A Jewish worshipper blows a Shofar, at the Western Wall ahead of Rosh Hashana (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

Perhaps in 100 years it will be known as “The Great Shofar-Blowing Controversy of the COVID Era.” This Rosh Hashanah, many shuls will be cutting the blasts to a minimum of 30. Others are keeping it to the classical 100 blasts. What is the reasoning behind the controversy?

When there is a danger, we should be modifying what we do in order to minimize the spread of COVID-19. It is this author’s opinion that outside minyanim are far preferable to indoor minyanim. Infection rates of outdoor gatherings without masks and social distancing were tested to be 1/19th the rate of indoor gatherings.

But let’s get to the issues.

Sisreh’s Mother

The Tur in Orech Chaim Siman 592 cites the view of the Aruch that we perform 100 blasts in order to counter the 100 wails by mother of Sisreh mentioned in Shoftim 5 when her son does not come home after Yael smashed his head with a tent peg. We need the z’chusim to counter any possible charge against the nation of Israel. The extra blasts are seen either as a merit out of our love for the mitzvah (see Rashi, Rosh Hashanah 16b) or as a means of confusing the Satan (See Tosfos ibid, citing the Aruch and Yerushalmi). The Torah requirement is that we perform nine blasts, but out of a doubt as to what they are exactly, we perform 30 blasts.

The 30 View

Contemporary rabbis who say “just do 30 blasts” are largely of the opinion that the rabbinic obligation is for only 30 blasts. The extra blasts during davening are a minhag  that could be skipped if necessary.

This may be seen from the implication of the words highlighted below in the last Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah.

“The order of the shofar blasts are three sets of three. The length of a tekiah is equal to three teruahs, and the length of a teruah is equal to three yevavos. If one lengthened the first tekiah so that it connected to the second, it counts only as one. One who has already said the Mussaf Shemoneh Esrei and then a shofar is given to him, he sounds a tekiah teruah tekiah three times. Just as the shliach tzibbur is obligated, so too is every single individual obligated. Rabban Gamaliel says: the shliach tzibbur causes the whole congregation to fulfill their obligation.”

The 100 View

Contemporary rabbis who say that we should not change the 100 blasts are of the opinion that there were actually two enactments of the sages as to how to blow the shofar — one for daveners without a minyan, and a different one for a tzibbur. The second enactment created an obligation of performing 60 blasts — not 30 blasts. [All would agree that the rabbinic obligation is not more than 70 blasts.]

Four Cups of Wine

This second track of enactments was no different than the enactment of the four cups of wine for the Haggadah. Just like one does not fulfill the mitzvah of the four cups of wine if they are not consumed at the designated places in the Haggadah, so too must the shofar blasts be blown at the specific places of Malchiyos, Zichronos, and Shofros in the Mussaf davening.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri, in the fourth chapter of the mishna of Rosh Hashanah states the order of the blessings in the Mussaf Amidah of Rosh Hashanah:

  1. Avos,”
  2. Gevuros
  3. Kedushas Hashem” (including the Malchiyos pesukim) and does not blow the shofar.
  4. The Kedushas Ha’yom and blows the shofar,
  5. Zichronos pesukim and blows the shofar
  6. Shofros pesukim and blows the shofar.
  7. Blessing of Avodah
  8. Modim and
  9. Birchas kohanim

Rabbi Akiva said to him: if he does not blow the shofar for the Malchiyos pesukim, why should he say them? Rather he says:

  1. Avos,”
  2. Gevuros” and
  3. Kedushas Hashem” and includes the Malchiyos pesukim with the Kedushas Ha’yom and blows the shofar.
  4. Tthe Zichronos pesukim and blows, and the Shofros pesukim and blows.
  5. The avodah then
  6. Modim followed by
  7. Birchas kohanim.

How Rishonim and Acharonim Reconcile the Gemaros

There are two types of tekiyos in the Gemara, described as the tekiyos d’meyushav and the tekiyos d’meumad. One is the main one and the other is for confusing the Satan. But which one is which? Our custom now is that the ones immediately following the reading of the Torah are the ones that fulfill the Torah obligation, while the ones in Mussaf fulfill the rabbinic obligation (or the customary ones according to the other contemporary rabbis). In the past, it was the opposite.

