It is difficult to define the sound of the shofar, which pierces the air of synagogues around the world at the beginning of every Rosh Hashanah. On the one hand, it is a very earthly and rough sound—like a simple hoarse shout that scratches the air and travels on. On the other hand, if you listen to it with an open heart, it is a deep voice like no other, a raw, abysmal, and primordial sound capable of shaking the innermost veins of our being. And this is precisely its purpose: to connect us to a primary point within ourselves, from which we can renew and improve ourselves.
Beyond the basic sound of the shofar, there is the special structure of the blasts it is used to form. This is known as the “order of blasts” (סֵדֶר הַתְּקִיעוֹת). As in other details of Jewish life, behind every mitzvah and practice there is a whole tract of ideas, woven skillfully with the thread of finely tuned thought. If you study these ideas and contemplate them, it may seem at first that you are moving away from the simple experience of the act of blowing the shofar. But as long as the intellectual analysis does not come at the expense of the connection to the experience, then the analysis actually enriches the experience, and we are able to return to the experience with a greater understanding and connection.
First, let us review the order of the blasts of the shofar. The most basic structure includes four parts: the teki’ah, which is one long continuous sound; the shevarim, which are three middle-length blasts sounded in succession; the teru’ah—a series of short, continuous sounds; And finally, a second teki’ah, which is another single, continuous, and long sound. The full order of blasting the shofar includes another two variations on this order. Still, the basic structure remains: tekiah–shevarim–teru’ah–teki’ah. We can picture the four parts symbolically using this depiction:
What is the origin of this structure? How and why was it, and not some other structure, developed?
From the Divine to the Human and Back
First, in the written Torah, only the teki’ah and teru’ah are mentioned. The teki’ah and the teru’ah, which can be loosely translated as “blasting” and “cheering,” respectively, were two types of sounds produced by the silver trumpets, which were part of the Tabernacle instruments in the desert. The trumpet blast is a uniform sound produced by continuous blowing on the trumpet, and the cheer, which in Hebrew connotes something that is shaky and fractured, is a broken sound produced by the discontinuous blowing of the trumpet. It can be said that the teki’ah—the blast—represents unity and the teru’ah—the cheer—represents plurality, or alternatively, that the teki’ah is meant to represent the Divine (whose sound, as it were, is the sound of singular unity) and the teru’ah represents the human, whose voice is broken and fragile. Indeed, in the wilderness, the teki’ah was a call to gather around the tabernacle and hear the word of God, and the cheering, the teru’ah announced that the camp was embarking on its next journey, that is, returning to earthly reality. When gathering around the Tabernacle, the people united and ascended to hear God’s word. When embarking on their next journey, they dismantled the camp and divided into their separate traveling groups.
If so, where did the notion of shevarim come from, and how was the order of the above-mentioned blasts established? Well, the origin of the shevarim lies in a dispute regarding the nature of the teru’ah. The sages differed in their opinions regarding the nature of the teru’ah: some argued that it was composed of several medium-length sounds, and others, that it was composed of a series of short-length sounds. Eventually, the first option came to be called shevarim, and the second option continued to simply be called teru’ah (note that the nature of the teki’ah, being that it is simple and unified, was not under dispute, while the teru’ah, expressing the world of plurality, can be interpreted in different ways). Moreover, since the dispute was never resolved, a particularly Jewish solution was found: to sound both together, first shevarim and then teru’ah. After that, for reasons that are beyond our scope, it was decided that we must begin and end with the uniform teki’ah sound. This is how the structure of the shofar blasts was established and passed down to us over many centuries.
To summarize, the sequence of blasts starts basically with a relatively simple structure of teki’ah-teru’ah-teki’ah, with the teru’ah being divided into two versions. Looking at this structure from a more spiritual perspective, it expresses a movement of “run and return”: from the Divine (teki’ah) to the human (teru’ah) and then back to the Divine (teki’ah). This order reminds us of the Chasidic principle that, “the descent is for the purpose of an ascent.” The descent in this case is from the Divine to the human and the ascent is from the human back to the Divine.
According to the Torah’s inner dimension, when the opinions of two sages differ regarding some matter, it does not mean that one is right and the other is wrong. Rather, each is revealing an equally valid aspect of the matter. The plurality of opinions reveals the plurality and richness of the matter under discussion. In our case, this means that the shevarim and the teru’ah are not only two possible (and equally valid) interpretations of the word teru’ah that appears in the Torah, but rather they reveal two different representations of its inner content, each of which, according to Chasidic thought, demonstrates a separate human experience.
