It may come as a surprise to you, after the many hours you have spent over the years sitting in services for Rosh Hashana, that the Torah proscribes only 2 things you need to do to observe this holy day— 1) you should not work; and 2) you should hear the sounds of the shofar. Sounds like a pretty ideal way to spend the holiday! And In fact, Torah does not refer to this holiday as Rosh Hashana, the head of the year, because it does not occur at the beginning of the Biblical calendar but rather in the 7th month. In the Torah this day is actually called Yom Terua— the day of the sounding of the shofar.
This presents a curious paradox to me. We are the people of the book, people who use words to pray, to teach, to explain, to emote. And yet, the centerpiece of this holiday—the blowing of the shofar —is devoid of words. It is only about sounds—primitive and primal sounds that emanate from a humble ram’s horn. What is our tradition trying to teach us?
Our rabbis and scholars have debated this puzzle for generations. How do we make sense of a ceremony that speaks to us without words?
According to some of our sages, the shofar is a symbol that connects to dramatic moments in our ancient past. We read in Exodus that the blast of the shofar emanating from the thick cloud on Mount Sinai made the Israelites tremble in awe. The shofar was used to announce holidays and the Jubilee year. Joshua used the shofars to make the walls of Jericho come tumbling down and King David put the shofar into his royal orchestra. In Temple days, the shofar was blown on every important occasion. And of course, as we read today about the sacrifice of Isaac, we remember that the shofar caught in the brambles was a source of redemption.
So we can look at the shofar as an instrument that ties us to our past. In fact, another name of this holiday is Yom ha Zikaron, literally a day of memory, when the sounds of the shofar invoke our connection to history.
Other scholars have connected the blowing of the shofar with the coronation of a king. Traditionally, a new king was crowned at the beginning of the year. And of course when a king is crowned, there is a lot of pomp and ceremony, including the heralding of the King with trumpets and horns. Since God is our king, every year we renew our commitment and obedience to God with our own fanfare. With the sound of the shofar, we proclaim God as our king and our only king.
So that may explain the Malchuyot, kingship verses, which we will recite before the first shofar blasts. And it may explain the Zichronot, verses that invoke memory that we say before the next shofar blasts. And at last come the Shofarot, words that connect us to the wordless sounds of the shofar. This is the most challenging of all—for how do you use words to describe and interpret a wordless horn blast. And of course, since this is the most challenging, the Rabbis probably found it the most provocative . So here are some of the interpretations
And of course, since this is the most challenging, the Rabbis probably found it the most provocative . So here are some of the interpretations
- The shofar is the sound of the voice from the heavens, like thunder and lightning, demonstrating the power of God
- The shofar is the sound of the humble shepherd’s horn, calling us—the sheep—back home.
- The sound of the shofar recreates the birthday of the world when every creature is called to judgment before God.
- The shofar is like the sound of the alarm clock— the wake-up call to repent our sins.
- The shofar is our collective cry to God— the splintered call of the people Israel, sharing our pain, our love, our dependence.
- The shofar is God’s answer—telling us that God hears with compassion our collective cries
- The shofar is the sound of liberation, calling the dispersed of our people and assembling our scattered ones from the farthest ends of the earth
- And sometimes the shofar is just the sound of raw emotion— reflecting our cries, our groans, our moans, our sighs— a wordless .prayer that transcends our intellect but penetrates our souls .
I am reminded of one of my favorite stories about a little shepherd boy who played a willow flute. He blew it in the morning when he took his sheep to the meadow and he blew it in the evening when he took his flocks back home, But one day, he went home a different way and passed a synagogue. The mystical sounds that he heard from within overpowered and beckoned him and at last could not hold back and he went inside. He witnessed the congregation praying and he was so moved that he wanted to join them, but he did not know the words, so instead he picked up his flute and he played his own spontaneous melody—sweet, plaintive, mournful and beautiful. Suddenly everyone stopped praying—He saw the whole congregation staring at him with great distain and then in unison, they filled the room with a great loud disapproving shhhhh. He was embarrassed, he was ashamed and he tried to disappear—but as he backed toward the door, he heard the Rabbi’s voice calling him back. “Thank you, thank you!” said the Rabbi, “You have taught us all how to pray; we may know the words in the book but you have taught us true prayer— the prayer that comes from our hearts. Perhaps the shepherd boy actually had a shofar, not a flute. And perhaps this story can give us one more insight about the meaning of the shofar. Maybe the wordless sounds of the
Perhaps the shepherd boy actually had a shofar, not a flute. And perhaps this story can give us one more insight about the meaning of the shofar. Maybe the wordless sounds of the shofar represent the voice of humility and remind us that we do not need to know the words to offer our prayer to God, for the most powerful prayers come not from the book or from our intellect, but from our hearts.
— Treasure Cohen September 2017