On Women (and Hermaphrodites) Blowing the Shofar
One of the highlights of the High Holy Days is the blowing of the shofar, and the best shofar-blowing I ever heard was by a woman. Her tekiah gedolah was — the long blast sounded at the end of each shofar-blowing sequence on Rosh Hashanah and at the very end of the Neilah service on Yom Kippur — was sublime. She held the note longer than anyone else I’ve ever heard, until her face turned so red I was sure a blood vessel would burst, or worse.
But it wasn’t in shul that I heard this impressive, lung-busting performance. Rather, it was during an interview for The Jewish Channel’s “Holy Dazed” program, where various Jewish personalities share their thoughts, both thoughtful and humorous, about the Jewish holidays. And the woman in question was no rabbi or cantor but the owner of Davida’s Aprons, a purveyor of kitschy, Jewish-themed gifts. She just happened to blow a damn good shofar, and she said she did so every year at her synagogue, where congregants were invited to blow their own shofar along with the official “shofarist” (a term coined by Tablet’s Jesse Oxfeld in another episode of “Holy Dazed”).
As I was recalling Davida’s shofar prowess, I remembered an anecdote shared by the Reform movement’s Rabbi David Ellenson about how as a young assistant rabbi assigned to blow the shofar for High Holiday services, he ran out of steam and was saved by his fellow assistant rabbi, Sally Priesand, the first woman ever ordained as a rabbi. That story made me realize that, having gone to Orthodox synagogues my whole life, I have never heard a woman blow the shofar in shul. With all the strides that Orthodox women have made in synagogue and ritual life — reading Torah, leading services (albeit for women only), and even serving in rabbinic positions — shofar-blowing is one ritual role that Orthodox women, to my knowledge, have yet to go after.
Is that because women blowing shofar is halachically problematic, I wondered, or is this simply a case of tradition left unchallenged? I put the question to a halachic authority I thought would be sympathetic to my cause, Mahara”t Sara Hurwitz of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. She filled me in: “Women do not have the same obligation as men to blow shofar. They cannot blow on behalf of men. But a woman can blow for other women.”
To expound on that, because shofar-blowing is a time-bound mitzvah, women, who are exempt from most time-bound mitzvot, are exempt from blowing or hearing the shofar. Since they’re not obligated in the mitzvah, they cannot fulfill the mitzvah for those who are, namely, men. But there is no problem if a woman wants to blow the shofar for other women, who are also not obligated in the mitzvah. In fact, when I asked another rabbi for a second opinion (always good practice in halachic-decision and medical-prognosis seeking), Rabbi Joshua Yuter of the Stanton Street Shul noted that the Talmudic commentator “Machzor Vitry (written around 1105) #316 writes explicitly that if women want to blow shofar, we do not prevent them.”
How progressive of him.
So, according to Orthodox halacha, for a woman to blow the shofar in an Orthodox shul, she would have to do it in a special women’s-only service, similar to what is done in many shuls on Simchat Torah when women read from the Torah. But on the High Holidays, when congregational unity is a theme of sorts, I wonder if a breakaway women’s minyan just for the sake of shofar-blowing is the best idea. And then, as Rabbi Yuter noted, there is the further-divisive question of whether a woman blowing shofar for other women should say the requisite blessing, containing the words “asher kiddishanu bemitzvotav v’tzivanu” [who sanctified us with the commandments that he commanded us], since she is not technically commanded in this particular mitzvah.
And as I learned from Wikipedia, woman aren’t the only ones who can only blow the shofar for each other: “A hermaphrodite may make his shofar sounding serve for other hermaphrodites.”
I’m not sure what to make of that except that the rabbis really do seem to have thought of everything, and that there is a consistency in their thinking, at least where women and hermaphrodites are concerned.
So my next question is, can a woman blow shofar for hermaphrodites, and can a hermaphrodite blow the shofar for women? And what would be the status of a hermaphrodite vis à vis participating in a women’s minyan?
Anyone who can give me a satisfying answer to these questions gets a free shofar.