Rosh Hashanah 33

Shofar math.

If you’ve ever been in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, you may have noticed that when it comes time to blow the shofar, two people go up to the bimah — one who cues the blast by whispering or calling out the sounds, and one who actually blows the shofar. If you’ve ever tried to blow a shofar yourself, you know that’s a hard instrument to play. Today’s daf explains just how hard the job of the caller is too.

As we have seen on previous pages, many things matter when blowing the shofar: the kind of shofar, the body and intention of the shofar blower, the kinds of blasts blown. The mishnah today adds another factor: the relative length of the blasts.

The order of the blasts is three sets of three blasts each. The length of a tekiah is equal to three teruot, and the length of a teruah is equal to the length of three yevavot

Each tekiah (one long blast) must take up the same amount of time that it would to sound three medium length blasts, or teruot. And how long must each teruah sound be? The same amount of time it would take to blast three yevavot, or whimpers of the horn.

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Responding to this mishnah, the Talmud notes that there appears to be a contradiction between this mishnah and another early teaching (called a beraita):

Isn’t it taught that the length of a teruah is equal to the length of three shevarim?

Apparently the Hebrew word shevarim, which means broken, refers to a different amount of time than the term yevavot, or whimpers.

So the mishnah says that the teruah is the length of three yevavot, and the beraita says it is the length of three shevarim. What is at the root of this apparent disagreement? The sage Abaye points to a midrash about two biblical verses.

As it is written: “It is a day of sounding (teruah) the shofar to you” (Numbers 29:1), and we translate this verse into Aramaic as: “It is a day of yevava to you.”

And it is written about the mother of Sisera (in the song of Deborah): “Through the window she looked forth and wailed (vateyabev).” (Judges 5:28)

In the Book of Judges, the powerful judge Deborah sings of the battle she orchestrated between the Israelites and the Canaanites. It was a stunning victory for the Israelites and though the Canaanite general Sisera crawled away from the battlefield, he was ultimately stabbed to death in the temple by the brave Israelite woman Yael — putting an end to the Israelites’ violent struggle and inaugurating 40 years of peace in the land. Deborah’s song celebrates the victory and mocks the mother of Sisera who is distraught when her son is late in coming home from battle, but soothes herself by calling the Israelite mothers, well, something we can’t write here (literally: “uteruses”) and by thinking of all the booty and captives of war that Sisera is likely bring back.

But regardless of of all these lurid details, for our purposes Abaye thinks that the word that Deborah uses in her song, vateyabev, can help us understand the yevava (same verbal root) which we are apparently supposed to sound on Rosh Hashanah: What kind of sound would a mother worried for her son make?

One sage (in the beraita) holds that this means moanings.

And one sage (in the mishnah) holds that it means whimpers.

Since moaning is a longer sound and whimpering is a shorter sound, we actually split the difference and do both on Rosh Hashanah —  medium length sounds we call shevarim, and shorter sounds that the mishnah calls yevavot and, just to complicate things further, we today call teruot. But going back to our mishnah, all of these sounds must be relative to one another. Many Sephardic and Ashkenazi legal codes interpret this to mean that each tekiah has to be as long as all the blasts of either of the shevarim or the teruah which follows or precedes it.

So what is the caller actually doing up on the bimah on Rosh Hashanah? In congregations which try to adhere to rabbinic law, the caller doesn’t just call out the blasts; they are actually timing them to ensure that they follow the rabbinic time requirements! So as you are admiring the lung capacity and musical prowess of the shofar blower, spare a moment of appreciation for the other person on the bimah, who is conducting the shofar blowing while doing some very complicated math.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 33 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 11th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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