sent messengers. The Aviezer clan was devoted, and apparently joined him instinctively upon hearing the call of the shofar.

gideon's men sound the shofar during battleThe shofar appears again in Chapter 7. After Gideon pares down his troops to an elite fighting force of 300 shock troops, he equips each soldier with a shofar. These shofars were not intended merely as a tactical combat tool, but to gain spiritual advantage as well. As Rashi notes (Judges 7:13), they carried shofars and torches as reminders of the merit of the Giving of the Torah.

In From Dan to Megiddo, Rabbi Benjamin Fleischer writes that the Sages placed Gideon on a level with Moses and Samuel, and as a general, alongside Joshua and Barak. His brilliant tactic of using shofars and torches to confound the enemy transformed his soldiers “as if by magic, suddenly, in a super-natural manner into heroes and fearless fighters, revived by a spirit of celestial fire and zeal, with an awakening of higher national consciousness of their pure and Divine faith.”

From a practical military perspective, Gideon’s battle plan was based on a knowledge of the composition of the enormous Midian army, with its fierce cavalry 150,000 strong. He took into consideration the fact that the barbarian army was a heterogeneous amalgamation of various races and nations, with no unifed command and no uniformity of discipline or military conduct. Likewise they were unaquainted with the lingual customs of the various tribes and divisions that constituted the army.

When confronted by Israel’s surprise attack in the middle of the night, breaking into the center of the camp, general panic ensued. As their military order vanished, they fled like a terrified mob, trampling their own men and scattering in all directions.

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Shofar tones and pitch

The Shulchan Aruch states that the pitch of a shofar can be high or low (586, 6). This ruling is derived from the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 27b), which states as follows:

היה קולו דק או עבה או צרור כשר שכל הקולות כשירין בשופר

Here we see that not only high- and low-pitched shofars can be used to fulfill the mitzvah, but even a “hoarse” tone, which Rashi describes as a “dry” tone.

Sometimes the pitch of a shofar will change midway. A tekiah starts high and then in the middle suddenly changes to a lower note. Or it may start as a clear tone and then suddenly shift to raspy. The custom is that the tekiah is acceptable, and does not have to be repeated.

There are two notable cases where the tekiah may have to be repeated:

  1. If there is a break that can be detected by the listeners
  2. If it trills

Note that if a shofar shound is not produced and air can be heard passing through the shofar, this is not considered קול שופר and therefore does not affect the order of the required shofar notes.

When looking at shofars for sale, keep in mind that you will find it easier to play it well if the sound is clear, not raspy, and the notes are easy to hit, without skipping up or down.

Yemenite shofars are typically able to produce a wider range of notes than rams horn shofars.

Long shofar made from a kudu horn
Yemenite shofar
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Shofar playing tips: The mouthpiece

For three centuries horn instructors have advocated using a mouthpiece placement of two-thirds upper lip and one-third lower lip. In the case of a shofar I find this technique valid. The fleshy part of the upper lip is the area which determines the quality of sound. Therefore this upper lip musculature should be developed. A large proportion of upper lip is also beneficial in playing the whole range of the shofar, which is typically two octaves (typically a kudu shofar has greater range); too little upper lip will not allow for the lowest notes on the horn.

How to play the shofar

Preferably you should blow the shofar from the right side, if possible, because the Talmud says the Satan sits on the right in a bid to condemn the shofar blower (Psalms 47:6).

There is no halachah on how to go about playing a shofar. By inference, if you find it uncomfortable to play the shofar from the right side of the mouth, then you should play on the left side (see Mishnah Berura, 585:6).

Some people play the shofar like they would play a brass instrument, from the center of their lips. While this is an unusual technique, it is permissible. However, the more conventional way to place the mouthpiece against the lips is to position it at one side of your mouth because it is smaller.

In the case of a Yemenite shofar, you will probably want to experiment with both straight and side mouth positioning.

Thanks to veteran shofar player Arthur Finkle for helping provide the material for this article.