The Shofar: Symbol of the High Holidays by Nechama Reisel
The Shofar: Symbol of the High Holidays by Nechama Reisel

Volume 2 , Issue 1

The month of Elul is a time not only of introspection, but also a time of remembrance of friends and relatives, a time when we send greetings for the new year. As we skim through the varieties of commercial New Year's cards, what we see depicted most frequently is the shofar or a venerable bearded man, tallis over his head, posed in the traditional attitude for blowing the shofar.

No one who has been privileged to grow up in an Orthodox Jewish home can deny this -- hearing and seeing the blowing of the shofar -- is one of the most poignant experiences of our religion, nor can he ever disassociate himself from the feelings that accompany this experience. One of my earliest memories is that of being in the balcony (women's section) of a beautiful old synagogue and being told by my mother to try to jockey for a front row position next to the railing so that I could both see and hear ?shofar-blowing.?

No matter how noisy the synagogue was up to that point, as soon as the congregants began to recite the initial prayer, Psalm 47, a hush would fall on the congregation. My anticipation would mount throughout the reader's and congregants' responsive chanting of the following verses in crying tones that anticipated the sounds of the shofar itself: ?In distress I called upon the Lord ...? and the recitation of the blessings by the ba'al tekiah (who performs the mitzvah on his own and the congregation's behalf). As the first blasts of the shofar sounded, invariably, a shiver would go down my spine. I would remain glued to my place, oblivious to all else, eyes and ears absorbing these unique, awesome sounds. No matter how many times I have heard the shofar blown, each experience evokes the same response in me. From what I have seen of succeeding generations, my reactions are not unique.

What is this shofar? What makes it different, for instance, from a trumpet? Who may or should blow it? When is it to he blown? What are these singular notes that we hear? Why the specific order? For that matter, why do we blow it? Why. on Rosh Hashanah, is it blown both before the commencement of the Musaf service, three times during the Musaf service, and at the conclusion of the service? What is the significance of blowing it at the conclusion of the service on Yom Kippur? What is the relationship, if any, between the reasons for blowing on Rosh Hashanah and blowing on Yom Kippur night?

?Shofar? Referred to Sixty Times

The word ?shofar? or one of its variations is referred to in the Bible more than sixty times. The words ?teruah? (alarm) and ?tekiah? (blowing) and their variations -- words associated with the shofar -- occur more than thirty and sixty times, respectively. (Rosh Hashanah is also known as ?Yom Hazikoron,? ?The Day of Remembrance,? and ?Yom Haterua,? ?The Day of Blowing.? The shofar is implied in Numbers 29:1 where we are ordered to observe the holiday: ?In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, ye shall have a holy convocation; ye shall do no servile work; it is a day of ?teruah.? This is generally translated as ?blowing the horn,? but by also referring to other Biblical passages, our sages inferred that the shofar is meant. While on other occasions both a shofar and a metal trumpet are mentioned, the shofar is clearly the instrument meant to be used on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

For Rosh Hashanah, the shofar should be the horn of a ram. The tractate Rosh Hashanah 29b, of the Mishnah, tells us that the horn of a ram is preferred, but that one of an ibex may be used. A cow's horn, however, is unacceptable at all times because of its multi-layered composition, which gives it the appearance of being a horn within a horn. Furthermore, it reminds us of the sin of the Golden Calf. The horn of the ram is preferred because it is a reminder of the ram which appeared to Abraham at the Akedah idle sacrifice of Isaac). This is the portion of the Torah which is read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Symbolically, too, the curved shape of the ram's horn is more appropriate than a straight horn since the entire holiday represents man's bending, his submission to God's judgment.

A kosher shofar must be from a kosher animal, must not be cracked, must not he adorned, and must have a smooth mouthpiece without any gold on it.

