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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