As the Jewish High Holy Days—Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—approach this September, health experts and rabbis have begun issuing guidance on how to observe the holidays without spreading COVID-19. In particular, blowing the shofar could become problematic.
Jewish people will celebrate the New Year, called Rosh Hashanah, on Sept. 18. After 10 days of penitence, Jewish people will then fast for 25 hours on the Day of Atonement, called Yom Kippur, on Sept. 27. Thanks to the pandemic, these typically communal celebrations spent primarily in a synagogue will now primarily occur via live streams.
However, arguably the most important aspect of the holiday cannot take place digitally: the blowing of the shofar. Blowing the shofar could also potentially spread COVID-19, so health experts and rabbis have come together to advise how to hear the annual blasts safely.
A shofar is a trumpet made out of a ram’s horn. It is blasted during synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and at the end of Yom Kippur, as stipulated in Leviticus 23:24. The shofar has a rich biblical history. According to My Jewish Learning, scholars believe the ram’s horn is a direct allusion to Genesis 22 when God tells Abraham to sacrifice a ram in lieu of his son Isaac. It’s a story about how the Lord always provides. A shofar blast is also the sound the Israelites hear when God gives them the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, according to Exodus 19:16.
Given its biblical importance, traditional Jewish people take the blasting of the shofar very seriously. The Jerusalem Post says listening to the shofar’s sound is the primary religious obligation on Rosh Hashanah.
But it’s also an effective way to spread COVID-19. Cyrille Cohen, a member of the Health Ministry’s advisory committee on vaccines in Israel and a long-time shofar blower, told the Times of Israel that the shofar could spread infected droplets, as well as aerosols.
Adam Schwalje, a fellow with America’s National Institutes of Health, confirmed the concept to the newspaper, saying he has found that various musical instruments spread both droplets and aerosols.
“A risk is involved with sounding the shofar,” Schwalje said.
While some synagogues provide pre-recorded shofar blasts to avoid new infections, many rabbis say that isn’t enough. According to the Post, the Talmud says that a person must directly hear the sound of the shofar.
Instead, many rabbis and health experts, including the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America, suggest covering the shofar opening with a surgical mask.
“An appropriate precaution during shofar blowing would be to place a surgical mask over the wider end of the shofar, as this does not appear to alter the sound of the shofar blast,” the Orthodox Union said in guidance for the High Holidays.
Additionally, the Orthodox Union said blowers may also point the shofar out an open window or door, or facing away from the congregation.
“A single shofar should not be used by multiple people, and no barrier should be placed between the shofar and the mouth of the one blowing the shofar,” the Orthodox Union guidance said.
Henry Hoffman, an otolaryngology professor at the University of Iowa Hospitals, said that shofar blowers should consider quarantining in advance.
“Serial testing and quarantining the ram’s hornblower prior to the event may help mitigate risk,” Hoffman said.
Around the world, shofar blowers are getting creative with ways to ensure their Jewish community can safely hear the blast on Rosh Hashanah. In Washington D.C., at least 30 synagogues and Jewish organizations have coordinated to blast shofars simultaneously at 5pm. There were also plenty of communities that organized an informal shofar blowing outdoors.
“This is a really easy way to bring communities together for a short, easy, hopefully meaningful moment,” Rabbi Aaron Potek told the DCist. “And acknowledge that even though all days are blurring together, time actually has passed and we are entering a new Jewish year.”