Perhaps two of the most rewarding mitzvahs each year occur during a series of loud howls and screeches. Now if this is your first Elul, you couldn’t be blamed for confusing the aforementioned sound with the honking of a trumpeter swan or the cry of an elephant. The loud and shrill yet beautiful tone of someone blowing the shofar signifies the beginning of a New Year on Rosh Hashanah and relief from the daylong fast during Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Etan Mintz from B’Nai Israel in downtown Baltimore describes the shofar’s sound as a “blast,” likening its purpose to that of an alarm clock. They are there to “awaken us, to remind us that it is time for repentance.”
For those who blow the shofar, the mitzvah is all the more significant.
Irvin Litofsky belongs to Adat Chaim Synagogue in Owings Mills. At 65 years old, he has blown shofar during Elul for more than half of his life.
“Although the mitzvah is to hear the shofar,” he said, “I especially enjoy enabling everyone else in the congregation to fulfill this mitzvah. It is something I look forward to all year.”
Despite the shofar’s animal- like sound, anyone with a pair of eyes can see that the shofar blowers are all homo sapiens. But of course, without the use of an animal part, the shofar’s boisterous bellow wouldn’t be.
“It is a ram’s horn,” Litofsky said of his own shofar. “Even after all these years, it still smells like a dead animal when I blow it!”
The ram’s horn is the most traditional shofar.
“When God called Abraham, he called for him to sacrifice Isaac, his only son,” Mintz said. “The ram’s horn is supposed to remind God of the sacrifice of our people, and our ancestry.” According to the Talmud, the horn of any animal in the bovidae family — with the exception of cows — is acceptable to use as a shofar.
Litofsky maintains a clear image of the day he found his shofar. He was at the now-closed Pern’s Hebrew Bookstore and making quite a ruckus. “I think I drove everyone crazy as I tried out every single shofar in the store, and they had a large box of them, before selecting my favorite.”
Like Litofsky, Dr. David Feller-Kopman, a member of Temple Oheb Shalom’s Diane and Dr. Warren Israel Shofar Choir, stresses the importance of finding the right match. “Take your time when picking out the shofar,” he said, “Blow a lot of them. The right shofar will find you.”
Ida Zakin, who has been blowing shofar at Chevrei Tzedek Congregation for 10 years, describes a similar spiritual calling that connected her to her shofar. “It is so sweet, it brings tears to my eyes. It’s like Harry Potter and the wand. I could put [four shofars] in front of you, and you can try all four, but only one will work. That’s the one for you.”
Besides blowing shofar, Dr. Feller-Kopman says that he hasn’t played any other instruments since playing trumpet in grade school, but learning to blow the shofar was a simple transfer of skills. Much like keeping the right embouchure for playing trumpet, the position of your lips and tongue, as well as the speed of your breath determines the tone you’ll hear from a shofar.
For Feller-Kopman, who has performed this ritual for a decade with his current congregation, there is an omnipresent sense of pride in performing this ritual. “As a child, when blowing at Yom Kippur, I was told to ‘blow until the next Rosh Hashanah,’” he said. It was as a child that he learned to take pride in a long tekiah gedolah.
Whether you have a musical background or not, it’s common for shofar blowers to begin their journey during childhood. Ezra Buchdahl of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has been blowing the shofar since he was a teenager. He is the second of three consecutive Buchdahl generations to perform the shofar ritual. “It has been very special to blow the shofar with [my son, Max] and my dad,” said Buchdahl.
Buchdahl’s father is Gustav Buchdahl, former rabbi at Temple Emanuel. Buchdahl says his father only stopped performing the ritual a few years ago after blowing the shofar for 60 years. “We certainly recognize how unique and special it was to have three generations blowing the shofar together and competing to see who has more hot air.”
For Buchdahl’s son, Max, a 21-year-old student at Temple University in Philadelphia, learning to play the shofar required a strong sense of hupomone. “I remember it being a slow process,” he said. “First, you get a sound or two out, but not a strong sound. Then you have to incorporate breathing. … After a while, I just figured out what worked for me and kept doing that. It’s really all about practice.”
Max is in agreement with his father in that having three generations on the bimah was something very special for his immediate family. Max added, however, that the multigenerational presence of shofar blowers also was touching for other members of the congregation.
“These are the members who remember my grandfather in his early days at Emanuel, they babysat my dad and his siblings and watched them grow up and then were there to watch me and my sister grow up,” he said. “I know it was a meaningful experience for them too.”
The spirit of passing this skill on to future generations is something that gives Zakin purpose. She teaches youngsters how to blow the shofar in hopes that even one of them will make the spiritual connection she has.
“It’s a calling,” she said. “It stirs something up inside of you. You need to go inside of yourself to see what you’re all about.”
Mintz said, “Sometimes you don’t have the words in prayer,” describing the shofar’s primordial call. “A lot of the most powerful songs we have in our tradition are prayers without words. The shofar expresses the feelings that are wordless.”
Connor Graham is a local freelance writer.