For the week ending 27 September 2008 / 27 Elul 5768

What a Blast

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Roland in Chicago

Dear Rabbi,

If the Torah tells us to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana, why do we make so many blasts? Wouldn’t it seem from the Torah that one would be enough? I think we make a hundred!

Dear Roland,

The Torah mentions blowing the shofar three times, using the term “teruah” which is a type of emotive blast. It is known that this teruah is to be introduced and concluded by a straight, stable blast called “tekiah”. This means that the Torah requires three teruot with their accompanying tekiot before and after, totaling nine blasts. Thus a person is required to hear on Rosh Hashanah at least nine shofar sounds: tekiah-teruah-tekiah; tekiah-teruah-tekiah; tekiah-teruah-tekiah.

As it turns out, many years of persecution and exile resulted in uncertainty as to what the middle, emotive teruah sound is. Therefore, the number of blasts that one must hear increases in order to make sure one fills the mitzvah by hearing all the different possibilities.

One option is an undulating wail which rises and falls, like the sound one would utter while wailing in regret or lament – this sound is called “shevarim”. Another is described as a quick, repetitive sighing or crying like the sound one would make in a state of anxiety or anguish – this possibility retains the name “teruah”. A third option is a combination of both wailing and crying since this is the way of one in great remorse: first he slowly wails and then breaks forth into rapid, uncontrolled crying. This duo combination is therefore referred to as “shevarim-teruah” and is considered two different tones.

Accordingly, the minimum number of tones one must hear to fulfill the Torah requirement must include all these possibilities where each one of the three possible teruot is heard three times, preceded and followed by a tekiah each time. This is accomplished as follows: after the Torah reading and before the Musaf prayer, the shofar blower makes the blessing over the performance of the mitzvah having in mind fulfilling the mitzvah for the individuals of the congregation, just as each individual intends to make the shofar blower his representative. He then blows the following combinations A-BC-A; A-B-A; A-C-A three times each where A is tekiah, B is shevarim and C is teruah for a total of 30 tones:

Tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah; Tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah; Tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah — 12 tones.

Tekiah, shevarim, tekiah; Tekiah, shevarim, tekiah; Tekiah, shevarim, tekiah — 9 tones.

Tekiah, teruah, tekiah; Tekiah, teruah, tekiah; Tekiah, teruah, tekiah — 9 tones.

Since these blasts are heard before the beginning of the obligatory standing Musaf prayer, they are called the “tekiot meyushav” meaning sitting tekiot. They are nevertheless heard while standing. They are then followed by another 30 blasts in the Musaf prayer service during which one must stand. Thus these are referred to as “tekiot me’umad” or standing tekiot. These are sounded after each of the 3 central blessings of the Rosh Hashana Musaf prayer “malchuyot”, “zichronot” and “shofrot”. Since the order of these blasts and the exact part of the continuation of the service in which they are sounded is subject to custom, before the service one should check his family’s custom and/or the custom of the congregation in which he’ll be praying in order to avoid confusion.

Regardless of the particular custom, by the end of the Musaf service, one hears another repetition of the 30 blasts, plus another combination of 10 (A-BC-A; A-B-A; A-C-A) during the final Kaddish. This totals a full 100 blasts, as you noted, where the last tekiah is prolonged and therefore called the “tekiah gedolah” or great/long tekiah. The Sefaradim have the custom to add one additional tekiah to the customary 100 for a total of 101, which equals the numerical value of “Michael” (mem=40,yud=10,kaf=20,alef=1,lamed=30) – Israel’s protecting angel on high.

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