Now, if the teru’ah includes two different human experiences, the question arises, do the two uniform blasts (the 2 teki’ot—the plural form of teki’ah) at the beginning and at the end of each order of blasts also express two types of Divine unity? The teki’ah cannot be an expression of God Himself, of course, since God Himself is a simple, undefinable unity; rather, it expresses the way in which we approach God. And, upon contemplation, we realize that we approach God in two different ways: we turn to Him before acknowledging our human condition of being broken and frail. But we also turn to God after admitting our brokenness and frailty. These, as we shall analyze, are two very different experiences.
From this line of thought, it becomes increasingly clear that the order of the blasts of the shofar expresses a process of four distinct steps. In Chasidic literature, many interpretations were given to these four steps. According to one of them they express, respectively, sounds of shouting, sighing, crying, and calling. We will look at this process in the light of the Torah’s inner dimension and try to unravel the inner experience that is hidden within each of its steps.
Teki’ah: The Shout
The first teki’ah is no more than a shout, along the lines of the verse “Their hearts cried out to God.” The first appeal to God takes the simplest and most primal form—we shout to Him, trying to tell Him that we recognize Him, that we need Him, that we want Him to reveal Himself to us. This primal shout reflects the sudden shock that follows our initial recognition that apart from our daily experiences, there is the Divine and the Infinite, there is God that embraces being and is imbued within it all. This experience is so general and stunning that it is only capable of being expressed in the form of a raw blast.
This shout, when it is real, is most profound. However, we must recognize that it is still very preliminary, and therefore it is, in a way, still immature. On the one hand, our entire personal existence finds itself nullified and contained within this shout, which is therefore a very lofty achievement. But on the other hand, precisely this nullification of our being prevents us from stopping and considering what might be the wisest way to channel the power invested in the teki’ah—in this primal shout. Are there more advanced alternatives?
We witness this duality in the Exodus. Initially, God tells Moses, “I have seen the poverty of my people in Egypt, and I have heard their cry,” but later, when the Israelites stood on the shores of the Red Sea with the Egyptians quickly closing in on them, God said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Israelites and have them move forward.” There are moments when shouting is appropriate and good, but as things develop, you must stop shouting and instead stand up and act.
What's more: when shouting is prolonged too much, it may deteriorate and turn into yelling, which is more of a stubborn and loud attempt to hold on to the initial spiritual experience (and to try and infect others with it, forcefully), even as it is over, and the time has come to move on from it. Shouting that is prolonged in this way deafens even the ears of the person shouting. In addition, he cannot hear if he is being answered or not. Although the shout seems to have a "religious" origin, stemming from strong faith, it is nothing more than the counterpart of the completely secular cry that expresses the feeling that there is no meaning in the world (think of Munch’s painting, "The Scream"…): the two screams are shouting in each other's ears and neither of them is seeking God.
Shevarim: The Sigh
The "shout" ran to God, but it is flawed by the pretense that we can reach Him by bypassing who we are. That is why the air invested in the shout (the teki’ah) ends up running out and its voice ultimately dissipates. What remains is only the person shouting, by himself in the silence that falls upon him, now regaining self-awareness. This is the transition from teki’ah to shevarim, which according to Chasidut expresses a sigh (or, in the language of the sages, "a groan").
The self-awareness that comes after shouting out to God is not the same as the self-awareness that precedes our recognition of Him. This second form of self-awareness is more positive; it reminds us of our smallness and how we are but a fragment of reality. This is the awareness of the broken heart, of the person who feels that he is like a shattered vessel, and therefore it is expressed in the broken sound of three sighs. Folded within the sigh is the question: Who is the “I” that is shouting? What is my spiritual level? Am I already so rectified that I can expect to reveal myself?
The sighs of the shevarim thus express the mental angst felt by the one who was shouting until now. But, in Hebrew, the root of the word for shevarim (which is shever) has another meaning: it refers to the seat upon which a woman gives birth. In the same way, the sighs of the shevarim should be understood as an instrument for delivery—for birth, renewal, and self-rectification.
It can be said that the three sighs relate to these three statements: Ahh… My cry has not been answered; Ahh… Who is this I that it should merit to be answered at all?; Ahh… I must rectify myself!
Teru’ah: The Cry
If self-correction and connection to God were simple things, we would expect that sighing would immediately lead to a new appeal before God; But the awareness of our flaws and the need to rectify them open before us a whole new expanse of issues that we must correct within ourselves before we can do so. This is the point of crisis where the shevarim—our sighs— turn into a teru’ah—represented by the sound of a long and sobbing cry over our situation (the sages call this a "howl,” or yelalah in Hebrew).
