Defining the Mitzva of Shofar: How Many Sounds Must We Hear?

  • Rav Doniel Schreiber


Who is unfamiliar with the call of the shofar? Its mystical, resonant cry annually proclaims the coronation of the Almighty and has the power to move the hardest of hearts to repent. Indeed, as the centerpiece of the Rosh Ha-shana service, tekiat shofar (blowing the shofar) generates a mingling of excitement, tension, and anticipation unparalleled throughout the year.

Yet, even the mitzva of shofar, sublime and supernatural as it is, requires discipline and structure. Its fidelity to specific sounds, its extensive framework and multiple note patterns seem almost an encoded message to God. The question naturally beckons: what is the nature of the mitzva of shofar, and from whence do its enigmatic notes arise? We will treat here the latter question, and will deal with the former in a future article.

1. Nine Kolot

The gemara (Rosh Ha-shana [henceforth RH] 33b) derives the mitzva of shofar on Rosh Ha-shana from the verse (Bemidbar 29:1): "And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month... a day of terua it shall be to you." "Terua" refers to shofar since the Torah states (Vayikra 25:9): "And you shall cause the shofar terua to be sound on the seventh month."[1] Moreover, the gemara deduces that every terua note should have a tekia sounded before and after it, as is illustrated in the verse (Vayikra 25:9): "And you shall cause the shofar terua to be sounded (ta'aviru shofar terua) on the seventh month... you shall sound the shofar (ta'aviru shofar) throughout your land." Since "ta'aviru," which implies an extended sound, i.e. a tekia, is cited both prior and subsequent to the word "terua," on Rosh Ha-shana[2] we must blow a tekia, or a peshuta (a straight, flat sound), both before and after the terua. This pattern is called a TRT, or a "tekia-terua-tekia."[3]

Chazal further adduce (RH 34a) that the TRT pattern must be sounded thrice, since the term "terua" is specified three times in the Torah[4], and every terua, as we have established, must be preceded and succeeded by a tekia. Nonetheless, despite this exegesis, Amoraim (RH 34a) dispute whether or not this threefold repetition of TRT is a biblical or a rabbinic requirement.[5] Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 3:1) Tur (OC 590), and Shulchan Arukh (OC 590:1) all rule that the Torah itself requires that we sound TRT three times - a total of nine kolot (sounds).

2. Thirty Kolot

If we are required by the Torah to sound only nine kolot on Rosh Ha-shana, why do we instead blow three sets of tekia-shevarim-terua-tekia (TSRT), three sets of tekia-shevarim-tekia (TST), and three sets of tekia-terua-tekia (TRT) - a total of thirty kolot? Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 3:2, based on Gemara RH 34a) explains:

Due to the great passage of time and extended exile, we are no longer sure as to the nature of the "terua" cited in the Torah. We do not know whether it is similar to wailing ("yelulei yalil") of weeping women (i.e. a terua, or nine short blasts), or the slow, deep sobbing ("genuchei ganach") of someone heavily burdened (i.e. a shevarim, or three medium blasts), or whether it is like a sobbing which naturally turns into a wailing (i.e. a shevarim-terua[6]).[7] Therefore, we perform all three variations.[8]

On its face, this procedure seems absurd! Why must we sound thirty kolot to fulfill all the opinions? Merely sounding the TSRT three times would accomplish this, as it contains both the shevarim and the terua! The gemara (RH 34a) poses this question, and responds that we cannot rely on the TSRT alone because we desire an uninterrupted continuity between the kolot. Since either the shevarim or terua is an incorrect version of the Torah's "terua," sounding both of them together will certainly create a hefsek (interruption) between the valid kolot.

The problem with this answer is that the gemara itself (RH 34b and Sukka 53b-54a) rules in accordance with Rabanan who state: "One who has heard nine tekiot in a period of nine hours has fulfilled his obligation," in contrast with R. Yehuda's opinion (Sukka ibid.) that in such a case one has not fulfilled his obligation. If so, considering that one must inevitably experience an "interruption" in a period of nine hours, the gemara apparently rules that an interruption between tekiot does not invalidate them. How then can the gemara be concerned that either the shevarim or terua may be considered incorrect and thus a hefsek?

