When teaching tiny children about the sounds and symbols of Rosh haShana, it can become a stimulating experience for them when they are told: “Now you be a Shofar!” – following which they start imitating the different notes, the t’kia, shvarim and teru’a and grow accustomed to them.
In truth it isn’t only our toddlers who should be encouraged to role-play at being a Shofar. In speaking about this prime mitsva of Rosh haShana, the Torah uses a most unusual phrase. Not, as we may have expected utekatem, blow, or even ushema’tem, listen to the Shofar but rather yom t’ruah yiheyeh lakhem. The day of sounding the Shofar shall be “for you”. In other words: the Shofar sounds are to become internalised as a part of us
So when we examine some of the rules governing a Shofar, we should not be surprised if we glean some lessons for ourselves as well.
A first stipulation regarding the Shofar is that it ought to be bent. In fact, if we have a choice between two Shofarot, one of which is a straight ram’s horn while the other is a bent horn of another (kosher) animal such as a goat, the halacha stipulates that it is preferable to use the latter – notwithstanding our normal predilection for a ram’s horn to recall the Akeda (binding of Isaac).
How does a Shofar become bent? It doesn’t start life that way. A straight, hollow, horn-like tube is soaked in boiling water until it softens after which it is stretched and molded into shape.
When a baby is born, his fists are clenched as if to say: kol ha-olam sheli hu – “the whole world is mine!” Only as he begins to grow into adulthood does he realise that it isn’t so. If his personality is ‘moulded’ correctly it will soften, it will bend in submission to the Creator and a natural sense of humility will be developed. Flexibility will govern such a person’s dealings with his fellow human being; he or she will regard it as a failing to be always unbending. Little wonder then that for a Shofar to be bent is even more essential than for it to be from the horn of a ram.
A second principle is that shofarot may differ in tone. One may resonate with a rich full-bodied sound while another emits a thin and screechy treble. (Of course, much depends upon the skill of the toke’a!) States the halacha: it doesn’t matter; all types are permissible. There is only one proviso: the sound a Shofar makes must be its natural sound. If the instrument is cracked or chipped and thereby the sound is altered, it is not kosher.
Furthermore, if the Shofar is plated with gold or silver for adornment (hiddur mitsva) the covering must not extend to the mouthpiece for then the sound will be altered and the Shofar will become pasul (disqualified).
Here surely is a lesson to us that we should not pretend to be what we are not. We may not even pretend to be worse than we are: the principle of mar’it ayin stipulates that one may not even appear as if one is doing wrong as this would promote gossip and undermine respect for the mitsva. Certainly we may not pretend to be better than we are, to put on airs. It is no sign of piety to don Rabenu Tam tefilin every morning when there is dishonestly-acquired money lurking in our deposit account.
Here too is a word of caution not to say one thing with our lips and mean another in our heart. Yes, the Shofar may be overlaid with silver or gold – but not the mouthpiece. Yes, Judaism teaches that wealth can be a blessing. But when it alters the way we speak, when our speech no longer reflects the way we are naturally so that we become snooty and “two-faced”, then we too become pasul, disqualified from being instruments of GD’s blessing.
A further rule is that the sound of the Shofar must be equally clear for toke’a and shome’a alike. What the listener hears must be what the blower sounds – to exclude, for example, the echo of a sound.
“Sages, be careful with your words!” exclaims Avtalyon in Pirkei Avot (1:11). Do not express yourself in a way that may be misunderstood by others. Perhaps it is clear to you, but what the listener hears could be very different!
Next, states the halacha, there is a narrow aperture and a wide aperture. Have the narrow aperture of the Shofar facing you and blow into it; and have the wider aperture facing the public and let it be pointing upwards.
Narrowness symbolises intolerance; broadness denotes tolerance. The narrow aperture faces me when I blow. I must be intolerant of my own mistakes and not excuse them saying “but I couldn’t help myself; I was misled; anyway I’m too old to change!” I need to be a ruthless, high-minded, intolerant bigot when judging myself; only then will I feel the necessary repugnance for my misdeeds to enable me to mend fences.
But the wide aperture faces the public. When it comes to the mistakes of others, I must be tolerant. Maybe it was an accidental error he made; surely she didn’t mean to hurt me. I must give my decent fellow human being the benefit of the doubt (Avot 1:6).
And the wide part of the Shofar, we said, points upwards – towards Heaven. We must be, as it were, tolerant of GD as well! We may not understand His ways, but that deficiency of understanding is our problem, not His! If we are open with GD, He will in turn open and reveal His truths to us in ways we did not even notice before.
Finally, says the Halacha, the mitsva may equally be fulfilled with a Shofar that is ours or with one that belongs to another. And the latter is the more usual practice. The mitsva is not to blow (li-t’ko’a) but to hear (lishmo’a) the shofar – reflected in the text of the blessing. Usually the mitsva is fulfilled with a Shofar other than our own.
Occasionally we may “blow our own trumpet”; we aren’t expected to destroy our sense of self as some religions demand, merely to keep our egos under control. Our more normal practice, however, ought to be to sing the praises of others.
If we can make ourselves like the Shofar in all of these aspects, we shall have internalised its sounds as a part of us. Not only for rosh, for the day on which it is sounded. But also for ha-shana, for the totality of the year which follows in its wake!