By Nachum Mohl
If we were to point to the central mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah, we would probably have to bypass the yearly eating traditions, and the long special unique prayers with their special melodies, and have to point to the unique mitzvah of the shofar. The Rabbis said that if a person has to decide whether to go to a synagogue where there is a person who knows how to prayer wonderfully and inspirationally, but not hear a proper shofar or to go to a different synagogue where he can only hear a proper shofar, but the prayer service is lacking, he should go to hear the shofar. That is because the shofar is the mitzvah of the day; it is a mitzvah that is mentioned explicitly in the Torah.
Because the shofar is so very important, there are many customs and traditions surrounding it.
The shofar is generally blown on the "bema", the high place where the Torah is read. The person blowing the shofar stands as do those who are listening to the shofar blasts. The custom is that the person who blows the shofar makes the blessings "shehechiyanu" (that we have reached this special time") and the blessing, "to hear the shofar blasts". In many communities, the congregation said the blessings to themselves quietly, when the person blowing the shofar is making the blessings, but they finish their blessing before him so that they may answer "amen" to his blessing.
From the time of the Talmud there was disagreement over what the correct sound of the shofar blast is. Some said the correct sound is like a person weeping - short sounds close together, others say it is like a person groaning - longer sounds, and others say it is a combination of both. We, therefore, do like all three opinions.
Each shofar blast is preceded by a long drawn out sound and afterwards the same long drawn out sound concludes it. The custom is also to hear a total of a hundred blasts, which are spread through out the prayer service.
To hear the shofar sounds, click here for mp3 file (187 kb). The first sound is the long drawn out sound, the tekiah. This is followed by three blasts, like the sound of groaning, and then followed by nine or more blasts, resembling the sound of sobbing. The three groaning blasts are the shevarim, and the nine multiple blasts are the teruah. These sounds are concluded with one more long blast, another tekiah. Durring the Rosh HaShanah service, the middle sounds will be re-arranged.
The shofar itself should be from the horn of a ram, because it was a ram that was offered as a sacrifice in the place of Isaac when his father Abraham bound him up on an altar. This recalls the merit of our forefathers. The horns of other similar animals can be used, but not the horn of a cow, since the horn of a cow is dissimilar to that of a ram.
The shofar should be curved and not straight. The open end should face up. It should not have a crack or hole in it. The custom is not to embellish or add decoration to the shofar. One should be careful to ascertain that his shofar is kosher before using it for Rosh Hashanah.
We are careful that we hear the sound of the shofar only, making certain that there is no echo. The time for blowing the shofar is during the daytime portion of Rosh Hashanah, from the sunrise to the sunset. The entire day is kosher to hear the shofar, but we generally do it with in the framework of the synagogue service. If Rosh Hashanah falls on the Shabbat, we do not blow the shofar.
We are careful not to talk from the time we make the blessing on hearing the shofar until we have heard all of the shofar blasts. Even if one heard shofar blasts spread through out the day, if he heard the prescribed and proper number of blasts, he has fulfilled his obligation.
All who are obligated to hear the shofar can blow the shofar for others to fulfil their obligation. A child (meaning under the age of bar mitzvah), a mentally incompetent person and women are exempt from the Torah's obligation of hearing the shofar. A child is exempt since he has not reached the age of mitzvahs, nevertheless, parents bring children to hear the shofar in order to educate them in this important mitzvah. A mentally incompetent is not required to hear the shofar, since the Torah does not obligate someone who is severely lacking in intelligence. A women is relieved of her obligations to hear the shofar since it is a mitzvah that is time orientented. Even so, most (if not all) woman have the custom to hear the shofar, just like a man. However a woman does not blow the shofar for a man, since she is not obligated by the Torah to hear it and a man is.
The person who blows the shofar must have in mind that everyone who hears it will fulfil their obligation to hear it. Therefore, we do not practice blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah; perhaps someone will hear the practice blast and think that by hearing those sounds he has fulfilled his obligation.
from the September 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine