Shofar I: The Mitzva
by Debbie Zimmerman
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The term Rosh Ha-shana does not appear in the Torah. Instead, the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) is called Yom Terua (day of terua, Bamidbar 29:1) and Zichron Terua (remembrance of terua, Vayikra 23:25). The word "terua" means a cry or an instrument's blast.
The Talmud explains that the blasts of the shofar convey the primary themes of the day: God’s kingship and judgment.
Rosh Ha-shana 34b
Rabba said: The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Say malchuyot, zichronot, and shofarot before Me on Rosh Ha-shana. Malchuyot – to coronate me as Your King, zichronot – so that your deeds will be recalled before me favorably. And with what? With the shofar.
Indeed, the mussaf prayers of Rosh Ha-shana include three special blessings: malchuyot, zichronot, and shofarot. Malchuyot celebrates God’s coronation. Zichronot is our fervent prayer that God the Judge remember the covenant and review our deeds with favor. The blessings and blasts are intertwined.
Tekia and terua also appear in Bemidbar:
When a war comes to your land, when enemies attack you, you shall blast (v’harei’otem – the verb form of terua) on the trumpets and you will be remembered before the Lord your God and be saved from your enemies. And on your festivals and your appointed times and the first of your months – you shall blow (ut’katem – the verb form of tekia) on the trumpets, upon your burnt-offerings and your peace-offerings. And they will be a remembrance for you before your God, I am the Lord your God.
The Torah commands trumpet blasts on certain occasions – the terua of alarm in times of war and the triumphant tekia on festivals, as a remembrance - a zikaron - before God. On Rosh Hashana, too, we seek salvation in the impending Divine judgment with the terua, and celebrate coronation with the tekia.
The verses do not specify which instrument we should use on Rosh Ha-shana to sound the teru'a. But there is mention of sounding teru'a with a shofar in a different context, in Vayikra:
You shall count for yourself seven sabbatical years – seven years seven times – and the days of the seven sabbatical years will be forty-nine years. And you shall sound the terua of a shofar in the seventh month, on the tenth of the month, on Yom Kippur – you shall sound a shofar throughout your land.
On Yom Kippur of the Yovel, the Jubilee year, land reverts to its original owners, fields are left fallow, and slaves go free. These actions reflect our conviction that God is King— the true possessor of land and ruler of humanity— key themes of malchuyot.
The Talmud draws a further parallel between the teru'a of Rosh Hashana and the shofar of Yovel, since both are blasts of "the seventh month." This parallel anchors three ancient traditions:
- The Rosh Hashana blasts are blown with a shofar, as on Yom Kippur of Yovel.
- On both, a simple tekia blast precedes and follows each terua This is derived from the appearance of the term “you shall sound” (ve-ha’avarta, ta’aviru) before and after "terua" in the Yovel verse.
- We repeat this set of three blasts three times, since there are three verses about terua: two on Rosh Ha-shana and one on Yovel.
From here we can derive the Torah obligation to hear three sets of three shofar blasts of tekia-terua-tekia, for a total of nine blasts commanded by the Torah.
Nowadays, however, we blow 100 or 101 blasts in synagogue on each day of Rosh Ha-shana. How did we get there? How many must we hear?
From 9 to 30
While there is consensus as to what constitutes the simple, unbroken tekia blast, Abbaye presents two opinions regarding terua:
Rosh Ha-shana 33b
Abbaye said: As it says: “It shall be a day of terua for you.” [Onkelos] translates: “It shall be a day of yabava (wailing) for you. And it says regarding Sisera’s mother: “Sisera’s mother looks out from the window and wails (va-teyabev). One authority thinks (the sound of terua is) moaning (genuchei genach). One authority thinks - wailing (yelulei yelil).
Based on a verse about the cries of Sisera's mother, which uses a term synonymous with terua, the Talmud explains that terua is a cry, and provides two options for what it sounds like. Yelila (ululation) is a series of short sobs, which retain the name of terua; ganach/anacha is a series of sighs or moans, known as shevarim.
