The Torah tells us that Rosh Hashanah is a day of sounding the Shofar: “And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month… a day of teruah it shall be to you” (Bamidbar 29:1). Elsewhere we find that the word teruah refers to sounding the Shofar: “And you shall cause the shofar teruah to be sounded on the seventh month” (Vayikra 25:9). Our Sages thus derive that there is a Torah obligation to sound the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah (Rosh Hashanah 33b).
But how does a Shofar blast actually sound? How is this Torah mitzvah fulfilled? As we will see, this question is far from simple, and involves a complicated debate among Chazal, as well as among later authorities.
Why are so many blasts of the Shofar sounded to fulfill the Torah obligation? What is the source for the different types of blasts that we sound? How long must a teruah be? What are the rules of interruption between the blasts? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Three Sets of Blasts
The Torah mentions the teruah alone, which seems to refer to one type of Shofar blast. For us, it is the broken, “middle sound” of the Shofar (as detailed below). The universal custom is to sound a teruah in between two simple blasts, which we refer to as tekiah sounds.
Chazal derive this practice from the Pasuk (Vayikra 25:9): “And you shall cause the shofar teruah to be sounded (ta’aviru shofar teruah) on the seventh month… you shall sound the shofar (ta’aviru shofar) throughout your land.” The word ta’aviru, which implies an extended sound (a tekiah), is mentioned both prior and subsequent to the word teruah. Chazal thus derive that we must blow a tekiah (a simple and continued sound, or peshutah) both before and after the teruah.
This pattern is called by the acronym TaRaT, or in its full form: “tekiah-teruah-tekiah.” According to Rabbi Yehuda, the series tekiah–teruah-tekiah is one mitzvah alone. The Sages, however, argued that each and every blast (tekiah or teruah) is a separate mitzvah (Sukkah 53b).
We repeat the series three times. This halacha, which ensures that the teruah is sounded three times (once for each series), is derived from the Torah’s threefold mention of blowing the Shofar, each time using the term teruah.
Sobs or Wails?
So far, we find justification for three series of blasts—altogether nine blasts of the Shofar. But there is more to come, deriving mainly from an uncertainty over how the teruah is sounded.
The translation of the word teruah, as rendered by the Targum, is yevavah—a cry. Based on this translation the Sages derived that the teruah is a broken, crying sound (Rosh Hashanah 33b). However, there are various ways in which a “crying sound” can be represented.
The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 34a) reports that Rabbi Abahu was uncertain whether a teruah is comprised of a sobbing that rises and falls (the shevarim of today), or a short and staccato wail of anguish (the teruah of today), or a combination of both—both sobbing (first) and (then) wailing (shevarim-teruah).
To be certain that we fulfill the Torah’s obligation, he thus mandated blowing three different series of Shofar blasts, each with a different broken sound. This means that we blow three different series of blasts, with each series blown three times:
- Tekiah, shevarim-teruah, tekiah(TaSHRaT)—three times.
- Tekiah, shevarim, tekiah(TaSHaT)—three times.
- Tekiah, teruah, tekiah(TaRaT)—three times.
This is a total of 30 blasts.
The Rambam rules: “Due to the great passage of time and extended galus, we are no longer sure as to the nature of the teruah cited in the Torah. We do not know whether it is similar to wailing of weeping women, or the slow, deep sobbing of someone heavily burdened, or whether it is like a sobbing which naturally turns into a wailing. Therefore, we perform all three variations” (Laws of Shofar 3:2).
According to the Rambam it appears that there is only one correct way to the blow a teruah, and the incorrect versions are invalid. We blow all three versions to ensure we fulfill the mitzvah. However, Rav Hai Gaon (cited in Ran, Rosh Hashanah 10a in pages of the Rif, and in the Rosh 4:10), rules that all the versions of teruah are valid to fulfill the Torah obligation. Nonetheless, Rav Hai explains that we are careful (following Rabbi Avahu’s enactment) to blow sets of all the different versions, to ensure that different communities should not develop different practices in the matter, whereupon “the Torah should not look like two different Torahs” (see Beis Yosef, Orach Chaim 590).
Note that there is formally a fourth option for sounding the broken sound of the teruah, namely a teruah followed by a shevarim. The Gemara explains that this option is not a possibility, because the Torah’s teruah means to imitate human crying. The way of a human cry is to evolve from a sob to a wail, and not vice versa, so that this sound cannot be what the Torah commanded.