But what seems like a worsening of our situation actually hides within it the beginning of the correction. On the one hand, the teru’ah seems to unleash more and more fragmentation (9 sounds instead of the 3 in shevarim). But on the other hand, the teru’ah can also be described as the shattering of the fragments. The sound of the teru’ah crumbles the fragments into small enough pieces that they can be treated as raw material. It is with this raw material that we can begin to reshape our lives.
Let us put it this way: the sigh, which awakened us to recognize how distant we are from God, came from despair, from the feeling that we are unable to lift ourselves from our situation on our own. But the depth of despair happens when we can despair from despair itself—when we can give up on our despair! How desperate can you be and sigh all the time? We must shake it off sometime and decide to do something with our lives. When someone who reaches the depths of despair decides to choose life, that choice—the choice made by someone who has emerged from the other side—is the deepest and most powerful of all choices. Such an individual knows he has nothing to lose and is therefore free to make the bravest choices of all.
The "cry" is therefore on the one hand deep sobbing, but on the other hand, it is full of joy and hope. Indeed, the word teru’ah itself expresses the sound of joy. This is the composite type of weeping (בְּכִיָּה) about which Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said that it is the initials of the phrase "In your name they will be covered all day long" (בְּשִׁמְךָ יְגִילוּן כָּל הַיּוֹם); this is one of the verses that are recited in public after the complete order of blasts. It is preceded by the verse, “Blessed are the people who know the teru’ah, Havayah, in the light of Your face will they walk” (אַשְׁרֵי הָעָם יוֹדְעֵי תְרוּעָה הוי' בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ יְהַלֵּכוּן). It can be said that the secret of rejoicing is when crying and joy mingle together.
(Second) Teki’ah: The Call
The descent into "sighing" and "crying" makes it possible to turn to God again, but from a completely new place. This is the essence of the second teki’ah, which comes full circle to the first. It is the sound that ends the order of the shofar blasts. But while the first teki’ah was a raw and awkward "shout," the second teki’ah is a mature and sober call, both quieter and deeper than the first.
The initial "shout" suffered from a certain element of forcefulness. It was experienced to a certain degree as a demand; as if God had to appear before us, at our beck and call. The second teki’ah, which signifies a call to God, on the other hand, is already a more humble and softer appeal, which is meant to present God, as it were, with the possibility of consenting or not to our shout. The reason is that the call, born of sighing and crying over our situation, does not skip over who we are as the initial shout did, but emerges from a full acknowledgment of our situation.
On the face of it, it sounds as if a "shout" is directed at what is distant from us, while a "call" is directed at what is close to us. But another, deeper and more precise explanation for the difference between them is also possible: A shout is not directed at someone who is so distant from us so that he cannot hear us. A shout is directed at one from whom we are distant, but we still believe we are close enough for him to hear us. A call, on the other hand, is not always directed at one who is nearby; sometimes it is directed precisely towards the one who is so distant from us that there is no chance of reaching him with a shout; all that is left is to call him quietly from where we are. That is why it is said about calling, “God is close to all who call Him, to all who truly call Him.” When the call is sincere, it gives rise to closeness.
The Teki’ah at the End of Yom Kippur
The shofar is blasted according to the order of sounds we have been analyzing on Rosh Hashanah, which is the first two days of the New Year and the first two days of the Ten Days of Penitence. At the very end of the Ten Days of Penitence, at the termination of Yom Kippur—the holiest day of the year—the shofar is blown one last time for one long teki’ah. In light of all we have discussed regarding the roles of the different blasts, it seems that the sounds of the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah are relatively speaking like an announcement to depart on a ten-day campaign against the evil within us. And so, it is all like one big teru’ah (indeed after we complete the order of blasts on Rosh Hashanah we all recite, “Blessed are the people who know teru’ah,” as above). The sound of the shofar at the end of Yom Kippur is then like a teki’ah, a teki’ah calling for an assembly of the entire congregation, calling us together for the fulfillment of, "Next year in Jerusalem."
The teki’ah at the termination of Yom Kippur is therefore the sound in its purity, in relation to itself and in relation to the entire order of blowing sounds with the shofar. Following our discussion, we might ask: is this teki’ah like a shout (like the first teki’ah) or, is it a call (like the second teki’ah)? Since this blast stands on its own, it seems that the best answer is to state that it is both: after Ne’ilah—the closing prayer on Yom Kippur—at the moment when the New Year truly begins, the quiet call to God becomes a shout once more. It pushes for a new search for God, which starts all over again.
. See Numbers 10:1-10.
. Rosh Hashanah 33b – 34a.
. Lamentations 2:18.
. Exodus 3:7.
. Exodus 14:15
. Likutei Moharan 1:175.
. Psalms 89:17.
. Psalms 89:16.
. Psalms 145:18.
. Psalms 89:16.