Sounding in the new year

Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue performs “Taps” on the shofar during a Jewish War Veterans memorial service at Shaare Zedek in 2007.


Like most little kids – and grown-ups, too – Noah Alexander sat mesmerized every time the shofar was sounded in temple. But the difference with Noah was that his mom, Elaine, bought him a ram’s horn.

Noah was about 12 when he began blowing the shofar at a temple in Chicago, where he then lived. In St. Louis, where his family moved some 16 years ago, Noah soon graduated to sounding the shofar for adult services at Congregation Shaare Emeth.

Now age 30, an ex-trumpeter and a partner in, a restoration, service and sales business for hobbyists, Noah Alexander still sounds the shofar for the High Holidays at Shaare Emeth.

For many shofar-playing master blasters, novelty and nerve play a role. So do spirituality and tradition.

Rob Loewenstein apologized last week for expecting “just six of us, myself and my five adult children,” to sound the shofar this year at B’nai El Congregation here. The two granddaughters now attending the University of Missouri-Columbia will likely be too busy to join their shofar-blowing relatives.

To soothe nerves and synchronize timing, Lowenstein and his offspring plan to meet about a half hour before services begin. In the past, up to seven members of the Loewenstein clan have simultaneously played their shofarot (the plural of shofar) at B’nai El. Loewenstein himself, a retired manufacturer’s representative in the furniture industry, began blowing the shofar 65 years ago at age 10.

Why did he start? Tradition. His great-uncle, Arnold Weiss, first sounded the shofar at B’nai El in the 1920s. Loewenstein’s father, Erwin, later joined him. Lowenstein’s four sons and daughter decided to play, too. Counting his eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild, the latter just 2 months old, Loewenstein figures he has “a whole stable” of shofar and would-be shofar players. On his two trips to Israel, one in 1980 and the other in 2008, he bought a total of 14 shofars. He plans to return someday, no doubt to buy more.

Memorializing with the shofar

Rabbi Mark J. Fasman, of Shaare Zedek Synagogue, brings an unusually distinguished background to his shofar blowing. With his doctorate in music in the field of brass pedagogy, or instruction, he taught for 17 years at what is now Minnesota State University at Moorhead and also served as principal trumpet in the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra.

Not until age 40 did he enter rabbinical school. He celebrated his first High Holidays at Shaare Zedek in 2001, just days after the 9/11 attacks on the United States by terrorists. As a memorial to those who died in the attacks, a member of his congregation asked if he would play “Taps” on his trumpet before Kol Nidre, the evening service for Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Fasman offered to play on his shofar instead. To this day, he says, there are those who regard his linkage of the shofar, one of the most powerful symbols of Judaism, with “Taps,” one of the more powerful symbols of America, played by the U.S. military, among other times, at funerals, as “one of most profoundly religious moments they’ve experienced.” Before Kol Nidre and also for various Jewish War Veterans programs, he continues to play “Taps” on his shofar.

An indelible symbol – and sound – of the New Year

The shofar, in general, is so closely associated with the High Holidays that Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, is referred to in the Torah only as Yom Teruah, or the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar. Teruah is likewise one of the three shofar blasts. To hear the shofar is the one mitzvah unique to Rosh Hashanah.

The Torah specifies that a shofar be made from the horn of a kosher animal, including rams, deer and goats. Ram’s horns are often favored for the High Holidays due to their association with Abraham and his son Isaac.

In the 10th and most difficult test of Abraham’s faith, God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. But at the last moment, the angel of God stopped Abraham, who found a ram trapped in the thicket by its horn. Thoughwilling to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham offered God the ram instead.

Although cows and bulls are kosher, neither’s horn turns out to be shofar-worthy. The Talmud nixes cows’ horns, which could remind God of the idol-like golden calf, fashioned of the Israelites’ melted golden jewelry when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments.

A bull’s horn is similarly off-bounds as a shofar, since it can be used by the bull to do damage and is referred to in the Torah as “keren,” or “a weapon.”

Master blasting takes time to perfect

The shofar’s various calls are combinations of blasts, meant to prompt God to move from the throne of judgment to throne of mercy, according to Rabbi Avi Rubenfeld, of the Chabad of Chesterfield.

Prior to the High Holidays, Rabbi Rubenfeld annually offers an hour-long shofar-making and elementary shofar-blowing workshop. Most of the time, he says, the class learns the basics of blowing in about 15 minutes.

Naturally, perfecting the sound takes longer. But no matter how talented the player, a shofar’s sounds are intended to resemble a cry, a wordless prayer. “I’m sure you’ve experienced a time where something affected you tremendously, to the extent that you weren’t able to talk. The call of the shofar is so deep within that words can’t convey it,” Rabbi Rosenfeld says.

The three basic calls on the shofar are played in specific groupings of three. Tekiah, the first call, is a single blast. Shevarim, based on the Hebrew verb “to shatter,” is three blasts. The nine-blast teruah, as it came to be delineated in the Talmud, is reminiscent of an alarm.

Shevarium and teruah can be thought of as two kinds of crying. Shevarim is more wistful; teruah is sobbing so hard that the body shakes, Rabbi Fasman notes.

Interpretations vary. But he considers the shofar-blast groupings, which begin and end with the one-note tekiah, sometimes with a grace note added, as a start and return to wholeness. “In the middle, we weep as we break down some of our barriers to some of things we need to change. Then we come out whole,” he says.

Whether a shofar is polished or unpolished makes no liturgical difference. Symbolically, however, a traditional shofar must be twisted. “We have to be bent as we stand before the throne of justice,” Rabbi Fasman says. “The shofar’s call represents who we are. When we’re done, we stand up straight.”

And if the shofar blower is Noah Alexander, he rejoices: “During the year, I’m like, ‘Please, God, don’t let me mess this up.’ Afterward, I feel great.”



SIDEBAR: Shofar Facts

• Once a sheep, always a sheep. No matter how old a shofar, it still smells like what it came from.

• To turn an animal’s horn into a shofar, the horn is usually heated, straightened out, drilled, reheated, re-curved and then sanded and polished.

• To attempt blowing, tighten your upper lip, loosen your lower lip and blow/expel air through your mouth.

• Before buying a shofar, try it. While this eliminates purchasing $28.99 Internet specials, some shofarot sound better than others. Some scarcely sound.

• Just because a shofar comes from a kosher animal does not make it kosher. Kosher shofarot have no decorations. No holes, either, other than an opening at the top for blowing and another at the bottom where sounds escape.

• Unlike typical wind instruments, a kosher shofar has no detachable mouthpiece. You blow the top of the horn, whose diameter, depending on how the horn was cut and drilled, may be the size of a dime.

• The lengthier the shofar, the more potentially melodic its tone.

• In addition to Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is sounded when Yom Kippur ends. At that point, it is “a call of joy as we move from fasting and the seriousness of the day to what comes after,” including food and family, Rabbi Mark J. Fasman says.

– Susan Fadem