Beware of Interruptions
There appears to be a simpler way to fulfill the Torah obligation of sounding the Shofar. Rabbi Avahu could simply enact that the series tekiah–shevarim–teruah–tekiah should be blown (TaSHRaT) three times, by which a person blows all three varieties of broken sound three times—a shevarim, a teruah, and both together—and each of them is surrounded by two tekiahs. Why is this version not enough?
The Gemara explains that if the mitzvah is to blow only a shevarim, blowing a teruah immediately after the shevarim constitutes an interruption (between the shevarim and the final tekiah) that invalidates the mitzvah. Similarly, if the mitzvah is to blow only a teruah, then the shevarim that precedes it interrupts between the first tekiah and the teruah, which will likewise invalidate the mitzvah. Thus, the only way to fulfill the mitzvah correctly and to ensure that the correct teruah is sounded, is to blow three series, one with each type of broken sound (shevarim, teruah, and shevarim-teruah) in the middle.
This teaches us that if one blows an inappropriate sound between the tekiah and the correct broken sound, the series is invalidated (see, however, the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam, as cited by the Ran 10b). The question of what must be done—must the entire series be sounded again, or one must return to the last tekiah that was sounded?—involves a dispute among authorities emerging from a case that occurred in the year 1144 (about 40 years after Rashi’s petiroh) in Mainz.
The Mainz Case
After blasting two kosher rounds of “TaSHRaT” the Shofar-blower of Mainz made an error: Instead of blowing a third round of shevarim and then teruah, he mistakenly blew two parts of a shevarim and then blew the teruah. The question was how to continue. After sounding an inappropriate blast (two shevarim and a teruah) in the middle of the series, what should be done?
Two disputes ensued among the scholarly congregants. One dispute was that some advocated that he must blow an entire TaSHRaT because what he blew was not a proper shevarim-teruah. Others, including Rav Elyokim and the Raava”n (an early Rishon), claimed he need blow just one shevarim, since that was the sound which was lacking and he was only in the middle of his shevarim–teruah.
The second dispute was whether, if he needs to blow an entire tashrat, is it enough to blow one tashrat since the other two were proper, or once one needs to repeat, he must repeat all three. The Rosh (Rosh Hashanah 4:11) rules concerning the first dispute (against the opinion of those in Mainz who ruled that they needed to blow an entire tashrat) that even if he could not just blow one shever and must blow a shevarim-teruah he need not repeat the tekiyah which he already blew since only a sound that does not resemble a teruah constitutes an interruption. If the Shofar-blower tries to sound the right sound but it comes out wrong, this is not an interruption.
The Shulchan Aruch (590:7-8) rules like the Rosh (trying to blow the correct sound does not invalidate), while the Mishnah Berurah (27) adds that some are stringent in calling back the Shofar-blower to the beginning of the series for any incorrect sounding. He recommends stringency in the matter.
The Length of the Teruah
According to Rashi, the minimal length of a teruah is three minimal sounds. According to the Riva and Rivam, the teruah must extend at least nine sounds. Since everyone agrees that a teruah can have extra sounds, we blow a nine-sound teruah, which fulfills the mitzvah according to all opinions.
If a blast of less than nine sounds is sounded, one has fulfilled the mitzvah according to Rashi, provided the teruah was at least three sounds long. According to Riva and Rivam the mitzvah is not fulfilled. The Mishnah Berurah (590:12) rules that although one should lechatchilah follow the Riva’s stringent ruling, if the shorter teruah was sounded it is not necessary to repeat the sound.
If the Shofar-blower does repeat the sound, he must also repeat the tekiah preceding the repeated teruah. The reason for this is that according to Rashi, the short teruah (of more than three sounds) is a kosher blast, so that if the tekiah is not repeated he will be blowing two consecutive teruahs.
A shevarim must be a minimum of three broken sounds, each called a shever. The previous dispute yields a dispute concerning the length of the shever as well. According to the Reva the shever must be as long as three staccato (teruah) sounds (known as three kochos), so that the entire shevarim equals the length of nine staccato sounds (Mishnah Berurah 590:13).
According to Rashi’s opinion each shever should be shorter than three staccato sounds, so that the entire extent of the shevarim is approximately the length of six staccato sounds (Tosafos, Rosh Hashanah 32b; see Shulchan Aruch 590:3; this relates to the above dispute between Rashi and the Riva). Some communities blow some of the shevarim according to this opinion.
