Blowing the shofar’s trumpet

Let’s face it, the saxophone or the tuba just cannot do the job right.

A worshiper blows a shofar at the Western Wall (photo credit: REUTERS)
A worshiper blows a shofar at the Western Wall
(photo credit: REUTERS)
CLOSE YOUR eyes for a moment and try to visualize a single object that encapsulates Judaism for you. Now, what did you see? A Star of David? It is hard to imagine a synagogue without one, and the Israeli flag sports the Magen David. But its association with Judaism is weak, only dating back to medieval times at most.
A Scroll of the Law? Ancient scrolls with Biblical texts date back 2,000 years, and the texts themselves are older. But it is not clear when the texts were first recorded on scrolls, and the Hebrew script with which we are familiar appeared only around 2,300 years ago.
The stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written? The arched top of the tablets is mere artistic convention, but the connection goes back to the very foundation of Judaism at Mount Sinai.
But there is one object that goes back just a little further. It heralded the giving of the Law itself. And, unlike all the objects above, it can be both seen and heard.
Did you see the shofar? It’s an unusual object, being special and not special at the same time. Its sound is distinctive, and it is essential to the Rosh Hashana festival. And, as author Jeremy Montagu notes, it “can fairly claim to be the oldest musical instrument in written history that is still in use.”
Yet, it is a mere animal horn, most frequently that of a goat or ram, with the inner bone removed, and usually shaped in the workshop to match traditional forms. Once cracked or otherwise unfit for purpose, it is unsentimentally discarded. Surprisingly, the earliest examples that have survived date from as late as the 17th century, and this is likely because most of them are decorated with Hebrew text.
And, calling it “musical” is a stretch. It is difficult to blow, its range is limited and its tone is harsh. Sporadic efforts to integrate the shofar into orchestras have gone down in sonic flames. As a spiritual wake-up call, though, it could scarcely be bettered.
Let’s face it, the saxophone or the tuba just cannot do the job right. It might work even as a literal wake-up call: Has anyone tried programming shofar sounds into a smartphone to blast him or herself out of bed in the morning? In this richly illustrated volume, though, the shofar is allowed to do what it never will in the concert hall – take center stage.
Montagu brings to his task unrivaled qualifications.
An emeritus fellow of Wadham College, Oxford, and a former curator of the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, among other appointments and honors, he has published extensively on musical instruments, including instruments mentioned in the Bible. He has a fine collection of his own. (Full disclosure: It was shown to me by its proud proprietor.) But his best qualification has no academic title attached to it. He is an experienced ba’al toke’a (shofar blower) and has been the shofar blower at his local synagogue for decades. Scholarly expertise blends with practical experience and a fierce affection to produce what is likely to be the authoritative book on the shofar for years to come.
It is not just the product of scholarly learning.
Montagu’s research has taken him to collections in Europe and North America. He visits one of the two main shofar factories in Israel, and learns that, while locally manufactured rams’ horns have taken over from the goats’ horns widely used in Europe until the Second World War, the horns themselves are imported from Morocco where the rams apparently are allowed to live longer and are thus able to grow their horns to a suitable length. The author himself has tried to make shofarot, with mixed results.
Other horns used for shofarot include ibex and kudu. The kudu horn’s length and wavelike shape make it visually impressive, but the shofar-blowing author finds its tones too predictable and bland to be adequate as a cry of warning because, unlike other animal horns, the sound chamber or bore expands regularly from the mouthpiece. He also warns against obtaining shofarot made from the horns of protected or endangered species.
The sheer range of shofarot, including the way they are worked to conform to communal traditions from Morocco to Eastern Europe, is hard to classify. The author identifies 16 types (not including the plastic toy shofar that he added for fun) but admits that there are likely others as yet unidentified.
Montagu shows, with the aid of 13th-century manuscripts, that it is likely that the three shofar calls known to us today, the teki’a (a sustained note), shevarim (three broken notes) and teru’a (a staccato note), have a very long history. The staccato sound of the teru’a, for example, is represented by an upright wavy line, a clear visual representation of the note. But the tradition of sounding 100 shofar blasts each day of Rosh Hashana (save for Shabbat, when the shofar is not blown) is relatively recent, dating from the 19th century.
All this is underpinned with explanations of the other uses of the shofar, including as a warning, call to help, and for mourning.
Montagu has a black one in his collection, which he thinks may have had the somewhat sinister purpose of announcing a herem, or excommunication.
No previous knowledge of Judaism is assumed. Even basic terms, including the Mishna and Talmud, are defined and explained.
But the author writes from within the Jewish tradition and says so explicitly and proudly. The laws of the shofar’s manufacture and use are clearly set out. There is also an invaluable list of sources, biblical and rabbinical, in which the shofar is mentioned, including the relevant quotation in full.
For the aspiring shofar blower, there are lots of useful tips to make sure your horn is heard on high. Buy your horn from reputable sources. Moisten the shofar slightly with saliva before use, make sure your lips are not too tense, and don’t blow too hard.
You are not a jazz trumpeter, so no Louis Armstrong-style chipmunk cheeks. And use a feather to dry out the narrow end of the bore, though Montagu’s recommendation ‒ a male pheasant’s tail feather ‒ may not always be readily obtainable.
The author’s wide knowledge of music is continuously brought to bear, with occasionally luminous results. He comments on a Yemenite technique for blowing a teru’a gedola (an extended staccato note) by noting that it is “reminiscent of European Renaissance cornett and recorder playing as advocated by many instruction books of that period for playing divisions, as ornamentation and variations were then called.” Music-making, even of such an apparently distinctive liturgical and cultural character, can find counterparts in unexpected times and places.
Add to this expertise Montagu’s easy conversational prose style, remarkable in any work, let alone one intended for the reference shelf, and you have the ideal gift for the holiday season, as well as a source of knowledge of lasting value. My one quibble is that nearly all the pictures in the book appear in black and white ‒ as you can see from the illustrations, the shofarot look so much better in color. And, he never forgets the spiritual aspect of his topic. Here is how he sums it up.
“[T]he shofar is not, on Rosh Hashana, a musical instrument. It is, instead, a voice, a call from heaven. We hear a disembodied voice, a voice that has rung wordless down through the ages, wordless, yet full of meaning. We have heard it ever since we stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. We have heard it every year since then, every year on Yom T’ru’a. We have heard it through all the Jewish generations. We have heard it in every land in which we have ever dwelt.
“Wordless, the voice of the shofar, kol hashofar, calls to us from heaven, ‘Come to God, Return, Reflect, Repent, Renew yourselves,’ and then, at the very end of Yom Kippur, ‘Begin anew, Start again a new life, It is never too late.’”