Rishonim offer different solutions to this problem. Rabbeinu Tam (cited in Ran, RH 10b in the pages of the Rif) understands that indeed, fundamentally, an interruption between tekiot does not invalidate them. Accordingly, one could actually fulfill all opinions of the correct "terua" by merely blowing three sets of TSRT, regardless of any interruption. Nonetheless, the gemara legislated that we blow each version of "terua" because the rabbis' enactment aspires to fulfill all opinions related to tekiat shofar. Thus, we blow thirty kolot to satisfy R. Yehuda's opinion that an interruption between the tekiot does invalidate them.

Ramban (cited in Ran, ibid.) disagrees, understanding that according to the gemara an interruption between tekiot definitely invalidates the tekiot, and thus sounding the thirty kolot is not merely an added concern or stringency, but rather is required for the basic fulfillment of this law. This does not contradict the gemara's ruling in accordance with Rabanan that "One who has heard nine tekiot in a period of nine hours has fulfilled his obligation," since this only teaches that a long period of elapsed time does not invalidate the tekiot. The gemara would agree, however, that an interruption of an incorrect kol would invalidate the tekiot.[9]

3. Sixty Kolot

If sounding thirty kolot on Rosh Ha-shana is either the result of a stringency or in fact mandated by the basic halakha, why then do we blow sixty kolot - thirty tekiot before Musaf[10], and thirty tekiot during Musaf?[11] The gemara (RH 16a-b) asks this question as well, and explains that this is a rabbinic legislation designed "to confuse the Satan."[12] Therefore, Chazal established that we sound thirty kolot after the Torah reading - tekiot de-meyushav, i.e. the tekiot for which one can sit (even though one may sit for these tekiot, the custom is to stand) - and thirty kolot in tefillat Musaf - tekiot de-meumad, i.e. tekiot for which one must stand (since one must stand while in the midst of the amida prayer). Accordingly, only one set of thirty kolot is the primary mitzva of shofar, whilst the other set of thirty is merely a rabbinic diversion of the Satan.[13]

Which set of thirty sounds, then, is the primary set of tekiot designated for the fulfillment of the biblical mitzva of shofar: the tekiot de-meyushav or de-meumad? The answer is particularly important because only regarding the primary set ought we apply any stringencies, and ought we have intention to fulfill the biblical mitzva. This issue is in fact a subject of dispute amongst Rishonim[14], and is not resolved definitively in the Shulchan Arukh. Thus, it is best to have intention to fulfill the biblical mitzva in both sets of tekiot.[15]

4. One Hundred Kolot

  1. Nine Kolot
  2. Thirty Kolot
  3. Sixty Kolot
  4. One Hundred Kolot

We have explained the rationale for sounding sixty kolot. Nine kolot do not suffice, since we are unsure as to the precise sound of a terua. Thirty kolot, which fulfill all versions of terua, do not ensure defeat of the Satan. Blowing sixty kolot, then, seems to solve all possible problems, and fulfills the various opinions of terua. If so, why do we have the custom to blow, not nine, not thirty, nor sixty, but one hundred kolot? Rishonim (Arukh, cited in Tosafot, RH 33b, s.v. shiur terua) cite a most intriguing reason: "To nullify [the effect of] the one hundred sobs wept by Sisera's mother."

Be that as it may, there are two different customs in the blowing of one hundred kolot. While all have the custom to blow thirty kolot after Torah readinbut before Musaf, there is a difference of opinion on how to blow during Musaf. According to one custom,[16] thirty kolot should be blown during the silent Shemoneh Esrei, another thirty during chazarat ha-shatz (the cantor's repetition) of Musaf, and an additional ten kolot after the completion of the repetition of the Amida prayer. A second custom[17] is to refrain from blowing shofar during the silent Shemoneh Esrei of Musaf, but to sound thirty kolot in chazarat ha-shatz of Musaf, and an additional forty at its completion.

