About the Shofar

    August 2009            
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Symbolic Sounds of the Shofar

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

The shofar (ram's horn) is the only biblical instrument that has remained in use within the Jewish liturgy. Unlike the other instruments mentioned in the Bible—kinnor, ugab, mitzelet, tof, etc.—there is no debate about what the shofar looked and sounded like in ancient times: it is the same today as it was then. This remarkable survival owes to three primary factors: (1) The rabbis did not consider it musical (it produces only two or three tones), and so it was exempt from the ban against musical instruments in the synagogue; (2) Its symbolic importance made it indispensable to Jewish worship; (3) Because any modification, such as an added mouthpiece or decorative engraving, make the shofar ritually unfit, its sound and design have resisted change.

The shofar is mentioned 72 times in the Bible, and figures prominently in a number of Talmudic discussions. Its sound is described as a voice (kol), shout of jubilation (teruah), trembling (yabava), and other terms underscoring its magical and symbolic nature. Musicologist Edith Gerson-Kiwi viewed the shofar as a symbol of monotheism itself, calling it "the instrument . . . that brought human sacrifice to an end and sealed God's covenant with Abraham."

The shofar was sounded at the giving of the Torah: "Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down in the fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The voice of the shofar grew louder and louder" (Ex. 19:18-19). It was used to "proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Lev. 25:10)—the verse inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. It was also used in warfare, ceremonials, songs of praise, and on various special occasions.

In present-day practice, the shofar is blown at the conclusion of weekday morning services during the month of Elul (except on the day preceding Rosh Hashanah), on Rosh Hashanah, and at the concluding service of Yom Kippur. The baal tekiah (master blower) produces three emblematic sounds on the shofar: tekiah, a long single blast declaring God's coronation; shevarim, three short wail-like blasts signifying repentance; and teruah, nine staccato blasts of alarm intended to awaken the soul.

It is a mitzvah—a commandment—to hear the shofar's ancient call on Rosh Hashanah. Egyptian-born rabbi and philosopher Saadia Gaon (892-942) gave ten reasons for this ruling, including the horn's role in proclaiming God's sovereignty, announcing the beginning of the ten days of repentance, and reminding us to be faithful to the Torah. The following poem by E. C. Ehrlich, published in Poems for Young Judaea (1917), sums up the atmosphere and emotions surrounding the blowing of the shofar on this sacred day:

Within the synagogue the light is dim;
The air is hushed around;
Even the silence seems to pray until
We hear the Shofar sound.
O Shofar, tell our souls we need not fear,
Though long and hard the way;
O Shofar, bind us with thy sacred strain,
Till each young heart will echo Israel's pain,
And, like a trumpet clear,
Sound to the world the vow we pledge anew:
To bear all-worthy the name of Jew,
Throughout the coming year!

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Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor of Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, Nevada, and the editor of four books: Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (Paragon House, 2008); The Value of Sacred Music (McFarland, 2009); Music in Jewish Thought (McFarland, 2009); and Perspectives on Jewish Music (Lexington, 2009).

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from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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