Tag Archives: Shofar

Is It Music?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Neither the particulars nor the generics of musical sound are universally agreed upon. Music exists in many and widely variegated “dialects.” No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles might fail when applied to a non–Western society. Arriving at a useful conception of music is further complicated by the fact that ideas about sounds change over time, as most music-cultures interact with the outside world, respond to internal and external pressures, and contain subgroups with divergent tastes and preferences.

It is not even foolproof to identify music by ingredients traditionally thought of as musical: rhythm, meter, pitches, durations, dynamics, etc. The musical envelope has been sufficiently stretched in our postmodern world to include an endless array of possibilities. Perhaps the best we can do is combine a few intentionally broad definitions, if only to enhance our recognition of music’s subjectivity.

Edgard Varèse famously called music “organized sound.” Taking a lead from ethnomusicology, the Encyclopædia Britannica states, “while there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell avoids the “dangerous task” of defining music, recommending an inclusive approach instead: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.”

Merging these quotations, we arrive at a practical (though still lacking) elucidation: Music consists of tightly or loosely organized sounds that adhere to strict or lenient parameters of a given culture or sub-culture, and are accepted by a consensus large enough to qualify it as “normally called music.” But, as intimated above, attempting a catch-all definition is hopelessly problematic. Hearing something as music always depends on a complex web of culturally and personally determined factors, which are themselves subject to shift depending on the agenda of a person or group.

An illustrative case in point is the shofar, a sound-maker fashioned from the horn of an animal in the Bovidae family (excluding the cow). The shofar appears seventy-two times in the Hebrew Bible, usually to announce festivals, rally troops, intimidate enemies and call out to the deity. Any discussion of biblical instruments, long or short, includes a section on the horn. But Talmudic sources refrain from labeling the shofar a musical device.

The rabbis’ rationale had a double motivation: one part aesthetic, one part pragmatic. Outside of modern-day novelty acts (like the shofar player who blows Hatikvah), the shofar is a notoriously temperamental horn. The average blower produces two to three tones, which typically come across as unsettling or unattractive. Unlike other instruments, the shofar does not accompany singing or provide mood-setting preludes, interludes or postludes. Rather, it serves a ritualistic role akin to lighting candles or drinking from a ceremonial cup. For these reasons, it was not thought of as musical.

On a practical level, the rabbis felt obligated to include the shofar in the sacred service despite their ban on musical instruments (a ruling based on historical factors too involved to be discussed here). First and foremost, the biblical command to observe Rosh Hashanah decrees that the day be commemorated with shofar blasts (Lev. 23:24). Added to this are the vivid and abounding associations aroused whenever the horn is blown. Since biblical times, the sound and appearance of the shofar have served as a symbol of group identity, and eliminating it from practice would have diminished Jewish solidarity and self-awareness. Thus, it was not advisable to lump it in with other (banned) instruments. (As an aside, in communities bound by Jewish law the shofar is not blown on Shabbat—not because it falls under the prohibition against instrumental playing, but because it might be carried four cubits in the public domain, which is considered work. See BT RH 29a.)

Taking the minimal view that music is defined as organized sound understood as music, the shofar is clearly a musical instrument. And it has been described as such in enough publications and conversations to make it indisputably so. Still, the rabbis had ideologically coherent reasons for excluding the shofar from the musical realm. Similarly overt motives are present whenever someone remarks that a certain genre “isn’t music,” or makes (elitist) claims about “real music.” Though it is difficult to formulate an objective definition of music that is applicable everywhere, subjective opinions and agendas are easy to spot.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Bad Vibrations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The destruction of Jericho is the most powerful sonic event in the Bible (Josh. 6:1-27). Told as the first Israelite battle during the conquest of Canaan, the story depicts deafening sounds shaking the walls of Jericho to the point of collapse. Sound waves alone, the story tells us, were enough to topple the thick fortification and assure a swift and victorious invasion.

The opening verses of the narrative set the dramatic scene. Joshua is given a divine command to send his troops marching around the walled city for six days. They are to circle Jericho one time per day, accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant and seven priests carrying shofars. On the seventh day, they are to complete the circuit seven times as the priests violently blast their horns. The march is to climax with a sustained blast accompanied by screams and shouts. “Thereupon the city wall will collapse,” the Bible tells us, “and the people shall advance, every man straight ahead” (Josh. 6:5).

In the excessive attack that follows, Joshua’s soldiers exterminate the inhabitants of Jericho, slaughter their livestock, and burn the city to the ground, sparing only the family of Rahab, a harlot who hid two Israelite spies during a reconnaissance mission to the city. The Israelites also pilfer gold and silver and objects made of copper and iron, which “go into the treasury of the Lord” (Josh. 6:19).

In the first decade of the twentieth century two German archaeologists, Carl Watzinger and Ernst Sellin, conducted a scientific investigation of the Jericho site, expecting to validate the historicity of the biblical account. They determined instead that the city had been unoccupied during the purported period of Joshua (c. 1400 BCE). Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon confirmed their findings in the 1950s, and radiocarbon tests done in 1995 dated samples from the site to 1562 BCE (plus/minus 38 years).

This does not mean that the myth is without basis. Jericho is an earthquake-prone location. In fact, a fault line runs through the area, known as the Jericho Fault. Most researchers agree that a massive earthquake struck the region and demolished the city’s ancient walls. Legend of the cataclysmic event grew as the story passed from person to person and generation to generation. The Israelites inserted themselves into the retelling, distorting and embellishing the details to include their tribal hero Joshua and the noisy people under his charge.

Clothing earthquakes in mythological images is fairly common. Seismic events have given rise to several Japanese myths, including the story of a gigantic catfish named Namazu, upon whose back the land floats. When the fish flips its tale, the ground trembles. A West African myth has the Earth resting atop a giant’s head. Earthquakes occur whenever he sneezes. The Maoris of New Zealand tell a story of Mother Earth, who is pregnant with the god Ru. When Ru kicks in the womb, the world shakes.

These and other earthquake myths are rooted in observable phenomena. Trying to explain the Earth’s random and ruinous power, they draw on imagery from ordinary experience: fish, pregnancy, people, etc. And since the audiences are familiar with these elements, the stories seem like reasonable depictions of cause and effect. Mystery solved.

The plausibility factor is important when considering the biblical story of Jericho. The people of Israel were intimate with the audible force of the shofar, a utilitarian instrument with civic, ceremonial and military uses. They heard its ear-splitting tones and felt its bone-rattling vibrations—the impact of which was amplified when more horns were added to the cacophonous mix. With a little imagination and exaggeration—and the added roars of Israelite troops—the sound was amplified to destructive levels.

The collapse of Jericho is a uniquely Israelite take on earthquake mythology. It projects human responses to sound onto the Earth, and incorporates Israel’s favorite instrument into one of its most important stories.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.