February 19, 2020

Shofar-Blowing Class Provides Lung Workout in Time for the High Holy Days

Yoni Workman (left) and Marcelo Kuperwasser at the shofar workshop.

While every Jew is commanded to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, thankfully we’re not all required to learn how to blow one. But for those wanting to give their lungs the ultimate workout, Hollywood Temple Beth El held a shofar workshop on Sept. 15, led by Rabbi Norbert Weinberg. A few hardy souls showed up to learn how to wail like Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho or, in this reporter’s case, blow oneself red in the face while bringing forth a sound resembling a dying moose.

Weinberg told the Journal that this was the second time he’s held the workshop. As part of the synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah services, he likes to invite any member of the congregation to come up to the bimah and become familiar with the instrument. 

Unlike the trumpet or other horns, you don’t have to worry about hitting the right note. The ram’s horn’s unpredictable sound is a feature, not a bug. Maimonides called the sound of the shofar “penetrating” and its harsh, atonal sound is meant to unsettle. 

“The Rambam says this unsettling forces us to think about our actions for the year,” Weinberg said. It’s also why shofars are never equipped with a mouthpiece. “If you use a mouthpiece, it’s predictable,” Weinberg explained. “This is a wild animal and playing it is like taming a wild animal, so you need an untamed beast. You’re going to take it as it comes: natural. That’s a very important part.”

Shofars available at the workshop. Photos by Steven Mirkin

Weinberg demonstrated the three types of sounds heard on Rosh Hashanah, starting with the malchuyot, one long blast, representing the enthronement of God — the coronation. “That would be the original intention,” Weinberg said, “because you blow the shofar at the coronation of a king; God is King of the Universe.” Then there is the zichronot, three short blasts that represent remembrance. “This is very practical,” Weinberg said. “God remembered us in the past, maybe we’ll get a lucky break and escape the pogrom this year, too.” Finally, the shofarot, “the sound that comes at the end of history, when all existence is redeemed.” Taken together, he said, “you have the present, past and the future, and all of that is in the shofar.”

“This is a wild animal and playing it is like taming a wild animal.” — Rabbi Norbert Weinberg

When it came time to finally pick up their horns and blow, one player stood out. Yoni Workman arrived with his own very impressive shofar, and he sounded so adept, it was possible to believe he was a ringer. 

However, he told the Journal he bought the shofar only a few days earlier at a Judaica store on Fairfax Avenue, and he was able to produce that familiar keening wail from the get-go. He started to play as he walked down Fairfax to his car. “People were coming up to me saying how cool it sounded,” he said. 

Weinberg allayed the other would-be shofar blowers’ fears by stating, “The Baal Shem Tov wanted to find a person to blow the shofar for him at Rosh Hashanah. So he interviewed three candidates. He asked the first [candidate] what was on his mind when he played. He said, ‘I’m thinking of the Torah, the kabbalah, etc.’ The second one said he was thinking of all the great ones who came before him. The third candidate said, ‘I’ve got a wife, I’ve got 10 kids, there’s no money to feed them. If I get this position, maybe you’ll give me a few dollars to blow the shofar.’ The Baal Shem Tov said, ‘You are the one I choose, because you mean it.’”