The Laws of Blowing the Shofar

The Order of the Shofar Blasts

According to the Torah, we are obligated to sound nine shofar blasts
on Rosh Hashanah. These blasts consist of three groups of three blasts
each, and each group consists of a “tekiyah” blast, a “teruah” blast,
and another “tekiyah” blast.
However, with the passing of time, uncertainty arose regarding the
nature of the ‘teruah’ blast. Clearly, the ‘teruah’ is supposed to
convey the sort of suffering and pain that allude to crisis and
iniquity, but we do not know how this should be done. Should the
‘teruah’ take the form of medium length blasts that resemble moaning,
or short blasts that resemble sobbing? Or perhaps the ‘teruah’ should
be a combination of these, so that it begins with ‘shevarim’ (medium
length blasts) and continues with ‘teruah’ (short blasts), like a
person who starts to moan and then suddenly begins sobbing.
Because of this uncertainty, the Talmudic sage Rabbi Abahu instituted
that blasts be sounded in each of the above possibilities: we begin
with three sets of three blasts in which the ‘teruah’ (the middle
blast in each set) consists of both ‘shevarim’ and ‘teruah’;
thereafter, we sound another three sets of three blasts in which the
‘teruah’ takes the form of a moaning sound, i.e., “shevarim”; and we
conclude with three sets of blasts in which the ‘teruah’ takes the
form of short blasts alone, i.e., “teruah.” So, instead of the nine
blasts mentioned in the Torah, today we sound thirty blasts (Tractate
Rosh Hashanah 34a).
The Rambam explains that in truth nine blasts alone would suffice, but
due to the hardships and the exiles, uncertainties arose regarding the
actual ‘teruah’, and because we lack the ability to reach a decisive
conclusion on this matter, we are compelled to blow all three types of
‘teruah’ on Rosh Hashanah, for if we leave out just one of them, we
may be leaving out the real ‘teruah’, and this would mean that we have
failed to fulfill our duty.
However, according to the Rambam’s explanation, before Rabbi Abahu
instituted blowing in the manner mentioned above, many communities
failed to fulfill their obligation to blow the shofar – and such a
situation is difficult to imagine.
Rabbi Hai Gaon, on the other hand, writes that all three types of
‘teruah’ are in keeping with Jewish law; therefore, before Rabbi
Abahu’s ruling, it was possible for each individual to choose for
himself the type of ‘teruah’ he wanted to blow. He would blow nine
blasts, and that was sufficient to fulfill his obligation.
What Rabbi Abahu wanted was for the entire Jewish people to blow the
shofar in a single manner, so there would not appear to be a
difference of opinions; and because each type of ‘teruah’ is distinct
and unique, Rabbi Abahu legislated that people blow all three types of
‘teruah’, thus making room for all of the customs and versions that
existed then. It follows that today, too, it is possible to fulfill
one’s Torah obligation with nine blasts, while rabbinic ordinance
calls for thirty blasts.