It is also important to note that there exists a dispute among Rishonim as to the order of the kolot sounded in Musaf, whether in the silent or repeated Shemoneh Esrei. One opinion[18] is that TSRT should be sounded for "Malkhiyot," TST for "Zikhronot," and TRT for "Shofrot." This is the ruling of Shulchan Arukh (OC 592:1). A second opinion[19] understands that TSRT alone should be sounded for "Malkhiyot," "Zikhronot," and "Shofarot;" this is the ruling of Rema (OC 592:1). A third opinion (Ari z"l, cited in Shelah, p. 217) feels that TSRT, TST, and TRT should be sounded for each berakha of "Malkhiyot," "Zikhronot," and "Shofarot." Currently, this is the most widespread custom.

Clearly, then, tekiat shofar is a vast and multi-leveled mitzva. Indeed, its unique mixture of beauty and discipline serves to elevate and transform mere sound vibration into an exalted kol shofar. However, the most obvious testimony to the sanctity of kol shofar is its powerful and poignant effect upon all of us. The depths to which we are moved, if properly internalized, can change the course of our lives and alter our very destinies. May we merit that the kol shofar reach not only our ears, but our hearts as well, as we usher in a shana tova u-metuka.


[1] Even though this verse is discussing the laws of Yom Ha-kippurim during the Jubilee year, and not the laws of Rosh Ha-shana, Chazal understood (through a gezera shava of the words "shevi'i") that all the teruot of the seventh month, Tishrei, have identical laws.

[2] As well as on Yom Ha-kippurim during the Jubilee year. See note above.

[3] The Gemara (Sukka 53b) cites a Tannaitic dispute as to whether "tekia-terua-tekia" is one mitzva (R. Yehuda) or each tekia and terua is counted as a separate mitzva (Chakhamim). See also Galya Masekhta, OC 3.

[4] The term "terua" is found twice with reference to Rosh Ha-shana: "zikhron terua" (Vayikra 23:24) and "yom terua" (Bemidbar 29:1), and once regarding Yom Ha-kippurim during the Jubilee year: "shofar terua" (Vayikra 25:9). Utilizing the above-mentioned gezera shava of "shevi'i shevi'i," Chazal understood that all the teruot of the seventh month should be combined, adding up to three teruot.

[5] The gemara cites three opinions: 1) TRT must be sounded once according to Torah law, and the requirement of three times is a rabbinic addition; 2) TRT must be sounded twice according to the Torah, and a third time according to the rabbis; 3) TRT must be sounded three times according to biblical law.

[6] See Ran (RH 34a) and Tur (OC 590), who note a dispute amongst Rishonim as to whether a "shevarim-terua" should be blown in one breath (Ramban and Rosh), or in two breaths (Rabbeinu Tam and most Rishonim). Shulchan Arukh (ibid., par. 4) cites both opinions and concludes: "One who is Godfearing should fulfill both opinions by blowing them in one breath in the tekiot de-meyushav, and in two breaths in the tekiot de-meumad." Rema (ibid.) adds: "The custom is to blow all of them in two breaths, and the custom should not be altered." See Mishna Berura (ibid.). However, Rav Soloveitchik "ruled that the shevarim-terua should be blown in one breath, as they represent one sound. Indeed, he conducted himself this way for all three phases of the tekiot (de-meyushav, tefilla be-lachash, and chazarat ha-shatz), and only after Kaddish Titkabel did he add a set of three TSRT blown in two breaths to fulfill all opinions. Thus, instead of blowing one hundred kolot, they blew one hundred and two kolot." See Nefesh Ha-rav, by mori ve-rabbi Rabbi Herschel Schachter, p. 206, par. 14.

[7] Apparently, according to Rambam, there is only one correct way to the blow a "terua," and the incorrect versions are pasul, or invalid. Yet, Rav Hai Gaon (cited in Ran, RH 10a in the pages of the Rif, and in the Rosh 4:10) rules that all the versions of "terua" are valid according to the Torah (see also Otzar Ha-geonim, siman 117). If so, why do we blow three sets of each version for a total of thirty kolot; should not three sets of one version suffice? The reason we blow each version, says Rav Hai Gaon, "is in order that the Torah should not look like two different Torot" due to the diversity of customs. See Beit Yosef, OC 590. See also Mesorah Torah Journal, vol. 6, Kislev 5752, p. 20.

