During Jewish High Holidays, hearing the shofar is a mitzvah
Dr. Sid Levinson’s shofar stays on a shelf in his living room until a few days before the annual Jewish High Holidays. It is then that Levinson warms up to sound the shofar during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Beth El Synagogue in Durham, where he has sounded it annually for more than 30 years.
A shofar is usually a ram’s horn and hearing its sound is a mitzvah – a blessing – in the Jewish tradition. There are three basic sounds, Levinson said. The Tekiah is one long blast, Shevarim is three medium blasts and Teruah is nine short blasts. Levinson stays in physical shape and practices breathing and the notes at home, but preparation is also in just thinking about it, he said.
The use of a shofar is tied to the story in Genesis when Abraham binds his son, Isaac, and is willing to sacrifice him to God. Rabbi Daniel Greyber, rabbi of Beth El Synagogue, said the ram’s horn is the symbol of God’s compassion, because in the end God did not ask for Isaac to be sacrificed. A ram appears nearby instead.
In readings for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, it says to remember Abraham and Isaac, Greyber said, and God is asked for compassion. A shofar is mentioned in prayers and “Remembrances” liturgy, “in which we emphasize how God remembers our deeds throughout the year,” Greyber said. “One can’t be dishonest with God. Our lives are how we have lived them in God’s eyes.”
There are other symbolic meanings of the shofar, Greyber said, including the sounding as a wake-up from slumber, because sin is being asleep. It’s also a way coronation, as Rosh Hashanah is a day to remember God is the creator of the world, he said. Another meaning is the sound of redemption, a “way of saying we haven’t given up hope.” And another is the sadness a mother feels – of Isaac’s mother Sarah after hearing about her son’s binding, and of mothers of sons not coming home from war. Greyber doesn’t think there’s a “should” in how someone feels when hearing a shofar.
“The mitzvah, the key is to hear the shofar,” and what that means is different for individuals, he said. At Beth El, a shofar sits on Elijah’s chair in the sanctuary for those who want a private reflection and meditation.
Levinson said it is his honor to sound the shofar. The first time he sounded one was as a teenager in his rabbi father’s synagogue. Levinson’s father taught him how to sound the shofar and gave him one to use. Levinson, now a professor of medicine and director of endoscopy at UNC Meadowmont, moved here from New England in the late 1970s for medical school. The previous shofar blower at Beth El moved, and Levinson took his role. He used his father’s shofar, then the rabbi’s. About six years ago, Beth El’s Rabbi Emeritus Steven Sager brought back one from Israel for Levinson. It’s two-and-a-half to three feet long and twisty, he said.
On Saturday night, Levinson will do one sounding of his shofar to end Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.
“It’s a pretty solemn responsibility I feel,” he said. Little kids will gather around to hear a shofar sounding, and it’s an important take-away from religious services. Levinson also said if his grandchildren are interested in learning to sound a shofar, he would be delighted to teach them.
Rachel Albert, a member of Beth El and on staff there, said the sounding of a shofar is such a distinct sound that wherever you are, you stop and listen. It alerts you to something, she said.
“What that is, is different for everybody,” Albert said. For her, hearing the shofar brings back memories from throughout her life, and those who she has shared the holidays with who have passed away.
“It’s an eerie sound in a good way, ” she said, “a spiritual sound and a reminder of why it’s good to be Jewish.”