Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I want more than a Shofar blower

I was probably nine or ten years old when I demonstrated to our shul’s gabbai that I already knew how to blow shofar. I wanted to know about being eligible to blow shofar in our shul when I would become bar mitzvah; he kindly left the matter open-ended, perhaps trusting me to forget or change my mind between then and my thirteenth year. I don’t remember whether I forgot or became less capable of blowing or was discouraged by others, but I never pursued it.

I’m glad I didn’t pursue it; blowing shofar is more than just producing airflow and moving your tongue and lips into position. It’s about giving mussar [ethical rebuke] to the community.

Technically, of course, this is ludicrous. Shofar is a mechanical mitzvah, and if the tokeia (shofar blower) intends to perform the mitzvah and does it right, the mitzvah is the mitzvah and we can all mark that one off on our Rosh HaShanah “Things to Do” checklist. So what’s wrong with a synagogue that lets a kid blow shofar, or that lets all comers blow part of the blasts, first come, first serve?

My answer: Shofar is more than that. Shofar is, as even the legalist Rambam acknowledges, more than just a hoop through which we jump. Yes, we blow shofar because Gd told us to blow shofar (Rosh haShanah 16a). Nonetheless, the shofar is also a much-needed call to the sleepers to wake up (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4), and that role does not belong to a thirteen year old child. That role belongs to someone who can legitimately call upon others to rise from their spiritual slumber.

To me, shofar is a mussar shmooze. It’s a piercing blast, it’s a cry that shakes me loose from my moorings, it’s a keening wail, it’s a frightening siren, it’s even the voice of the Divine in unsubtle disguise demanding of me, “Ayekah!” Where have you been, and how did you get there? What is this arrogance I see in you? What is this casual attitude you take to berachos, to davening, to learning Torah, to talking to other people and looking after their needs? What have you done with all of that talent I vouchsafed to you? What have you done with the lives of your children, which I assigned to your care and for which you will be called to judgment? By what right do you call yourself by these grandiose titles – Rabbi, Father, Husband? Who do you think you are, Torczyner? [Yes, a Jew must know what he has achieved and must not belittle it. But we must also know what we have yet to achieve.]

Those demands cannot come in the voice of a child, trying on mitzvos he does not yet understand. Sure, any kid can blow a shofar – but I want my tokeia to be a baal mussar.


  1. Qualifications for a Shofar Sounder
    Arthur L. Finkle

    "The one who blows the shofar on Rosh ha-Shanah...should likewise be learned in the Torah and shall be God-fearing, the best man available. However, every Jew is eligible for any sacred office, pro¬viding he is acceptable to the congregation. If, however, he sees that his choice will cause dissension, he should withdraw his candidacy, even if the improper person will be chosen"
    (Shulhan Arukh 3:72).

    The Ba'al T'kiyah shall abstain from anything that may cause ritual contamination for three days before Rosh ha-Shanah (Shulhan Arukh 3:73).

  2. Well, I began blowing as a teenager because my father, who blew shofar, had broken ribs from an accident and had to take it easy. I was just memalei makom avi. I never considered your argument, but it is thought-provoking.

  3. Arthur-
    Thanks, but what are you quoting? That's not Shulchan Aruch.


  4. To learn more about shofar, see my book, "Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram's Horn. You can download it at www.hearingshofar.com or www.HearingShofar.blogspot.com