HOW TO BLOW THE SHOFAR
By David Olivestone
Few people become really proficient at blowing the shofar. The Talmud (Shabbat 117b) refers to blowing the shofar as “chochmah ve-einah melachah”—a skill, rather than hard work—but mastering it does demand a lot of intensive practice.
If you’re serious about learning to blow the shofar and acting as a ba’al tekiah, it’s important that you select your shofar with great care. You need to find one that is right for you personally. For reasons which I imagine are purely commercial, stores charge more for a bigger shofar than a smaller one. But the size and appearance of the shofar should not be factors in your choice—the way the shofar feels and the way it sounds are what count.
Since the shofar has no reed, finger holes or valves such as you would find on other wind or brass instruments, the only control you have over the notes is how you use your lips and your tongue. So it’s important to find one that sits comfortably on your lips, as the shape of the mouthpieces varies greatly. One mouthpiece may be too round for you; the edges on another may feel too sharp.
To produce a note, first use your tongue to moisten the extreme right-hand corner of your lips, and place the shofar firmly against them in that spot. With the lips tightly closed, make a tiny hole in them where the shofar is, and then force air into it as if you were making a Bronx cheer (a rasping sound), but without actually producing such a rude noise. If you get it right, a bright and powerful note will emerge from the shofar. It’s not necessary to puff out your cheeks; breathe in and hold the breath in your chest, letting it out slowly to control the length of the note. Many ba’alei tekiah use two fingers to hold the shofar against their lips, which helps to keep the lips steady.
Most shofarot can produce two (or more) notes, a higher note and a lower one. The higher note requires more effort, but is far more attractive and impressive a sound. Squeeze your lips more tightly against the mouthpiece until you locate the note you want.
Try to blow without expelling too much saliva into the shofar. A wet shofar sounds hoarse; that’s why you often see a ba’al tekiah shaking the shofar or using long pipe cleaners to dry it out after each set of notes.
Once you have found a shofar that feels right and sounds good, keep blowing it for several minutes. This is not only to make sure that you are happy with your choice, but also because some shofarot do not have “staying power;” that is, they tend to lose strength after a few minutes.
It’s possible that your new shofar will still have the odor of the ram from which it comes; this will disappear in time. Some say to wash the shofar out with vinegar in order to get rid of the smell. In my experience, however, this just makes it smell like vinegar. Keep your shofar clean and dry, and it should last a lifetime.
The rest is practice, perfecting the notes and strengthening the muscles of the lips and the capacity of the lungs. And if you succeed in mastering the shofar and want to blow it on Rosh Hashanah, you will need to learn the halachic details regarding the length and sequence of the notes, either by studying them with your own rabbi, or by apprenticing yourself to an experienced ba’al tekiah.
As a ba’al tekiah, you will enjoy the fulfillment of a very special mitzvah as few others can. For me, at least, being in control of the shofar’s power is an extraordinary privilege and responsibility, and sounding it in the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah is the high point of my year.
David Olivestone, National Director of Planning and Communications at the Orthodox Union, was a finalist in the 2005 Great Shofar Blast Off organized by the National Jewish Outreach Program. He has been the ba’al tekiah at Congregation Ohab Zedek in Manhattan for the past twenty years, and for ten years before that at Lincoln Square Synagogue, also in Manhattan.