The Music of the Shofar Service

May 9, 2013Cantor Hayley Kobilinsky

Tekiah! Teruah! Shevarim! Tekiah Gedolah!

If these words do not evoke within you a sense of excitement that is at the core of the High Holy Days, then surely the unmistakable blast of the shofar, the ram’s horn, will.  I can still remember the anticipation of hearing the shofar blown at services as a child.  I would count the pages remaining until that moment.  I would close my eyes as though doing so would let the sound absorb more deeply into my heart.  If my family was running late that morning, I dreaded the thought of missing it.  No blast was more exciting than Tekiah Gedolah – the longest blast, preceded by the biggest breath, and followed by a collective sigh or nervous giggle by the “Jews in the pews.”  Hearing the shofar blown, be it a clear, strong tone, or one which sputtered and wavered, was a visceral sensory experience that has never left me, along with the sight of the Torah scrolls dressed in white, the scent of the ushers’ white carnation boutonnieres, and the taste of apples dipped in sweet honey. 

It is somewhat ironic that the shofar, long in use as a means of communicating and announcing, is itself introduced by a blessing, attesting that we are commanded to hear the voice of the shofar, followed by a Shehecheyanu for reaching this season and hearing the shofar for the first time.  The traditional melody (in this example, arranged by Herbert Fromm), is akin to a majestic trumpet call.  The shofar blast we are accustomed to hearing tends to include a characteristic accent at the conclusion of each long blast, as the ba’al tekiah, or head of the shofar calling, gives one last exhalation of breath and the pitch ascends.  As you listen to this recording, you will hear a mirror-image of this movement; the ends of the blessings do not rise in pitch, but rather descend.  I like to imagine that these blessings, despite their majesty, are not intended to diminish the grandeur of the shofar calls themselves, therefore the blessings reflect the appearance of the shofar as though they are its opposites. (LISTEN)

Please forgive the following tangent: There are those for whom the Shehecheyanu is only acceptable using one particular melody (LISTEN). If you don’t hear this melody at each occasion which merits a Shehecheyanu, such as Rosh Hashanah, don’t fear: Your preferred melody will come around again, most likely in 3 months or so, right after the Chanukkiah (menorah for Chanukkah) is lit for the first night of the year.  That melody is intended for Chanukkah, but since Chanukkah is most often celebrated in the home, many generations of Jews have grown up hearing that joyful, catchy tune, and it has remained steadfast in their musical memories.

The three-part shofar service includes many poetic insertions which give the cantor opportunities to weave traditional High Holy Day musical themes with a hint of shofar-like sounds.  One of my favorite moments is in the third section, shofarot.  In the paragraph, “Attah nigleita ba’anan k’vodecha,” the shofar is mentioned several times in the context of how its blasts both captured the attention of and heralded the appearance of God.  “Amid thunder and lightning did you reveal yourself to them; amid the blasting of the shofar did you appear to them.  It is written in your Torah: On the third day, in the morning, there was thunder and lightning, a dense cloud over the mountain, and a loud shofar blast; all the people in the camp trembled.”1  In this selection from a traditional cantorial recitative by Cantor Adolph Katchko, the strength of the voice of the shofar (“kol haShofar”) is highlighted with arpeggios and proclamatory high notes. (LISTEN)

It bears mentioning that the shofar blasts themselves are unique and varied: tekiah: a solid blast, neither long nor short; shevarim: three solid blasts, one following another in quick succession; teruah: a minimum of nine short, punctuated, rapid blasts; and tekiah gedolah: literally, “big tekiah,” this blast is a long, solid one, held as long as the ba’al tekiah can manage.  (There is also a compound blast sequence of “shevarim-teruah” in which the two patterns are performed back to back.)  This ancient musical pattern (one can’t quite call it a melody, as the actual notes are not dictated) has been echoed in settings of other pieces of liturgy throughout the High Holy Days, and has been utilized and adapted by modern composers as well.  For a heavy metal piece, “Al Taster,” the Israeli group Salem begins with four blasts of the shofartekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah gedolah.  Jewish Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz began the show “Godspell” with three blasts of the shofartekiah, tekiah, teruahMadonna begins her Middle-Eastern-influenced song “Isaac” with a ba’al tekiah blowing a shofartekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah, tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah. While I highly doubt that Salem, Stephen Schwartz, or Madonna preceded their use of the shofar with a blessing, I’ll let it slide; I have a feeling that their songs were recorded in a studio and not a sanctuary.

  1. Translation adapted from High Holyday Prayer Book, translated by Philip Birnbaum, Hebrew Publishing Company, NY.


Shofar Service, Herbert Fromm, Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe): Volume 1: Rosh Hashannah, ed. Samuel Adler, Transcontinental Music Publications

Shehecheyanu, traditional melody, ed. Stephen Richards, Manginot: 201 Songs for Jewish Schools, Transcontinental Music Publications

Ata Nigleita, Adolph Katchko, A Thesaurus of Cantorial Liturgy: Volume Three: For the Days of Awe

Selections sung by H. Kobilinsky

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