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

A quick and easy guide to understanding the themes and meanings of our Hebrew High Holiday liturgy.

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.

These are the notes from a class I gave entitled, “High Holiday Service Crash Course: A Quick and Easy Guide to Understanding the Themes and Meanings of our Hebrew High Holiday liturgy.” There are links to some of the materials to which I referred, so all you need are some really good cookies and you can almost have the same experience as those who joined me for the discussion.

With the High Holidays just around the corner, now is a great time to start to prepare for them. Here is a quick reference guide for making High Holiday services a more personally meaningful experience. By following some of these suggestions, services can become more of an active rather than passive process for you

A Reading Readiness

* Look over the Machzor (High Holiday prayer book), borrow one from the Synagogue if you wish.* Read through a copy of our High Holiday companion See the link at the end of this post) which explains the prayers of our Machzor * Compare different versions of the Machzor; find alternate readings or translations. * Visit the Library or a Jewish book store and select a book about the prayers or about the Holidays.

B Personal Experience

* The function of many of our prayers is to place us back into the history e.g. to “feel” what it was like to get the Torah at Mount Sinai: write down and be prepared to think of a time when you felt the presence of God, or felt profoundly Jewish.

C Z’chut Avot:

* May times during service we appeal for forgiveness due to the merit of our ancestors; find out about your own ancestors/family and share the results with other family members. * Ask kids to interview grand parents etc. and discuss the results during festival meals or before services. * Find out about and discuss past Holiday experiences such as sitting next to a grand parent in services.

D Personal Prayers/Meditations

* Personal prayers/meditations are provided for at various places in the services (e.g. at the end of the Amidah or silent prayer) * Bring a list of things you want to thank God for; things you want to ask for; or things you have trouble understanding. * Write poems that you can include in the service similar to the Piyutim, or liturgical poems, that are already part of the service. * List things about your self you a proud of or would like to improve in the coming year. * Think about plans or goals for the future.* before Yom Kippur it is costmary to ask for Michilah(forgiveness) from any individual you may have harmed either intentionally or inadvertently, think about who these individuals may be – family members are always a good place to start.This is an opportunity to enter the New Year with a clear conscious and rekindled relationships.

F By CD’s or MP3’s of Holiday Music

* Playing music in the home as you prepare for a Holyday always helps set the appropriate tone and builds excitement for the upcoming occasion.

E Buy You Own Machzor:

* Paper clip in you own: prayers, readings, meditations or personal lists from above, transliterations, names of family members to be remembered at Yizkor or during the Martyrology, which is said during Yom Kippur.
F Quick Guide to Prayer book Hebrew

Hebrew, as you may know is based a system of three or four letter roots around which all of the various forms and conjugations of words are formed. By looking at a few of these, you will be able to receive an idea of some of the concepts the author of the particular prayer is seeking to convey. These roots can be expressed in English transliteration as a series of letters separated by dashes. So here we go:

  1. B-R-Ch. This conveys the concept of Praise or Blessing. Thus the word BRaCha, means blessing, as in Blessed are you our God. Any time this root is employed we are evoking the presence of the Creator in what we seek or in that for which we are grateful. So BiRCHat Kohanim, is the Priestly blessing recited on the Holidays, Festivals and on other significant occasions. Interestingly, the Hebrew word for “knee” is BeReCh; we often bend our knee when acknowledging God’s presence.
  2. K-D-Sh. This conveys the concept of Holiness. God is the Holiest of all entities because there on one God in the universe. So we have KidDuSh, the sanctification of Shabbat or a Festival usually made over wine. KiDuSha, the expression of God’s holiness found during the public recitation of the Amidah. KaDdiSh, the prayer said by mourners and KiDuShin, the Hebrew word for a wedding.
  3. M-L-Ch (K). This conveys the concept of monarchy. God is described as MeLeCh Ha Olam, the ruler of the universe. We have a section of the Rosh Hashanah service that cites texts demonstrating and focusing on the monarchy of God called MaLCh Also we often sing the popular prayer, Avinu MaLKeinu, Our Parent Our Monarch, pointing out the continuum between Justice and Mercy that defines our relationship with God.
  4. Z-Ch(K)-R. This conveys the concept of Remembering. So we have ZiChRonot, a section of the Rosh Hashanah service that cites texts demonstrating and focusing on the past and the memory of the relationship between God and our ancestors. Many gather on Yom Kippur and other festivals for the YiZKoR, memorial service. Also we have the Israeli version of Memorial Day; Yom Ha ZiKaR
  1. Tz-D-K. This conveys the concept of Justice or doing that which is right. Thus the bible implores us, “TzeDeK, TzeDeK Tirdof; Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” We come to the realization before God during the High Holidays that we are not TzDiKim, completely righteous people like our great sages, but that we have indeed committed transgressions. During Yom Kippur we may be motivated to support the Synagogue or other worthy cause by giving TzeDaKah i.e. doing that which is right and just.

Links:

Mahzor 101 by Samuel Rosenbaum

This excellent guide to High Holiday prayers was the last creative work by Samuel Rosenbaum, z”l. The commentaries offer short explanations of the major prayers and services.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Survival Kits

A delightful, down to earth approach to understanding the High Holidy services. Written by Shimon Apisdorf.

Inspirational Readings by Rabbi Dov Perez Elkins

Collections of stories and other sources of reflection and insight that are perfect for before, during (not while the Rabbi is speaking of course) and after services. Rabbi Elkins is a world renowned motivational speaker and author.

Beth El Synagogue High Holiday Companion

I created this booklet so that it would be the equivalent of having me sitting beside you in services and explaining each prayer as it happens. I include the page number in Machzor Lev Shalem for each prayer as well as indicating particular points of interest throughout the service.

The Spirit of the High Holidays

Part of a joyous series of music CDs jointly produced by the Cantors Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism featuring music and prayers sung by members of the Cantors Assembly. Familiar favorites and new compositions, includingHebrew texts, translations, and commentaries on the selections are presented.

For example, here is a beautiful, uplifting setting from the Rosh Hashannah Musaph service entitled, “Kadosh Atah,” “You are Holy,” sung by Hazzan David Lefkowitz and the Park Avenue Synagogue Choir.

Please feel free to contact me for help with any of the above suggestions or to explore other possibilities. By doing a small amount of preplanning, the services that we experience together this year can be the most meaningful ever.

Best wishes for a Shanna Tovah – a year of Goodness and Blessing

Hazzan Michael Krausman, Beth El Synagogue hazzankrausman@bethel-omaha.org 402-492-8550