Nizahker Venikatev

Nizakher Venikatev: A Reflective Guide for Shofar

The shofar (ram’s horn) is one of the most recognizable Jewish symbols and is an essential element of Rosh Hashanah. In fact, hearing the blasts of the shofar is the primary biblical commandment of Rosh Hashanah, leading to the holiday’s ancient name: “Yom Teruah” (“Day of Blasting”). In most communities, the shofar is blown throughout the Musaf service for a total of at least 101 separate blasts (though the minimum requirement is only 30 blasts). The shofar is not blown on Shabbat, so this year we’ll hear it only on the second day. 

Leviticus 23:24 reads:

דַּבֵּ֛ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר בַּחֹ֨דֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֜י בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֗דֶשׁ יִהְיֶ֤ה לָכֶם֙ שַׁבָּת֔וֹן זִכְר֥וֹן תְּרוּעָ֖ה

Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month,
you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.

How do “loud blasts” help us to commemorate a sacred occasion? In what American contexts do we use loud noises to celebrate an event? Do you find loud noises to be helpful or challenging in observing momentous occasions?

The blasts of the shofar are divided into three types: Tekiah, Shevarim, and Teruah. Tekiah refers to a single long blast. Listen to this 30-second Tekiah Gedolah. How does it make you feel? What memories does it evoke?

Shevarim, meaning “broken,” consists of three short blasts. How do the three separate blasts remind you of brokenness? What does the idea of being “broken” mean to you? What does repair of this brokenness look like? Think of something in your life that feels broken. What is one step you can take towards fixing it, knowing that it may never be fully healed? How can you use Rosh Hashanah as a time to begin to mend that brokenness within yourself or in your relationships with others?

Teruah, for most Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities, consists of a string of about nine short blasts, sounding like “tut-tut-tut-tut.” How do you react to this piercing sound? Does it feel different from the Tekiah or Shevarim blasts? Listen to recordings of all three types of blasts. Which one is your favorite? Which one is most alarming? Which one is most satisfying? Which one does your soul need to hear?

In biblical times, the shofar was used to announce the New Moon each month, to proclaim the Jubilee Year (when all debts were forgiven, Hebrew slaves and prisoners would be freed, and God would show special mercy on the Israelites), or to signify the beginning of a war. Imagine that you are an ancient Israelite, hearing the blast of the shofar in the distance. What would your first reaction be? Can you imagine the mix of excitement, fear, and awe that such an announcement would incite? Have you ever heard a piece of news that gives you a similar mix of emotions? Imagine hearing that kind of news. How does your body react to it?

Many churches use church bells to announce important holidays, and many mosques used amplified calls to prayer each day. In most places, synagogues do not employ such loud techniques. Why do you think this is the case? How “loudly” do you display your Jewish identity and Jewish observance? Does it make you uncomfortable to do so? What are your fears? Imagine taking a shofar to a public place like Central Park and blowing it for all to hear. Would that make you feel proud? Afraid? Connected? Think of one action you can take to proclaim your Judaism and (keeping in mind any necessary precautions) consider actually doing it this week.

Maimonides wrote in the Mishneh Torah (Laws of Teshuva 3:4) that the shofar blasts serve as a “wake-up call,” exhorting listeners to, “Wake up, you sleepy ones, from your sleep, and you who slumber — arise! Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth because of the styles of the times and throughout the entire year, who devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon evil paths and thoughts.” How does hearing the shofar help you to wake up? What does this alarm-like sound do to your soul? Do you feel shaken? Do you feel stirred to change anything about your life? Do “vanity and emptiness” play a role in your days? How can you fill that emptiness with substance? Think of one moment each day where you can exchange a vain act for a meaningful one. Try it out today.

For Families and Kids:

For lots of kids, the shofar blowing is their favorite part of Rosh Hashanah. Do you like listening to the shofar? Why? What does it make you feel?

The shofar is kind of like an alarm, waking us up from sleeping — but this kind of sleep is spiritual, not physical. Are there things or people in your life that you don’t pay enough attention to? How could you pay more attention to important things and less attention to little things?