Sounds of the Shofar

            Our tradition has several names for the holiday that brings us here today on this first day of the Jewish month of Tishri.   Rosh Hashanah is, of course, the most common one.  As you probably already know, it means the Head (“Rosh”) of the Year (“Shanah”), in other words, the start of the year.  It’s interesting to note that the word “shanah” (year) comes from a Hebrew root that means change and difference.  We are thus reminded that every moment is different from the one that has past, every year is different from the one which is past.  And we ponder --- Amidst all this change – What are the constants that root us and that give our lives stability, security and definition in the midst of this relentless change?

            Another name for the holiday is Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgment.  Tradition teaches that this is the day when our fates for the coming year are, so to speak, “inscribed.”  Thus begins a period of reflection and making amends and restoring frayed relationships that culminates in Yom Kippur, on the 10th day of Tishri.  On Yom Kippur/ The Day of Atonement, tradition teaches that those fates that were inscribed on Rosh Hashanah are, so to speak, “sealed.”  But of course, that’s metaphorical language.  The process of moral inventory is a year round process.  The gates of repentance are ever open.  Indeed, the weekday amidah, throughout the year, includes prayers seeking repentance and pardon.   It’s just that these themes take “center stage” this time of year. 

            Which brings us to yet another name for this holiday:   Yom Harat Olam --- The Birthday of the World.  The Talmud teaches that the world was created on the 25th of Elul and that Rosh Hashanah, the 1st of Tishri, is actually the anniversary of the 6th day of Creation --- the day of the creation of the first human being as described in Genesis chapter 1.   Birthdays are times of celebration and joy and wonder.  However, they can also be times for taking stock of our lives.  How much more so when we identify today as the birthday for our entire species!  And so Rosh Hashanah is also Yom Din – a day of judgement, a day when, in the words of the prayer Unetaneh Tokef:

“Kevakarat ro’eh edro ma’avir tzono tachat shivto….”/ “As the shepherd gathers the sheep, moving them on beneath the staff, so do You, God, move and enumerate, call to account and visit every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life, inscribing the decree of their judgment. 


            Yet another name for the holiday is Yom Hazikaron – the Day of Remembrance.  In our Torah readings and Haftarot on Rosh Hashanah we revisit the stories of God remembering Sarah and God remembering Hannah in their despair at not being able to conceive.  And in the prayers of the Machzor we ask God to remember the Divine covenant between God and all humanity in the time of Noah, and the covenant between God and the Jewish people established with our Ancestors and played out at Sinai and ever since.

            So many names.  So many themes and meanings.

            But probably the most evocative name for this holiday is “Yom Teruah.” 

            “Teruah”   is one of the kinds of sounds produced on the Shofar, so Yom Teruah, is often translated as something like “The Day of the Shofar Blast” or “The Day of the Sounding of the Shofar.”   In Numbers chapter 10, the Torah describes two types of sounds that the sages of the Talmud later applied to the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah.  “Teruah” refers to repeated short, staccato blasts.  By contrast, “Tekiah” is a single long blast. The Tekiah is the signal for the people to gather together and the Teruah is the signal for the people to start moving ahead to the next stage of the 40 year long journey to the Promised Land. (See Num. 10: 1-10).  This description in the Torah of Tekiah and Teruah becomes in the Talmud the proof text for requiring that every Teruah played on the Shofar be preceded by a Tekiah.

            But before we explore that distinction between Tekiah and Teruah any further, let’s go back to the symbol of the shofar in general.  It’s a ritual object whose appearance and whose sound evokes so many memories and feelings and impressions.

            As I was working on this sermon, I asked Maureen O’Brien if she could share with me her own feelings about her role as ba’alat tekiah (the person who sounds the shofar).

