How to blow the Shofar in the coronavirus age

Priority should be given to hearing the shofar blowing over attending the rest of communal prayer.

HEARING THE shofar is one of the core aspects of the Rosh Hashanah prayers (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
HEARING THE shofar is one of the core aspects of the Rosh Hashanah prayers
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
This year we’ll be experiencing a Rosh Hashanah service like nothing any of us have experienced in our lifetimes because of coronavirus restrictions and social distancing. The religious imperative of protecting public health might trump ritual obligations, but we must make every effort to still fulfill our religious duties, particularly on the holiest of days.
In this column we’ll review the measures being taken to ensure that we fulfill the basic minimum of our ritual requirements. This is critically important, as we may need to forego some of the beautiful rituals that aren’t as essential to the core obligations on this day.
The primary religious obligation on Rosh Hashanah is to hear the sounds of the shofar. As the Torah commands, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts (terua)” (Leviticus 23:24).
Since the Torah lists the word terua three times in various passages about this holiday, the sages assert that at least three terua blasts must be sounded. They added that every terua (a broken sound) is always accompanied by a tekia (a smooth, uninterrupted blast) before and after. Accordingly, one fulfills the biblical obligation by hearing nine sounds, i.e., three sets of tekia-terua-tekia (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 590:10).
Over time, however, disputes emerged about the sound of the terua. Is it a series of medium blasts with short breaks (now called shevarim)? Or are they short, staccato blasts (colloquially called terua), or a combination of both? In the 4th century, R. Abbahu of Caesarea declared that we should perform all of these possibilities. Following his enactment, Jews were required to hear 30 shofar blasts comprised of three sets of tekia-shevarim-tekia, tekia-terua-tekia, tekia-shevarim-terua-tekia.
Once a person hears these 30 blasts, they have entirely fulfilled their obligation. As such, if a person cannot make it to synagogue for whatever reason, or has a limited time to attend, they only need to hear a set of 30 blasts at some point over the day.
Why then do we regularly blow 100 sounds? In Talmudic times, the practice emerged to sound 30 blasts during the amidah prayer so that it could serve as a speechless form of supplication while also sounding the blasts as a standalone ritual, thus bringing us to 60 sounds. Later, the custom became to sound 100 blasts, but none of these additional blasts are essential to the mitzvah performance.
This year, in a few synagogues that are looking to complete one early-morning service quickly to allow another group of members to have a second service, they’ll forego these additional 40 customary blasts. Yet to reiterate, hearing a set of 30 blasts fulfills one’s basic obligation, and there is no advantage to hearing 60 or 100 blasts outside the context of the prayer service.
IN RECENT WEEKS, some healthcare professionals have raised concerns whether an unwitting shofar blower may inadvertently spread COVID-19 through aerosols emitted through the shofar horn. Some have responded that this fear might be obviated by having the shofar blower stand far away from the congregation, or alternatively, by pointing the shofar out a window or even standing outdoors. (Both logistically and halachically – according to Jewish law – it is not possible to place a cover on the mouthpiece).
Nonetheless, some specialists argue that it is prudent to cover the end of a shofar with a mask. Without commenting on the medical question, it pays to review a problem with the sound that the shofar would produce in that situation.
The Talmud declares that a person must hear the sound of the shofar directly and not through an echo. Does placing a thin mask on the shofar cause such a problem? This doesn’t seem to be the case.
Depending on how the mask is situated, it might make the sound a bit softer, but this is not the same as an echo. Some, however, have raised concerns that the mask might violate the strictures against decorating or making carvings in a shofar, since that could alter its sound (ibid, 586:16-17).
Yet many decisors have noted that a small decorative addition isn’t likely to cause any true changes, and this stricture probably doesn’t include a thin plastic mask. Accordingly, the heads of the Eretz Hemdah Kollel and Rabbi Yosef Zvi Rimon have ruled that one may cover the shofar opening with a mask if this is deemed important by healthcare professionals. Rabbi Rimon has also noted that it would be permissible to turn the shofar in a downward-facing direction if that would alleviate the perceived problems.
Finally, it pays to note that priority should be given to hearing the shofar blowing over attending the rest of communal prayer. As such, if one has to choose between attending synagogue for the 15 minutes of shofar blowing or an earlier portion of the prayers, they should prioritize hearing the shofar.
Similarly, many synagogues, especially those meeting outdoors, are abridging some of the beautiful poems (piyyutim) regularly added to the Rosh Hashanah service so that members will have the endurance to stay for the critical portions of shofar blowing and the amidah service. While many of these poems are quite inspiring, they are of lesser importance than the core aspects of the prayer, including the amidah, shofar blowing and Torah reading.
While these regretful changes may be a bit annoying, we should be thankful that most of us are still able to congregate, in one form or another, and pray together with a minyan (quorum). We pray that God will hear our supplications and make this the last Rosh Hashanah on which we have to worry about the coronavirus.
The author is the co-dean of the Tikvah Online Academy and directs the Jewish Law Live Facebook group and YouTube channel.