‘Teki’ah!’ - The ins and outs of the shofar

No other mitzvah entails such high drama as the blowing of the shofar.

THE WRITER demonstrates how to hold the shofar. (photo credit: DAVID OLIVESTONE)
THE WRITER demonstrates how to hold the shofar.
(photo credit: DAVID OLIVESTONE)
With Rosh Hashanah four weeks away, synagogues everywhere have begun to blow the shofar (ram’s horn) each weekday morning in order to herald the approach of the Days of Awe. This is the signal for ba’alei teki’ah (those who blow the shofar) to begin practicing in earnest.
Sounding the shofar in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah has always been the high point of my year. No other mitzvah entails such high drama or is so dependent on a personal skill. And, at least for me, no other mitzvah renders quite the same sense of achievement and fulfillment.
I often hear people talk about the awakening power of the sound of the shofar – how awesome a moment, how inspiring an experience it is for them to hear it. But as I approach the bimah (lectern), I find myself quite alone, yet I am also highly conscious of being surrounded by an entire congregation of people who are relying on my ability to enable them to fulfill the central observance of the day, making it at once a very public and an intensely personal experience.
BUT THIS year the experience is likely to be different. Many questions are being asked regarding possible danger of infection as air from the shofar is forcibly expelled into the surrounding atmosphere. Certainly, every step possible should be taken to eliminate the fears and concerns of the congregants, and rabbis and medical experts (of which I am neither) have suggested various ways of dealing with this.
Clearly, the most essential safeguard of all is to make certain that the ba’al teki’ah is healthy, and if there is the slightest indication to the contrary, he should not blow.
If the service is located inside, recommendations include positioning the ba’al teki’ah next to an open window or behind a Plexiglas divider. If it is taking place outside, most people would agree that the danger is reduced, but nevertheless it would make sense for him to stand at the edge of the crowd. Some have suggested covering the end of the shofar with a cloth – or even with a mask – but the effectiveness of this has been disputed.
Each congregation will have to decide for itself what precautions to take.
Given the reluctance of many people to spend time in the company of lots of others, even if appropriately distanced, many communities will cut out some of the piyyutim (poetic insertions) that comprise much of the service. Similarly, prominent rabbis have ruled that it is not necessary to hear the entire 100 notes of the shofar that are usually blown on Rosh Hashanah, and that if there is a concern about time, 30 will suffice.
The limitation on the number of people who will be allowed to congregate on Rosh Hashanah, whether inside or outside, means that many more smaller groups will gather, with the resulting need for many more ba’alei teki’ah. With that in mind, here is a brief guide to blowing the shofar that may encourage you to try your hand at blowing it in your congregation or for any individuals who are unable to attend a service.
Being in control of the shofar’s power is an extraordinary privilege and responsibility. Sometimes I like to think that the next note could be the one that carries the congregation’s prayers soaring to the heavens. Sometimes I pray that this wordless animal sound that I am producing will have the ability to take the place of the prayers that are unspoken, the ones that words are inadequate to express.
The shofar
The Torah (Vayikra 29:1) designates Rosh Hashanah as “a day of blowing the shofar.” But it doesn’t spell out the details of what exactly that means. The Oral Law sets out a number of regulations concerning how the shofar is to be made and sounded.
The shofar should be bent, reinforcing the message that our attitude, especially on Rosh Hashanah, should be one of subservience to God. It must be made totally of horn; no overlay of silver, for example, is permitted. The way to embellish a shofar, therefore, became to carve it with a notched or scalloped edge. Some would engrave a design or even a biblical quotation into its side, but this is rarely done today.
Most shofarot are fashioned out of a ram’s horn, although some come from antelopes or ibexes. With the smaller end cut off, the horn is heated and straightened a little so that a hole can be bored through it. A mouthpiece is formed out of the horn itself. No finger holes, or reed, or valves – such as you would find on other wind or brass instruments – may be added to help you vary the notes. The only control you have over the sounds you blow is exerted by your lips and your tongue, and you can never be 100% confident that the right sound will emerge.
So whatever spiritual thoughts I might have as I prepare myself to sound the shofar usually evaporate as I begin. I am left simply hoping that, despite my trepidation, the notes will come out as perfectly as they did when I was practicing.
The notes
The sequence and the length of the notes must follow the prescribed pattern with great precision. The three mandatory sounds, each announced in advance by the makri (caller), are designed to awaken thoughts of repentance in the mind of the listener – and of subservience to God.
• Teki’ah: A long, clear note of alarm. The teki’ah is used to bracket the other sounds, each of which is meant to be evocative of different stages of crying.
