Hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a tradition that dates back to the Torah, specifically Leviticus. Moses is told to “Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” (Lev. 23:24)
For our ancestors, those blasts shattered the silence echoing across an endless array of steep brown hills or moved unabated across an expanse of desert terrain. Today, they are heard in synagogues in Wisconsin and around the world on Rosh Hashanah. Many congregations have established their own traditions around the ritual, some of which continue to evolve.
Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun
At Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun in River Hills, a shofar is sounded from the bimah, and as that shofar concludes its last note, another, positioned elsewhere in the sanctuary, picks up the call. As the sound of that shofar begins to wane, another shofar, from yet another part of the sanctuary repeats the call.
Cantor David Barash said this change was connected to the Reform movement’s new High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, published in 2015.
In it, the shofar service, which traditionally takes place at the end of the Haftarah reading, is instead interspersed throughout the morning service. The first time is in the midst of the t’filah, the second occurs in its more traditional place, after the haftarah, and the third after the Torah is put away and before Aleinu.
For each set of calls, the shofar blowers stand in different parts of the sanctuary. This will be the third year the congregation has done the shofar calls this way. Two years ago, they tried it during the second day service, and the response was so positive that Barash and Rabbi Marc Berkson decided to do it on the first day in 2015.
“It’s the same calls and the same number of calls, just in different parts of the service,” Barash said, “but doing it this way makes people turn their heads – it’s a way of bringing more excitement to the moment and to the power of the shofar calls.”
At Congregation Sinai in Fox Point, shofar traditions include the father/son team of Jimmy and Jerry Salinsky, and an open invitation to anyone with a shofar to sound the final T’kiah G’dolah at the Neilah service marking the end of Yom Kippur.
But the congregation’s Rosh Hashanah afternoon Shofar Blowing Competition, open to children between the ages of old enough to try and b’nai mitzvah age, has become a holiday staple.
“Kids of all ages get to try their hand at blowing a number of shofarot,” said Rabbi David Cohen. “They’re asked to do a number of different kinds of calls, depending on age, and the jury is composed of people who have won in years past.”
Cohen emphasized that each shofar is swabbed with disinfectant between contestants. The competition generally attracts as many as 50 children, with the majority of entrants in the 7- to 9-year-old age range.
The first place winner gets a long Yemenite-style shofar; second prize is a hand-sized version. The winner is also tapped to blow the shofar during the youth service on Rosh Hashanah morning the following year. But no one goes home empty-handed.
“Everybody else gets a kind of toy shofar that makes a lot of noise,” Cohen said, adding a quip about the parents of those children anticipating the ride home with a bit of trepidation.
Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau
Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau serves approximately 250 Jews across five counties in North Central Wisconsin. There, the shofar tradition is the shofar.
“We don’t have a congregation that has a highly participatory shofar tradition,” said Rabbi E. Daniel Danson. “The most interesting thing is that we have the horn of an ibex.”
Danson, in his 26th year serving the congregation, said the ibex-horn shofar predates his tenure there. Each year, a different congregant announces the shofar calls and Danson, a former tuba player, produces them.
“The only exception in all those years was when my son, who was both a trombone player and a swimmer, blew the shofar,” he said. “A swimmer can get just a ferocious T’kiah.”
Also serving as the shofar blower for his congregation is Rabbi Gil-Ezer Lerer of Milwaukee’s Temple Menorah.
“There’s always been a Lerer blowing the shofar for over 50 years,” Lerer said, “either myself or my father, of blessed memory, or my brother.”
At Temple Menorah, the congregation does the shofar service during the Amidah, and the shofar, long and graceful, is one that was donated to the synagogue by a congregant in memory of his daughter. Rabbi Lerer’s father, Rabbi Isaac Lerer, brought it back from Israel in 1967.
“It was wrapped up and he was carrying it over his shoulder through the airport and he got stopped because (airport officials) thought he was carrying a rifle,” Lerer said. “We still have that same shofar in a beautiful velvet case. It’s very difficult to blow.”
Still, Lerer said, if a family member of the daughter whose memory the shofar honors is at services, that’s the shofar he uses.
Blowing the shofar, he said, takes more than good breath, and, he said, it’s not something that should sound “too perfect.”
“You want it to be somewhat easy on the ears, but also loud and crisp,” he said. “It’s an alarm clock to wake up your heart.”