To honor both opinions, we blow two sets of nine blasts: Tekia-Shevarim-Tekia three times (TaShaT x 3=9) and Tekia-teRua-Tekia three times (TaRaT x 3=9), for a total of eighteen blasts.
Next, Rabbi Abbahu institutes a third type of blast, the combined shevarim-terua:
Rosh Ha-shana 34a
Rabbi Abbahu established in Caesarea [to sound the shofar] tekia, three shevarim, terua, tekia… [because] he was unsure, perhaps it should be ganach then yelil.
Like the other forms of terua, Shevarim-teRua is sandwiched between two tekia blasts, TaShRaT. Rabbi Abbahu’s enactment represents the cry of a person who is so anxious that groaning shevarim become wails of terua.
We sound the shofar in accordance with all three options, to cover all possibilities for a proper terua. Adding three TaShRaTs (TaShRaT x 3=12) brings us from eighteen to thirty blasts.
Shulchan Aruch OC 590:1-2
There is a doubt as to the terua mentioned in the Torah – whether it is the yelala we call terua, or whether it is what we call shevarim, or whether it both of them together. Therefore, in order to remove any doubt, one needs to sound TaShRaT three times, and TaShaT three times, and TaRaT three times.
The minimum number of blasts one should hear on Rosh Ha-shana to fulfill the mitzva is thirty.
How do we get from thirty to sixty blasts?
The Talmud teaches that we blow the shofar at two different times:
Rosh Ha-shana 16a-b
Rabbi Yitzchak said … Why do we [sound] tekia and terua when sitting, and tekia and terua when standing? To confuse the Satan.
Rabbi Yitzchak asks why the shofar is blown before mussaf (not during the Amida prayer, so described as sitting, though many congregations do stand), and then again when standing during the mussaf prayer. He answers that this serves to befuddle the Satan.
Rashi explains that the term “Satan” refers to the heavenly prosecutor, kategor, who stands ready to recite the litany of Israel’s crimes as God sits in judgment. When Israel shows the extent to which they cherish the commandments by blowing the shofar more than is strictly mandated, the prosecutor is confused, as this disproves his claims against Israel.
Rashi Rosh Ha-shana 16b
In order to befuddle [the Satan]. That he not prosecute [against the Jewish people] when he hears that Israel cherish the mitzvot, his words are stopped up:
For this reason, we recite the blessings and sound thirty blasts before the mussaf prayer, and sound another thirty blasts during mussaf, for a total of sixty. There are multiple customs for when to sound the mussaf blasts during the chazzan’s repetition of the Shemoneh Esrei.
How do we get from sixty to 100 blasts?
Ha-aruch explains that thirty blasts are also sounded during the silent recitation of mussaf, and another ten after the chazzan’s repetition. Many communities follow this tradition. Ashkenazi communities often do not blow the shofar during silent mussaf, and therefore have the custom of blowing an extra set of thirty and then another set of ten blasts after mussaf to get to one hundred (or, as in many Sefardi congregations, 101).
Sefer Ha-aruch, 274, 1
From here we learn that we need thirty [blasts] standing as there are thirty sitting. And we are stringent and do thirty when sitting, thirty during the silent [mussaf] and thirty in the chazzan’s repetition, corresponding to the one hundred cries that Sisera’s mother cried, and these with the ten when we finish all the prayers, for any blast that stands on its own needs to be ten – TaShRaT, TaShaT, TaRaT – and this is 100.
The final uptick in blasts according to all traditions seems to derive from the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother, whose wails serve as a source for the sound of terua.
What is the connection between the terua of the shofar and Sisera’s mother?
The Talmud, in a seemingly technical inference, derives the meaning of terua as yevava, or cry, from the Targum's description of Sisera's mother. Later, Ha-aruch connects the 100 blasts that we sound in synagogue on Rosh Ha-Shana to the 100 cries of Sisera's mother. This is surprising for two reasons.
