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!”  

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