The Shofar in Jewish tradition
Where is the Shofar mentioned in the Bible? Why are we commanded to blow it? And what does it have to do with current Jewish tradition? All the answers are right here
In ancient times, the Shofar used to be blown on many occasions, being a powerful wind instrument that could be heard far and wide.
The commandment to hear the sound of a Shofar (Kol Shofar in Hebrew) appears in the Torah, and is most characteristic of Rosh HaShanah. As the Bible says:
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. (Numbers 29:1)
The Shofar is mentioned in the Bible more than any other musical instrument – 72 times! It is referred in the context of rituals and sanctity, the anointing of kings and leaders, going to war, assembling the People, redemption, burial, etc.
The first mention of the Shofar in the Torah is during the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the sound of the Shofar is said to accompany the special and powerful atmosphere, and give it a sense of awe and glory:
Now mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly. And when the voice of the horn waxed louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice. (Exodus 19: 18-19)
A further mention, which many of us know from Torah lessons in elementary school, is from the time of the Conquest of the Land by Joshua and Battle of Jericho. On the seventh day of the siege of Jericho, seven priests marched seven times around the city walls while blowing the Shofar:
And it shall be, that when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when ye hear the sound of the horn, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat, and the people shall go up every man straight before him. (Joshua 6:5)
When King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, it says:
So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the horn. (2 Samuel 6:15)
During the time of the Temple, the Shofar was blown every day. There was even a special place called ” the Trumpeting Place” (Beit HaTeki’ah), located in the corner between the Southern and Western Walls, so that the Shofar could be heard throughout Jerusalem and the nearby fields.
The beginning of the Shabbat was also announced by a series of six blows:
At the first blow, the laborers stopped working.
At the second blow, the shutters were closed and the shops locked.
At the third blow, the candles would be lit and final preparations for Shabbat made.
Then, three successive blows would announce the beginning of the Shabbat.
They never sounded less than twenty-one blows in the Temple, and never more than forty-eight. Every day they sounded twenty-one blows (in the Temple)… On the eve of Shabbat they added six; three as a sign for the people to cease from work, and three to mark a distinction between the holy and the mundane. (Mishna, Sukkah 5:5)
Hence the Hebrew expression, “to be as a shofar” (“leshamesh keShofar”) – meaning, to be a herald, an announcer.
After the Destruction of the Temple, the Shofar lost its public function as an announcer of various events, but its ritual role was preserved in observing the mitzvah on Rosh HaShanah (and later on, also at the end of Yom Kippur). In certain communities, the Shofar is also sounded in the month of Elul, during Selichot, and Ta’aniyot (Fast Days).
10 Reasons to blow the Shofar
Rabbi Saadia Gaon (RaSag, 882-942), of the Babylonian Geonim, noted 10 reasons for the commandment of blowing the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah:
- To “crown” the Lord, the way kings were crowned, by blowing of the Shofar.
- To remind us that Rosh HaShanah is the time for repentance. Otherwise, a man challenges himself as one who decides to disobey the king’s laws, despite being familiar with them.
- To commemorate the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and to commit ourselves, like our forefathers did when they said, ‘All that the LORD hath spoken will we do, and obey.’
- To pay tribute to the words of the Prophets, which were likened to the sounds of the Shofar.
- To commemorate the Destruction of the Temple, and by hearing the Shofar to ask for the Building of the Third Temple.
- To commemorate the Binding of Isaac.
- Upon hearing the Shofar, to make us tremble, shudder and “break ourselves” before our Creator.
- To remind us of the great Day of Judgment and to fear it.
- To mention and to hope for the Gathering of the Exiles, as described in the Book of Isaiah (27:13):
And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great horn shall be blown; and they shall come that were lost in the land of Assyria.
- To mention the Resurrection of the Dead:
All ye inhabitants of the world, and ye dwellers on the earth, when an ensign is lifted up on the mountains, see ye; and when the horn is blown, hear ye. (Isaiah 18:3)
The Rambam (Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), one of the greatest Poskim and thinkers, said that beyond the fact that blowing the Shofar on Rosh HaShanah is a mitzvah, it has the additional value of man’s transcendence:
Wake up you sleepy ones from your sleep and you who slumber, arise. Inspect your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. Those who forget the truth in the vanities of time and throughout the entire year, devote their energies to vanity and emptiness which will not benefit or save: Look to your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and let every one of you abandon his evil path and thoughts. (Hilchos Teshuvah, chapter 3, halacha 4)
The Shofar in our time:
Since the establishment of the State of Israel, the Shofar has played an important role during various ceremonies and events of a national Jewish character.
At the conquest of the Western Wall (in 1967), Rabbi Shlomo Goren (the Chief Military Rabbi at the time) blew the Shofar.
When the hostages released on Operation Entebbe returned home, they were greeted by the sound of Shofar at Ben-Gurion Airport.
At the swearing-in ceremony of the President of the State of Israel, immediately after the President signs the oath, a Shofar blowing is heard.
In the opening and closing ceremonies of the Maccabiah events, 12 people holding Shofars, symbolizing the Twelve Tribes of Israel, blow them while marching around the stadium.
Other than that, the Shofar is blown during prayers at the Tombs of the Righteous (Kivrei Tzadikim), some people blow the Shofar during the Mimouna festivities (at the end of Passover), and there are those who blow the Shofar at weddings and other celebrations.