E-Hazzan The Sound of the Shofar

A great silence settles over the packed synagogue as a man cloaked in a white robe with a huge black and white striped Tallit over his head slowly raises and old Shofar to his lips. With majestic fanfare the Rabbi calls out in a rising and falling melodic tone, “Tekiah.” After a momentary, breathless hesitation, a piercing, reverberating blast trumpets through the silent sanctuary… One of my most prominent childhood memories is the sounding of the Shofar during the Rosh Hashanah service. Even today, the blast of the Ram’s horn sends a special kind of electric pulse through my spine. In fact, there are few of us who are not moved by the haunting call of the Shofar.

Sounding the Shofar, an ancient instrument made from the horn of a ram or similar animal is a tradition that dates back to biblical times. Most traditions trace the source of the Shofar to the story of the binding of Isaac, which we read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Abraham’s faith in God was so rigorous that he was willing to sacrifice his favorite son Isaac. At the last moment, an angel thwarted Abraham’s attempt to kill his son and a ram, caught in thicket of thorns was sacrificed in Isaac’s place. Thus the shofar reminds us not only of the solid faith and devotion of our ancestor but also of our connection through Abraham to God. We are also mindful that God preferred the sacrifice of the ram as opposed to what might have been an overly zealous, heinous act of child sacrifice.

A.Z. Idelsohn, perhaps the most renowned of all Jewish musicologists, points out that to the primeval Israelites, the Shofar was valued for its rhythmic rather than melodic capabilities. To our ancient ancestors, Idelsohn notes, the blowing of the ram’s horn had magical powers; with a blast of the Shofar, God could be awakened from His slumber and summoned to help His People. Furthermore, the Shofar could be used to frighten off evil spirts and lesser deities of neighboring peoples. Even God, remarks Idelsohn, was depicted as blowing His Holy Shofar in order to “frighten His enemies and to gather the remnants of His people…”

Our Machzor (High Holiday prayer book) cites as the biblical commandment to blow the Shofar a passage from Psalm 81, “Tiku Ba Hodesh Shofar… Sound the Shofar on our feast day, on the new moon when it is hidden. For it is Israel’s law, a decree of the God of Jacob.” According to Biblical and Rabbinic tradition, the Shofar was not only used on Rosh Hashanah but also on the first day of the new month, for the coronation of a new king as well as to proclaim the Jubilee year during which all slaves were freed and all land reverted to the clan that was its original owner. Similarly, a great celestial shofar sound was heard at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Shofar blasts were also employed to call the Nation of Israel together for battle. Perhaps the best know example of the latter was the story of Joshua (Josh 6) whose famous resounding shofar blast brought down the walls of Jericho. In times when the Great Jerusalem Temple stood, the Shofar was often used in conjunction with a metal Trumpet and other instruments that served to punctuate the ancient sacrificial service.

Here is an audio recording of Tiku Ba Hodesh Shofar presented by Hazzan Moshe Schwimmer and his magnificent choir through the Judaica Sound Archives of Florida Atlantic University.

Shofarot(pl) are constructed using the horn of a Kosher animal. In recollection of the sin of the golden calf, horns made of cows are prohibited. While Ashkenazim (German and eastern European Jews) prefer shorter Ram’s Horns, Jews of other cultures use longer horns such as those from an Ibex or Antelope. Barsheset- Riback, an Israeli purveyor of Shofarot, describes the process of selecting, boiling, cleaning out and finishing the horns to produce a functioning Shofar. According to Jewish law, nothing, such as an external mouth piece may be added to the horn, neither can holes be drilled to produce variable sounds.

A day of Blowing [the Shofar] is one of the ways in which the Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah. As we usher in the New Year, the shofar is literally a wakeup call to our Jewish Soul. In fact, it is customary to begin the daily sounding of the shofar at the beginning of the month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew Calendar, to awaken the listener to the need for undergoing the process of Heshbon Ha Nefesh, the accounting of the soul.

We are jolted into the reality of the High Holiday season – the need for self-examination and introspection in order that we can enter the New Year with a clean slate and a renewed spirit.

During our Rosh Hashanah liturgy the shofar is sounded in the context of the Shofar service that comes just after the Torah reading as well as to punctuate the three unique sections of the Musaph (additional service.) Please see my post on Rosh Hashanah Musaph for more details.

