mitzvah of the shofar
The Sounds of the Shofar: What's required to fulfill the mitzvah?
The mitzvah of
hearing the blasts of the shofar is replete with deep symbolism. The
Sefer Hachinuch writes that because man's nature is physical, he
cannot be inspired to act without an outside stimulus. He tells us that
the perfect example of this is can be seen in war time. In order
to put the soldiers in the correct frame of mind for battle, the
officers would always go out to war with trumpets and battle cries. The
shofar serves the same purpose. On Rosh Hashana, the day when each
person is judged individually, each person needs to inspire himself
from the depths of his soul to ask for rachamim, mercy from his
Creator. The shofar is that inspiration. Its sound blasts into the
inner recesses of our hearts and inspires us to pray fervently and to
The Torah tells us that the mitzvah of shofar
involves essentially two notes, the tekiah and the teruah. We learn
that every teruah is surrounded by a tekiah, both before and after it.
Therefore, it follows that according to the Torah itself, we need only
blow a tekiah, teruah, tekiah, three times and we're done.
Unfortunately, in reality, it doesn't work out to be so simple.
While we are certain that the sound of the tekiah is
that of a single blast of a few seconds duration, it's not clear what
the sound of the teruah should be. There are verses that infer that a
teruah should consist of three short blasts, which we refer to as a
shevarim and there are other scriptural indications that the teruah
should consist of a series of very short staccato sounds, which we
actually refer to as the teruah. Then there is a third opinion which
says that the teruah is actually both types of sounds together:
three short blasts and then nine staccato blasts. As it turns out in
practice, we actually do all three. Our custom is to blow in
succession: tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekia; then, tekiah,
shevarim, tekiah; and finally tekiah, teruah, tekiah.
At the last tekiah of each set, the makrei or
announcer, calls for a tekiah-gedolah and a prolonged tekiah is blown.
What is the purpose of this note which literally translates as the
great tekiah? As with many of our customs, the tekiah-gedolah developed
out of a practical need. The people in the congregation need to know
when this portion of the shofar blowing has concluded so that the
appropriate tefillot may be recited. Hence we have the tekiah-gedolah,
the signal that the phrase "Ashrei Ha'am Yodei Teruah" which translates
as "happy is the nation that knows how to sound the shofar" may be
recited. The Maharil writes that there is an allusion to this in the
instructions given at Har Sinai. Bnei Yisrael were told not to ascend
the mountain. However, when the long blast of the shofar sounded it
signaled the departure of the Divine Presence and that they were once
again permitted to ascend.
Our custom is to break up the 100 kollot, or shofar
blasts, into five portions. The first is called the tekiot d'meyushav
and it takes place before the mussaf tefila. The next three take place
during either the silent mussaf tefila or the during the chazzan's
repetition, each congregation according to its custom. These correspond
to the malchiot, zichronot and shofrot portions of the mussaf tefila.
Finally, the last forty are sounded after mussaf, during kaddish. The
Seder Hayom writes that these final kollot are to arouse the people who
are about to depart from the synagogue that they should not forget what
was done there that day.
May the blasts of the shofar truly pierce through to
the inner recesses of our hearts and bring us to a Shana Tova u'Metuka.
Rabbi Eliezer Kessler