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Friday, August 19, 2022
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It happens every Rosh Hashanah. Right before the shofar blowing, the gabbai klops on the bima and announces: “The halacha is that you shouldn’t interrupt by speaking from the blessing on the shofar until the very last shofar blasts at the end of davening.” As a parent of small children, this was burdensome: What if my kid persistently asks me something? What if I like to talk in shul, and want to tell my tablemate how Rabbi Nehorai was a litvak? How did we get to this place, of 100 shofar blasts in relative silence?

The core obligation is nine shofar blasts: tar”at tar”at tar”at, where t = tekia and r = teruah. On Rosh Hashanah 34, Rabbi Yochanan declares that one who heard nine blasts across nine hours of the day fulfills his obligation. Perhaps this means in total silence (other than tefillah), but does Rabbi Yochanan indeed assume people aren’t e.g. eating the meal? The Gemara brings a brayta with the same language as Rabbi Yochanan, and so we rule like him.

Others disagree with Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Yochanan mentions, but doesn’t endorse, Rabbi Shimon b. Yehotzadak, that a lengthy enough pause during Hallel or Megillah would invalidate it (34b). Similarly, Rabbi Abahu (third-generation Amora) traveled with Rabbi Yochanan, his teacher, while reciting Shema (34b). He paused while passing through an excrement-filled alleyway, and afterward asked Rabbi Yochanan whether to start again or resume from where he left off. Rabbi Yochanan told him that it depends whether the gap was sufficient to say all of Shema. The Talmudic Narrator again explains that Rabbi Yochanan was answering only according to Rabbi Abahu’s moderately stringent position, but himself felt that even lengthy gaps don’t invalidate. (See also Rosh’s extended explanation on Brachot 22b, where he notes we don’t rule like a student over a teacher.)

Finally, Rav Kahana (Sukkah 53b, Arachin 10a) takes the most stringent position, that no gap is permitted between a terua and tekia. Five Babylonian Amoraim were named plain Rav Kahana, and he doesn’t interact with anyone in that sugya in Sukkah/Arachin, so his identity is unclear. It would be pure speculation to say he is, e.g., the fifth-generation Rav Kahana IV, of Pum Nahara, who was Rava’s student and Rav Ashi’s teacher.

The same Rabbi Abahu instituted (34a), in the Caesarea synagogue, that they blow three sets of tashr”at (shr = shevarim-teruah). There were competing traditions of the middle blast called “teruah.” One is what we call shevarim and the other is what we call teruah. According to the simple meaning/initial assumption, Rabbi Abahu only blew three sets of tashr”at. We count whichever was the correct of shevarim and teruah and dismiss the other, thus cleverly fulfilling both positions. (See Yoma 57a for a parallel, though there we discard sprinkling in the beginning or end.)

Two colleagues, each (Yoma 55a, Bava Batra 131a) a fifth-generation Babylonian Amora and student of Rava, object. Rav Avira II objects that the shevarim might be wrong and constitute an improper preceding interruption. Ravina I objects that the terua might be wrong and constitute an improper following interruption.

These late Babylonian Amoraim’s objections were to an instituted practice a long time ago in a synagogue far, far away, and they might operate on different assumptions. The Talmudic Narrator (who spoke post-this Ravina I) explains that Rabbi Abahu actually considered each objection and blew tash”at and tar”at in addition to his tash”rat. A further inquiry: if he actually did both, then what was the purpose of his tashra”t? The surprising answer is that he held a novel position that perhaps the correct teruah was what we call shevarim-teruah (but that teruah-shevarim isn’t a possibility), and furthermore wished to fulfill all three positions.

If I were bold enough, and able to argue with the Gemara—see last week’s column—I might suggest that Ravina and Rav Avira were strict Kahanists, so even the minor interruption of an extraneous blast invalidates. However, Rabbi Abahu allowed a moderate interruption, so his Caesarian blasts were as the Gemara initially and simply explained. (Similarly, see Rabbenu Tam, that according to Rabbi Yochanan—with whom we rule—extraneous blasts wouldn’t invalidate, but Ravina/Rav Avira’s problem is only within Rabbi Abahu’s position. Ramban disagrees, distinguishing between extraneous blasts and silent pauses.)

Regardless, the Talmud’s harmonization turned nine blasts into 30. The Rif explains (on 34a) that we blow the 30 “sitting” blasts after the blessing. Then, in order to distribute the blasts across Shemoneh Esrei, since we’ve strictly speaking already fulfilled, we blow just one tashra”t for Malchuyot, one tasha”t for Zichronot, and one tara”t for Shofarot. (Rav Hai did one tashra”t for each.) And this was the practice in the two yeshivot (Sura and Pumbedita) and throughout the world. We don’t do more because of tircha detzibura, imposing undue hardship on the congregation—a concern that seems to have disappeared nowadays. Instead, with variation in different communities, we perform 30 blasts for the silent Amida, and 30 for Chazarat HaShatz. This brings us within striking distance of 100. Because of a tradition about Sisera’s mother crying 100 cries (which Talmudically was only the basis for differing translations of יבבות), we add an additional 10 blasts. Because we want the initial blessings to apply to the later blessings (see Rif) it is better (though not critical) not to interrupt. The resulting developed practice certainly has benefits, but also transformative experiential costs. Please note: Consult your local Orthodox rabbi for any practical guidance, not this simplified presentation of the topic.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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