There are three distinct calls that are made on the shofar; each has its own significance and meaning. Noted authority on Jewish Liturgy Abraham Milgram traces the source of these distinct shofar blasts to the biblical book of Numbers (10:5-7) which defines a “Tekiah” – a solid sound and a “Teruah” – a wavering or broken sound. Because the Rabbis of the Talmud (R.H 34a) could not agree on what constitutes a “broken tone,” they mandated the “Shevrim,” a sound comprised of three medium length notes and the “Teruah” a blast consisting of nine short individual blasts. A “Tekiah Gedolah” or longer Tekiah is also used. The skill of the Ba’al Tekiah (Master Blaster) or one who blows the shofar, determines the quality and duration of each type of sound.

Here is a video of the four types of Shofar sounds:

Deep meaning can be found in each of the types of shofar blasts. The website Mazornet, a traditional site that focuses on resources and explanations for Jewish celebrations, posts an interesting understanding of the shofar blasts: Tekiah, is a regal sound appropriate for Rosh Hashanah which celebrates God’s coronation as Ruler of the Universe. Shevarim is compared to the sound of sobbing; the heart cries out for strengthening the relationship between God and the worshiper. Teruah is an alarm, the challenge to wake up to the call for Teshuvah, or return to a path that leads to a meaningful and fulfilling way of life.

This explanatory reading by Rabbi Milton Steinberg, the great Conservative theologian appears in Machzor Hadash, published by the Prayer Book Press:

For untold generations, on this day, our ancestors listened to the sound of the Shofar. What did they hear in its piercing tones? What solemn truths did they detect in its calls which stirred them so profoundly each year?

And what does the Shofar say to us today, as we stand at the dawn of the New Year, groping for a light to guide us and a faith to sustain us?

Tekiah! Awake! Let not habit dull your minds, nor comfort harden your hearts. Examine your deeds, look well into your soul, mend your ways, turn to God.

As we hear the sharp Tekiah blast, let us rouse ourselves from smugness and self-satisfaction, from callousness and self-righteousness.

Shevarim! The broken refrain! Listen to the staccato cry. Hear the echoes of sighing and weeping. The deprived and the distressed, the neglected and the enslaved, the bruised and the broken-all cry out for relief from their pain, for release from their torment.

As we hear the anguished wail of Shevarim, let us open our ears to the cries of the afflicted and the oppressed, and let our hearts respond with compassion and love.

Teruah! The call to battle is sounded: Join the struggle against evil and suffering. Give of your bread to those who hunger; give of your strength to those who stumble; give of your time to the lonely and forsaken; heal the wounded, comfort the bereaved.

Let us hearken to the Teruah’s call to action.

For in our hands, in our hearts, and in our minds

Are the means for building a better world,

For fulfilling the promise of peace and justice,

And for hastening the day when all will hear

The sound the great Shofar of liberation.

Hopefully, the blast of the Ram’s horn will send a special kind of electric pulse through your spine and reverberate in your soul this Rosh Hashanah so that you too will moved by the haunting call of the Shofar. May you be inspired by the sounds of the Shofar to strive for a Shanna Tova, a year of Blessing and Goodness.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at part of our prayer service. If you have a suggestion, comment or question, please fee free to leave a comment below or to email me at michaelkrausman@gmail.com.

Take  Care

Hazzan Michael Krausman

Share a Prayer: Haneirot Halalu – These Lights which we Kindle

Welcome to “Share a Prayer” a quick look at a prayer that is found in our daily, Shabbat or Holy Day Prayer Service. Often during the course of the service we encounter some real gems that we don’t have time to reflect upon; this will give us an opportunity to select one prayer and take a closer look.

While many of our kids consider Hanukah the “Hag Kabalat Ha Matanot” the  festival of gift reception, Hanukah is commonly referred to in our tradition as “Hag Ha Urim”; the festival of light. Not only is light the first article of Creation, but it has always symbolized what is the very essence of Hanukah; joy, hope, happiness and freedom. Thus after kindling the Hanukah candles, it is traditional to recite or sing the brief but powerful prayer which extols and elucidates the Hanukah Lights – Ha Neirot Halalu, “these lights which we kindle.”

We all are familiar of the History of Hanukah – in 167 B.C.E. the evil Seleucid forces of King Antiochus defiled the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Replacing the ritual objects of the Temple with statues of Zeus and other pagan artifacts, Antiochus planned to have the Jewish people “forget the Torah” and completely assimilate into Hellenistic society; we would, in effect have disappeared. But, miraculously, in 164 B.C.E, the Selucids were defeated and the Holy Temple was cleansed and rededicated by the small but mighty forces of the priestly family of Mattathias under the leadership of the great Judah the Maccabee. The great miracle of Hanukah is not only a that small band of righteous fighters was able to defeat a mighty evil army, but, that despite all of the compelling forces of assimilation, we, the Jewish people still exist today. Furthermore, according to tradition, in the process of restoring the Temple, the Maccabees wishing to rekindle the Sacred Menorah, only found enough consecrated oil to last for one day. Miraculously, as the tale is told, that small amount of oil lasted for eight days until new oil could be produced.

Ha Neirot Halalu,  traces its origin to the Talmudic Tractate of Sopherim (20:6) and can can be found in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Siddurim. Recited After saying the blessings over the candles, this poem reminds us of “the reason for the season” – to remember the heroic acts of the priestly Maccabee family and to be thankful for all that God did for our ancestors and continues to do in our time. The other significant purpose of our poem is to underscore the centrality of the theme of light in our tradition. We are reminded that the Hanukah Lights are holy and therefore we are not permitted to use the candles for illumination, we are only allowed to contemplate them.

Rav Binyamin Tabory of the Virtual Beit Ha Midrash introduces an interesting discussion as to the reason for ascribing Holiness to the lights of Hanukak. He begins by citing a source from the Talmud, (Shabbat 22a) that suggests that the candles in and of themselves are not sacred;

“While the Gemara does conclude that we are not permitted to use the Hanukah candles for a purpose other than the Mitzvah, for example, for counting coins, it explicitly states that it is NOT because of their holiness!”

However, Rabbi Tabory reminds us that the sacred nature of the Hanukah lights comes form their connection to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. The Biblical Portion of Behaalotcha (Numbers 8:1- 12:16) describes in precise detail the procedure for erecting and kindling the Menorah, the candelabrum that was a key feature of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that traveled through our the wilderness with our ancestors when they left Egypt. Paralleling this Torah portion is the Haftara (Zechariah 2:14-4:7) which describes the construction and operation of the Menorah in the Holy Temple. Appropriately, we also read this Haftara on the Shabbat of Hanukah. Recognizing the preeminent significance of the Menorah, the Maccabees, as we recall form the Hanukah story, make it a priority to rekindle the Menorah as they worked to rededicate the temple. Indeed, the traditional Hanukah miracle itself, revolves around the oil used in the Menorah. Moreover, one of the central Mitzvoth of Hanukah, Pirsumi Nisa – publicizing the Miracle of Hanukah as an example of God’s saving power, is accomplished by placing the Hanukah lights in a window so that all can see them.

Clearly, the Hanukah lights connect us not only to the Maccabees but all the way back to the Mishkan carried by our ancestors as they fled Egypt and on to the Holy Temple of Jerusalem which, for generations has continued to serve as the focal point for all of our prayers. The bottom line according to Rabbi Tabory is:

“The Mitzvah of lighting Hanukah candles can be seen as a continuation of the Mitzvah of lighting the Menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem…The Halakha [Jewish law] tells every Jew to take the candles of the Temple (Mikdash) and light them in his private house. Not only is the synagogue a “miniature Temple” (a Mikdash me’at), but the goal of this Mitzvah is to transform every home into a Mikdash me’at.” 

The song Ha Neirot Halalu  indeed encapsulates the very essence of Hanukah. As we kindle the Hanukah lights not only are we illumined with joy, happiness and freedom, but we become part of an ancient, universal process that began in the wilderness of Sinai, continued in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem and culminates in the miniature Temple that is our Jewish Home; the essential foundation of Jewish Life.

I hope you enjoy this brief look at our prayers. If you have a suggestion, question or request, email me at hazzan@e-hazzan.com.

Here is a link to the text in Hebrew and English

Here is a link to a previous post on Hanukah with several Hanukah melodies

This is a link to video of a traditional version of Haneirot Halalu

This is a link to video of a traditional version of Haneirot Halalu from Israeli TV

This is a link to video of a Moroccan version of Haneirot Halalu

Hag Urim Sameiach ! A Joyous and Inspirational Hanukah to all!

Hazzan Michael Krausman