For thousands of years Jews have been commanded to blow the shofar, the horn of an animal, whose sound is said to rouse the soul.
Shofar blowing is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, which begins on Sunday night (Sept. 16). One tradition calls for the congregation to hear 100 blasts of the hard-to-play instrument during the holiday, which is both a solemn and joyous time to reflect, repent and celebrate creation.
So it might not come as a surprise that the job of blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah has usually fallen to an august member of the synagogue — a rabbi or other man of high moral standing and significant lung capacity.
But lately, that’s changing, as a far more diverse group of Jews are asking their rabbis for shofar lessons.
This Jewish New Year, at Congregation Adas Israel in Washington, D.C., Jennie Litvack, an economist and mother of three, will blast out the long wails and staccato notes of a three-and-a-half-foot-long shofar fashioned from the horn of a kudu, a kind of antelope.
When she is done, if the past is any indication, congregants will grab her elbow to tell her how moved they were.
“The shofar touches people deep down,” said Litvack. “It evokes memories, inspires people, transports them to biblical times. It penetrates deep in the soul.”
In rabbinic teaching, the shofar is a powerful instrument. It leads to repentance for sins of the previous year, reminds the faithful of the travails of the Jews over time, and harkens back to the shofar blast heard when the Israelites received the Ten Commandments.
Litvack, an accomplished trumpeter who took lessons from Dizzy Gillespie as a girl growing up in Montreal, found it easier than most to master the technical aspects of shofar blowing.
This year, for the first time, she tried to pass on her skills to a dozen others in the days before Rosh Hashanah, a class that reflected what many rabbis said they are seeing in the past decade or so: rising interest in the shofar from people who a generation ago would not think to pick one up.
The youngest person in Litvack’s class was the musically inclined Rebecca Epstein-Boley, 15, who had never before blown the shofar.
That didn’t seem to matter. She quickly produced bold, sustained tones, inadvertently showing up classmates who struggled for weak warbles.
“I already play French horn and I’m Jewish. I’m expected to play it and I’d really like to play it on the High Holidays,” said Epstein-Boley, referring to the 10-day period that begins with Rosh Hashanah and ends with the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
Though many rabbis in more liberal branches of Judaism might be thrilled to hear that a teenage girl wants and even feels “expected” to blow the shofar for her congregation, some rabbis would not allow it.
Rochel Chein, writing on the “Ask The Rabbi” website sponsored by the Orthodox Chabad movement, addressed whether a woman is permitted to blow a shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
“She can certainly blow it for herself ... she cannot blow for a man,” Chein wrote. “There are various rabbinical opinions on whether a woman can blow for other women.”
Litvack’s class, in a Conservative synagogue, included five women and seven men. The oldest was 91-year-old Bernie Glassman. Litvack, after teaching the technique, asked each person to visualize and reflect on something before blowing that would make the experience most meaningful.
Glassman said he thought of his three-month-old great-granddaughter.
On the High Holy Days, said Chabad Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar, the shofar is central to Rosh Hashanah as a literal “wake-up call,” a reminder to pay better attention during the coming year to the most important things in life, things we have perhaps neglected in the past year.
The shofar “shakes us out of our spiritual slumber,” said Cotlar, who lives in Cary, N.C., and also writes for “Ask The Rabbi.” And it is significant that the shofar blast is wordless, and sounds like a cry, he continued. “There is that connection with our Father in heaven that goes beyond words,” he said.
“We cry out to God and say,’We’re your children here. Have mercy on us.’”
Every shofar cry is somewhat different, said Rabbi Ethan Seidel, who said he has been teaching a growing number of congregants the skill at Tifereth Israel, his Conservative synagogue in Washington, D.C. The six shofar blowers on the High Holy Days this year include one woman and a teenage boy — a trumpet player.
“It used to be some old guy,” said Seidel, who invites the congregation together to call out the Hebrew words that describe which type of shofar sound comes next: “tekiah,” a long note; “shevarim,” three shorter notes; and “teruah,” nine staccato notes.
“Everybody says’tekiah’ together and it has the feeling that we’re all part of it,” he said.
One thing Seidel discourages: shofar blowing in which a note — often to the amazement of the congregation — is held for so long that the blower seems on the verge of passing out.
That’s not in keeping with the holiday, Seidel said. “You lose your submission to God.”
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