The sound of the shofar is usually one of joy and celebration. It’s a time when Jews throughout the world announce the coming of the New Year loud and strong for all to hear — even those who aren’t Jewish.
It’s an honor bestowed on congregants for various reasons. Perhaps it’s for a special achievement or to commemorate an occasion. Or maybe it’s a sign of respect.
But then there was the time Rabbi Menachem Schmidt of the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania remembers when blowing the shofar was anything but joyous.
“At Chabad Houses throughout Philadelphia, we cover any hospital within walking distance to blow the shofar for hundreds and hundreds of people,” explained Schmidt of a special custom. “It’s a very, very moving experience.
“When the president of Kesher Israel [Congregation], Abe Mersky, got sick a few years ago, I didn’t know he was in Jefferson [Hospital].” Seeing that he was there, “I went to blow the shofar for him. We knew this would be the last time he’d hear it. Both of us stood there, and we cried our way through.”
Other than those sad occasions, blowing the shofar for those unable to get to synagogue is about as rewarding as it can get, Schmidt said.
“It’s been going for as long as I can remember,” he said. “The idea behind it is that, first of all, it’s a mitzvah. Loving your fellow Jew is a mitzvah. So on Rosh Hashanah, for people who don’t go to shul, we bring the shul to you.”
That doesn’t just mean doing it in hospitals. Through the years, Schmidt has sounded the horn in some unusual places, including one where he literally had a captive audience.
“I’ve gone to people’s houses sometimes,” he said. “I’ve even blown the shofar in jail. I arranged to go to the prison early, so I could get back to shul.
“As I’m going in, they announced they were doing an ‘inventory.’ I didn’t understand what that meant.
“That’s when they lock the doors and no one goes in or out. I finish and go to leave and the guard says, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ I was stuck there for an hour.”
Within the walls of a synagogue, the rabbi or cantor will take care of the job. At others, it goes to someone in the congregation who acquires the skill.
“I played trumpet in junior high,” said Lawrence Troster, the new rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester, “but it’s not easy to blow the shofar.
“For N’eilah on Yom Kippur, we invite anybody to come up and do one final blast together. Some kids really take to it. I have an 8-year-old granddaughter who picked it up.”
For others, though, it’s a struggle.
“I don’t blow the shofar well,” admitted Rabbi Geri Newburge of Main Line Reform Temple.
“But my 10-year-old son, Jay, does. We have different congregants who we give out honors to during the holidays. Getting to blow the shofar is one of them.”
“It’s a talent or skill basically any Jewish adult can take upon themselves,” added Congregations of Shaare Shamayim’s new rabbi, Barry Schlesinger, who plans to deliver his Rosh Hashanah sermon on the impact the sound of the shofar has on our lives.
“It’s a wind instrument, but you have to make sure you practice.”
And whether you play in synagogue, a hospital or somebody’s home, remember that blowing the shofar is something that makes Jews stand out.
“I’ve been going for 36 years,” Schmidt said. “There’s no question, it’s definitely one of most rewarding and powerful experiences we have.
“The shofar wakes each of us up crowning God as king. It’s the mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah.”
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