Almost everyone who is not a minor (under the age of twelve if a girl, under the age of thirteen if a boy) is obligated to hear the shofar blown. Although women are exempt from this time-bound mitzvah, it is customary for them to fulfill it. Besides minors, deaf persons and the mentally incompetent are exempt. As soon as a child becomes capable of understanding what is happening (certainly by the age of six), parents are obligated to begin exposing him to shofar-blowing and to explaining it to him. So important is the requirement that everyone hear the blowing on Rosh Hashanah that, should an adult man or woman be unable to attend the synagogue, a ba'al tekiah (one who blows the shofar) customarily visits him and blows especially for him at the conclusion of the Musaf service.

Elul Preparations

The shofar is first blown on the second day of Rosh Chodesh Elul (the first day of Elul) at the end of the Shacharit service. This ushers in the days of penitence and reconciliation preceding Rosh Hashanah. Four sounds are blown daily except on ere: Rosh Hashanah. They are designated in order: Tekiah, shevarim, teruah, tekiah. Although the exact sounds and order is not prescribed by the Torah, it has become the universal custom. The blowing is, however, connected to several events in the Torah, events whose recollection is supposed to inspire mankind to repentance: 1) The blowing of the shofar when Moshe ascended the mountain to receive the Second Tablets. Traditionally, this is believed to have occurred on the first day of Elul. 2) His descent from the mountain, bearing both the Second Tablets and God's forgiveness for the Israelites having worshipped the Golden Calf -- a pardon resulting from Israel's repentance of the deed. This is said to have taken place on the tenth of Tishrei, the Day of Atonement.

Other than during Shacharit in Elul, on Rosh Hashanah, and at the conclusion of Yoni Kippur, when is the shofar blown? Passages in various books of the Bible known as Niviim (Prophets)and K?tuvim (Writings) refer to the shofar as a musical instrument used in conjunction with the trumpet in processionals and at other times;as an instrument of signal; as a rallying cry for war; and to inspire fear. It was also the instrument customarily used at the coronation of a king.

The Gemorrah asks, ?How do we know that the blowing on New Year must he with a shofar??

It answers by referring to Leviticus 25:9, with its proclamation of the Jubilee Year on Yom Kippur: ?Because it says thou shalt make proclamation with a shofar...Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof.? The last passage is indelibly engraved on our Liberty Bell.

On Rosh Hashanah, the shofar is blown immediately preceding the Musaf service on three separate occasions during the Amidah, and at the end of the Musaf service, unless the first day falls on Saturday, when we do not blow' the shofar at all.

The first blowing is preceded by the congregation's recitation of Psalm 47 seven times in memory of Israel's seven circuits around the walls of Jericho prior to Joshua's shofar blasts that brought down the walls. This Psalm affirms God's sovereignty and mentions the Divine Name, ?Elokim,? seven times. This is the name which is used in passages conveying God's attribute of justice. The number seven in this Psalm is said to be symbolic of the seven firmaments He created.

Following this prayer, the ba'al tekiah and the congregation chant, responsively, seven verses affirming God's justice. The poem is in the form of an acrostic which forms the sentence, ?Cut off the Accuser.? Hence the interpretation that one of the reasons for blowing the shofar is to confuse Satan.

This is followed by the ba'al tekiah's recitation of the blessings before the blowing of the shofar, and then the sounding of the blasts. Since the ba'al tekiah's pronunciation of the blessings preceding the blowing are said only before the first series, all the subsequent occasions are considered to be part of the first -- a continuum. This accounts for the fact that one is not permitted to speak from the time of the first blessing until the end of the Musaf service. The chief purpose of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to inspire awe and to turn man to repentance. Consequently, speaking and levity during Musaf are inappropriate since such behavior would defeat this purpose. In some congregations, it is also customary to blow the shofar during the silent Amidah. Except on Yom Kippur, when it is blown at the conclusion of the Neilah service, the shofar may be blown only in the daytime.

Intricate Laws

The laws governing the sounds of the shofar are intricate. The ba'al tekiah is given his prompts by the Makrei or prompter, who stands by his side and tells him which sounds he is to produce. The Makrei -- usually the Rabbi, but not necessarily so -- also determines whether or not the sounds produced are accurate and of the required duration.

