The shofar is
the defining sound of the High Holy Days
An article by our Director of Music, Scot Kumer
In Biblical times, the blowing of the shofar served a variety of purposes: to announce Sabbaths, festivals, Jubilee Years, new moons, processions, even wars.
Eventually it was used as an instrument in the ancient Temple orchestra. Recent archaeological exploration has revealed clear historical evidence for the Shofar in ancient Temple practice. Etched into a stone situated at the peak of the southwestern corner of the Second Temple Mount can be found Hebrew words, translated they mean “the place of the sounding of the shofar.” This marked the exact location of the shofar blower, along with a stunning vista overlooking Jerusalem, enhancing the awesomeness of the shofar’s majestic blasts and and its reverberating echoes!
Today, the shofar is almost exclusively associated with the High Holy Days, as a “prelude” on weekdays during the month of Elul to mark off days to the New Year.
We all acknowledge the shofar is the defining sound of the High Holy Days. In fact, Rosh HaShanah, the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), is called a “memorial of blowing” (zikron teruah) and a “day of blowing” (yom teruah) the shofar. During our High Holy Days liturgies we hear shofar blasts, expertly played by Carol Yanowitz Miller and Hart Billings (See related article) in three places:
1) At the beginning of Rosh Hashanah Evening, after which the choir responds by singing “Tik’u vachodesh shofar… Sound the shofar when the new moon appears, at the turn of the year, at the return of our solemn celebration…”;
2) During the Shofar Service on Rosh HaShanah Morning;
3) And on Yom Kippur Afternoon, specifically at the very end of Ne’ilah or the Concluding Service, just before the Ark is closed and, according to legend, the Book of Life is sealed.
Central to our service
It’s quite interesting to note the absolute (and intentional) centrality of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah morning. Just as Leviticus 19 (“K’doshim Tih’yu…You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy”) is at the exact center of the Torah, so is the Shofar service the very heart of Rosh HaShanah morning, nested within the overall service and more deeply within the Torah service.
This brilliant liturgical structure may not be readily apparent when we experience the Rosh HaShanah morning service in real time. It seems perfectly natural that the sermon would be the focal point of the morning service; it actually occurs at a point “in orbit” just outside the Torah service, not within it like the shofar service. During the liturgically-embedded Shofar service, the shofar calls are in a series of three groups. After each group we hear a choral composition with one of three texts: “The Eternal Reigns,” “For the Mountains Shall Depart,” and “All Ye Dwellers on Earth.” These three texts form some of the main components of the Shofar service which many composers have set to music over the years. The very dramatic version Sinai uses was created by the renowned and erudite A.W. Binder (1895-1966), who served as music director at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City from 1922- 1966.
About our Shofar service
In his flamboyant setting, A.W. Binder has composed what might be called a “Concerto for Shofar & Choir in Three Movements.” Here the French Horn substitutes for the shofar and functions as a virtuosic solo instrument interacting with and commenting on the text the choir is singing. It also provides an splendid ancient Temple affect through the dialogue of the French horn and antiphonal trumpet at the beginning of each movement, meant to evoke or recreate the shofar’s blasts from the ancient Temple’s southwestern corner as well as the echoes which would have resounded throughout Jerusalem.
All of our High Holy Days musicians – especially the French horn player! – eagerly anticipate the Shofar service every Rosh HaShanah morning. We hope that you do, too. We look forward to worshiping with you and wish you all “L’shanah tovah tikateivu!”