• Shevarim: A three-part note that suggests the sound of sighing or moaning. Although many blow three straight notes, the shevarim gives the ba’al teki’ah the opportunity to introduce some real emotion by mimicking the rising and falling sound of a sad sigh.
• Teru’ah: Consisting of nine (or more) rapid-fire staccato sounds, it dramatically echoes the sobbing of someone in despair.
One hundred notes, in various combinations, are sounded at intervals throughout the Rosh Hashanah service, and each set is capped by a teki’ah gedolah, an extra-long note in which many also hear a sign of strength and hope.
Unfinished shofarot wait to be polished (Credit: David Olivestone)Unfinished shofarot wait to be polished (Credit: David Olivestone)
How to buy a shofar
If you don’t already own a shofar, there are several things to bear in mind when you go into a store to buy one. First, today most shofarot are made to be sold to tourists as souvenirs, in which case the kashrut of the shofar is irrelevant. Therefore, you should make sure you go to a reliable retailer who will sell you a shofar without any cracks or holes (even if they are repaired) or, for example, with lacquer on the outside to make it shinier, any of which would make the shofar unfit for use on Rosh Hashanah.
Above all, you need to choose a shofar that is a good fit for you personally, so don’t let anyone else buy it for you. Do you want a long Yemenite shofar, or a shorter, curly one? (You might want to check with your rabbi as to which he prefers.) But don’t make a choice based on size or appearance alone. The way the horn is finished – whether it’s rough or highly polished, whether it’s light colored or dark – has no bearing on the note it will produce. And don’t let the price of the shofar influence you one way or the other; only the way the shofar feels to you and the way it sounds are what counts.
The shape of the mouthpiece varies greatly, so it’s important to find one that feels comfortable on your lips. One mouthpiece may be too round for you, while the edges on another may feel too sharp. Most shofarot can produce two (or more) notes, a higher note and a lower one. The higher note requires more effort, but is a far more attractive and impressive sound. As you test the shofar, vary the pressure of your lips against the mouthpiece until you locate the note that sounds right to you.
Once you have found a shofar that feels comfortable and sounds good, keep blowing it for several minutes. This is not only to make sure that you are really happy with your choice, but also because some shofarot do not have “staying power”  – that is, they tend to lose power after a few minutes.
It’s possible that your new shofar will still have the odor of the sheep from which it comes; this will disappear with time. Some say to wash the shofar out with vinegar in order to get rid of the smell. In my experience, however, this just makes it smell like vinegar. Keep your shofar clean and dry and it should last a lifetime.
How to blow the shofar
Anyone can learn to blow the shofar, although few persevere enough to become really proficient. The Talmud (Shabbat 117b) refers to blowing the shofar as a skill, rather than hard work, but mastering it does demand a lot of intensive practice.
To produce a note, it’s not enough just to blow. Like any wind instrument, it’s the vibration of the column of air inside the shofar that creates the sound. First, use your tongue to moisten the extreme right-hand corner of your lips and place the shofar firmly on that spot, with its end pointing upwards. (There’s no problem if you find it easier to blow from the middle or any other point in your lips, but the right side is preferred.)
Don’t push the shofar into your mouth; it should be sitting just on the outside of your lips. With the lips tightly closed, create a tiny hole in them where the shofar is, and then force air into it as if you were making a rasping sound (known variously as blowing a raspberry or a Bronx cheer). You’ll soon be able to do it without actually making such a rude noise. If you get it right, a bright and powerful note will ring out from the shofar. According to Jewish law, any sound that comes out of the shofar is a kosher note (Shulchan Arukh 586:6), so whatever tone you are comfortable with is fine. My own preference is for a forceful, high-pitched note, as that is more likely to stir the emotions of your listeners – which is, after all, what the sound of the shofar is supposed to do.
It’s not necessary to puff out your cheeks; inhale and hold the breath in, letting it out slowly to control the length of the note. Many ba’alei teki’ah place the mouthpiece of the shofar between two fingers to hold it firmly against their lips, a technique which does help to keep the lips steady.
Try not to expel too much saliva into the shofar, since a wet shofar sounds hoarse. That’s why you’ll often see a ba’al teki’ah shaking his shofar or using long pipe cleaners to dry it out between each set of notes.
Once you have mastered the technique of blowing the shofar, it’s equally important to study the laws that govern its precise use: how long each note should be, what is the exact sequence, what to do if you make a mistake and blow the wrong note, and so on. For this, you should consult a rabbi or an experienced ba’al teki’ah who can teach you all that is involved.
The rest is practice, practice and practice, perfecting the notes and strengthening the lips and the capacity of the lungs. If you persevere and become really competent, you, too, will experience the enormous satisfaction of enabling so many others to fulfil the mitzvah of hearing the stirring blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.