Consider the shofar: typically a portable instrument: low tech with no need for artificial amplification, extremely old-fashioned with an impressive pedigree, requiring skill and finesse. The traditional ram’s horn shofar is the usual suspect, but many kids love to squonk on a plastic version.
The shofar makes a powerful noise that is unmistakable. It’s intrinsically tied to the Jewish religious experience, although, for many people, it is only heard on three days during the year (Rosh HaShanah Days 1 and 2, then the end of Yom Kippur). For others, it is a poignant callout delivered throughout the month of Elul. If you happen to hear someone practicing it in advance of the holidays, consider yourself lucky (unless you want to nap).
Most people hear and see the shofar in one particular venue, the synagogue. But it is the kind of instrument that can travel easily, and it should. Why pin it only to the synagogue? When used specifically for the holiday rituals, it is tied closely to the Rosh Hashanah service with specific prayer sections, and it caps the Neilah service at the end of Yom Kippur.
This year, when so many Jews won’t attend synagogue in person, hearing shofar live may be a pipe dream. They can hear it played on Zoom or Google Meetings, but that ain’t the same thing.
The shofar blasts are best heard, seen, and witnessed live. The raw power of the shofar is jarring, exciting, unsettling, evocative of wailing. Depending upon one’s mood, it can be a thrill and a positive call to action, or a scary and intimidating threat. It can be a heartbreaking reminder of our past.
A quick survey of shofar blowing videos on YouTube shows a variety of actual specimens, and while most of these videos were made by Jewish people and Jewish institutions, some are from Christian churches and groups. A few cast the shofar as an instrument of wartime.
Yes, the shofar can function like the bugle for a Civil War unit’s entry into battle. In those situations, yes, the shofar can travel far and wide. But the most common use in modern times is as a spiritual, religious ritual performed during Rosh Hashanah. For many people, it is the most important or exciting part of the service. Listening to it, watching a person on the bimah or in the center of the sanctuary, sometimes struggling with the effort of blowing air into an animal part; this is high drama, or should be.,
But a question begs to be asked: Can we blow the shofar at other times? Can we make music or noise with this ancient musical instrument for occasions other than the Jewish prayer service (or Christian service; some groups do utilize it as well)? If you have a shofar, can it travel far and wide? What impact will it have on people who hear it, as well as people who play it?
The shofar can be heard in rock ‘n roll recordings, and these may have virtually nothing to do with the Jewish High Holidays. Writer Michael Croland points out in “Punk bands prove shofar isn’t just for the holidays” that some Jewish punk rock bands such as Yidcore and Schmekel have used shofar blasts in songs. He also interviewed a vegan Jewish musician who bought and used a wooden shofar, to avoid handling an animal product. Musical legend Madonna recorded the song “Isaac” and incorporated shofar blowing in the mix; she even had a touring shofar blower as part of her band on one tour. Hip hop artist Macklemore blew the shofar in a video clip used for the 2013 VMA (Video Music Awards) show.
Shofar playing has appeared in other forms of modern music: jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie played shofar on a few songs with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, shofar is played in the film version of “Godspell,” and shofar is also heard in films such as “The Ten Commandments,” “Return of the Jedi,” “Alien” and “The Planet of the Apes.” Experimental musician John Zorn has played the shofar on recordings and in performances. And check out “Shofar Jazz with Arik Livnat” for a trippy take on the ram’s horn.
Occasionally, people blow the shofar at rallies and protests, as a dramatic part of the soundscape. Shofar blowing was used by a group of Jews during the summer of 2020, when they blew shofar for the 40 days leading up to Tisha B’Av. They aired this series of musical-activism at the Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. At a climate awareness march in San Francisco in September 2019, a Jewish high school student blew the the shofar. At a 2018 Wisconsin rally to protest President Trump’s immigration policies, a rabbi blew the shofar to start the event. These are a few prominent examples of shofar blowing used in social action or political settings.
There are members of Chabad Lubavitch who blow the shofar and show it to passersby on streets throughout the United States and the world. In Illinois, they have had “Shofar in the Street”; in Medford, New Jersey there will be a “Shofar in the Park” event this year; a rabbi in Sudbury, Massachusetts explains that “It is non-threatening to blow shofar in the park” and some people feel more comfortable hearing it in the outdoor setting than in a synagogue. The Chabad Rabbi of SUNY New Paltz will blow shofar by the campus pond. A quick online search reveals many other urban and suburban locales where “Shofar in the Park” and variations on that theme have been staged in recent years.
Contemplate the image of a modern Pied Piper, tooting along on shofar while people march behind.
I interviewed six Jewish people about their experiences blowing shofar. One I knew when I was a kid, as he was the designated shofar blower for services in our Brooklyn synagogue. It’s important to learn how these people have experienced shofar blowing because they interact with us on the holidays, and it will help us understand how “shofar gets around.” These are excerpts from the interviews.
How and when did you learn how to blow shofar?
Cantor Shayna: I learned the physical concept a long time ago. It came to me pretty quickly…
Hillel: I was a French horn player as a young teenager and that gave me the basics… I was able to get sound out of a shofar, but never “played” it seriously until I was in my early 50s. I decided to practice for Rosh Hashanah in 2008 and promptly “blew out” a double hernia… I had to defer to the following year and I’ve been going strong ever since.
Jordi: I learned to blow shofar around bat mitzvah age.
Ben: I learned when I was a child, maybe 10 or 11 years old. I think mostly I taught myself. I started playing saxophone in 5th grade… my mom (demonstrated) the spit action required to get a sound out of it.
