Davi Cheng had some trepidation when she went to Hillel for the first time. She tried to feel comfortable, but she couldn’t understand the language of the services and the liturgical rituals were confusing.
Then she spied something unfamiliar on a bookshelf that made her feel right at home: a shofar.
"I really wanted to go over there and pick it up and blow it," said Cheng, who converted to Judaism six years ago.
In the ensuing years, the shofar became a personal religious motif for Cheng. She had a rabbi blow a shofar while she immersed in the mikvah for her conversion. She studied its laws by learning ancient texts, its sounds by listening to CDs and ended up becoming the shofar blower for her congregation, Beth Chayim Chadashim. When she designed the stained-glass windows for her temple, she featured the shofar prominently.
"The shofar was always something that I was drawn to, and I can’t give you the reason why," Cheng said. "It’s primal."
Ironically it is this inarticulateness that perhaps describes best the essence of the shofar experience. It also goes a long way in explaining why the shofar has weathered all the morphings of the Jewish tradition to remain the same instrument that it was in ancient times, and to become, in many senses, one of the great unifiers of the Jewish people. Go into any shul on Rosh Hashanah in any part of the world, and the one thing every service will have in common is the blowing of the shofar. It is an indispensable part of the liturgy, and its deep symbolic value and meaning belies its simple rustic origin. And yet, for all its meaning, for all its kabalistic secrets and for all its historical significance, at its core, the shofar is, as Cheng said, primal. Each blast sings the longings of the soul and it transcends our contrived communal labels.
Unlike, say, phylacteries, a shofar is a religious item that requires little religious obligation or expertise. While the shofar itself needs to come from a kosher animal (but not a cow, so as not to remind God of the sin of the golden calf) we are obliged only to hear its blast. Increasingly, the passive experience of the hearing the shofar is giving way to a more active one. In many shuls it is lay people, not rabbis, who blow the shofar for the High Holiday services.
This month, more than 55 schools in Southern California had Chabad’s mobile shofar factory come and transform raw rams’ horns into blowable shofars with their students. Chabad even set up the shofar factories in 20 Albertsons supermarkets.
On the consumer side, a shofar is becoming a popular bar or bat mitzvah gift, so much so that Judaica store owners report that the current "trend" in shofars is rough-hewn, unvarnished horns. And manufacturers are responding to the demand by producing "easy-blow" and "scentless" shofars that have larger mouthpieces and no animal smell.
"The shofar is a universal symbol of the coming of the New Year, and that makes it a fascinating thing for people," said Rabbi Berel Cohen, West Coast Chabad Lubavitch youth program director.
In fact, the shofar ritual is so widespread that it has spilled over into the Christian community. Thousands of evangelical and charismatic churches in the United States are blowing the shofar as part of their services and selling shofars in their gift shops — showing the enduring popularity of the most oft-mentioned instrument in the Tanach.
The shofar was blown at most of the significant events in ancient Jewish history. When the Jews received the Torah on Mount Sinai, and the mountain was engulfed in flames, a mighty shofar sounded and the nation "trembled" (Exodus 19:19). Its blast was used to announce the new moon, and to sanctify the Jubilee year, the 50th year in the calendar cycle in which all debts were forgiven, slaves were freed and land in Israel reverted back to its original owner. When Joshua encircled the city of Jericho, seven priests blew seven shofars, and the wall of the city came tumbling down. Judges like Gideon and Ehud, son of Geira, would blow the shofar as a battle cry, before slaying Israel’s enemies. After the judges died out, the shofar was blown when kings were anointed. In the future, when the Messiah comes, Elijah the Prophet will blow the shofar to herald both his arrival and the resurrection of the dead.
Today, we no longer use the shofar to signify God’s presence on a flaming mountain, or to bring down the walls of a city, but the biblical command of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur remains. On those days, the shofar is a one-note instrument that plays a symphony of meaning. As Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world, we blow the shofar to proclaim God’s sovereignty over the world and us, to redeclare Him as our king.