There are different nuances found in the Rishonim as to the implications of all of these Gemaros together. For example, the Ramban in the milchamos is of the opinion that the berachos were enacted after those tekiyos rather than the other way around. His view fits better with the latter view than with the former. Rashi in Bamidbar (10:10) understands it as an asmachta which indicates a super-powerful d’Rabbanan, not just a minhag.

The Acharonim also indicate they view it not just as a minhag. The responsum of the Radbaz (Vol. I #347) is indicative that it is a full rabbinic obligation on the shul. Rav Yaakov Emden even writes that it is positive that Moshe Rabbeinu himself blew 100 blasts.

COVID in the Air

It has been shown scientifically that there are liquid particles that come out of the large end of the shofar. Epidemiologists have three different terms when they study diseases: “r,” “k,” and the mortality rate. They define “r” as how many people, on average, get the disease from every person who was diagnosed. That number for COVID-19, as of this week, hovers around 1 for all U.S. states. Above 1, and the virus is spreading. Below 1, and the virus is retreating. Mortality is the percentage of people who die from the disease (numerator) divided by the total number of people who have the disease (denominator). This is a hard number to calculate because we do not really have an accurate denominator and probably never did. Also, we now know how to treat it better — so that number is going down. The term I am looking for here is “k,” which is defined as the number of people who had the virus and gave it to 80% of the people who got it later. Epidemiologists use this data “k” to help identify “super-spreaders.”

Who Are the Super-Spreaders?

  • Theory A: Super-spreaders are primarily people who come in contact with more people.
  • Theory B: Super-spreaders are primarily “close talkers,” who have a tendency to invade our personal space more than others.
  • Theory C: Super-spreaders are “wet talkers” who have just a wee bit more moisture in their speech than we would generally care to encounter.
  • Theory D: Super-spreaders are a combination of the previous three or some other factor as yet undiscovered.

Regardless, it seems pretty clear that shofar blasts blown by a COVID-19 spreader could be dangerous. Different approaches, and combinations thereof, have been suggested:

• Blow the shofar outside.

• Make sure the ba’al tokeiah has antibodies.

• Blow the shofar to the window

• Anyone within 20 feet of the shofar blower must, unconditionally, wear a mask

• Cover the shofar with its own makeshift mask.

Some have suggested that we blow 30 blasts in order to minimize exposure. Others say we should keep it to 70 blasts. This author’s personal view is that we should follow the more normative takana and should continue the minhag of blowing the 100 while adopting some of the approaches suggested above. Each person should follow the directives of his or her own rav or posek in consultation with a medical expert.

It is important to keep in mind what the shofar is reminding us. The Rambam writes that the shofar tells us, “Awaken from your sleep, you sleeper! Think about your deeds. Remember Hashem and go back to Him in teshuvah. Don’t be like those who miss everything that is real and important and instead chase after things that are just a shadow. Don’t waste your years chasing after vain things that won’t help you. Look to your souls and consider your actions.”

This year, the combination of COVID and shofar certainly enhances the Rambam’s message.

The Gemara tells us that any year in which the shofar is not blown ends up as a calamitous year.  The Gemara tells us that one set of shofar blasts is to fulfill the mitzvah, while the other set of shofar blasts is to confound or confuse the Satan. Rashi explains that the Satan will be unable to prosecute us when he sees us lovingly perform Hashem’s mitzvah again.

What about Shabbos then? Rav Aharon Kotler explains that the Satan will be silenced based on the merit of our Shabbos observance.

Tosfos explains that the Satan is afraid that he will lose his job, thinking that this shofar blast is the one that hails the arrival of the Messianic era. One may ask how the Satan can be confounded so easily. The Ta’amei HaMinhagim explains that the Satan is concerned that the Jewish people are not just doing teshuvah. He is worried that they are doing teshuvah mi’ahavah, repentance out of love of Hashem. When that happens, all the aveiros that the Jewish people performed are turned into mitzvos. This is what worries and confuses him.

Let us all take this to heart and try to perform a real teshuvah mi’ahavah this year.

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at yairhoffman2@gmail.com.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here