From raspberries to inspiring wails: learning to blow the shofar
“So far, I’ve never had anyone who can’t blow a shofar,” Rabbi Alex Greenbaum, of Beth El Congregation in the South Hills, told members of the Men’s Club gathered in the weeks before Rosh Hashana to learn techniques for blowing the instrument of the season.
“The trick is, if you can go like this: phbbbbt,” Greenbaum said, blowing a raspberry. “If you can make your lips vibrate, and you stick a shofar onto it, you’re going to have a sound.”
To demonstrate, Greenbaum blows another raspberry and drops a shofar onto his lips, changing the sound in the room from a schoolyard taunt to that familiar plaintive wail.
The men around him each grab a shofar from the table in front of them, and give it a try. Some get strong, sustained sounds; others get crackly moans and other get silence.
The Men’s Club began learning how to blow the shofar in May, learning the basic techniques from Greenbaum, and reconvened in late August, to polish up their skills.
Every baal tekiah, or shofar blower, favors a different technique, shofar and sound. Some people blow from the side of their mouths and some from the front. Some prefer a smaller shofar — which yields an intimate high pitch — and some insist on the larger models, which offer a loud baritone perfect for calling Israelites from a mountaintop.
Greenbaum told the Men’s Club that uniformity is key: the wail should remain even keeled, and not rise at the end in a dramatic turn; the various “notes” of the shofar — the single sustained tekiah, the three bursts of shevarim and the nine staccato blasts of terurah — should unfold over the same length of time, all taking equal measure.
The Beth El Men’s Club saw the workshop as an opportunity for fellowship, for cultivating a new Jewish skill and for bringing the shofar into the community.
“We’ve been very blessed for a number of years to have a gentleman in our shul who blows the shofar on all High Holidays,” said Steve Cohen with the Beth El Men’s Club, “but we talked about the importance of making sure there was a core group of people that was able to come together and actually blow the shofar, and even have the ability to go out into the community and sound the shofar for those people who can’t get out, maybe people in a nursing home or a hospital.”
The shofar is traditionally blown by a rabbi or a baal tekiah from within a congregation, but more people are becoming interested in learning the skill, according to Rabbi Ezra Ende of Temple Sinai, who led a series of shofar blowing classes this summer.
In previous years, the class focused primarily on teaching the shofar to children, as a way to engage younger students in the traditions and rituals of the High Holiday season.
“This year, more adults wanted to learn how to blow the shofar as well,” Ende said.
He said both men and women have taken the class. He said he thinks congregants are interested in learning how to blow the shofar because it offers another entrance into Judaism. His class includes both technique and thoughts about “the essence” of the ritual.
“People are looking for different ways to connect,” Ende said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at email@example.com.)