The power and joy of the blast

I have been a shofar maker for 20 years. About 10 years ago, the rabbi of my temple asked me to stop being just the maker of shofars and become the ba’al tekiah (shofar blower) for the congregation.

I have also taught classes on making and blowing the shofar, as well as the lore behind the shofar, for many years. The joy in watching both young and old congregants make their first sound from the shofar is awesome. As that first sound leaves the shofar, I watch the connectedness to the Jewish people as a smile forms on the face of the budding ba’al tekiah.

I am both honored and humbled when I stand in front of the congregation to carry out this ancient ritual. But the most important thing to remember is that the commandment is to hear the shofar, not to blow the shofar. This is important enough that pages and pages of rabbinic text are devoted to discussing what constitutes hearing the shofar.

Maurice Kamins at the Lava Beds National Monument, just south of the California-Oregon border

Another thing to keep in mind is that even the source of sound has meaning. A quick story: My youngest brother, a professor of music, teaches bassoon at Rice University’s Shepard School of Music. One afternoon, we got into a discussion of where the shofar sound originates. We discussed how, whether from a bassoon or a shofar, the sound starts in the back of the head, moves through the body and comes out the instrument. He maintained that the musician is the instrument and the shofar or bassoon is only the tool to release the sound from the musician’s soul.

 So what happens when you sound the shofar at the High Holy Days services? Here’s how it feels for me: As I stand in front of the congregation, I remind myself of an old kabbalistic tale: “A rabbi was asked by his student, ‘Rabbi, how do we touch the divine?’ The rabbi answered: ‘There are three ways to touch the divine, through words, through sound and in silence.’ The student pressed on: ‘But what is the best way?’ After thinking a minute, the rabbi responded: ‘When our head is filled with words there is little space left for the voice of the divine, so this is the least effective way to touch the divine. When our soul is filled with music, we can make room for the divine. But when we sit in silence, the divine is free to enter our soul.’ ”

During High Holy Days services, all three aspects for reaching the divine are covered. It starts with the words of the rabbi calling forth the sounds for the ba’al tekiah. Both the congregation and the ba’al tekiah hear the words and the soul begins to awaken. As the ba’al tekiah takes up the shofar and blows the three patterns of shofar sounds: the tekiah, the shevarim and the teruah, the sound of the shofar fills the temple with its ancient vibrations.

Then, from my perspective as the ba’al tekiah, I see the sound of the shofar surround the congregation with its magic, and I watch the spirit of the congregants drift skyward, traveling upward with the fading blast. Sitting in the short silence before the next call of the shofar, each congregant has opened his or her soul to connect with the divine, and we all bask in the silence as the divine fills our hearts. We are taken upward a hundred times until the final long blast, the tekiah gedolah.

Maurice Kamins
is a licensed clinical social worker and shofar maker in San Francisco. He is a member of Congregation Sherith Israel.