Here’s some of what Maureen wrote to me in response:

[She writes:]

“I am keenly aware that the commandment is that we hear the sound of the shofar.  It is not about the blowing of the shofar but rather that it be heard.  It is not about  me as the shofar blower -- I am just an instrument for others.  I am honored and humbled by the experience.  It is also a very nerve-wracking experience.  One of the most powerful moments for me is when you have the whole congregation do the calls -- all are participants saying we want and accept the sound of the shofar.  I have always found it interesting that the Rabbis didn't known what the exact sound was to be. […]  In their inclusive ways all [the different possibilities] were incorporated into the service.  To me that says something about Judaism itself as well as about the mixed moods associated with the High Holidays.  T'ki'ah is associated with coronations and has a celebratory mood to it.  Sh'varim, to me, invokes a yearning.  With any new beginning we want to hold onto the past and we fear, in a way, the uncertainty of the future.  Will I truly be able to change? Will I be alone in that process?  The staccato notes of t'ru'ah were supposedly associated with the call to battle.  It says to me awake, take notice, move forward.”

            My friend Susan Harris lives in Brooklyn, New York and sounds the shofar each year on Rosh Hashanah at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in Manhattan.  I’ve known Sue since 1993 when she was a participant at the Elat Chayim Jewish Renewal Retreat Center and I was a summer intern there.  She told me on the phone a few days ago that for her the shofar reminds her of the human body.  Just like our own physical bodies, the shofar is basically a lifeless, empty shell until the shofar player infuses it with breath, spirit, soul, neshamah.  And Sue also thinks about how in order to produce a clear sound you have to clean out the shmutz – the accumulated dirt and gunk -- from the inside of the shofar.  Similarly for us, we have to clean out from ourselves the accumulation of unproductive thoughts, attitudes and habits so that we can fully access our own souls and so that we can more clearly express our own prayers, longings and aspirations.

            What thoughts, memories or associations come to you when you see the shofar or hear its sounds?

            Well, here’s a “TOP TEN LIST”  -- though I don’t think this top 10 list has ever been on the David Letterman Show.  This is 10th century Jewish philosopher Saadia Ga’on’s top 10 list of symbolic meanings of the shofar – in an adapted version of that list that I found on the website of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning of Toronto. See if any of these have particular resonance for you: 

            (I’m tempted to go from number 10 up to number 1 like David Letterman does, but for clarity’s sake I’ll stick to the order set out by Saadia Ga’on.)

1. The Shofar is like the trumpet which announces a royal coronation.  On Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of the universe, we accept God's Rulership- our prayers and shofar blasts are like the coronation ceremony in which Israel crowns God as Sovereign.
2. Rosh Hashana is the first of the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentence), and the Shofar calls us to examine our deeds and return to God, who will always accept us if we are sincere.
3. The Shofar reminds us of the Shofar which blew when the Torah was given at Sinai; thus we are reminded to study and cherish the Torah.
4. The Shofar reminds us of the voice of the prophets, whose voices rang out like a Shofar blast in calling the people to do justice and mercy and follow Holy ways.
5. The Shofar sounds like crying, which reminds us of the destruction of the ancient Temple, and thus calls upon us to work for and pray for redemption.
6. The Shofar, since it is a ram's horn, reminds us of the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, when God provided a ram to be sacrificed instead. Thus we are called upon to be as faithful to God as Abraham, and be inspired by his example of sacrifice and love of God.
7. The Shofar calls us to be humble- its mighty blast reminds us of the mightiness of God and the fact that God is everywhere at all times.
8. On the Day of Judgment, a Shofar will be blown to announce God's Rulership- our Shofar blasts remind us to prepare for God's examination of our deeds.
9. The Shofar foreshadows the jubilant Jewish return to freedom and peace when we all end up in Jerusalem in the time of Messiah- it reminds us to have hope and faith in God's saving power.
10. The Shofar will be blown in Messianic times to announce the redemption of the whole world, when all nations will recognize that God is One.

            Our own particular religious and theological beliefs over 1000 years after Saadia Gaon may not be identical, but I think a lot of what he wrote still speaks to us.

            I particularly want to highlight number five on Saadia’s list:  The Shofar sounds like crying, which reminds us of the destruction of the ancient Temple, and thus calls upon us to work for and pray for redemption. This identification of the shofar sounds with human tears is a well-known theme.   But maybe we’re not as focused on the destruction of the ancient Temple as are ancestors were or as some of our contemporaries are.  So I think it’s really striking that the Talmud actually cites a different example of human tears when it talks about the shofar.     Specifically, in Tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Talmud we learn that the crying sounds of the shofar are to remind us of the tears of Sisera’s mother as she awaited her son’s return from battle.  Sisera was a bitter Canaanite enemy of the Israelites who was killed in battle by Ya’el, and the image of Sisera’s weeping mother comes from the Song of Deborah in the Book of Judges.  It’s all portrayed very much as a just war.  And yet, in the most charged ritual of Rosh Hashanah we are supposed to remember the tears of the mothers of our enemies.

