The Real Thing-Shofar Blowing in 5781

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, September 4, 2020 / 15 Elul 5780

Summary: This week’s Oasis Songs discusses shofar blowing in a time of pandemic, examines one way that our ancestors thought about authenticity, and provides guidance on which shofar notes should be blown this year.

One of the most successful ad campaigns of all time is Coca Cola’s “It’s the real thing.” While the actual line appeared in Coke’s branding materials dating back to the 1940’s, the more modern ad concept was launched in 1969 and revisited in the 1990’s and again in 2005.

Artwork of shofar by Yitzchok Moully

There’s something about the real, the authentic, the genuine article, that speaks to the human soul. This is arguably one major reason why New Coke failed so epically when it was released in 1985. Despite the many successful blind taste tests in which people preferred the new recipe over all other colas, the company had underestimated people’s attachment both to the brand, and to the notion of realness.

This line of thought has occupied many of us in recent months, because the pandemic has challenged us to embrace the new, even as we have sought ways to cling to the old. Deciding what is real in a time of rapid change isn’t easy—and probably only with hindsight will we be able to understand and evaluate the decisions made now.

To this day, large numbers of MBA students learn about the Coke fiasco in business school. Preoccupation with authenticity is an ancient and perennial concern. When we buy a jar of honey, we want to know that it contains only natural honey, and not other sweeteners. If we bid on a Picasso or Rembrandt painting, we want to ensure it’s not a masterful copy. Even if we couldn’t tell the difference with the copy and the original side by side, part of the value of the painting is its provenance. Where does it come from?

Unsurprisingly, our Talmudic Sages asked similar questions more than 1500 years ago. The Bible commands us to make Rosh Hashanah a “yom teruah,” a day of shofar blasts, in its typically terse manner. Our Sages were confronted with the subject of authenticity and how to fulfill God’s will when a question was asked if people could meet their obligation to hear the shofar blasts if it was blown at the bottom of a well.

Would that shofar fulfill the mitzvah for those standing up above? The answer given is no, because the narrow walls of the well shaft would create numerous echoes, and it would be impossible to determine if one was hearing the shofar itself, or merely its echo. In other words, people wouldn’t be hearing “the real thing,” and therefore wouldn’t be following what God and the Torah stated.

This interesting question has been revisited over the years. If one hears a shofar through a loudspeaker, does it count? Before you rush to answer yes, now imagine that some feedback or squelch gets mixed in. Do you still feel the same way? In the past, answers to that modern dilemma were mixed, with those who felt it still counted as a shofar blast studying the science of microphones, and analog signals. In the digital age, the nearly universal answer has been that a shofar relayed over digital networks is not a shofar blast at all, because the original sound is converted into 1’s and 0’s, sent over a network, and then reshaped on the other end in slightly different ways, depending on your computer and its digital to analog converter. It is completely disassembled sound. In layman’s terms, what we hear is less than an echo and more like freeze dried ice-cream.

That said, Judaism is so ancient, that we have many historical instances of how we reference the past. Thus, there is a way that our prayers and even the Passover shankbone are a “zekher l’korban” or a memorial to the sacrifices our ancestors used to bring. In this way, we acknowledge the difference betwen what is real and what is a copy, even as hold on to the emotional connection we feel with the past.

Given these reflections, there will be three different ways to experience the shofar this way on Sunday, September 20th. Two will be the “real thing” and one will be a zekher l’shofar, or a remembrance of the shofar. That latter will occur during the Zoom service run by lay leaders with support from Rabbi Isaak and Cantor Shivers.

Then there are the two opportunities to hear the shofar blasts live. From 11:30 am-2:30 pm, those who have preregistered for their slot in front of the ark will get to hear the shofar sounded on Holzman Plaza by three of our amazing shofar blowers—Glen Coblens, Liza Milliner and Alan Montrose.

Finally, there will be a city-wide “Shofar Across Oregon” experience at 4 pm. The plan is for anyone with a shofar to sound it outside their homes at that time. The hope is that regardless of where individuals live, as many people as possible will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar sounded.

Because of these changes, this year we will be following the oldest, Biblically mandated method of blowing the shofar, which consists of nine notes or blasts. If you are planning to participate in the Shofar Across Oregon, here is the minimum requirement for sounding the shofar:

Tekiah; Shevarim-T’ruah; Tekiah
Tekiah; Shevarim; Tekiah
Tekiah; Teruah; Tekiah Gedolah

There are many videos you can watch to hear this order of notes if you are new to sounding the shofar. And let me publicly thank Alan Montrose for teaching people the art of shofar blowing on Zoom this year.

Whether you are able to hear “the real thing” or a zekher l’shofar, I hope that the sound of the shofar does what it was always meant to do—touch us in a visceral way, wake us up and prompt us to engage in the deep work of teshuvah.

May it be a sweet and healthy year for all of us—and may 5781 see a safe, effective and affordable vaccine that can protect all of us.

Shabbat shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. What do you think about fusion food, where a traditional recipe is modified using new ingredients, or combining two different ethnic traditions? For or against? Why?
  2. If a copy of a painting or piece of artwork was every bit as good as the original, would you be willing to pay the same price for it as for the original? Why or why not?
  3. How important is authenticity to you? Why?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

Torah Sparks Commentary This Week