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A break with Rosh Hashanah tradition: Shofars are coming outside this Jewish New Year

  • September 18, 2020

This weekend, don’t be alarmed if you hear trumpeting in the streets. You could be witnessing the sound of a horn steeped in thousands of years of Jewish tradition.

The shofar is coming outside for Rosh Hashanah this year.

On the high holiday the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Friday, congregants typically bring their shofars (ram’s horns) to the bimah (synagogue stage) and blow. However, with the pandemic limiting indoor observation, Jews across the country are instead bringing their horns outdoors, and sounding them simultaneously.

The blasting of the shofar is “both a call for justice and a call to listen to the pain of the world,” says Rabbi Andrea London of Beth Emet synagogue in Evanston, Illinois. She’s an organizer of Shofar Across America, one of a number of national events like The Blast (in Washington, D.C.), Shofar in the Streets (Manhattan and Chicago) and Shofar Wave (Los Angeles) that are encouraging alternative ways to appreciate the ritual this year.  

A man in Tel Aviv examines a shofar, a horn that is traditionally blown on Rosh Hashanah. This year, people are bringing their shofars outside to observe the holiday.

What does the shofar symbolize?

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people read Genesis 22, a story from the Torah that ends with Abraham sacrificing a ram – instead of his son Isaac – on the altar. 

“The ram, in some ways, represents redemption, because the ram saves Isaac,” says London. “We’re hoping that listening to the shofar can save us from our mistakes and sins.”

Rabbi Sarah Krinsky of Adas Israel Congregation, who helped plan DC’s The Blast, adds, “One of the purposes of shofar is to startle the spirit and to wake us out of complacency.” 

The shofar has specific responses to traditional Hebrew calls: tekiah (a long, sustained blast), shevarim (three medium blasts), teruah (a number of short blasts in a row) and tekiah gedolah (an extra-long, sustained blast).

The wail of the shofar can sound like sobbing and also like a wake-up call, a dual meaning that seems particularly prescient now, amidst a social justice revolution and a global pandemic.

“Rosh Hashanah is a time when people reflect on the year that passed and think about how we can be better in the year ahead. That sound is a unifying force of looking back, and most importantly, looking forward,” says Jay Sanderson, the president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which is behind the Shofar Wave. “Frankly, there’s no time in my lifetime when hearing the clarion call of the shofar will have more relevance.”

The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has organized the Shofar Wave, an event that invites people to sound the shofar at different parts of the city at different times on Sunday afternoon.

How will the shofar blowing work?

Many organizers have created online maps with geotagged locations where shofars are expected. They’re asking those interested in hearing the shofar to maintain a distance, because droplets can spray from the end of the horn. Some groups suggest that listeners stay masked and 6 feet apart from each other, and at least 20-30 feet from shofar blowers in certain environments.

It is “recommended protocol” for shofar blowers to cover the ends of their horns with masks, says Krinsky.

“That blue surgical mask will still capture the aerosols, but it doesn’t muffle the sound as much as some of the cloth ones do,” she says.

Each group has a specific time it asks people to join the celebration. For The Blast, it’s 5 EST Friday afternoon, before Rosh Hashanah begins. However, since the holiday shofar is not traditionally blown on Shabbat (which goes from sundown Friday to Saturday), most other organized events are set for a specific time on Sunday afternoon, depending on location. For the Shofar Wave, the time varies across Los Angeles to, yes, create a sports arena-style wave of sound as opposed to one synchronized burst.

People participating in The Blast in Washington, D.C., will sound their shofars on Friday afternoon.

Why sound the shofar outside?

The call of the shofar has served as a way to unify Jewish people throughout history, even before it was done in synagogue.

“In some ways, we’re going back to the ancient way of bringing shofar to the street,” says London. “The shofar is such a raw-sounding instrument. To do it in synagogue is almost to domesticate the shofar in this lovely environment inside. But I really feel like it’s suited for outside, where it was originally done.”

And the shofar might return outdoors in the future, too.

“I hope next year, even if we’re back (and able to have a service), I hope this is something we do on an annual basis,” says Sanderson. “Not everyone belongs to a synagogue, but we want everyone to experience the sounds of the shofar.”

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