First, Sisera's mother is not a sympathetic figure. As Devora describes her, she seeks to assuage anxiety about her son's fate by joining in her servants’ conjecture that he is merely busy dividing up the captured women and plunder.
Second, an independent midrashic tradition speaks of an archetypal birthing mother crying 100 cries:
Vayikra Rabba Emor 27
One hundred cries that the woman cries out when she sits on the birthing stool: ninety-nine for death, and one for life
Now, this idea seems to fit perfectly with the days' themes of judgment for life and death. Motherhood is another major theme of Rosh Hshana, from the Torah readings about Hagar and Sarah, to the haftarot about Chana and Rachel crying for her children. Rosh Ha-shana is the birthday of the world in which we stand in judgment, appealing to God by evoking the ultimate human mercy, that of the mother for her child.
Rachel Weinstock offers a compelling perspective on the link between motherhood – especially childbirth – and the shofar blasts.
Rachel Weinstock, Birthday of the world: Shofar Blowing and the Cires of the Child-Bearing Women Ashira
The cry of the shofar expresses pain and joy as one. The temporary pain in which the soul does not want to encounter materiality, and the eternal joy upon fulfilling its destiny in this world. On “the day the world was conceived,” when we come to hear the sound of the shofar, we recall the cries mixed with the joy of birth, the cry over our sins mixed with the joy of coronating God, the connection between spiritual and physical for the sake of which we have arrived in this world. “Fortunate is the nation who know terua, God, in the light of Your countenance may they walk.”
Of all the mothers in the world, why should we recall the cries of Sisera's?
Perhaps our shofar blasts counter the wickedness in her cries, or her cries are meant to be a goad to us to cry out to God in a deeper way. Or perhaps the idea is even broader.
On Rosh HaShana, we celebrate God's kingship over the entire world, Jews and non-Jews, righteous and wicked. As part of the universal message of Rosh Ha-shana, it may be appropriate to include all mothers, even a mother whose love is blended with cruelty – who worries about her own son while seeing other women as mere “wombs” for his exploitation. Even she, from her great distance from us, knows how to cry out for mercy in the face of human frailty, and even she is thus part of the greater religious narrative of Rosh Ha-shana.
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik shares a different explanation for why the cries of the mother of Sisera became so important to our shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana.
Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, Before Hashem You Shall Be Purified, p. 10
The required response to the shofar, which the Rambam refers to as awakening from sleep, is the abrupt, tragic realization that the false assumptions upon which we build our lives have come crashing before our eyes. We are jolted with the sudden awareness of the grievous extent to which our actions have alienated us from G-d. Amidst the panic of this experience, we have neither the intellectual nor the emotional fortitude to adequately express remorse, resolve, confession, or even prayer. We find ourselves alone, bereft of illusions, terrified and paralyzed before G-d… Why does the story of a pagan mother awaiting her barbaric son form the halachic basis for the required number of shofar sounds that are blown on Rosh Hashana? Because upon hearing the piercing tones of the shofar, we must experience a similar emotion [to hers]; as we awaken from spiritual complacency, we must witness our own illusions being relentlessly shattered.
Women and Shofar
The obligation to blow shofar on Rosh Hashana is a positive time bound commandment, from which women are exempt:
Mishna Kiddushin 1:7
All positive mitzvot that are time-bound, men are obligated and women are exempt. All positive mitzvot that are not time-bound, both men and women are obligated.
Our rabbis taught: What is a positive time bound commandment? Sukka and lulav, shofar…
We have seen, though, that it is generally permissible for women to choose to fulfill such commandments voluntarily. In fact, the original discussion of this issue touches on whether a woman may blow shofar. We have also discussed how a prevalent custom to perform such mitzvot can become binding. In the case of shofar, this voluntary performance was so widespread that it eventually became a binding custom for all Jewish women.
