Sounds of the shofar, safely
Montclair shofar services
Register and see information at:
Shofar in the park on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2:30 p.m., Porter Park. RSVP required.
By GWEN OREL
“Take heed to the sound of the shofar.”
The prayer is repeated after each sound of the ram’s horn.
This year, for Jews, hearing the shofar live is a challenge: Many people do not feel safe entering their synagogues.
Every year, Jews gather on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to celebrate the birth of the world. Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow, Friday, Sept. 18, at sundown, the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar. The Jewish New Year will be 5781.
On Rosh Hashanah, one of the main events of the service is the blast of the ram’s horn: the shofar.
The sound of the shofar calls Jews to examine their lives, to repent during the 10 Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But hearing it over Zoom does not count. At least, not legally, in terms of fulfilling the commandment.
Legal strictures — “halakhah” in Hebrew — specify that the shofar sound cannot be modified in any way.
So, in a time of social distancing and a COVID-19 world, how will Montclair Jews hear the shofar, safely?
Four area synagogues, Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove, and Shomrei Emunah and Bnai Keshet in Montclair, have created more than 30 shofar spots in Montclair and surrounding towns where small groups can gather safely, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, to hear the shofar blown. (It is not blown on the first day this year because the first day of the holiday falls on the Sabbath, and it is never blown on Shabbat.)
Sites include the Montclair Art Museum, Presby Iris Gardens, Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, Tulip Springs in the South Mountain Reservation in Maplewood, and the synagogues themselves, among others.
To hear the shofar at one of the spots, people may sign up through their congregations.
Chabad of Montclair will hold services outside, and blow the shofar there.
A WAKE-UP CALL
“Shofar is an ancient sound,” said Rabbi Elliott Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, a Reconstructionist synagogue (Reconstructionist Judaism emphasizes tradition and search for meaning over revelation). “It’s meant to stir our soul, break open our hearts. All of that is critical to doing the real work of tshuvah (return), of change.
“There is an intensity to the live performance of the shofar blast. There is a vulnerability that you hear from a person blowing the shofar and that it inspires in the listener. It’s a moment of drama.”
Hearing it live is meaningful, said Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform synagogue.
“There are ancient teachings about what happens if you hear the echo of a shofar in a cave,” Katz said. “It doesn’t count. For our synagogue, it’s less of a big deal than it would be for Shomrei Emunah [a Conservative, more traditional synagogue].”
But, Katz said, hearing the shofar is a touch point for his congregation, a moment in the Jewish calendar. Hearing the ram’s horn live will allow people to feel like they are not just staring at the computer screen for the whole High Holidays.
Chabad of Montclair will hold Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services outside, in the parking lot of the Montclair Women’s Club on Union Street.
“There is no scriptural reason for why we blow the shofar,” said Rabbi Yaacov Leaf of Chabad of Montclair. “There are many different rabbinic explanations: Rosh Hashanah is the day when we coronate God as king, renew God as king of the world, or accept his sovereignty. We would blow trumpets. It’s a sign of celebration.
“Shofar is really about a cry from the heart. It’s a deep cry that is not even expressed in words. When something means so much, you can’t even speak about it, it’s just a deep cry.”
He underscored that the sound of the shofar must be unadulterated. “It cannot be heard through a recording or even a microphone,” Leaf said.
A rabbi in an article in the Times of Jerusalem argued that wearing a mask would be allowed, according to halakhah, but Chabad of Montclair’s shofar blower will probably simply stand off from the congregation.
MAKING A SOUND
The four synagogues joining for the live shofar blowing offered a series of shofar-blowing workshops on Zoom in August, led by Shomrei Emunah congregant Elana Slobodien.
Getting a sound out of the ram’s horn is notoriously difficult.
“The idea was for people to be able to blow in their own community, and to allow more people to have the experience,” Slobodien said.
As a banker, being a shofar blower is something so different from her daily life, and she loves that about it.
Blowing the shofar, she said, is “one of the things in the Jewish year that is really different and fun and exciting. Everyone from the youngest to the oldest absolutely loves it.”
There were all skill levels and ages at the workshops, Slobodien said, from children through senior citizens.
“One person was like, ‘I just want to make a sound out of the shofar.’ Another said, ‘I can blow the shofar, and make an OK sound, but I want to get a better sound, and remind me of the names of the notes.’ We had a father-daughter.”
During the shofar service, the shofar blower responds to calls for particular sounds:
- Tekiah, a long blast.
- Shevarim, three long sounds.
- Teruah, nine staccato blasts. The shofar blower must blow three sets, three times.
- Finally there is tekiah gedolah: a very long blast.
Slobodien has been blowing the shofar for Shomrei Emunah for a long time, and even blew it growing up.
At the workshops, she helped people first get a sound at all, making a buzzing sound with their lips, as you would for the trumpet or French horn.
Then she focused on making different sounds, making higher and lower sounds.
Finally she focused on the tekiah gedolah, and how to breathe through the diaphragm.
People also talked about their shofarot (the Hebrew plural for shofar) and where they got them. Slobodien got hers on Ben Yehuda street, in Jerusalem. “Someone said it was their grandfather’s. Everyone knew their shofar story,” she said.
Leaf’s father-in-law is the shofar blower for Chabad. “You do not have to be a rabbi,” he said. “It’s considered a very big honor.”
All of the congregations are taking pains to make sure that people can hear the shofar and stay safe.
Tepperman said that in each of the 30 locations, the shofar blower will be at a distance from listeners, to reduce the aerosol spray through the horn.
Bnai Keshet and some others will also live-stream smaller shofar services, which does not fulfill the traditional requirements of halakhah, but may be necessary for some people.
Services for the High Holidays, Tepperman said, “will be a combination of live and prerecorded components of the service.”
All of the congregations are doing their best to open virtual doors, he said.
About 10 people are expected at each of the 30 spots.
In addition to the Rosh Hashanah service in the parking lot, Chabad of Montclair is holding a brief shofar blowing in Porter Park, its fourth year doing that.
“Many families were not going to synagogue, even pre-COVID,” Leaf said. “This gives people a chance to celebrate. There are no prayers. It gives people an opportunity to partake in the main aspect of the day.” Instead of the liturgy, there will be a story and meditation, and maybe songs, he said.
The Lubavitch Orthodox group will put up tents and enforce masks.
Usually Chabad, which emphasizes outreach to fellow, less-observant Jews, does not ask anyone to register, but this year they need to be meticulous, and will have names on the socially distanced chairs, said Leaf.
Slobodien looks forward to the day.
“In my house we have all these shofar songs and sing them, in addition to apples and honey songs,” she said. A Jewish custom on Rosh Hashanah is to eat apples and honey, for a sweet year. Her children are 9 and 5.
Bringing in the new year with this loud sound is arresting, she said. “Even the baby that’s crying: When the shofar sounds they’re not. They stop. It’s a really special thing. Every age is so focused on it.”
Taking the moment, hearing the call, is “a great way to start the new year.”