[8] The Gemara (RH 34a) says that due to this uncertainty, Rav Avahu, in Caesarea, legislated that we sound three sets of TSRT, of TST and of TRT, which are thirty kolot in all, in order to fulfill the biblical obligation according to all opinions. See also Mishna RH 33b, and Gemara ibid. 33b-34a, which discusses the length of the tekia, shevarim, and terua. In this connection, see Shulchan Arukh, OC 590. See also Nefesh Ha-rav, pp. 206-207 which discusses the Rav's unique suggestion which could satisfy all opinions.

[9] See Shulchan Arukh (OC 590:7-9) for the proper conduct in case of sounding an incorrect note. See also Nefesh Ha-rav, p. 206, par. 13.

[10] Shulchan Arukh (OC 588:1) rules:

"The time for tekiat shofar is only during the day, and not at night, and the mitzva begins from sunrise onwards. If, however, one blew from the time of the rising of the morning star, he has fulfilled his obligation. If he heard some of the tekia prior to the rising of the morning star, he has not fulfilled his obligation."

The source for Shulchan Arukh's ruling is found in Mishna Megilla 20b, which states: "The entire day is valid for blowing the shofar," and the gemara explains that this is because the Torah states: "A day of terua shall it be unto you" (Bemidbar 29:1). Arukh Ha-shulchan further explains that even though a "day" in the Torah is counted as twenty-four hours, which would include the nighttime, here "a day of terua" is redundant, and teaches that the mitzva applies only during the day and not at night.

[11] An interesting question is raised by the Gemara (RH 32b): "Why do we fulfill mitzvat shofar only in the middle of prayer and not immediately when we wake up in the morning? Have we not established that the alacritous hasten to fulfill mitzvot?" The gemara answers: They did not blow immediately in the morning "due to the decree of the government." Rashi explains: "Our enemies decreed that the Jews should not blow, and they ambushed the Jews all six hours of the morning until the end of the Shacharit prayer; therefore the Jews began to blow during the Musaf prayer." Tosafot further explain:

"Even though the government decree has been dissolved, we do not act as we originally did, even though the halakha is one should hasten to perform mitzvot, because we are afraid that a new decree will be established as before. And the Yerushalmi's explanation [for the delay] makes more sense, since it explains that our enemies thought we had gathered to blow trumpets of war, and thus they came and killed the Jews. Therefore Chazal legislated that we blow during Musaf, since when our enemies see that we are saying Keriyat Shema, Shemoneh Esrei, reading from the Torah, and then again saying Shemoneh Esrei and then blowing, they will say that the Jews are merely involved in their prayers, i.e. in their laws and Torah."

[12] For further elaboration of this concept, see Mikraei Kodesh, by R. Zvi Pesach Frank, Chelek Yamim Noraim, p. 27.

[13] There is no prohibition of "bal tosif" (adding to mitzvot) here for a variety of reasons: "Bal tosif" is not a concern when 1) the same mitzva is repeated again and again (Tosafot, RH 16b, s.v. ve-tokim); 2) the mitzva is performed at the improper time (initial position of Tosafot ibid.); 3) the mitzva is a rabbinic enactment (Rashba anRitva, RH 16b); and 4) the mitzva is not performed for the sake of doing a mitzva, and according to some opinions the tekiot de-meumad are indeed for the sake of prayer and not for the sake of tekia, just as we sound the shofar on a fast day as part of prayer (Ramban, Milchamot ibid., and Ritva, RH 34a, s.v. ve-nishal). See also Minchat Chinukh on Bal Tosif, mitzva 454.

[14] The Talmud Yerushalmi (RH 4:8) seems to understand that tekiot de-meyushav are the primary tekiot, and this is the ruling of Rabbeinu Chananel (RH 16a), Rif (ibid. 10b-11a in the pages of the Rif), Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 3:12), Rashba (ibid.), Ritva (ibid., and 34a), and Meiri (ibid.). [However, see Griz, Kuntras Ha-moadim, p. 223, who understands that according to Rambam tekiot de-meumad are primary]. Indeed, they are strict about fulfilling all opinions in the tekiot de-meyushav. Moreover, this seems to be the position of Rashi (RH 16b, s.v. le-arbev), who writes that tekiot de-meumad are merely a function of "chibuv mitzva," affection for mitzva, in order to confuse the Satan. This implies that they are not the primary mitzva, but rather the tekiot de-meyushav are primary.