Maharil provides a glimpse into just how seriously the community in 14th century Mainz took women’s obligation:
Maharil Hilchot Shofar
Indeed, women are exempt [from shofar], for it is a positive time-bound commandment. But they bring themselves into the obligation. Since they obligate themselves, they must make haste to prepare their needs, whether in adornment or in cooked dishes, to be available to come to the synagogue and to be there to hear the shofar blast, and they should not impose upon the congregation to wait for them.
Maharil urges women to adorn themselves for synagogue and prepare the Yom Tov meal early on Rosh Ha-shana morning to facilitate coming to services on time for shofar. He implores mothers to make alternate arrangements for children in order that they hear shofar and prayer uninterrupted, from beginning to end. Most remarkably, he suggests that the community would wait for women running late, out of respect for women's "obligating themselves."
Maharil Hilchot Shofar, cont.
He said that in the countries of Austria the women would cook on erev Rosh Hashana for Rosh Hashana so they would be free to go to synagogue on Rosh Hashana, and when they left the synagogue they warmed the food, and they aimed that everyone would be in synagogue, married and unmarried women, to hear the prayer and the shofar from beginning to end. This is the custom now. Since women have brought themselves into the obligation of shofar blowing, then it is proper, if at all possible, to leave the young children at home so that they do not interrupt the sounding of the shofar – for it is not fulfilled if they did not have intention to hear from beginning to end.
Maharil's message illustrates how a grassroots religious undertaking by women can be valued and supported by the Jewish community at large.
Indeed, even today, women's hearing shofar is taken so seriously that halachic authorities consider the possibility that a woman who needs to miss it will have to seek a hatarat nedarim, a formal release from vows before a beit din.
Ben Ish Chai requires a woman who will not be able to hear shofar in a given year to seek a hatarat nedarim:
Ben Ish Chai Shana Rishona Nitzavim 17
Women are halachically exempt because this is a positive time-bound mitzva, but most women have set this mitzva upon themselves as an obligation, and come to synagogue to hear the sound of the shofar. Therefore, it becomes an obligation upon a woman who has acted this way for years, and if circumstances beyond her control make her unable to come to synagogue, a shofar-blower should come to her home and blow for her, but she should not recite a blessing, and thus is the custom in our home. And a woman who is accustomed to perform this mitzva, and it happens one time that she cannot come to synagogue, and also she is not able to bring a shofar-blower to her home, she should make a [formal] release [of vows] on the eve of Rosh Ha-shana on accepting the custom.
However, according to Rav Ovadya Yosef, no formal release is necessary if circumstances beyond a woman's control get in the way of her hearing shofar. At the same time, she is not free to give up hearing shofar for good.
Responsa Yabi'a Omer II OC:30
If she wants to annul her custom absolutely, she needs [formal] release [from her vow], but if circumstances beyond her control happened at one time, and her intention is not to annul her custom permanently, she does not need a [formal] release.
Let's look at some of the most common practical issues that arise around women and shofar.
How many blasts should a woman hear?
Since the basic Torah commandment is to hear thirty blasts, women should strive to hear at least that many. If a woman cannot hear both the blasts before mussaf and those during, she should make an effort to hear the first set of blasts before mussaf, which also enables her to hear the blessings over shofar. However, the obligation can be fulfilled by hearing any set of thirty blasts of the hundred.
If a woman is certain she will hear all thirty blasts, cannot hear the first set, and generally does recite blessings over fulfillment of positive time-bound commandments, she should make the blessings on the shofar to herself before she hears it.
Shulchan Aruch OC 589:6
Even though women are exempt they may blow…but women do not make the blessing, and men should not make the blessing for them. Rema: And the custom is that women make blessings on positive time bound commandments, so they also make the blessing for themselves in this case
Talking and interruptions
During the shofar blasts, all should take care not to make any noise, as this may prevent oneself or others from properly hearing the shofar. Even yawning or clearing the throat can interfere with hearing the blasts and therefore the fulfillment of the commandment.
Between the blessings and the first blasts and while the shofar is being blown, one should not speak at all, so as not to create a break between the beracha and fulfilling the mitzva of hearing.
What about speaking in between the blasts?
As always, the only conversations that are truly appropriate during services are those between a person and God. Yet it is sometimes necessary to speak to others in synagogue– to help them find the place or understand the service, or to convey urgent information.
Still, ideally, one should not speak from the time of the blessing over shofar until after the final shofar blast of the day, in order to prevent a break between the beracha and mitzva fulfillment and in order to treat the full hundred blasts as part of the mitzva. Shulchan Aruch rules this way:
Shulchan Aruch OC 592:3
Neither the toke’a nor the congregation should speak between the tekiot she-meyushav (before mussaf) and the tekiot she-meumad (during mussaf). (Rema: but [when speaking] about the blasts and prayers, there is no [problem of] interruption). And if one speaks of inconsequential things there is no need to repeat the blessing, and obviously they should not speak between the blessing and the blasts except in the matter of the blasts.
At the same time, Rema notes that, while it is inappropriate to speak about irrelevant things from the sound of the first shofar blast until the end of mussaf and the final blast, one may speak "about the blasts and prayers," since that is relevant to fulfilling the mitzva.
Therefore, if children require attention during shofar blowing, one may speak with them between blasts to remind them of the importance of hearing (or letting others hear) shofar and to quiet them gently.
The above guidelines apply to those remaining in synagogue during mussaf. But if a person needs to leave synagogue any time after the first set of thirty blasts, and will be occupied with other matters, then he or she may speak freely.
Eating Before Hearing Shofar
Often, when the proper time for fulfilling a positive time-bound mitzva arrives, one should fulfill the mitzva prior to eating. Such is the case with megilla on Purim, taking the four species on Sukkot, and even reciting the daily Shema.
In practice, eating before hearing shofar is widely accepted. There is even less of an issue for women, who do not have a Torah obligation to hear the shofar.
Chayei Adam explains that even though women have accepted shofar as an obligation, that acceptance did not include not eating beforehand if she will otherwise feel weak or sick.
Chayei Adam 141:7
If a woman needs to eat in the morning, she should eat before the shofar blasts, because [women are] halachically exempt in any event, and even though they already accepted it upon themselves as an obligation, in any case, in a situation of pain or illness one can say that they did not accept it.
A shofar blast is a wordless prayer, a sincere cry “from the depths of our heart.” Like prayer, its performance requires intention. Indeed, even those who generally maintain that one does not need to intention in order to fulfill a commandment, do require intention to fulfill the mitzva of shofar. The person who blows the shofar should intend to fulfill the commandment on others' behalf, and the listener must intend to fulfill the commandment.
Shulchan Aruch OC 589: 8-9
If the listener intended to fulfill his obligation, but the one who blows did not intend to exempt him, or the blower intended to exempt him but the listener did not intend to fulfill his obligation – he has not fulfilled his obligation – not until the listener and the sounder have intent. One who blew and intended to exempt whoever hears his blowing, and someone heard and intended to fulfill his obligation, even though the blower does not intend to [exempt] that specific person who hear his blowing, and doesn’t know [him], he has fulfilled his obligation – for [the blower] intended to exempt everyone who hears him. Therefore, someone who was walking on the way or sitting in his home and heard the blasts from the shaliach tzibbur (messenger of the congregation) – has fulfilled the mitzva if they had intention, for the shaliach tzibbur intends to fulfill the obligation for the collective.
A person blowing shofar for a congregation implicitly intends to fulfill the obligation of anyone who hears it, whether or not the blower is aware of each person listening. Therefore, someone who has to exit the sanctuary can still fulfill the obligation by hearing the shofar from outside with intention to fulfill the commandment.