The shofar is also meant to trigger the forces that will cause us to have a good year. It is the sound that should inspire us to repent, and it is also the sound that will provoke God to act mercifully when he is inscribing us in the Book of Life.
Maimonides writes of the shofar as a spiritual alarm clock that should awaken "sleepers from their sleep, slumberers from their slumber," and prompt everyone to repent. It puts us in God’s good graces, because as a ram’s horn, the Talmud says it reminds God of the binding of Isaac (the Torah portion that is read in synagogues on the second day of Rosh Hashanah), when Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son at God’s command, until the last minute when God relieved him of the obligation and Abraham sacrificed a ram instead. The blowing of the shofar is meant to remind God of our similar eagerness to do what He wants, to "bind" us to Him. The shofar is bent, commentators say, because we too should "bend our will" to God’s.
According to kabbalah, the blowing of the shofar causes a great esoteric tumult. The Zohar says that the sounds of the shofar are strong enough to "break the powers of wrath," and when they ascend to the heavens, "judgment departs" and "mercy is awakened."
The blasts are also meant to confound Satan. According to rabbinic tradition, on Rosh Hashanah, Satan is up in heaven just waiting to prosecute the Jewish people with lists of their misdeeds, but when he hears the second and third set of blasts of the shofar, he gets all confused and falls down in his prosecutorial duties.
"The shofar is really the clarion call of a Jew that allows us to access Hashem at the deepest level," said Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon, who blows the shofar at Bais Bezalel on Pico Boulevard. "Its language transcends words. The shofar represent the inner voice that we cannot access so easily during the year, because we are so busy."
Like many other shofar blowers in the city, Lisbon practices his blasts by blowing the shofar every day during the month of Elul, when it is customary to blow the shofar in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah.
There are three main blasts of the shofar: tekiah, a long, drawn out complete sound; shevarim, three shorter sounds of equal length; and the teruah, nine short staccato sounds. There is also the tekiah gedolah, which is a protracted tekiah.
"The tekiahs are like bookends for what is in between," said Robert Smith, the shofar blower at B’nai David-Judea. "The tekiah at the front and the tekiah at the back have to be same length as what is in the middle."
"Your lips have to be tight to blow," said Brent Kaplan, a 14-year-old French horn player who blows the shofar for the family minyan at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills. "You have to use a lot more air and push it up from your chest rather than just your mouth, and you buzz your lips to get the sound."
For shofar blowers like Smith and Kaplan, the challenge of Rosh Hashanah is making sure preserving enough lungpower and strengthening their lip muscles to make it through the hundred obligatory blasts of the shofar during the Musaf service.
"The shofar blower is not supposed to talk from the time he makes the first blessing to the end of the last blast, and I do that," Smith said. "I really try to shut everyone out and just concentrate on the shofar blowing. It makes it an intense experience. But I am exhausted after I finish. I feel completely spent."
For other shofar blowers, the experience is not so much about getting the sounds out, but about remembering the reasons for the sounds.
"The first time I blow it I am thinking "let’s do it right," and I am paying attention to the task, but then when things are going smoothly I am thinking about how I want to reconnect my soul to God," said Dr. Simcha Goldman, a psychologist who blows the shofar at The Jewish Learning Exchange. "In the Orthodox version of repentance, you don’t confess to specific sins — it’s more about the need to enhance and repair one’s relationship with God. On Rosh Hashanah you have know who you are dealing with."
Goldman says it is up to the listener to extract the deeper meaning in the blasts.
"The listener should listen with appropriate concentration," he said. "It’s intended to elicit a thinking response from the person blowing it and the person listening to it."
But all agree that the shofar’s plaintive wail distinguishes it from all other instruments.
"When someone hears a French horn, they may not think about much," said Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, associate rabbi at Temple Emmanuel who plays the French horn in addition to being the temple’s shofar blower. "But when you hear the shofar it is dripping with the tradition of Judaism. There is something about a shofar that completely penetrates."