T’kiah

This is a Yemenite kudu horn. It is one variety of horn that can be used as a Shofar, which this one is. A shofar is more typically a ram’s horn but these are kosher (ritually approved) and look cool, so I got one. They’re only played on two holidays a year but it is commanded that we hear it. Those holidays, ten days apart, are Rosh Hashanah (head of the year, even though it does not occur at the beginning of the Hebrew calendar) and Yom Kippur (day of atonement).

When the shofar is played, there are three kinds of blasts. They are called by someone and the player then plays the proper blast for each call. The first one is called T’kiah, one long blast. The sequence of calls ends with T’kiah Gadola, literally big T’kiah, meaning you hold the blast as long as you can. At a Temple I belonged to many years ago, I watched a young man get to around forty seconds. That is an eternity.

I have called once. My father was in a hospital in Wheaton, MD during Rosh Hashanah. I was visiting him. It was, incidentally, a Catholic hospital, and my father had a roommate. My father belonged to a sort of congregation that had no rabbi but instead a lay leader. I think that guy’s still doing it. So he shows up in the room with a briefcase, opens it up, pulls out some yarmulkes, hands me a Machzor, a High Holiday (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) prayer book, turns to a page, pulls out a shofar and says “call.” So I do. The sequence takes maybe two minutes, but we are commanded to hear it and the lay leader was determined that Dad be able to. We finished, he collected his stuff, closed his briefcase, and left. I have no idea what Dad’s roommate thought.

Someone I know online wished me a happy Rosh Hashanah. Actually, it’s not a happy holiday. It is the anniversary of the creation of the world and it begins the period called the Days of Awe in which we repent for whatever we’ve done bad the previous year and we try to change to a more positive direction. Ostensibly our fate for the coming year is decided by the end of the period. The last day of the period is Yom Kippur and on that day, I guess mainly to prove our sincerity, we fast. Twenty-four hours plus, no intake. No food, no water, no brushing teeth, unless you’re sick, in which case you’re obligated to eat and drink. Judaism is like that. We do, however, wish each other a happy new year, by which we mean a good year, a healthy year, a prosperous year. May you be inscribed in the Book of Life. We say that and other things to each other and I am saying it to you.

When I grew up one person played the shofar at services. Now at some temples there is something called a shofar choir. A leader plays what’s called, then everyone who brings a shofar and wants to participate plays what’s called simultaneously. It’s quite cacophonous to the point of being a bit comical.

This year, service are different. It’s all online. So my Temple in North Carolina, which I still maintain a connection with and with whom I now attend online Torah study on Saturday mornings (I find it intellectually engaging) put their service on YouTube, getting their choir to record various songs outside, mostly with masks on, and rabbis giving lessons, sermons, whatever. We got to the shofar service just before the end of the whole service, so I blew shofar. That way I could hear it, and my family could hear it, other than online.

You can’t play tunes on this thing. Well, maybe someone can; I haven’t heard it done. You just get a couple of notes.

But the shofar didn’t originally exist for the High Holy Days. It existed as a sort of ancient siren, a call to action, often with military applications. We can be reasonably sure these are the horns the walls of Jericho story is about.

And, right now, as our politics have such intensely moral imperatives and such potentially immoral consequences, a call to action is exactly what’s called for.

T’kiah

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