 ויקרא כג: כג – כה
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ: כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַה’:Vayikra 23:23-25
The Lord spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the Children of Israel saying, on the seventh month, on the first day of the month, it shall be a Shabbat for you, a remembrance of terua, a sacred convocation.במדבר כט : א
וּבַחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ יוֹם תְּרוּעָה יִהְיֶה לָכֶם
And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, shall be a sacred convocation for you; do not perform any laborious work, it shall be a day of terua for you.
 Alternatively, we can learn that the shofar should be used from a verse in Tehillim:
Rosh Ha-shana 8a-b
As it is written: ‘Blast the shofar on the [first of the] month, hidden for the day of our festival’ (Tehillim 81:4) – On which festival is the month (i.e., the moon) hidden? You have to say it is Rosh Ha-shana.
Rambam Hilchot Shofar, Sukka, and Lulav 3:2
We were unsure what the terua in the Torah is – due to the lengthy years and many exiles – if it is the yelala (undulating wails) that the women wail in their lamentations at the time that they wail (meyabevin), or the anacha (groan) that a person groans time after time when his heart is worried about something big, or both of them as one – the groan, and the wails that tends to follow it – which are called terua, for it is the way of someone who is worried to groan first and then to wail, therefore we do all of them.
Alternatively, Rosh maintains that we sound all three types of teru'a in order to unify custom and avoid the perception of dispute:
 Alternatively, the Tur explains:
Tur OC 585
Why do we blow the shofar first when seated (before mussaf)?To befuddle the Satan – the explanation is that he should be confused immediately with the first blasts before the [mussaf] prayer, and he will not prosecute during the prayer [itself].
 Some communities only sound a total of ten blasts during the chazzan’s repetition of mussaf. In Yemenite communities his tradition leads to a total of forty-one blasts. In other communities sixty blasts are blown after mussaf to keep the total at 100.
The wise ones among her ladies answer her: Do they not find and divide the plunder, a womb or two wombs for each man, plunder of colors for Sisera, plunder of colored embroidery, color of two embroideries for the necks of the plunder.
 Mishna Berura (ibid 10)
 Aruch Hashulchan summarizes the various opinions:
Aruch Hashulchan OC 592:8
Ideally one should not interrupt and speak about anything that is irrelevant to the blasts or prayers between the tekiot de-meyushav and tekiot de-me’umad, neither the toke’a nor the congregation. But if he speaks of inconsequential matters, he does not need to repeat the blessing. And this is not like one who speaks between putting on one box of tefillin and another – for that person has to repeat the blessing, for [tefillin] are two separate commandments, which is not the case here - [shofar is] one commandment. Additionally, he has already fulfilled his obligation to hear the blasts of the Torah [the first 30 blasts].
But according to the first reason if he speaks during the tekiot de-meyushav he does not have to repeat the blessing, but this is not the case with the second reason. And if he spoke about something unrelated to the blasts between the blessing and the [first] blast - he must repeat the blessings. Even regarding the blasts – one ideally should not interrupt, unless it is necessary, such as giving him the shofar and so on. And if one spoke about something else, even regarding the prayers – he must repeat the blessings because this is not related to the blasts. (Magen Avraham 5).
And only [if the speaking] is between tekiot de-meyushav and tekiot de-me’umad – then matters of the prayers are not an interruption, for there interruptions are not totally prohibited, which is not the case between the blessing and blast. And in all these matters there is no difference between the toke’a and listener.
(See Ran and Ma’or, who wondered at the prohibition of interruption between tekiot de’meyushav and tekiot de-me’umad, and only because the Ge’onim ruled thus – one should not go against their words.)
Sefer Beit Ha-levi Part III Drasha 15
Meaning that this is not through words, but rather from the depths of the heart, and through the sound of the shofar, not through the vessel of speech that is used the rest of the year.