The Voice of the Shofar (Sept 2007)

If you are alone this coming Rosh Hashanah, will you be munching your honey-dipped apple with a feeling of connectedness to the world-wide Jewish Community or will you just be feeling marginalized and needlessly glum?

In the RSGB Machsor (Holiday Prayer Book) of 1985, R'Jonathan Magonet wrote that on Yom Kippur we stand before God,

“All of us together, each of us alone”

This echoes the belief that, through Jewish collective responsibility, all Jews are reliant upon each other in the annual quest for community absolution. We are never truly alone on Yom Kippur.

R' Yitzchak Luria said:

Why was the confession composed in the plural?
Because all Israel is one body and each individual Jew is a limb of that body.
Because all Israel is one body and each individual Jew is a limb of that body.We are all responsible for each other …”
(Yesod ha-Teshuvah vi)
The High Holidays are a time when all of us stand alone before God as we examine our lives and yet we simultaneously all act as “representatives of the community” for each other.
(This year, the “Ten days of Awe” begin on Rosh Hashanah (New Year) which commences after sundown on Sept 12th and they end after Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in the early evening of Sept 22nd.)
In “The Cave” I wrote:

“The contemplative is always in community, whether that be a handful of neighbours, a family, a circle of distant friends kept often in mind, or the people they meet briefly or correspond with. Even if they were in total solitude they would still be part of the community of Creation: Responsible not only for themselves but for everyone. This is not just my own reflection. It is one which permeates the liturgy of Yom Kippur.”
Along with all other full-time contemplatives I have attempted to turn my solitude into a positive lifestyle.

Such a lifestyle would not suit many Jews, but this year, and every year, there will be millions of Jews who are unavoidably isolated and simply unable to attend any form of communal worship over the High Holiday season. There will be many who, rightly or wrongly, also feel unwelcome at such gatherings even if they are physically able to attend them.

This month’s short posting is for all those who are “alone” on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

One of the stranger commandments of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) is to “hear/understand” the call/voice of the Shofar. (lish’moa kol shofar). The sounds produced have their own names which in some cases may assist us in this task:

TEKIAH was and is a single blast which often heralds the start of an announcement or special event. In this case it announces the start of the ten “Days of Awe”, the alarm-call to an assembly of repentance, the proclamation of the “arrival of the Judge and King”.

TEKIAH GEDOLAH is a longer single blast which marks the end of such an announcement or event. It is often blown at the very end of Yom Kippur.

SHEVARIM is a group of three broken wailing sounds.

TERUAH is a rapid group of sobbing or gasping sounds.

They are blown in many different combinations throughout Rosh Hashanah and in many different ways according to local or denominational minhag (custom).

For non-Jewish readers wondering what a shofar looks like, here is a photo of my shofar:

I bought this shofar in 1993 in Finchley whilst on a whistle stop “Jewish acculturation” trip to London from my home in Indonesia. (Though I am from Northern England I spent many years teaching in S.E. Asia.) During that trip I was fortunate as my shofar was chosen for me by a rabbi friend who also then gave me an invaluable lesson on how to produce the standard tones. He managed to produce a far sweeter and much more impressive sound than I do. But I do my best. Freestyle.

For four years after that purchase I blew that Shofar for the multi-denominational Jewish community of Jakarta each Rosh Hashanah. But in the many years which followed, during which I was too far away from any synagogue or havurah to attend services, I continued to blow the shofar blasts at home. That felt quite strange at first as you can probably imagine. Initially I did it simply to make possible the mitzvah “to listen” to the shofar calls. I also made it a “wordless prayer” for God’s ears alone. (The weird and eerie language of the shofar tones can often be more explicit in meaning than words ever could.) For the last four years here in Spain, I have also made a point of blowing it for “all those who are alone like me or unable to attend services” as a way of including them in my prayers.

This year I am extending that sentiment.

If you are alone this Rosh Hashanah…whether by choice or circumstance…..I invite you to make a “special remembrance” in your prayers over the "Ten Days" for those of us who are also “alone”. Together, may it please God, may we make a sort of minyan which meets in intention if not physically. With all this in mind I have played and recorded the separate Shofar blasts during Elul for you to hear via this website.
The Jakarta minhag for grouping the Shofar calls was as follows:

Tekiah, Shevarim-Teruah, Tekiah.
Tekiah, Shevarim, Tekiah
Tekiah, Shevarim-Teruah, Tekiah Gedolah

For this little online para-liturgy, I have recorded the “soundings” in separate files so that you can arrange your own playing order or even set them to play simultaneously if you wish. This should also speed up the downloads for people who have internet connections which are as slow as mine.

(You would be well advised to set the individual volume control sliders on low when you first play them as they are very loud!)
Here then, are the Shofar calls as I blew them for you on 14th Elul:


Of course, you can find the Shofar calls played online in many places on the net (at "YouTube" for example)....but the difference is that THIS blowing is for you: The readers of this blog and for all those who are alone and thus would not hear the Shofar blown this year.

I hope to blow it again "live" on Rosh Hashanah and for the Tekiah Gedolah which ends the fast on Yom Kippur.......but this internet version you can hear with your ears and not just your soul’s imagination.

The Machsor (the special High Holiday Period Prayer book) says:

The first is merely the prelude to the second.
A physical sign to mark a spiritual “event”.

Yes, I’ll be blowing the shofar.
Yes, (I hope) you will be blowing it or hearing it yourselves.

But the real “work” of the Ten Days is
listening to the true “Voice of the Shofar”,
the one which the Ram’s horn merely heralds:
and that Voice often speaks clearest in the silence.
In the silence between the multiple blasts of Rosh Hashanah
and the Final Blast after Yom Kippur.
And in any silence
in which we make space for it to speak
in the midst of our busy lives.


If you are “alone” for the High Holidays this year,
I hope you will make a blessing of it,
and not give in to needless gloom.
On Yom Kippur we stand before God
“Each of us alone, ALL of us together”