Thursday, October 02, 2008

"brisker" shevarim: reflections on chumra and minhag

The Mishna (R”H 33) tells us that a tekiya is the same length as a teru’ah is and a teru’ah is 3 beats long. Rashi explains that the total length of the entire tu-tu-tu of a teru’ah is 3 beats; each individual tu sound is 1 beat long. According to Rashi one could blow a very short tekiya lasting only 3 beats long. Tosfos explains that each tu-tu-tu is 3 beats for a total of 9 beats, which is what our tekiyos and teru’os for the most part sound like. For more detail, see Jewish Worker’s post, but this nutshell suffices for the issue I want to discuss.

The issue gets thorny when it comes to blowing shevarim because the opinions of Rashi and Tosfos seem mutually exclusive. According to Rashi, each tu-tu-tu of the shevarim must be less than 3 beats, otherwise each would be the same length as a tekiya. According to Tosfos, since tekiya and teru’ah each need a minimum of 9 beats, three short shevarim just don’t cut it.

Rashi’s short shevarim would sound strange to most of our ears. When I lived in Passaic, R’ Sacks had the ba’al toke’ah blow the last 10 kolos with very short shevarim to be yotzei Rashi’s view, but all other shevarim were blown according to the usual practice.

There is another way to try to fulfill both views, and the way I heard it in yeshiva, this was R’ Soloveitchik’s chiddush that R’ Chaim approved of. There is no inherent reason why one is limited to blowing three blasts tu-tu-tu for shevarim and not more. R’ Soloveitchik suggested that one can blow short shevarim of about 2 beats each to fulfill Rashi’s view, but blow enough shevarim (i.e. 5 shevarim) to add up to more than 9 beats in total and thereby fulfill Tosfos’ view as well (just saw that Nefesh haChaim has a post on this also).

This R”H was the first time I actually heard this chiddush implemented in practice. To be fair, the minyan I daven at implements other Brisker / RYBS chumros, so this is just one more to add to the mix. I asked my son if he understood the logic of what was being done (either the rest of the minyan is used to this or not attuned to it) and he told me that in yeshiva the menahel had presented this view as a Brisker shita which they recently adopted for some of the tekiyos in the yeshiva minyan. Apparently Brisker chumros are getting more popular every day!

I’m not sure what to make of this development. The chiddush is wonderful in an academic way, but somehow (maybe I am just losing some Brisker-ness) it strikes me as anti-traditional to actually implement. Tekiyas shofar has been going on for centuries. If your grandparents asked their grandparents what a shevarim sounded like, I have little doubt that the answer would be the usual tu-tu-tu, not 5 shevarim and not really short shevarim. Leaving aside whatever mystical effect blowing these precise kolos may have, if this custom was good enough for centuries of G-d fearing Jews who knew how to learn a little gemara too, why should we change it because of a shtickel lomdus? Admittedly, my reaction here is emotional rather than intellectual, and inconsistant with my own acceptance of Brisker chumra in other areas.

Haym Soloveitchik in his essay “Rapture and Reconstruction” writes with respect to newly adopted chumros of larger shiurim for achilas matzah:

It was perfectly clear to all concerned that Jews had been eating matzot for thousands of years, and that no textual analysis could affect in any way a millennia-old tradition. The problem was theoretically interesting, but practically irrelevant.

And then a dramatic shift occurs. A theoretical position that had been around for close to two centuries suddenly begins in the 1950's to assume practical significance and within a decade becomes authoritative. From then on, traditional conduct, no matter how venerable, how elementary, or how closely remembered, yields to the demands of theoretical knowledge. Established practice can no longer hold its own against the demands of the written word.

One can only wonder what Haym Soloveitchik would make of his father’s 5 shevarim, or of those who follow in his holy footsteps. But perhaps it is my own concerns which are "theoretically interesting but practically irrelevant", to echo R' Haym's words, as for better or worse, academic chiddush has left its imprint on the world of halacha l'ma'aseh.


  1. For shofar blowing in particular this is prolematic.

    There are multiple opinions in the gemara about how to do a teru'ah. The gemara didn't simply pasqen to do one or the other. For the sake of unity, we make a point of having everyone do both (shevarim and teru'ah) as well as the two in sequence.

    Now people raise new issues, find new ways to blow, and Kelal Yisrael isn't all blowing shofar exactly the same way anymore.


  2. I was learning Rav Kafieh's discussion in his Rambam edition over yomtov and was fascinated by the minhagim regarding the tekyot in Teiman. I think Rambam's comment that already at the time of the gemara the proper tru'a was lost because of the travails and length of galut are very true.

  3. Mike S.10:52 AM

    Micha, indeed, you might ask how the divergent customs came to develop at all. After all, little kids know what the shofar calls sound like, and don't have any trouble. The Aruch Hashulchan explains the gemara as follows. There was no doubt; rather, all 3 interpretations of the type of crying archetypical of a teruah are acceptable d'oraita. However, over time, different locales chose different practices, and Rabbi Abahu wanted to create a uniform practice, and chose to do so by requiring everyone to use all three, which was good for everyone except ba'alei tekiah with limited stamina.

  4. My 7 year-old remarked on the 5 shevarim. She said the number was because wrong because 3 blasts for shevarim is what is taught as the definition of that type of sound in school. Also everything else works out in 3s for the service -- 3 different types of sounds -- 9 blows for shevarim, which is 3x3, and of course the 3 of malchuyos, zichronos, and shofaros. No significant 5 that I can think of for this holiday. So you lose that type of fitting resonance.

  5. I think one can also make the arguement that there is a hakpada to davka have 3 shevarim and not 5. The Shulchan Aruch HaRav in explaining how we know that each shever is 3 kochos, says that since the total length is 9 and there are 3 shevarim we know that each shever is 3 kochos. I might be reading too much into it but it seems from the Shulchan Aruch HaRav that there was a mesorah to blow 3 shevarim.

  6. That does make sense, chaim M

  7. No time to go into it, but seems to me that there is a machlokes whether R' Abahu was simply creating a unified practice out of divergent equally correct minhagim (as suggested by the Ran/R' Hai) or whether there was a real safeik l'dina as to what a teru'ah is and he wanted to cover all bases.

    Either way, to take a contrary view, I imagine a Brisker would take R' Abahu's takanah davka as a precedent -- R' Abahu established the idea of being choshesh for all deyos, regardless of what the minhag hamakom might have been before he came along.

  8. Hmmm,2:19 PM

    Rabbi Dr. Soloveitchik may be a very broadly educated individual, but I doubt he writes about the Rapture. Maybe Rupture.