The sounds consist of a ?tekiah,? a sliding sound which begins on a lower note and rises to a higher one; a ?teruah,? a series of three sharp staccato lower notes that resemble whimpering sounds; ?shevarim,? nine short groaning sounds; or a combination ?shevarim? and ?teruah.? These occur in series of thirty blasts. The final ?tekiah? is known as the ?tekiah gedolah? (the large blast), a ?tekiah? note that sometimes seems to be held forever, with many congregants empathetically holding their breaths until it has been successfully concluded by the ba'al tekiah. In all, one hundred blasts are sounded. (Sephardim blow an additional ?tekiah? before the Aleinu prayer, for a total of one hundred and one.) The final ?tekiah gedolah? is said to be blown to ?confound the Accuser,? Satan, who is ever alert to a person's possible transgressions and would misinterpret the rejoicing and dining which follow the prayer services.

When and why do we blow during the Musaf service? There are three separate, major parts during the Amidah when the shofar is sounded. They occur during the sections known as the ?Malchuyot,? ?Zichronot,? and the ?Shofarot,? when, respectively, we acknowledge God's creation of and sovereignty over the universe; His assertion of faith in and remembrance of all that He has created and our belief that He rules justly: and our acceptance of His revelation and the Torah, and our hope for the coming of the Messiah, which will be heralded by the sounds of the shofar.

Why do we blow the shofar? The Torah orders us to sound it; therefore, this is a mitzvah we perform without any attempts to understand or rationalize it. Maimonides, nevertheless, did try to explain it as being a call to mankind to ?arise from its slumber, examine its deeds, repent, and remember the Creator.?

Often mentioned, too, are ten symbolic meanings which the Rav Saadiah Gaon, one of our sages, ascribed to the act. 1) Since Rosh Hashanah is said to mark the creation of the universe with God as its ruler, and since a king's accession to his throne is marked by the sound of trumpets. it is only fitting that we mark His coronation and our acceptance of His sovereignty by sounding the shofar. 2) The shofar's blasts proclaim the beginning of the ten days of repentance (from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur.) 3) It reminds us of the commitments we made at Sinai to the teachings of the Torah. 4) It is a reminder of the prophets, whose raised voices were compared to the voice of the shofar. 5) It reminds us of the shofar sounds marking the fall of the Temple, and to pray for its rebuilding, when a shofar will also be sounded. 6) It is a reminder of the binding and sacrifice of Isaac, of Abraham's faith, and of the need for everyone to emulate his willingness to make sacrifices for our faith. 7) It is an instrument whose sounds inspire awe and trembling. 8) It is areminder of the Day of Judgment. 9) It is a reminder of the day of ?ingathering? to Israel. 10) Finally, it is a reminder of the Day of Resurrection for which all Israel yearns.

The shofar blast at the conclusion of the fast on Yom Kippur is of a different nature. Essentially, it signals the end of Yom Kippur. However, symbolically, it is also con?nected to the departure of God's presence as the shofar signaled His departure from Sinai. The blasts also commemorate the sound of the shofar blown by the Sanhedrin to mark the beginning of the Jubilee Year. Our sages and other scholars have examined and questioned all aspects of the ritual of shofar blowing, particularly on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. For the uninitiated who wish to read more about this topic, the following sources contain relatively easy-to-understand expositions: The ArtScroll Mesorah Series: Rosh Hashanah, and alsotheir Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Machzorim (prayer hooks). The Book of Our Heritage, Volumes I and II,by Eliyahu Kitov, Feldheim Publishing. Various notes in the Soncino edition of the Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Edited by Dr. J. H. Hertz, are also informative and easy to read.

May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for the year 5749. and may the new year bring good health and peace to all.

Ms. Nechamah Reisel is a regular contributor to the World of Judaism series.

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