Merrick Fagan is a bass player and bartender, not a rabbi, but during the High Holy Days, he is entrusted with a sacred, God-ordained task.
At Rosh Hashanah morning services, he blows a hollowed-out animal's horn, known as a shofar, for a Little Rock synagogue at key points in the liturgy.
He blows it again -- one long, final blast -- at the end of Yom Kippur: the Day of Atonement -- then takes it home to await next year's holy day season.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, began this year at sunset Sept. 15 and ended at sunset on Sunday.
"It always occurs at the beginning of Tishrei (sometimes spelled Tishri), the seventh month in the Jewish calendar and the anniversary of the creation of the first human soul."
Yom Kippur will begin on the 10th of Tishrei (Sunday, this year) and conclude at sunset Monday Sept. 25.
Fagan, 37, has been blowing the horn at Congregation B'nai Israel each year for more than a decade. In 2020, with covid-19 raging, he did it via Zoom.
The Reform temple's former rabbi, Eugene Levy, entrusted him with the ritual musical instrument he currently uses.
"It's a great honor to help people fulfill the mitzvah to hear the shofar," Fagan said.
"Mitzvah" is Hebrew for commandment; God is the one giving the order, the Bible teaches.
Numbers 29:1, in the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation, states: "And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, ye shall have a holy convocation: ye shall do no manner of servile work; it is a day of blowing the horn unto you."
(The King James Version, familiar to many Christians, calls it "a day of blowing the trumpets.")
The ancient musical instrument, long ago, was heard when the people of Israel gathered at Mt. Sinai. Later, it was blown at the temple in Jerusalem. Today, it resounds at locations around the globe, including Little Rock, Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Bentonville, Hot Springs and Jonesboro.
Without a shofar, it isn't possible to faithfully observe the start of the High Holy Days, according to Rabbi Pinchus Ciment, director of Lubavitch of Arkansas.
"The only biblical unique commandment for Rosh Hashanah is to hear the sound of the shofar," he said.
"There's many symbolisms and significances to that [horn blowing], but the Torah itself, the Bible, does not delineate a reason for it," he added.
The annual shofar blowing is one of Judaism's most ancient practices.
"That has gone on for over 3,300 years," Ciment said.
Fagan isn't sure of his own shofar's origins; frequently the instruments are imported to the U.S. from Israel, he said.
ONE IS SUFFICIENT
In order to comply with God's directive, individual Jews aren't required to blow the horn on Rosh Hashanah; simply hearing one is sufficient.
"There are three distinct sections in which we sound calls of the shofar. The first is called 'Malchuyot' -- which means sovereignty -- so the first set of calls is to declare God's sovereignty," said the temple's current rabbi, Barry Block.
"The second set of calls is called 'Zichronot,' which means 'remembrances,'" Block said. "We're asking God to recall the righteousness of our ancestors and to forgive us on their account if we're not worthy."
The third set is called "Shofarot" -- the plural form of "shofar."
"It's to call us to observe the Torah that we might be God's partners in bringing ultimate redemption, messianic redemption," Block said.
The final call of the shofar is referred to as "T'kiah g'dolah" ("t'kiah" meaning "blast" or "blowing of the horn" and "g'dolah" meaning "great").
"It goes on for quite a long time, as long as the the shofar sounder can sound it in one long blast," Block said. "The idea is to represent the unending sound of the shofar that is to be heard when ultimate redemption comes at the dawn of the Messianic era."
GOOD SET OF LUNGS
To do it well, it takes a good set of lungs and a fair amount of stamina.
"It's harder to do on Yom Kippur because I've been fasting," Fagan said.
The great blast, Fagan said, has multiple meanings.
"It's a call to the coronation of the divine sovereign. It's a reminder for us to try and be our best selves. It is a reminder of the destruction of the temple. And it is said that when the world knows true peace, there will be an everlasting shofar," he said.
Jack Goodman, 66, blows the shofar at United Hebrew Congregation in Fort Smith; he has been doing so for about 20 years.
He can make it resonate for a half-minute or longer without coming up for a breath.
Goodman isn't the congregation's only shofar blower. Zev Rosenzweig, a newly bar-mitzvahed member, also stepped into the role this year.
BLOWN EACH MORNING
"He's great and he has a lot more musical training than I do," Goodman said. "He plays several instruments: piano and guitar -- self-taught -- and, of course, he's in the band for his high school."
Traditionally, the ram's horn is also blown each morning during Elul, the month preceding Tishrei.
"For us, it's a spiritual awakening," Goodman said. "The new year, the days of awe, as they're called, is where we're trying to get our house in order and make things right before we come to ask for God's forgiveness, so it's just waking from your slumber."
During Rosh Hashanah, the number of blasts varies, depending on the congregation and the branch of Judaism it embraces.
"The traditional practice is 100 blasts on Rosh Hashanah," said Jacob Adler, rabbi at Minyan on the Hill in Fayetteville.
"I've done all of the 100 blasts and I'll tell you, by the time you get to 90, it's tough," he said.
"The last 40 blasts of the shofar are inserted just before a prayer that says, 'May the prayers and supplications of the whole house of Israel be accepted before the Heavenly Father,'" he said.
Shofar sounds aren't merely instrumental; they're also messages to heaven.
'A WORDLESS PRAYER'
"Sometimes you just don't have the words to express what you feel, and the shofar [blast] is kind of a wordless prayer in that way," Adler said.
For millennia, shofars have been made from ram's horns.
Yemenite Jews traditionally used the curved horns of a kudu, an African antelope.
"You make it from a longhorn sheep or goat if you wanted to, but not a cow," Adler said.
Ram's horns are a reminder of the sacrificial animal provided to Abraham at Mt. Moriah in Genesis 22; it took the place of Abraham's son, Isaac, on the altar there. Cattle horns would be an uncomfortable reminder of the golden calf episode described in Exodus 32, Adler noted.