Is the shofar really a musical instrument? – Before


Qol Tamid (Eternal Voice): The Shofar in ritual, history and culture.

Edited by Jonathan L. Friedmann and Joel Gereboff

Claremont Press, 358 pages, $ 27.99

Two kinds of horns mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. One, a metal trumpet, is described in detail. The description of the other, the shofar, is, shall we say, limited? Guess which one has survived in continued use by Jews since then.

What is a shofar and how does it sound? Well, it depends on who you ask. Beyond the certainty that a shofar is of animal origin, almost every other aspect imaginable is up for debate. For thousands of years to the sound of the shofar, Jews grappled with the what, why, when, how, where and who of the instrument.

Is the horn curved? Law? From a ram? Goat? Ibex? Oryx? Kudu? In fact, one of the only generally accepted agreements is that under no circumstances should a cow horn be used, even if the cow is considered kosher. This unfortunate episode of golden calf worship when Moses was otherwise occupied permanently disqualified eligibility for the bovine shofar. As a musician, I can personally witness the lameness of cow horns on the sound spectrum of the shofar.

To help unravel the history and mysteries of this singular instrument (musical or not), Jonathan Friedmann and Joel Gereboff have assembled ten essays to guide us through the practical and exalted issues involving these horns, filled with sufficient quotes to show the way for those who wish to pursue particular lines further. (Full disclosure: I am cited in the book as a composer, writer, and musicologist.) The level of musicality of the prose of these scholars varies. But the substance is still engaging and informative for those interested in researching the knowledge that can be found on shofarot (yes, the plural shows that the Hebrew name is feminine).

Although the biblical passages mention two words regarding the sound of the shofar, Friedmann and Gereboff write, “the exact nature of the sound is not entirely obvious, nor is it how the shofar should be sounded on different occasions. No passage details the species of animals to make a shofar. Rabbinical texts … [from earliest times] have developed and disagreed on various stipulations regarding the materials for the shofar, the specific character of the sounds and the liturgical dimensions of its use. In addition, local practices among different Jewish communities have emerged.

And then there are the esoteric Kabbalistic traditions, symbolic interpretations, and disputes over form and function. Is the shofar a musical instrument? Well, yes and no. “The shofar is the only musical instrument that has survived in Jewish practice since ancient times. All the musical instruments fell into the water after the destruction of the Temple. Why? “First, it’s a biological instrument. Unlike man-made objects… Second, the rabbis did not include the shofar in the ban on playing musical instruments on holy days. The shofar was therefore musical but considered to be something other than a musical instrument – very Zen.

Jeremy Montagu provides an awesome, scholarly, and fairly in-depth walk through biblical and historical sources. Sometimes the shofar comes from a goat. But it must certainly come from a ram because it refers to the Aqedah (the binding of Isaac, stopped by the angel who orders Abraham to substitute the sacrifice of the ram in place of his son). Classifying the shofar as a kind of trumpet (as opposed to that other, made of metal), Montagu states that it is not known which of the two was used in Temple times to signal the Sabbath or holy days. But “in the Talmudic era”, he writes, “it was certainly the shofar”.

Marvin A. Sweeney’s essay offers a catalog of biblical sound signals for the shofar – of war, warnings, and worship. He addresses the emotional valence of the shofar, citing it both as a sound of joy – as in the Psalms – and also the various passages referring to fear and trembling – as in “Amos 3: 6 ‘When a shofar is sounded in a city, won’t the people tremble? The most famous combination of war, warning and worship of course crumbles the walls of Jericho. May I jump in here as the NPR program “Radiolab” had physicists calculated the shofar forces needed here? (Miracle Spoiler Alert: Sound, even if it was physically possible to muster a sufficient number of shofar players in a reasonable space to affect such a force, the sound would also have broken their bodies.)

The craziest and most wonderfully woolly essay of the book is written by Jeremy Philip Brown who delves into the “medieval kabbalistic ritual” of the shofar and explores the “theoerotic” nature of the instrument, dedicates his work in memoriam to Ornette Coleman, while Haim Ovadia’s essay on Sephardic theology and mysticism notes the fundamental differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish traditions of the shofar: the latter is more concerned with “trembling” in the presence of God.

Meanwhile, Malcolm Miller contributes to the main essay on shofars and concert works. After crediting Ruth Smith, who discovered the implicit calls of the shofar in Handel’s “Saul”, he goes through a host of other composers, crediting me for discovering the call of the shofar as the opening notes of ( and actually the main inspiration for) “” from Bernstein West Side Story. “

He also quotes two of my own compositions which include shofarot: “Night and dawn” for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Brass Ensemble, in commemoration of the anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi domination, and my Ceremonial concert for the equinox, a work conceived in space whose conclusion is written for septet shofar and bass drum. Alvin Curran, who probably holds the world record for compositions with shofar, is particularly noteworthy among the composers included. Then there is an opera by German composer Jörg Widmann, Babylon, which uses the shofar to “represent the old, but also the primitive, the beast, the uncivilized”. Israeli composer Shulamit Ran, in her opera “Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk)”, describes writing for shofarot in the scene of the attempt to exorcise the spirit of the abandoned dead lover who had taken possession of the body of his future and had resided there. .

The latest essay in the collection, by Jonathan L. Friedmann, “From Stale to Silly to Sublime” is about the shofar in comics. In “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen,” from 1964, for example, the titular cub journalist becomes “The Red-Headed Beatle of 1000 BC!” And apparently plays Beatles songs on a shofar and hand drum while wearing a red mop. wig (a plot point needed later). This comic would have us believe “that Beatles songs can be reproduced on limited musical instruments, represented by unflattering” Pwaah “,” Oowah “and” Pwaahh “sound effects.

Friedmann ends his investigation with a different comic book hero which is a total surprise: “The shofar gets his most complete comic book treatment through the character of Mal Duncan, the first black member” of DC Comics’ “Teen Titans” He writes. “After losing consciousness by an explosion, Duncan wakes up to the strange voice of Azrael, the angel of death, who has come to claim his soul. Duncan challenges Azrael to battle. The angel Gabriel acting as ‘arbiter’. Gabriel blows his horn, infusing Duncan with super strength to defeat the Angel of Death. Azrael says, “You beat me, so you live, for now! But I warn you, lose a fight against n ‘Anyone and you die! Gabriel gives Duncan the horn and tells him that blowing it will make him equal to any opponent. He reveals the shofar to Duncan in an almost mystical vision. This vision not only draws Jewish lore, but also Islamic and Christian.

The liminal sound of the shofar, between life and death; music or non-music; natural or human; the here and now or the mystic… Who will live and who will die? It is the kingdom of Qol Tamid.

A longer version of this review will appear in the annual publication of the Historical Brass Society.

Raphael Mostel is a New York-based composer and writer. Just before the pandemic, his music was performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker in Germany and by the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

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