            In these days when we are witnessing a new rush to war,  we remember those tears.


            In preparing these remarks, I took the opportunity to ask myself the same question I asked all of you:  What does the shofar sound evoke for me when I hear it?  And the first things that came to mind for me were those “tests of the Emergency Broadcast System” that we hear from time to time on radio and television.   The format for those tests seems to have been streamlined in the last few years.  However,  when I think of them I mostly remember how they were before that --- There would be a long, annoying alarm that would last longer than any Tekiah Gedolah I’ve heard in synagogue.  But before that, the announcer would assure us “THIS IS ONLY A TEST” and afterwards they’d reassure us again “THIS HAS BEEN A TEST of the Emergency Broadcast System”. 

            So I guess for me then the challenge is to get past the inclination to think:  “THIS IS ONLY A TEST” – and instead really to take to heart the shofar’s call to repentance, self-reflection and reconciliation that this season brings.

            Because, really – this in NOT a test.  As the popular adage goes – “Life is not a rehearsal.”  This is the real thing.  We shouldn’t take the days and hours and minutes and seconds for granted for time moves only in one direction (notwithstanding Doctor Who or all the other science fiction programs I love watching….)  


            The first mention of the Shofar in the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy comes just before the Rosh Hashanah evening amidah.  That’s where we find the famous passage from Psalm 81 that proclaims: 

ד תִּקְעוּ בַחֹדֶשׁ שׁוֹפָר; בַּכֵּסֶה, לְיוֹם חַגֵּנוּ.

4 Sound tekiyah on the shofar on the New Moon [of Tishri] at the dark of the moon, the time of our holy day.

ה כִּי חֹק לְיִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא; מִשְׁפָּט, לֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב.

5 For it is a law for Israel, a judgment by the God of Jacob.

A commentary I read this week from Rabbi Eli Mansour points out that in this passage the sounding of the shofar is described both as “chok”  (translated here as “law”) and as “mishpat” (translated here as “judgment”).

            The Hebrew words “chok” [חוק]and “mishpat” [משפט] are actually translated in a variety of ways in different machzorim and Bible commentaries.  However, the key difference, as far as rabbinic tradition is concerned, is that “chok” refers to a mitzvah that is supposed to be followed simply as an expression of devotion to God, and which supposedly does not lend itself to rational interpretation.  By contrast, “mishpat” is a mitzvah about which our sages teach that had God not commanded it, human beings would still have come up with it on our own because it makes rational sense as a way for living in society.

            But Psalm 81 uses both designations – the sounding of the shofar is both “chok” and “mishpat.” 

            What this says to me is that there is an aspect of the experience of hearing the shofar that reaches us emotionally and another aspect of the experience that reaches us intellectually.  The “mishpat” --- the “rational” or “intellectual” aspect is the idea that the shofar expresses – or at least implies – a clear articulate message.  What is that message?  Here is Maimonides’ famous answer from his 12th century work “Mishneh Torah”, from the section in it called Hilchot Teshuvah/ Laws of Repentance. This is the message at which he says the shofar call hints:

“Awake, you sleepers from your sleep. Arouse you slumberers from your slumber and ponder your deeds; remember your Creator and return to God in repentance. Do not be like those who miss the truth in pursuit of shadows and waste their years seeking vanity. Look well to your souls and consider your deeds; turn away from your wrong ways and improper thoughts.” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4)


In other words, this is the shofar as spiritual alarm clock – our wake-up call to return to our better selves and to live more closely in tune with our ethical and moral standards.

            Indeed, the organization formerly known as Rabbis For Human Rights – North America recently changed its name to Teruah:  The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.

            But then there’s the “chok” side – the irrational, inarticulate, inchoate side.  The emotional aspect that can’t be put into cogent directives.  From this “chok” perspective, the shofar’s sounds are the sounds of our yearnings and our hunches and our sensations that we can’t put into words.  It’s the “I-Thou” experience, it’s the magic of connection and relationship of one person with another and of each person with God.

