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The meaning of the shofar, and the how-to

_JStandard
Published: 03 September 2010

Sounding the shofar in the synagogue on Rosh HaShanah is the high point of my year.

How to Blow

No other mitzvah in Judaism is so dependent on a personal skill or entails such high drama. 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 or how inspiring an experience it is for them to hear it. For me, it is both a very public and an intensely personal experience.

As I approach the bimah, I find myself quite alone, concentrating intently on what I have to do. Yet I am also highly conscious of being surrounded by hundreds of people who are relying on my ability to enable them to fulfill the central observance of the day.

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Veteran shofar-blower David Olivestone sounds the shofar. Orthodox Union

In Numbers 29:1, the Torah designates the first day of the seventh month, that is Rosh HaShanah, as “a day of blowing the shofar.” The Oral Law, as interpreted by the rabbis, sets out a number of regulations concerning both the instrument itself and the manner in which it is to be sounded.

The shofar must be fashioned out of a ram’s horn. With the smaller end cut off, the horn is straightened out a little by heating it, 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 vary the notes. Thus, the only control you have over the notes is how you use your lips and your tongue.

How to blow

To produce a note, first use your tongue to moisten the extreme right-hand corner of your lips, and place the shofar firmly against them in that spot. With your lips tightly closed, make a tiny hole in them where the shofar is, and then force air into it as if you were making a Bronx cheer (a rasping sound), but without actually producing such a rude noise.

If you get it right, a bright and powerful note will emerge from the shofar. The tighter you squeeze the shofar against your lips, the higher the note that you will sound. It’s not necessary to puff out your cheeks; breathe in and hold the breath in your chest, letting it out slowly to control the length of the note.

The three mandatory sounds

The sequence and the length of the notes must follow the established pattern with great accuracy. The three mandatory sounds are designed to awaken thoughts of repentance and of subservience to God in the mind of the listener.

First comes the teki’ah, a long, clear note of alarm. This is used to bracket each of the other sounds, which are meant to be evocative of crying. The shevarim, a three-part note, suggests the sound of sighing or moaning. The teru’ah, consisting of nine rapid-fire staccato sounds, 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.

Not too many people persevere enough to become really proficient at blowing the shofar. Many of those who do learned the skill from their fathers at a very young age, as I did. But each year, it takes much practice over a month or so both to perfect the notes once again and to retool the muscles of the lips and the strength of the lungs.

The sound of my thoughts

Since there’s no real way of controlling the quality of the shofar’s sound, you can never be 100 percent confident that the right sound will emerge. So whatever spiritual thoughts I might try to have as I prepare myself to sound the shofar usually evaporate as I begin, and I am left simply hoping that, despite my trepidation, the notes will come out as perfectly as they did when I was practicing.

Yet being in control of the shofar’s power is an extraordinary privilege and responsibility. Sometimes I like to think that the next teki’ah or the next shevarim 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 — those that words are inadequate to express.

I will not deny that I enjoy the congratulations and the handshakes that are offered to me after I sound the last teki’ah gedolah. And what am I thinking at this point, when it’s all over? That in just one year, with God’s help, I will get to do it again.

JTA

 
 

OU national conference, set for Bergen, to consider costs of observance, other issues

Is it too expensive to be an Orthodox Jew today? What are the keys to a happy marriage? And what about the day-school tuition crisis?

The Orthodox Union will address these and other issues when it convenes its biannual convention next weekend in Bergen County to discuss the future role of Orthodoxy, and the Orthodox Union, in the Jewish community.

“The goal of the convention is to deal with some of the major issues facing our community,” said convention chair Emanuel Adler, a Teaneck resident, “while at the same time utilizing the resources of the Orthodox Union and demonstrating to our constituency that the union deals with various issues and has the resources to do so.”

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David Olivestone Photos Courtesy OU

Following a Shabbat at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton for synagogue presidents and delegates, the biannual convention will begin the evening of Saturday, Jan. 15, at Cong. Keter Torah in Teaneck, with a discussion on the cost of Jewish living moderated by “JM in the AM” radio host Nachum Segal. That Shabbat marks the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Steven Dworken, former vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and his family has dedicated the Saturday evening program in his memory.

“The cost of Jewish living doesn’t just involve the tuition bill,” said David Olivestone, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s senior communications officer. “It’s the cost of a house [near a synagogue], cost of summer camp, food because of yom tov and Shabbat…. You have to be wealthy to be observant. It’s the most talked about topic on everybody’s mind.”

The conference will continue on Sunday at the Woodcliff Lake Hilton, with more than 25 seminars in three separate tracks: Torah life, community life, and synagogue life. Seminars include topics such as making prayer more meaningful, Israel’s conversion controversy, dating, and fund-raising.

“It’s a chance to convene the greater Orthodox community to address the issues that we all wrestle with and to hear from those who’ve accomplished facts on the ground in the different areas that concern us all,” said Rabbi Steven Weil, a Teaneck resident who is the OU’s executive vice president.

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, the OU’s executive vice president emeritus, will lead a plenary session on the Mesorah, the chain of Jewish tradition and its role in the modern Jewish community. A second plenary, moderated by Weil, will discuss the Orthodox role in the wider Jewish community. The panel will include Jewish Federations of North America CEO Jerry Silverman.

“We’re trying to open up a topic for everyone,” Olivestone said.

The convention is an opportunity for OU leaders to vote on resolutions that will guide the organization through the next two years, including electing the OU’s board, he said. Saturday night’s program and Sunday’s sessions are open to the public, while voting will take place Sunday during separate closed meetings.

Many people think of the OU as only a kashrut organization, Adler said. He pointed to such programs as NCSY, Yachad, and other services that the OU constituency and the wider community may not be aware of.

Adler, who also chaired the convention in 1994, ‘96, and ‘98, does not expect solutions to all of the issues facing the Jewish community to emerge from it, but said the conference would be considered a success if it sparks discussions and raises awareness of the Jewish community’s challenges and the role the OU plays in meeting them.

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Rabbi Steven Weil

The past three conferences have been held in Israel, when the OU decided to boost an Israeli economy and tourism industry battered by the Palestinian intifada. With Israeli tourism reaching record numbers this year, the leadership decided to bring the convention back to the United States and chose Bergen County because of its centrality to the metropolitan area, where a large portion of the U.S. Orthodox Jewish population lives.

“This time we felt a lot more people are traveling to Israel on their own and we wanted to bring [the convention] within reach of everybody,” Olivestone said.

Weil also pointed to the Hilton and its ability to accommodate the hundreds of expected attendees and observe Shabbat restrictions as a drawing point for Bergen County. While none of the organizers offered exact estimates, they said they expect several hundred to attend Sunday’s sessions.

The conference is typically held in even years on Thanksgiving weekend. Organizers decided that bringing the conference back to the United States on that weekend would present too many logistical problems, however, and moved it to Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. The next conference is planned for late 2012 or early 2013, although no location has been chosen.

For more information on the OU conference, including a list of speakers and topics, visit www.ou.org/convention.

 
 
 
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