There is no verse in the Torah commanding Jews to sound a shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
“You can quote me on that,” said Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, religious leader of Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah Orthodox Congregation. “The fact that we use a shofar and not a harmonica or a tuba is based on oral law.”
For that matter, said Yudin, Rosh Hashanah is not named in the Torah, either, but simply called “the first day of the seventh month.” The Torah tells us to remember the teruah, or blast, on that day, later called yom teruah. “But it still doesn’t use the word shofar,” said Yudin.
Indeed, aside from the shofar blast heard during Revelation on Mt. Sinai, the shofar is not mentioned again until the section dealing with the jubilee year.
“There, the Torah says that once in 50 years we will sound the shofar on Yom Kippur,” said Yudin. “That’s why we sound it after Yom Kippur today, to remember that someday in the future we will sound a shofar on the Yom Kippur of a jubilee year.”
Since the Yom Kippur shofar-sounding takes place in the seventh month – and Rosh Hashanah occurs during that month, as well – the rabbis held that the shofar should also be sounded on Rosh Hashanah, said Yudin.
As for the different notes blown on the ceremonial horn, Yudin explained that the Torah speaks about horns used in the desert for different purposes – for example, when the Israelites traveled, or when leaders were called to a meeting. Horn blasts were named teruah and tekiah, but the two different verses in which they are mentioned invert their order.
“So the rabbis said that every teruah is to be preceded and followed by a tekiah,” he said.
“The Torah doesn’t leave anything to your imagination,” added Yudin, describing the character of the notes, or blasts. “God forbid there’s a war, you sound a teruah, telling us that this is a sad note, a cry. We’re also told that on your happy day, to celebrate, you sound a tekiah.”
“So the sounding on Rosh Hashanah is happy, sad, happy,” he said. “On one hand, the basic idea of Rosh Hashanah is that every individual is born with great potential. That’s happy, positive.” But everyone needs to acknowledge sadness, as well, “crying because we’re reminded that not everyone lives up to their potential.”
Still, he said, “We don’t stop on a down note. We follow every teruah with a tekiah. We can turn things around, make them better.”
Yudin pointed out that the tekiah is a steady, unbroken sound; while the teruah is broken, or choppy.
“The world at large has used the same system in air raids,” he said. “Take cover is a sad, broken note; all clear is an unbroken sound, like the tekiah. We had it first.”
Yudin, who can be found on the bimah during the High Holy Days timing the shofar blasts, said the Talmud teaches that the length of a tekiah should match that of the teruah. Since there are three variations of the teruah – shvarim, “a sigh, with at least three blasts; teruah, a moan, with at least nine sounds, and a combination, shvarim teruah” – the length of the tekiah will itself vary.
For example, he said, shvarim is approximately three seconds; teruah, between three and four seconds; and the combination from six to seven seconds.
“The one calling [the notes, known as a baal tekiah] has to know what’s going on,” he said. “The baal tekiah needs to look at his hand or else he will keep going.”
The rabbi said that while, in theory, anyone can sound the shofar, “We always looked upon this not simply as blowing a horn but as a call to repentance. So generally speaking, the more the person is himself going to listen to the message of the shofar and internalize it, the better representative that person is.”