September 20, 2018

The Origins of the Music of the Shofar

…it’s tru’ah that’s the most interesting. The word is related to the verb heyri’a, and both noun and verb occur many times in the Bible, where they can refer to a cheer, battle cry, military command, or outburst of jubilation. Thus, we have verses like 1Samuel 10:24, “And all the people cheered [va-yari’u kol ha’am] and said, ‘Long live the king!’”; 1Samuel 1:52, “And the men of Israel and of Judah arose and cried [va-yari’u] and pursued the Philistines”; Numbers 10:5, “And ye shall blow a command [tru’ah] and the eastward camp shall move forward”; and Psalms 33:3, “Sing unto Him a new song, play the tru’ah well.”

A biblical tru’ah can be produced either by the human voice or by a wind instrument. In Rosh Hashanah services in Jewish communities all over the world, it is sounded as a series of rapid staccato blasts, generally nine in number, all having the same pitch, although the last is sometimes slightly higher: tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh! (In Sephardi synagogues, the staccato form can be replaced by a gentle and wavelike legato.)

Curiously, however, there are a few places in the Bible where the same verb and noun can indicate a wail, dirge, or lament, or the sounding of one. Thus, we have Micah 4:9, “Now why dost thou [Jerusalem] cry aloud [tari’i re’a] . . . for pangs have taken thee like a woman in travail,” and Jeremiah 20:15-16, “Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father saying, ‘A man child is born unto thee;’ . . . let him hear the cry of pain in the morning and the lament [tru’ah] in the afternoon.” Is this tru’ah a different sound from the tru’ah of battle and rejoicing? But why, if it is, should the same word be used for it?

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