With that one little word comes a long, mighty blast from shofars the world over, calling the Jewish community to repentance on Rosh Hashanah and sounding the closing of the Book of Life on Yom Kippur.
In fact, listening to the shofar is the one thing the Torah specifically requires of the Jewish people during the High Holidays, according to Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.
After a particularly long blast, it is not unheard of for a congregation to audibly congratulate a ba’al tekiah, or shofar blower, on their service to the community. But who exactly are these horn-blowing, High Holiday heralds? The JT sat down with one ba’al tekiah to peel back the curtain.
Meet Jason Broth
Even omitting his years of service blowing shofars, Jason Broth stands out in his community of Pikesville.
In addition to being a realtor and a member of Beth Tfiloh, the 48-year-old father of two is also a lieutenant at the Pikesville Volunteer Fire Company, where he was voted 2019’s Firefighter of the Year. Broth recalled one occasion where his fire company transported an Orthodox family back to their private residence 6 miles away on a Friday night after the Shabbat house they’d been staying at caught fire.
Originally from Baltimore, Broth first began blowing the shofar before his bar mitzvah at B’nai Jacob with the encouragement and instruction of his father. Later, before Rosh Hashanah, he was contacted by the rabbi about blowing the shofar for a few community members who had fallen ill and were unable to come to shul.
This was the first in a series of private shofar blowings that Broth would give for the next several years, he said. Then, just before another Rosh Hashanah, an 18-year-old Broth received a call that the ba’al tekiah for Liberty Jewish Center was unable to blow the shofar, asking if he could get them out of their spiritual pickle.
This first public performance led to future ones for the next six or seven years, Broth said. The birth of his children temporarily interrupted his service as a ba’al tekiah, but he would occasionally be asked to do it for different synagogues. Then, after becoming a congregant of Beth Tfiloh, he was asked to blow for them on a regular basis and has been doing so for the past eight to 10 years, he estimated.
Broth personally owns eight separate shofars, including two with double curls, one with a single curl and “a handful of regular, traditional shofarot,” he said. Currently, his primary shofar is one he found years ago at a Jewish bookstore.
For those in the market for a shofar of their own, Broth stressed the importance of making certain the shofar is certified kosher. Aside from that, he stated that the most important quality is simply that it has a sound pleasing to the purchaser and warned against being afraid to impulse buy.
“Anytime I would go into a Jewish bookstore, I would always check out their shofar collection,” Broth said. “Because if you find one that just has the right sound, and it’s for your mouth and the way you blow, and you can do it, you just buy it. Because if you give it up, then you’re never going to find it again.”
After acquiring a shofar, Broth emphasized “practice, practice, practice.” Additionally, he urged proper care of a shofar, noting that with every use the shofar can get wet, hindering its performance. He said that this is made more difficult by the lack of any sort of drain on a shofar to easily remove the user’s saliva, necessitating manual cleaning.
“The key is trying to keep your shofar as dry as possible,” Broth continued. “When you practice beforehand you want to make sure you’re drying it. When you blow it during services you want to keep drying it. The wetter it gets on the inside, the more likely it is to give you trouble.”
Broth also urged keeping in mind that a shofar isn’t like normal musical instruments and can’t be expected to behave in the same way or with the same regularity.
“Everybody expects that you’re going to get up there, and it’s like a musical instrument,” Broth said. “And it’s not. If you have drums, they play like drums. If you have a guitar, it plays like a guitar. If you have a trumpet, it plays like a trumpet. If you have a shofar, it’s a ram’s horn.”
As such, he continued, even after weeks of practice and preparation, when the big moment comes, “every once in a while, it just doesn’t want to work and there’s nothing you can do. Which is why I always carry a backup.”
Much as Broth was taught the shofar by his father, so too did he pass his experience on to his own son, Noah. Currently 21 years old, Noah Broth has been blowing the shofar for the past four or five years, Broth said, and has blown the shofar at Beth Tfiloh’s teen minyan and for people who were unable to come to shul.
“Shofar blowing has been a really good experience,” Noah Broth said. “It’s always something to work toward, and I know I can get better at every year.”
As for why he keeps blowing the shofar after so many years, Broth explained that he gets “a lot out of having the congregants enjoy it. … I do long solid blasts that can make people emotional. And for me, just being the one that is able to fulfill the obligation for people, is I guess my spiritual happy place.”