On the other hand, Ran (RH 16b) and Tur (OC 685) rule that tekiot de-meumad are primary. The position of Rabbeinu Tam and Tosafot also seems to point in this direction, but this needs further elaboration. Of interest is the position of Ba'al Ha-maor (RH 10b in the pages of the Rif) who writes:

"It appears to me that our custom of blowing tekiot de-meyushav and reciting on them the blessing of tekia is not in accord with the custom of the Talmudic sages. It is rather a custom introduced by later generations so that people who leave prayer prior to Musaf can still fulfill the mitzva of shofar. To this end, earlier tekiot (tekiot de-meyushav) were introduced, as well as a condensed version of the blessing of tekia. In fact, however, the primary blessings are those of Musaf: Malkhiyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot."

However, Ra'avad (Katuv Sham) vehemently argues that tekiot de-meyushav existed in the time of the Talmud.

This dispute might be related to the issue of whether reciting the verses of Malkhiyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot in the Musaf prayer is a biblical or rabbinic law. If the recitation is of biblical authority, it would seem that Musaf is the primary slot for sounding the shofar. Rashi (Bemidbar 10:10, s.v. ani, based RH 32a) understands that reciting these verses is required by the Torah, whereas Ramban (Vayikra 23:24, and Drasha le-Rosh Ha-shana, chap. 8 in the Makhon Ha-Talmud Ha-Yisraeli edition) believes it is a rabbinic requirement. For further elaboration of this dispute, see Mesorah Torah Journal, vol. 6, Kislev 5752, pp. 19-20.

In any event, Rav Chaim Brisker rules that one must listen to every word of the sheliach tzibbur (prayer leader) in order to fulfill "tekiat shofar al seder ha-berakhot," blowing the shofar along with the blessings. See also Nefesh Ha-rav, p. 209, par. 23. Therefore Rav Chaim suggested that one ought not pray an overly long Shemoneh Esrei so that he will be able to listen to every word of chazarat ha-shatz (the cantor's repetition) afterwards.

[15] See Sefer Mikraei Kodesh, by Rav Zvi Pesach Frank, chelek Yamim Noraim, p. 63, in the additions by the Harerei Kodesh.

[16] This is generally the custom of Sephardic and Chassidic congregations. This was also the custom of Rav Soloveitchik. See Nefesh Ha-rav, p. 205, par. 10.

[17] This is generally the custom in Ashkenazic/Mitnagged congregations. This is the suggested custom cited in Mishna Berura 592:1.

[18] See Rif (RH 10b in the pages of the Rif), Ba'al Ha-maor (ibid. 10a), Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 3:10). This opinion seems problematic, however, since in fact only one of the three sets of sounds, either TSRT, TST, or TRT, is actually kosher, as discussed above. Thus, only one of the berakhot of "Malkhiyot," "Zikhronot," or "Shofarot" is receiving the proper accompanying sounds! This difficulty, of course, does not exist according to Rav Hai Gaon (see above), who understands that in fact all versions of "terua" are correct. However, according to Rambam's opinion that only one version is actually kosher, the question stands. Rav Soloveitchik suggests, along the lines of Ramban (RH 16a, in his Milchamot) and Ritva (RH 34a, s.v. Ve-nishal), that the tekiot of Musaf do not derive from the mitzva of shofar, but rather from the mitzva of prayer in time of distress, and for such tekiot any form of terua suffices. See Mesorah Torah Journal, vol. 6, Kislev 5752, pp. 20-21.

[19] Rabbeinu Tam, cited in Tosafot RH 33b, s.v. Shiur. Rabbeinu Tam is not concerned about an invalid kol (either the terua or shevarim) creating an interruption, since, as noted above, he rules that such an interruption does not invalidate the tekiot.