י״ג בסיון ה׳תשע״ד (June 11, 2014)

Rosh HaShana 34a-b: The Sounds of the Shofar

Anyone who has heard the shofar blown in the synagogue on Rosh HaShana recognizes its unique sound – a single long blast (tekia), followed by a series of broken notes, and a concluding single blast (tekia). This cycle is repeated with variations in the broken notes:

  • we sound three relatively long notes (that we today call a shevarim, and the Gemara refers to as genuhei gana– a moaning sound),
  • we sound a staccato series of short notes (that we today call a terua, and the Gemara refers to as yelulei yalil – a whimpering sound)
  • we sound a combination of the two – shevarim-terua.

This tradition developed from a takkana – a Rabbinic ordinance – promulgated by Rabbi Abbahu. The Gemara explains that Rabbi Abbahu was unsure whether the proper terua was genuhei gana – a moaning sound, yelulei yalil – a whimpering sound, or a combination of the two. Thus we repeat the teki’ot a number of times in order to cover all possibilities.

Rabbi Abbahu’s need to develop this system is difficult to understand. Was there not a tradition as to the proper sound of the terua?

This question vexed the rishonim, who offer a number of different suggestions.

The Rambam argues that, in fact, this is an example of a tradition that was forgotten or became confused during the years of exile that followed the destruction of The Second Temple.

Rav Hai Gaon argues that according to Torah law, a broken sound would suffice to fulfill the definition of the terua that was required. Over the course of time, two different traditions developed; some people always sounded genuhei gana – a moaning sound, while others sounded yelulei yalil – a whimpering sound. Rabbi Abbahu was concerned lest these different traditions would create dissention among people who did not realize that both were legitimate positions, so he chose to institute and combine them.

The Ritva suggests that the true requirement is to blow the shofar in a manner that inspires fear and trembling. As different generations related to musical sound in different ways, the sound that brought out those emotions changed, leading to a variety of traditions. Rabbi Abbahu combined them in order to minimize potential strife.

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