by Michael Chusid
Reb Zalman called me to his side during Rosh Hashanah. Speaking gently yet with authority, he offered, “Sometimes when someone blows a long tekiah gedolah, the shofar blower’s ego starts thinking, ‘Wow, I’m good. This is a really long blast. I hope everybody is noticing me.’ So there is a way when, just before falling asleep at night, that we visualize we are giving our breathe back to God. Doing this helps us prepare for when we die, and get to give our last breathe back to God. This is a good kavanah for the shofar blower. When you do it this way, the shofar blasts carry our prayers straight to God.”
This is just one of many shofar teachings Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi gave me when I was ba’al tekiah (shofar Master Blaster) during nearly two decades of High Holy Days services that we shared. I will be transmitting his teachings about shofar, and those of many other sages, at the ALEPH Kallah to be held in New Hampshire this July 1-7.
Shofar echoes throughout time — from the breath of Creation to trumpeting the final redemption. Holy texts describe our ancestors using shofar to communicate with God, warriors, and workers in the field, to hold oil for anointing and wine for drinking, and to mark fasts and seasons of joy. Calling in both masculine and feminine voices, shofar unifies the Four Worlds. Shofar is a powerful technology for prayer, meditation, tikkun olam, music, and transformation.
Based on my experience teaching thousands of people to awaken the voice of shofar, I guarantee that you can sound shofar. In time for the High Holy Days, class participants will craft shofarot and learn to sound them, deepen their hearing, and prepare to serve the community as master blasters.
Here, for example, are the 20 Secrets of an Awesome Tekiah Gedolah:
1. Practice: Remember the advice given to a tourist in New York City who asked “How do I get to Carnegie Hall? The answer: “Practice, Practice, Practice.” Blowing shofar daily throughout Elul – the month preceding the New Year – will assure you are in top form for Yamim Noraim – The Days of Awe. The practice throughout Elul, however, is not just to perfect technique. Practice also awakens the blower spiritually, aligning him or her with the sound of shofar and the process of teshuvah.
2. Conditioning: The healthier you are, the easier it will be to blow a strong, loud blast. I like to swim the length of a swimming pool underwater, a discipline that requires breath control similar to immersing myself in a tekiah gedolah. Steve. a fellow shofar blower in my shul, was able to sustain a longer shofar blast after he stopped smoking.
3. Mind the Basics of Posture and Breathe Control: Loosen your belt and collar to free-up your breathing apparatus. If decorum permits, remove your shoes so you are in better contact with the earth and become the connection between ha’shamayim ve’et ha’aretz.
4. Preparation is the Key to All Spiritual Ritual: In the moments leading up to shofar sounding, turn inward; this is not the time to be concentrating on the prayer book or the mounting intensity of the worshipers surrounding you. I concentrate on my own most intimate prayers and assume a meditative composure. Sometimes I pull my tallit over my head to allow me privacy to do the inner work I must do. Rather than listening to the Rabbi and responses, I allow myself to feel the vibrational field of sound in the sanctuary. I pay attention to feeling centered in my own body and in contact with the earth. And I begin breathing slowly and deeply, inhaling oxygen into every cell of my body and exhaling carbon dioxide along with sins of the past year. By the time I am called forward to blow shofar, I aim to be of a single-mindedness of purpose – to connect heaven and earth in the sounding of shofar, advancing the process of teshuvah for myself, my congregation, all of Israel, my fellow Earthlings, and all the worlds beyond.
5. Shofaring is Not a Performance Art: Blowing shofar is devotional service. If you remember that it is not a performance, you will experience less performance anxiety, leading ironically to a better performance.
6. Kavanah and Prayer: Kavanah is the intention underlying our actions. One can read the words of a prayer book out of intellectual curiosity, or one can read them with a sense of reverence; they are the same words, but your relationship to the words will be different because your kavanah is different. Before blowing shofar in shul, I pray, quietly, that I be worthy to act a messenger for the congregation, that my shofar blast be accepted as a giant AMEN to all the congregation’s spoken and unspoken prayers (including my own), and that I be given the strength and skill to sound shofar in such a way that it will be heard by anyone in the congregation who has not yet completed their teshuvah work (including myself). If my kavanah is clear, then it does not matter how long my tekiah gedolah is, it will be awesome.
