The Rama (O.C. 585:4) observes the time-honored practice that somebody announces to the tokei’a – the one sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah – each sound that he is to blow. Before each blast, this individual (the “makri”) – customarily the congregation’s rabbi – announces either “teki’a,” “shevarim,” “teru’a,” or “shevarim-teru’a,” informing the tokei’a which sound he is now to produce, following the required sequence of blasts (as printed in machzorim). This is done, the Rama explains, to ensure that no mistakes are made by the tokei’a.
The Gaon of Vilna, in his notes to the Shulchan Arukh, suggests that the source for this custom is the practice to announce to the kohanim each word of the priestly blessing. When the kohanim bless the congregation, the chazan dictates to them the text of the blessing, one word at a time, to ensure that the kohanim do not make any mistakes when pronouncing the blessing. This practice is based on a Midrash cited by the Rosh, in his commentary to Masekhet Megilla (3:21). The Gaon suggests that just as the kohanim are told each word of the blessing before they pronounce it, the “tokei’a” is similarly told each shofar sound before he produces it.
The Chafetz Chaim, in his Mishna Berura (585:18) cites the ruling of the Magen Avraham (based on the Shela) that even the first sound blown by the tokei’a – the initial teki’a sound- should be announced before it is blown. Although it is highly unlikely that the tokei’a will make a mistake when blowing the first sound, nevertheless, even this sound should be announced. However, in his Sha’ar Ha-tziyun (585:31), the Chafetz Chaim rules differently, noting that this announcement could constitute a hefsek (improper interruption) between the berakha recited immediately before the blowing, and the blowing. Noting that this custom is rooted in the practice to announce the words of birkat kohanim, the Chafetz Chaim references the opinions that the first word of birkat kohanim (“Yevarekhekha”) should not be announced to the kohanim. And although common custom does not follow that view, the Chafetz Chaim writes, this is because the practice to announce the words of birkat kohanim for the kohanim is a requirement established already by Chazal. The custom to announce the shofar sounds, by contrast, has no clear halakhic basis, and thus the announcement of the first word would appear to constitute an unwarranted hefsek in between the berakha over the mitzva of shofar and the fulfillment of the mitzva.
Common practice, however, follows the view cited in Mishna Berura, and even the initial teki’a sound is announced to the tokei’a before it is blown.
What might be the deeper significance of this comparison between birkat kohanim and the sounding of the shofar? Is this custom purely practical, intended to avoid mistakes, or might there be a deeper meaning behind the parallel between the announcement of the words of birkat kohanim and the announcement of the shofar sounds?
In birkat kohanim, the kohanim express their wishes for the congregation, that they should find favor in God’s eyes, and be granted peace and prosperity. The sounding of the shofar is a call for introspection and change. As the Rambam famously explains (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4), the shofar is intended to “awaken” us from our spiritual slumber, to motivate us to scrutinize our conduct and resolve to grow and improve. Symbolically, then, announcing the shofar sounds to the tokei’a may perhaps reflect the need to carefully consider our words before expressing criticism in an effort to bring about change. Our words when offering criticism should be no less carefully measured than they are when “blessing” people, when offering compliments and good wishes. Too often, we are far stingier with praise than we are with criticism. The custom to model the sounding of the shofar after birkat kohanim perhaps reminds us that we must be at least as careful when sounding the shofar, when calling upon people to change their behavior, as we are when dispensing compliments and praise, and speak only words that will have the desired effect, and not those which will accomplish the very opposite.