            But I want to go back to what I mentioned earlier about the distinction between the different types of shofar sounds.  Nowadays we think of three different shofar sounds:  The single long tekiah, the three-fold broken wail of the shevarim, and the nine-fold broken sobs of the teruah.  However, the Torah only refers to tekiah and teruah.

            In the Talmud there is a debate about the meaning of teruah. Basically, some sages thought that the nine-fold teruah we know today was the real teruah, and other sages thought that the three-fold pattern that we now call “shevarim” was the real teruah.  And some thought that “teruah” really meant the combination of the three-fold call and the nine-fold call.

            So, the solution was that each set of shofar calls would include every possible version of what teruah could mean.

            In general, however you slice it whether it’s “pah-pah-pah,”  or whether it’s “pa-pa-pa/pa-pa-pa/pa-pa-pa”, or whether it’s “pah-pah-pah -- pa-pa-pa/pa-pa-pa/pa-pa-pa”  --- this is indeed supposed to be the sound of crying out. The sound of our soul’s yearning. The sound of our anxiety as we face judgment.

            But what I really find meaningful is the teaching that each one of those repeated cries has to be preceded and followed by the long, steady, confident sound of the single note TEKIAH.  The sages derive this requirement from the fact that both TEKIAH and TERUAH are invoked in that excerpt from Numbers chapter 10 that I mentioned earlier.

            Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has a nice teaching about this.  Basically, he teaches that the short sobbing sounds (in all their permutations of teruah, shevarim and shevarim-teruah) express our sorrows at living in an imperfect world full of injustice, and our anxiety as to whether our own actions have lived up to our moral standards.  But the long, confident, exultant sound of the Tekiah expresses our faith in God’s compassion and our commitment to repairing the world.  

            For ultimately this is a world of hope and blessing and potential.

            I think the true heroes of our day are the ones who can tap into both of those aspects:  the teruah of anguish and anger --- and the tekiah of faith, hope and commitment.

            In the American Civil Rights movement this was known as keeping one’s “Eyes on the Prize.”  (the tekiah) even in the midst of the struggle against injustice (the teruah).   It’s sort of like the tradition of the Passover seder, where the bitter maror of slavery is always tempered by the sweetness of the charoset



            My own nominee for such a hero of our day is Malala Yousafsai, the Pakistani teenager shot by the Taliban after speaking out for girls' rights to education in Pakistan.  She has since become a beacon of hope in this world where injustice, prejudice and violence often seem to have the upper hand.

            Here’s some of what she said just two days ago in her new hometown of Birmingham, England, as she officiated a new public library there.  This new facility is in fact now the largest public library in Europe.

            This is what Malala says:

"Pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism.

"I truly believe the only way we can create global peace is through not only educating our minds, but our hearts and our souls.

"This is the way forward to our destiny of peace and prosperity.

"Books are very precious - some books can [take] you back centuries and some take you into the future.

"In some books you will visit the core of your heart and in others you will go out into the universe.

"Books keep ones feeling alive.

"Aristotle's words are still breathing, Rumi's poetry will always inspire and Shakespeare's soul will never die.

"There is no better way to explain the importance of books than say that even God chose the medium of a book to send his message to his people."

"We must not forget that 57 million children are out of school.

"We must speak up for peace and development in Nigeria, Syria and Somalia.

"We must speak up for the children of Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, who are suffering from terrorism, poverty, child labour and child trafficking.

"Let us help them through our voice, action and charity.

"Let us help them to read books and go to school.

"And let us not forget that even one book, one pen, one child and one teacher can change the world."

Malala’s words ring out like the sound of the shofar.

            In this new year 5774 may the short broken cries of the shofar help us to give voice to our innermost yearnings.  And may the long steady calls of the shofar shore up in us the faith and courage that sustains us.  And, may we be graced with the ability to hear and respond to the cries of our neighbor – friend and foe alike – as clearly as we hear the sound of the shofar on this Yom Teruah.  

            L’shanah tovah tikateivu/ May you be inscribed for a good year    ----- shanah tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet year of health, blessing, prosperity, meaning and connection.




 (c) Rabbi David Steinberg 5774/2013

Posted on September 24, 2013 .