Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sound the Call

The Shofar is the Icon of the Jewish New Year 

It is the sound of the shofar that is mentioned most often when Jews are asked to share a Rosh HaShanah memory. From those who are traditionally observant to those who self-describe as “cultural” or “secular,” it seems that all Jews everywhere associate the Jewish New Year with the sound of the shofar.  

And in recent years the shofar has come back into fashion. It began in the mid 2000’s, when a giant shofar “sound-off” was organized on a Massachusetts beach (that ended up in the Guinness Book of Records), and continued with Bugles Across America founder, Tom Day, whose rendition of Taps on the shofar at one of the ceremonies marking the  WW II Memorial dedication in Washington, DC, brought listeners to tears.

The origins of the shofar go way back. Author Ariela Pelaia (The Origins of the Shofar) writes that some scholars believe that its birth predates Jewish practice when making loud sounds on New Year’s night was thought to scare away demons, dybbuks and evil spirits.  As the religion developed, the shofar took on biblical proportions, mentioned as it is in the Tanach, the Talmud and a many pieces of historic Jewish literature. 

The shofar is the world’s oldest horn in continuous use. Biblical scholars state that the shofar dates back 6,000 years and was used in ancient times to announce the beginning of Jewish festivals, to signal the start of processions and to mark the start of a war. In fact the shofar’s most famous biblical reference is found in the Book of Joshua where  shofarot (the Hebrew plural form of shofar ) were used as part of a battle plan to capture the city of Jericho (Joshua 6:2-5). According to the account, Joshua followed God’s direction and the “walls came tumbling down!”

Yet it is the Jewish New Year, Rosh HaShanah (which literally means “head of the year”) where the shofar commands its greatest respect. In fact, Pelaia writes that ”the shofar is such an important part of this holiday that another name for Rosh HaShanah is Yom Teruah, which, in Hebrew means, “day of the shofar blast.” On each of the two days of Rosh HaShanah the shofar is blown one hundred times (with the exception of Shabbat where, in orthodox and conservative synagogues, the shofar is not sounded).

It was our most famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides, who wrote that the sound of shofar on Rosh HaShanah is meant as a Jewish “wake-up call,” where our souls arise to the possibilities of positive change. And the four specific sounds (technically the second and third harmonics) create an atmosphere were we can concentrate on self-improvement. 

The first sound, Tekiah, “is an unbroken blast that asks us to listen, focus and pay attention.
Shevarim represent a Tekiah sound that is broken into three distinct segments and is thought to symbolize sadness as we recall how our behavior during the past year may have fallen short of the ideal. It’s the “Oy vey” sound as we recall our failings.

Teruah, a series of nine rapid-fire blasts, is described as God’s “alarm clock.” Each group of three sounds reminds us of that catch in our throat - the little sob that escapes from our soul as we remember the mistakes we’ve made.

Tekiah Gadolah – is the “Extreme” Tekiah,  lasting at least nine seconds but many who sound the shofar will attempt to make this sound last as long as possible to the congregation’s awe and delight.

Tekiah Gadolah signals the end of Yom Kippur and the beginning of the New Year. 

Below, is a quick instructional video courtesy of a shofar maker from Belgium. If you've ever struggled with producing a sound from the shofar, here a few tips:

The person who sounds the shofar is called the “Ba’al (or the feminine, Ba’alat) Tekiah, or the “Master of the Sound.” The particular shofar chosen by this “Master Blaster” may be one of the many unusual types of horns available. The instrument itself is basically the hollow horn of a kosher animal that is crafted by hand according to Jewish guidelines and specifications. The exception is the horn of a cow or a calf because these are associated with the idolatry and false worship that was rampant in Biblical times. An ox horn is also disqualified. These, known as “keren” in Hebrew, have their own place in Jewish pilgrimage tradition. The traditional shofar refers specifically to the horn of a sheep, goat, antelope, gazelle, ibex or kudu. In fact, the large, curling Yemenite shofar is made from any of several types of antelope horn. 

Shofarot are never manufactured or factory produced. A shofar cannot be painted with colors but it can be delicately and intricately carved. Some Sephardi shofarot feature decorative silver-plating, which makes them (like eating rice on Passover) un-kosher according to Ashkenazi tradition. In fact, some Italian communities where “b’nei anousim,” have their ancient roots, these Jews who were forced into Christian conversion centuries ago continue to follow Jewish tradition. Centuries ago these Jews were prohibited from celebrating Jewish holidays and persecuted if they did so. But these ancient Jews found a way so even today it is not unusual to hear the soulful sound of a ram’s horn exactly at midnight on December 31st.

Via Jerusalem School of Visual Theatre
Throughout history Jewish communities created shofar shapes and sounds unique and appropriate for its people. At the time of the Expulsion and Inquisition, the Jews of Spain used a flat, straight shofar that featured a low pitch. Shofar maker Zvika Bar-Sheshet explains that “in the past Jews were not allowed to carry a shofar or use it. So it was necessary for these Jews to smuggle it hidden between the body and the trouser belt. The straight shape was adopted for this purpose. To make the hiding possible.” Today many Sephardic communities preserve this tradition by using this type of  “temple trumpet.”

After the Expulsion from Spain, some Jewish communities migrated through Central and Eastern Europe, where it was difficult to find or make the shofarot they were used to. It was during this period that the ram’s horn became popular. The sound produced from these new horns was a high, thin, weeping-like sound. Because the ram’s horn shofar was bent and not straight as the ibex horn had been in Spain and North Africa, the rabbis taught that the bent horn was a symbol of the human heart, which, on Rosh HaShanah inclines or “bends” toward God.

In Yemen and Iraq, Jews created the long, spiraling shofar. Unlike European shofarot that were drilled lengthwise to create the traditional sound, the large Yemenite antelope or bushbuck horn was cut width-wise at its hollow point, thus creating the long, low sound that creates an echo effect. Some historians believe that the Yemenite Jews preferred the antelope horn because its strong echo brought to mind the image of the mountain where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son.

Will Seberger/ Interfaith Service in Tuscon
With its Hebrew roots in the letters “shin, peh, resh,” the word “shofar” originates from the Hebrew word meaning, “hollow.” Regardless of its specific type, the shofar is a perfect hollow shell that, with the human breath, brings to life the culture, tradition and meaning of the season.


  1. Rabbi Barbara,

    I was wondering if you would care to share a post about Calabrian Jews on a new website I've started devoted to allowing Americans of Mediterranean descent to learn about and share knowledge of their history and culture:

    The site has just gotten started; I've been able to get one other author involved, and I would love it if you'd care to contribute.

    I'm an Italian-American of partial Calabrese ancestry, and I've always found the story of Calabrese Jews *so* fascinating. Their story is so interesting and obscure, and it's just the kind of thing I'm looking to share on this new website (especially since it crosses two major Mediterranean ethnic groups).

    Anyway, if you're interested, please feel free to send me an email at the address listed in the link!

  2. Dear Rabbi Barbara,

    I was wondering if you could give me information about the photo of a man blowing the shofar at dawn which appears above. I am interested in contacting the rights holder for that photo. Any information you could provide on that head would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    Tomi Mager

    1. Hi Tomi,

      That particular image has been difficult to track down. We've tried other sources such as, and so far without success. After reaching out, we've made an effort to find our images through creative commons to avoid the rights hunt. Sorry we couldn't be more helpful!

      Rosanna (at