Judaism: Shofar Sounds
The sounds of the shofar as heard on Rosh Hashana are of three different types and qualities. These sounds are regulated by halachic standards though regarding the sound of the shevarim there are different customs that prevail as to how the three short blasts of the shofar should be sounded.
But the basic sounds – a long straight sound which is the tekiah; a sound of three short wails that is the shevarim; and a staccato sound of nine very short blasts that is the teruah – are accepted throughout the Jewish world as being the accepted and correct notes of the shofar.
Over the centuries much has been written about the significance of these sounds of the shofar. Halakha defines what the sounds should be and how they should be sounded. However Jewish thought expands upon the basic halachic requirements giving meaning and depth to the halakhic requirements in terms of metaphor and guidance.
Thus every sound that emanates from the horn of the shofar conveys to us a further moral lesson as to our lives and behavior. We must always realize that every commandment of the Torah is multi-faceted and we do ourselves and our faith a disservice if we deal with the Torah simply and naively. A knowledgeable Jew is always a sophisticated person who is able to see things below the obvious reality of the surface words and appreciate the infinite wisdom and complexity of God’s Torah.
One can never assume that one understands Torah completely but neither can one absolve one’s self of the duty to pursue the meaning of Torah to its humanly possible ultimate.
The tekiah with its long straight sound indicates the serenity in life that is so necessary for productive human and family life. It also indicates discipline and consistency. These are the items that constitute a successful and happy Jewish family and home. Children raised in a home of serenity, peace, discipline and consistency grow up to be people of self-worth and proud Jews. The presence of the Shabat day in our weekly lives introduces us to this supreme trait of serenity in a home. Shabat is one long twenty five hour tekiah.
That may also help explain why on Shabat the shofar is not sounded – Shabat itself, so to speak, becomes the shofar, certainly at least the tekiah part of the ceremonial sounding of the shofar. Its serenity and consistency sets the tone for the entire week and thus for all of our lives. It is not for naught that Jewish halacha views the observance of the Shabat as the basic identifying characteristic of a Jew’s relationship to the observance of Judaism and Jewish law and tradition.
The laws of halakha regarding the sounding of the shofar also demand that all of the other notes sounded must have a tekiah to proceed it and to succeed it. The tekiah – the serenity and consistency traits of human life – is the bookends of all Jewish life. It comes first and it comes last. Without it the other notes are relatively meaningless.
The shevarim represents the times of trouble, the wails that emanate from us when failure, tragedy and seemingly insurmountable problems loom before us. The wail from the human heart is a sound that is heard in Heaven. Perhaps the reason that there are different customs allowed by halakhic practice regarding the shevarim sound is because no two human beings wail alike.
Each tear in life is unique to the one who has shed it. The rabbis have taught us that our tears are stored, so to speak, in Heaven and counted by the Almighty. The Jewish people have shed an ocean of tears over our long history but those tears have congealed to become the foundation stone of our personal lives and our national existence. We cannot pass through this life without shevarim. But we can build upon those very sounds of wailing to construct a better future for all of us.
The teruah is a call to action, to accomplishment, ingenuity and industry. It signals that passivity is unacceptable if the Jewish mission is to be realized. The short staccato sounds remind us that progress is often slow, step by step. The rabbis in Avot taught us that it is not for us to complete the work but we are not absolved from attempting to achieve the ultimate goal of holiness and goodness.
Redemption and self-improvement are processes and not necessarily a miraculous and sudden epiphany. We sound the shevarim and teruah consecutively in part of the shofar service to indicate that after troubles and even tragedy, resilience and positive action is required. Thus the sounds of the shofar come to point our way towards a serene, disciplined and active year that will be filled only with wails of joy and happiness.