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September 16, 2007

The secret of shofar blowing

I want to disclose the secret of shofar blowing. This is a topic that most of you will have no interest in, so I'm going to put it in an extended entry. Click below only if you care.

I'm actually serious about this, and I'm writing for any poor soul who's stuck blowing the shofar and is madly searching the internet for "the secret of shofar blowing" or some such thing. And I'm going to tell you the secret -- after an interlude. I'm going to tell you it, but I won't tell you the secret of blowing the shofar after the 26-hour Yom Kippur fast, because that's an even deeper secret. Ordinary humans simply can't do it. It's impossible.

Like many people able to blow the shofar, I'm a former musician. I should say I'm a former French horn player, because it turns out that a lot of shofar blowers are former horn players. Last year, when I was saying kaddish for my father, I was at the daily minyan all during Elul, when the shofar is blown in the morning, in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah. I have to say that for me, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very difficult. Judaism is not very big on theology. It's a religion of practice more than belief. (Yeah, I know that's an oversimplification. Don't bug me about it.) But every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the theology is unavoidable, as hard as I try. B'rosh hashanah yikateivun, uv'yom tzom kippur yeichateimun. Some other time, I'll explain my theological problems, but for now, all I want to say is that when I was at the daily minyan last year, the daily blowing of the shofar put me more in a Rosh Hashanah frame of mind than ever before (and, for that matter, ever after, i.e., this year).

At the daily minyan, I volunteered that I knew how to blow the shofar. You need to understand that this is an orthodox shul, and I'm just some guy. It took me a couple of months to get to the point where I could actually lead davening, so whenever I showed I could do something -- like read Torah -- there was a little bit of surprise I could do it. Still, when the rabbi, who blows the shofar, and the congregant who usually blows the shofar in the rabbi's absence weren't there, I had my chance. And as I said, I can blow the shofar. In fact, in all modesty, I blow it pretty well. My technique is pretty good.

But one day, during that Elul, the rabbi spoke about blowing the shofar. He said that blowing the shofar isn't about technique; it's about kavvanah (intention or spirituality). He wasn't referring to me in particular. In fact, I'm not sure he was ever present when I blew the shofar. But what he said resonated with me; I felt that his point was valid and that it clearly applied to me. So I started begging off, unless no one else who could do the job was around, or unless our assistant rabbi handed me the shofar and I couldn't decline without being disrespectful to him.

But back to technique. There are many people who blow the shofar who have far better kavvanah than I have -- nearly everyone, as a matter of fact. But there's a wide range of technique. And on that count, I'm here to help you.

Here's my advice, as a former French horn player. Don't blow the shofar as if it were a French horn. I said "Don't" in case you missed it. A horn mouthpiece rests on the lower lip. That's unusual for a brass instrument -- on the lip. Technically, you can rest the shofar on your lip, and you can even get a sound that way. But don't do it. Getting a vibration in order to create the shofar sound requires moist tissue. And take my word for it: Your lip won't be most, even if you lick it. The best place for the shofar mouthpiece -- now, here's the secret -- is inside your lower lip, on the soft, moist tissue on the inner lining of your mouth. That tissue will vibrate, and you'll get a nice sound.

Here's the qualification on what I've just told you: Different shofars have different shaped mouthpieces, depending on the structure of the ram's horn and on the way it was cut. If the mouthpiece is too large around its circumference, you're going to have trouble on the inside of your mouth. But my advice works for most shofars. Give it a shot. I don't think you'll regret it.

Sadly, however, you still won't be able to get a sound at the end of Yom Kippur.