Jon: I had played trumpet at a young age, and was partly inspired by a bet a teacher made at Hebrew school, to see who could get the longest sound out of a shofar. I won.
Mordecai: I learned on the go. I had some familiarity playing instruments as a kid… the actual experience came down to someone handing me a shofar, seeing that I knew what I was doing, and sending me out to blow for those people who couldn’t make it to services in a synagogue.
What is difficult about blowing shofar?
Cantor Shayna: Getting the momentum and energy going to let that first sound ring.
Jordi: There have been years when I didn’t practice and my shofar wasn’t the best. One year I forgot to bring my shofar into the eruv before Yom Kippur, so I had to borrow a friend’s.
Jon: If it’s humid, I have to tilt the horn upward to get a better sound. You have to keep it moist, licking the tips.
Mordecai: Every shofar has its sweet spot–sometimes you need to move it around a little until you know you’re in a position to make sure it has a nice clear sound.
Have you ever blown the shofar outside of shul and the home?
Cantor Shayna: I have blown it for nursery school and Hebrew school classes, and even once at an interfaith gathering.
Hillel: About ten years ago, I was part of a group of shofar blowers at the head of the Celebrate Israel Parade in Manhattan.
Jordi: I have blown the shofar at a senior citizens’ center as a high school student.
Jon: I played the shofar at Rabbi Halpern’s funeral (it was written into his will) and at the funerals of family members.
Mordecai: All around the world. I’ve done it in Colorado, in Peru, and other places.
What are some reactions you’ve noticed from listeners?
Hillel: Deep meaning and a spiritual sense, which I rarely attain at other times. Many congregants are moved by the sound and I find that incredibly gratifying.
Ben: I glance up and see smiles, wide eyes, and I may hear gasps.
Mordecai: As a high school student, I blew shofar for a hard-of-hearing woman who was close to 100 years old. She was able to hear the shofar and began to cry.
How will social distancing impact how you blow shofar?
Cantor Shayna: In my community… we are fortunate to have many different shofar blowers. We will also be participating in Shofar in the Streets. The shofar blower will be appropriately distanced from those who attend, and those who attend will be distanced from one another and will also be wearing masks. There are many challenges to this year’s High Holidays experience.
Hillel: At (my shul) we are planning on having the ba’al tokeya stand on the bima by himself with the bell of his shofar facing a side room.
Jordi: I’m in a pod and our pod is doing services by ourselves. I’m the only one who can play. We are doing a small backyard minyan, spaced between a few groups, and I’ll be blowing shofar towards a fence.
Mordecai: Looking for a wide-open area, where I can stand considerably back from everyone and blow.
Other thoughts and comments.
Cantor Shayna: The cry of the shofar is particularly poignant this year given how much it feels like the kind of like the primal ‘yowl’ many of us need to let out during these challenging times.
Hillel: I’m also a choral singer, and the work of singing and the work of shofar blowing come from the same place–the diaphragm– and the breathing techniques are the same.
Ben: I still feel a bit nervous and at unease when I’m up there (on stage), as if I’m unpracticed and may not give the best blowing experience.
Jon: I have six shofars.
The idea of “have shofar, will travel” is actually more Jewish than you might think. How often have groups of Jewish people migrated around from country to country, region to region, either by choice or by being forced to do so. Shofars have accompanied at least some of the Jews, making the journeys for religious and even sentimental reasons. There is even a shofar that was sounded clandestinely in Auschwitz, and later smuggled out during the infamous “death march.” It was sounded years later at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Certainly, this shofar experienced an incredible series of travels.
Notably, the Lubavitcher Rebbe advocated for shofar to be heard anywhere possible. As Mordecai said to me, “The Rebbe began the campaign to blow the shofar for those unable to attend services in 1953. Today students and Chabad rabbis travel around the world to make sure everyone has a chance to take part… from the Himalayas to prison to a suburban park, they can hear.” Keeping this in mind, “have shofar, will travel” is nearly a commandment, and much more than a suggestion!
How about the Shofar Baton Pass, as in a relay race? That is an interesting, powerful image– although the various members of the relay team may not want to share the blowing of it now.
With the age of Covid-19 fears and social distancing protocols, shofar blowing will be more restricted. “Players” will want to be more careful and will want to have their own shofar, or disinfect them rather carefully. For example, Rabbi Barry Dov Katz of CSAIR in Riverdale visited various Bronx neighborhoods during Elul and blew shofar– with a mask covering over shofar bell. He also let listeners know that he is regularly tested for Covid-19.
The power of listening to the shofar may be ever more in demand. Sure, many of us will listen to the shofar over the internet, but now that it will be more difficult to hear it in person, the desire will probably be stronger.
I’ll end by reflecting on the mass-marketed plastic shofar. The simple toy replica of the revered animal horn has been a common plaything for Jewish children for a few generations. I received one when I was young, discarded the wrapped candies stored in the opening, and gleefully honked away on the horn. Years later, I gifted my own daughters with plastic shofar toys and they honked away too. Some people grimace at this sound, finding it annoying. But many of us know that these toys are a fun way to introduce youngsters to the image and power of the shofar. They are loud, joyful, and potent reminders of the Jewish High Holidays. They certainly travel and get around, and may even find use during Purim Megillah readings, later in the Jewish year.
If you have a shofar, tote it and play it around town. If you want to hear the shofar, find out where you can witness it live. Reach out to people who can visit you and blow shofar. Embrace the shofar and its sound.
Ellen Levitt is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu) and 3 other books. She has also written for various online and print publications, including the New York Times and New York Daily News. Ellen is a longtime member of the Flatbush Womens Davening Group. She and her husband and children reside in Brooklyn, NY.