7. Believe that the Longer you Blow, the more Opportunity you are Giving God to Show Mercy: Central to the High Holy Day liturgy is the belief that we can bargain with God for mercy. The machzor – prayer book for the Days of Awe – says, “Our Father, our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have too few good deeds. Treat us with justice tempered by love and bring us salvation.” Anthropomorphizing The Deity, we envision a judge about to pass a harsh decree, but who, at the last moment, shows mercy. By extending the cry of the tekiah gedolah for as long as possible, you give HaShem the opportunity to show greater compassion. One student in my class told me that, as a child, she imagined that every moment her rabbi sustained the tekiah gedolah meant that more people would be sustained in life throughout the new year; she says she continues to use the imagery to inspire her to “blow as though lives depend upon it.” They do.
8. Believe that Your Blast will Bring the Messiah: The essence of this technique is captured in a story from the Satmar Rebbe explaining why Satan is bewildered by shofar: “Every year when we blow the shofar, the shofar blasts of all the tzaddikim of previous generations are added to our present shofar sounds, and a great and holy crescendo rises to heaven. Every Rosh Hashanah, as new shofar blasts are joined to the ones of the previous years, the noise in Heaven grows stronger. Satan remembers the sound of last year’s shofar blasts. He is now confronted with a much louder noise. Afraid that enough shofar blasts have accumulated in Heaven to bring about the final redemption, he is panic-stricken, thinking that what he hears is the “shofar of Mashiach,” trumpeting his demise. The Satan’s fears are not unfounded. Mashiach can come today when our modest tekiot are added to those of the tzaddikim of past generations. Let’s not miss the opportunity. Entreat HaShem wholeheartedly and accept His absolute sovereignty, for with sincere prayer it is possible to bring the final redemption.”
9. Feel Competitive: Despite what I have said about shofar not being a performance art and about establishing kavanah, it excites me to blow tekiah gedolah with other shofarists. Like the racer who can run faster or farther when he or she has others to pace him or her, I feel the energy of the other shofar blowers and think, “If they are still blowing, I will too – and perhaps even longer!” Like the sportsman, I shake hands with my fellow blowers if they are standing nearby and bless them with strength, because I know the better they blow, the better I will as well. When I am a shofar soloist, I compete with myself to achieve my own personal best.
10. Use the Energy of the Congregation: I can always sustain a longer blow when I am in shul than when I am blowing for myself alone. In the same way that I draw energy from the other blowers, I feel the love and support of the entire congregation. I know that many of them are holding their breath as they experience the awe of shofar blasts, and I visualize that I have their permission to use all the air in the sanctuary to blow tekiah gedolah.
11. Use a Shofar that is Easy to Blow: Unlike a modern trumpet, each shofar is unique, and some are very difficult to sound. Nu? So don’t make it hard on yourself; find a shofar that is easy for you to blow.
12. Find your Horn’s Resonant Frequency: During a long blast, the voice of shofar may change its pitch or timbre. While these changes may seem to occur spontaneously as if the horn was still a living thing with a mind of its own (and it is), the shifts are also in response to subtle changes in air pressure, tension in the lips, or the relative positioning of the horn and lips. When this happens to you, notice that the effort required to sound shofar may vary. To sustain a long tekiah gedolah, find the combination that requires the least “wind” to blow. This will generally be at a resonant frequency. It is not necessary to understand the physics. What is important is that you pay attention to the amount of breath you need to blow shofar. When you find a pitch that is easy maintain without having to blow hard, you have found a resonant frequency, the “sweet spot” in your shofar’s voice.
13. Ask for Support: During a long, sustained shofar blast, one is not breathing fresh oxygen into his or her body. This can produce symptoms of lightheadedness and even fainting. This is even more likely after fasting, when even the act of standing can be challenging. If you are concerned about fainting, ask someone to stand at your side to support you. Moses, when he stood with outstretched arms on a hill above our battle with Amalek, had Aaron and Hur standing by his sides to support him. And when you read from the Torah, you have a gabbai standing next to you. There is a reason why we bless someone performing a mitzvah with “yashar koach, may you have strength”; we are most vulnerable to the evil impulse while we are doing a mitzvah. Getting the support you need will allow you to blow without fear of injuring yourself should you faint.
14. Keep your Focus on Listening: The mind plays tricks on us, making us panic or feel like we are out of air or about to pass out long before we are in real danger. If you are listening, you will not be thinking about how you might be running out of air. You will want to hear more and more.
15. Become Invisible: Pull your tallit over your head, allowing the far end of the shofar to protrude from under your cover. From the anonymity of your own private sanctuary, you can blow and listen uninhibited by thoughts of what you might look like or the visual distractions of your surroundings. This technique can also heighten the experience of the congregants listening to the blasts, since they veil will conceal the shofar blower’s face and keep the focus on the sound.
16. Inhale First: Many shofar blowers rush into their blast as soon as the first syllable of “tekiah gedolah” is pronounced by the caller. Instead, wait until the full call is uttered, then quietly reground yourself to the earth, raise to your full stature, bring shofar to your lips, and inhale deeply before blowing. The momentary delay will heighten the drama of the blast and arouse the congregation to listen even more closely as they fill with anticipation. This pause is similar to the midrash about why Torah begins with the letter Bet instead of Aleph, the silent first letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet. It is said that the Aleph is the sound of God inhaling before the Eternal uttered the first sound of creation.
17. Exhale: The real secret to inhaling is to be sure to exhale first. When blowing the relatively short tekiah, shevarim, and teruah blasts, you probably will not require all the air in your lungs. Instead, you will blow one blast, suck in a little gulp of air, blow the next blast, and take another short gulp of air, and continue taking short inhalations throughout the entire sequence of ten or thirty blasts. By not inhaling fully between each blast, your lungs will contain stale air and your blood will become deoxygenated. The rest of the congregation may be in a hurry to get out of shul, but shofar blasts should occur in “sacred time” that is not measured by the clock. So don’t hurry. Take time to exhale fully after each toot, and your body will naturally breath in fresh air. Then, when you get to tekiah gedolah, you will be stoked and ready.
18. Wet Your Whistle: Moist lips vibrate more easily than dry lips. More, it can help to moisten your shofar. Before blowing a conch shell, Hindu devotees make a ritual of pouring water into their “horn”; it makes the instrument easier to sound and is an act of purification. The practice is permitted in Judaism, too; the Talmud permits us to pour water, wine, or vinegar into a shofar. If it is not a fast day, you may want to take a drink of water yourself. On fast days, however, reserve the liquid for the shofar in keeping with the ethical principal that a farmer must feed his livestock before feeding him or her self.
19. Visualize your Blast is Heard in all the Worlds: Motivational speakers say that the way to reach a goal is aim beyond it. So blow shofar with the goal of having it heard even beyond the back row of seats in your synagogue. Blow so they can hear it throughout your neighborhood and to the outskirts of your town. Blow with the intent that the call will be heard all the way to Washington, the Middle East, the hospitals and prisons and corporate board rooms and all the places in our society that need healing. Blow with the certainty that the endangered plants and animals (and they all are) in the rain forests, the family farm, and the coral reefs feel the vibration. Merge your blast with those of all shofarot being sounded around the world and blow so that all ten sefirot of the kabbalah’s Tree of Life resonate and harmonize with the vibration of shofar. In just a few days after the Days of Awe, we will enter the sukkah and invite our ancestors to sit with us; blow with the understanding that even now they are straining to hear the message that transcends physicality and temporality.
20. Blow Softly: For tekiah, teruah, and shevarim, I try to produce loud, strong blasts, blasts that can pierce the heart and awaken the spirit. Then, once the congregation is fully alert, tekiah gedolah does not have to be loud; everyone is already listening with their senses fully engaged. In fact, the more quietly we blow, the closer we listen. This is a technique professional speakers often use, raising their voice to higher and higher volumes, then switching to a low decibel level so we have to listen more intently to hear what is being said. Musicians call it “soto voce” and use it to add emphasis. We can also think of tekiah, teruah, and shevarim as calls primarily to be heard by our fellow humans and sentient beings. Tekiah gedolah, on the other hand, is a direct line to Spirit and does not depend on acoustical pressure to be heard.
Registration for the eight-hour class closes soon. For more information contact the Kallah office at 267-567-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Chusid has taught shofar at American Jewish University, Hebrew Union College, Limmud, Cactus Kallah, and many synagogues and havurot. Reb Zalman calls Michael Chusid “the mouthpiece of the shofar.” He is author of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn and blogs at www.HearingShofar.com.