Monday night marked the beginning of the Jewish high holy days that begin with the Jewish New Year - "Rosh Hashana," and end with the Day of Atonement "Yom Kippur." And just as it has for thousands of years, the blast of the ram's horn, or shofar, is heard in synagogues worldwide, calling all Jews to prayer and repentance.
Recently there was a national shofar blowing competition in New York City. At lunch hour, Herald Square in the heart of Manhattan, is always full of traffic and noise. This time, however, in addition to the car horns, New Yorkers got an earful of the unique sound of rams' horns -- traditional Jewish instruments known as "shofars."
The hollowed-out rams' horns - naturally curving and flared at the mouthpiece - are things of beauty. They can also be difficult to blow well. According to Rabbi Yitzhak Rosenbaum, the lead organizer of the Great Shofar Blast-Off event, more than 150 shofar blowers sent in audition tapes to a panel of expert judges which selected ten finalists.
"A shofar blower is considered good according to his level personal knowledge of Jewish law concerning the way to blow the shofar properly," he says, "and also the ability to do it. Remember: the shofar isn't a sophisticated instrument. It's just a ram's horn that is hollowed out. And you have to be able to hold the notes, and to be able to do it every time."
There are only three types of traditional shofar blasts, each of them meant to evoke a certain spiritual attitude or relationship one can have with God. The first type is a simple long note, called "tekiyah." "The other," says Rabbi Rosenbaum, "is the 'truah' which is a series of very short staccato sounds that sound like fierce sobbing where you can't catch your breath." The third kind of blast is called the 'shevarim,' which is broken, and a little slow, like gentle weeping, or a wail.
"All of them are meant to put awe and fear into the hearts of man, that we hear them and we say 'why is this sounding?'" says the rabbi. The reason, he says, is that Rosh Hashana -- the Jewish New Year -- is approaching. "Rosh Hashana is the day we Jews believe that God judges all humankind - Jews and non-Jews alike - individually and as a people."
As finalist Allen Willner of Los Angeles listens to his eight-year-old son practice his own shofar, he explains that it is the spirit of Rosh Hashana as expressed by the shofar, rather than the shofar technique itself, that he has tried to pass on to his boy. "The shofar is supposed to make a person feel like they should correct the things they did wrong and pray to God that hopefully God will give them a good year and pray to God that they should be good people in the coming year," he says.
According to Mr. Willner, the sound of the shofar can bring people close to God in ways that great words, or even great deeds cannot. "You can feel elated, and you can feel sad and you can hear the grief," he says. "You can hear the crying that some people engage in because they have misfortunes. You can feel just so joyous that your prayers are reaching up to God. All at the same time!" Experiencing the shofar, Mr. Willner says, "is a primal event."
The competition itself features a wide range of styles performed on a wide variety of shofars. In the end, Cal Feinberg of Teaneck, New Jersey, is declared the winner, and receives a special plaque. "I'm glad I won," he beamed, "it's gratifying in an event like this to get an idea of how you stack up against others who are also experts in their field."
But it is his role as messenger rather than victor that seems to excite Mr. Feinberg most. For him, to have the opportunity to be the one in the synagogue to sound the shofar is a sacred honor. "We are hearing and recognizing God as the ruler of the world. And I have been fortunate to be able to do that."