More on the Shofar Blasts

The Torah states (Numbers 29:1): “It will be for you a day of sounding
the shofar,” and from here we learn of the obligation to blow the
shofar on Rosh Hashanah day, not at night (Tractate Megillah 20b). The
sages went further by instituting shofar blasts that coincided with
the special blessings in the Rosh Hashanah prayers:
“Malchuyot” (Sovereignty), “Zichronot” (Remembrance), and
“Shofarot” (Shofar blasts), so that by doing this our prayers would be
favorably received (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a).
It would appear that, at first, people would recite the special Rosh
Hashanah blessings during the morning prayers and at that time they
would also blow the shofar, for “the fervent are quick to perform
their religious duties.” Some time later, in a period of persecutions,
the enemy outlawed the blowing of the shofar, and their soldiers would
lay in wait during the first six hours of the day to see if the Jews
would try to violate the decree.
At that time they, the Torah authorities ruled that the shofar be
blown during the Rosh Hashanah ‘Mussaf’ prayer (because it can be
recited after noon) and it was likewise instituted that the
“Malchuyot,” “Zichronot,” and “Shofarot” blessings be recited in the
Mussaf prayer. And even after the enemy’s decree was annulled, the
Jews did not go back to blowing the shofar in the morning prayers for
fear that the decree be reintroduced. This is how it became
established that the shofar be blown during the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf
The Jerusalem Talmud relates that the enemies once heard Jews blowing
the shofar during morning prayers. They thought it was a war cry and
attacked the worshipers, killing many of them. Therefore, the sages
instituted that the shofar be blown during the Mussaf prayers. Their
reasoning was that if the adversary saw Jews praying and reading from
the Torah, and then praying again and blowing the shofar, they would
understand that the Jews are occupied with prayer and religious
duties, not war cries. If, however, the shofar was blown earlier on in
the day, it is not recognizable that this is part of the prayer.
Later, the sages instituted another ordinance, that shofar blasts be
sounded just prior to the Mussaf service. These blasts are called
“tekiyot meyushav” (“sitting blasts”) because they are not the most
important blasts and therefore, according to the letter of the law, it
is permitted to sit during them.
In the Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a) a question is raised by
Rabbi Yitzchak: “Why do we sound a ‘tekiyah’ and ‘teruah’ while
sitting and then again sound a ‘tekiyah’ and ‘teruah’ while standing?”
He answers that we do this “to confuse the Satan.” Rashi explains that
when “the Satan” hears how Israel cherishes the commandments by
blowing more shofar blasts than required by the Torah, his accusations
will be silenced.

The Ran understands “the Satan” to be a person’s own evil inclination,
and by sounding many shofar blasts our hearts are humbled and we are
able to concentrate better on our prayers, for it is well known that
shofar blasts awaken a person to repentance. We have learned, then,
that already according to the Talmud, the custom was to blow sixty
shofar blasts. Later on, the Mystics of Safed began to adopt the
teachings of the Holy Ari, which call for 100 blasts.

Proper Intention During the Shofar Blasts

The sages mention numerous reasons and ideas behind the commandment of
the shofar blowing, from the most straightforward, i.e. that it stirs
the heart to repentance, and that we use a ram’s horn in order to
recall the binding of Isaac, to the most sublime Kabbalistic
I would like to mention here an explanation that contains both depth
and simplicity. The Redak (Rabbi David Kimchi) explains that the first
shofar blast in every order of blasts expresses the soul’s natural
goodness; it represents the newborn child, untainted by sin, clean and
pure. When the child grows, he becomes exposed to the complications
and the crooked ways of this world, he struggles and is tested; he
also falls and sins. This is expressed via the ‘teruah’, through
moaning and sobbing over the failures that taint our character and the
transgressions we become entangled in. The order finishes with a final
simple shofar blast, which again expresses man’s virtue and goodness,
but this time after repentance, after requesting forgiveness.

Finally, at the conclusion of all of the blasts, we blow a single long
blast that expresses the end of all struggles and hardships, the final
rectification. The greatness of a penitent is that after sin and
failure he achieves a state of completeness, as a person enriched by
trials, and despite everything, has succeeded in overcoming all
obstacles to refine his soul. In this regard, the sages say, “In the
place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot
stand” (Tractate Berakhot 34b).

Various Laws

Men alone are commanded to hear the blowing of the shofar, and this is
because it is a positive, time-bound commandment. Even though,
strictly speaking, women are exempt from hearing the shofar, almost
all women make a practice of fulfilling this commandment voluntarily.
It is important to remember that in order to fulfill this commandment,
it is not enough to merely hear the blasts. One who hears the shofar
blasts must intend by so doing to fulfill the Torah commandment to
hear the shofar. This is because we follow the opinion that
commandments must be accompanied by proper intention.
It is forbidden to talk from the time the blessings are recited over
the shofar blowing until the completion of the blasts, so that speech
not constitute an interruption between the blessing and the
fulfillment of the commandment.
If one synagogue has a good prayer leader and a poor shofar blower,
and another synagogue has a poor prayer leader and a good shofar
blower, it is preferable to go to the synagogue where one will
unquestionably fulfill his obligation to hear the shofar blown in
keeping with Jewish law.

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