To avoid a problem if one blows a long shever, some recommend that the pitch of a shever should change in the middle of the sound, thereby differentiating it from a tekiah both in form and in duration. Some refer to these as “tu-U-tu“, “UU-tu” or “tu-UU” shevarim sounds. Many Ashkenaz communities follow this custom. Others, however, contend that the shever sound should sound exactly like a short Tekiah. Each community follows its established custom.
How long must the tekiah be? According to most Rishonim the tekiah must be as long as the broken sound it accompanies.
Since the shevarim-teruah sound can be blown in approximately 3.5 seconds, so that the tekiah that precedes and follows it should also be (at least) this long (see Mateh Efrayim; Mishnah Berurah 590:14, 15). Since the length of both the shevarim and the teruah sounds is disputed (as mentioned above), the length of the tekiah is also disputed.
According to Riva and Rivam, the combined length of a shevarim-teruah is approximately 18 kochos (or a little longer to accommodate the length of the pause in the middle). Based on Rashi, the teruah need be only three kochos, and the shevarim only six-to-nine , so that the tekiah accompanying the shevarim-teruah is considerably shorter: nine-to-twelve kochos long.
Based on the above, Poskim conclude that the tekiah for TaSHRaT should preferably be a little more than eighteen kochos long, whereas the tekiah for TaSHaT and TaRaT need be only nine kochos long.
Pausing Between Shevarim and Teruah
Should there be a pause between the sounds of sheavrim and teruah in the middle of a shevarim-teruah? This question is the subject of another dispute among early authorities, as cited by the Ran (Rosh Hashanah 34a) and Tur (Orach Chaim 590). Again, the question is how the broken crying sound is interpreted.
According to the Ramban and Rosh, the shevarim-teruah should be blown with a single breath. Rabbeinu Tam disagrees, maintaining that a crying person does not change from a sob to a wail without stopping for a breath in between. Therefore, he maintains that one should pause (according to many with a breath) between the shevarim and the teruah. This is the opinion of most Rishonim (see Mishnah Berurah 590:18).
The Shulchan Aruch (590:4) cites both opinions and concludes: “One who is G-d fearing should fulfill both opinions by blowing them in one breath in the tekios demiyushav (the sounding of the Shofar before the Mussaf prayer) and in two breaths in the tekios demeumad (during Mussaf).” The Rema adds: “The custom is to blow all of them in two breaths, and the custom should not be altered”—though the Mishnah Berurah (590:20) adds that all agree that if the blasts are sounded in one breath, the mitzvah is still fulfilled.
Note that according to some opinions, a significant interruption between the shevarim and the teruah invalidates the blowing (see Mishnah Berurah 590:16 and Shaar HaTziyun). The Mishnah Berurah (590:21) writes that one must be wary that the pause between the two should not be more than the time of a short breath.
Even when blowing without an interruption there is a dispute. The Chazon Ish rules that there should be absolutely no interruption whatsoever between the shevarim and the teruah, and one should flow directly from the other (Orach Chayim 136:1). Almost no one follows this Chazon Ish, as it is very difficult to do properly. His students dispute how to do it properly, as well.
Most congregations today follow the Shulchan Aruch’s ruling (as recommended by the Chayei Adam) that the shevarim-teruah of the first soundings (before Mussaf) be blown without a pause, whereas those blown during Mussaf should be done with a short pause between the shevarim and the teruah.
Serenity and Anguish
The sounding of the Shofar combines the simple tekiah and the broken teruah. Placed together, it embodies serenity on the one hand, and anguish on the other.
On the one hand, Rosh Hashanah is a day of joy, a day of Divine closeness, a day of resetting the intimate relationship between us and Hashem. On the other hand, it is a day of judgment—a day on which we are judged for the coming year, based on our deeds, and on how we stand before Hashem.
The sounding of the Shofar reflects this dual nature of the day. There is Din, judgement, and we are called to awaken from our slumber, as the Rambam writes, and to repent our misdeeds. But there is also a simple sense of togetherness with Hashem, of heeding His invitation, as it were, for our annual meeting.
May we make the most of Rosh Hashanah, an auspicious occasion that sets the tone for the coming year. And may we all merit a shanah tova umesukah, a happy and sweet new year.