Learning about the Shofar and its many meanings can enhance our emotional and religious experience this Rosh Hashana as we stand together and hear the visceral, piercing sound of the Tekios.
The words "Shofar" and "Shofar blast" first appear in the Torah during the theophany at Mt. Sinai. At that time, the Jewish people experienced an encounter with God that gave us feelings of being loved, of independence and of spiritual elevation. The only other time the Torah mentions the Shofar is during its description of Yovail (50th year in the Jewish calendar) when, among other things, Hebrew slaves regain their freedom. "And ye shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants" says the Torah. The Shofar is thus associated with those times that the Jewish people experienced lofty feelings of physical, emotional, religious and spiritual freedom.
The laws and obligations regarding Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana are derived by using a series of hermeneutic principles of Torah analysis that focus on the proximity of the details of Rosh Hashana and Yovail, and on the repetition of key words and phrases in the text of both of these commandments.
Shofar, which we commonly refer to as "ram's horn" comes from a root that means beauty or splendor or "the choicest". It also is related to a root that means "to improve" or "to be improved." This special instrument that brings to mind the Mt. Sinai and Yovail freedom experiences inspires us to change, to improve — to be all that we can be.
The meanings and the messages of the three types of Shofar blasts are insightful:
Tekiah, the one long, straight, powerful blast stems from a root that can mean sealing (an agreement) or pitching (a tent) or sticking to/bringing into contact with. The Tekiah sound can bring us into contact with the power of God, enabling us to adhere to and dwell within His presence. It offers us the opportunity to reach an "agreement for life".
Shevarim consists of three wailing sounds. The root relates to shattering, breaking, and interrupting. In Modern Hebrew, the word "Shever" is paired with other words that form phrases meaning either deep sorrow or heartbreak or separation. We listen to the broken, moaning sounds and we become saddened as we reflect on our past behavior that has distanced us from one another and from God.
The nine, quick staccato blasts of Teruah convey the speed with which we will rush to mend our ways, now that we have confronted the reality of our misguided behavior. The root of Teruah relates to "shouting" and to "cries of triumph". It's as if we hear an alarm clock rousing us from our spiritual slumber, goading us to achieve the ultimate personal triumph of emotional rebirth and strength — as embodied in the Tekiah blast, which follows immediately.
A Shofar can be the horn of any kosher animal or beast, although the horn of a cow or ox is avoided because of their association with the sin of the Golden Calf.
The horn of a ram is used because it reminds us of the Akeidah, the story of which is read on Rosh Hashana, when Avraham nearly sacrificed his beloved son Isaac. (The sudden appearance of a ram whose horns were caught in a thorn bush provided a non-human substitute sacrifice.) The Sages debated whether the Shofar should be straight or twisted (curved). One school of thought maintains that the STRAIGHTER a person's thought, the better, while the other opinion is that it is best to be more BENT OVER in prayer on Rosh Hashanah.
The Shofar is more a ceremonial instrument than a musical one. Indeed, its uses have permeated, and continue to be a part of, many facets of Jewish communal life:
· Religious - announcing the New Year and the New Moon; introducing the arrival of Shabbat; calling mourners to a funeral; publicizing fast days; alerting the community to an individual's excommunication; part of the prayer/fasting ceremony to relieve droughts
· Secular - coronation of a king; inauguration of the President in modern Israel; celebration of victory in the Six Day War
· Military - assembling troops to attack; frightening, then defeating the enemy; proclaiming victory
· Liturgical - part of the Temple service and now a highlight of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur service
Many explanations exist for the Mitzva of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashana:
Anthropologists studying the society of early Man point to the animal horn as a symbol of power and as a tool to drive away evil forces and demons. (Perhaps to the primitive mind blowing of a horn represented use of one's critical life force, breathing, to survive and flourish. This theme about living is especially appropriate for Rosh Hashana.)
Rambam focuses on the piercing sound of the Shofar blasts that rouse us from our lethargy.
Rav Sadya Gaon compiled a list of 10 subjects that the Shofar is associated with:
• BIRTH of the world (and nation)
• URGENCY of observing the Ten Days of Repentance
• SACRIFICE made by the parent at the Akeidah
• FORMATION OF THE JEWS AS GOD’S PEOPLE at Mt. Sinai
• CALLS OF THE PROPHETS to repent
• DESTRUCTION OF THE HOLY TEMPLE
• Insignificance of man next to THE AWESOMENESS OF GOD
• Reminder of the ULTIMATE DAY OF RECKONING (Yom Hadin)
• INGATHERING OF THE DIASPORA TO ERETZ YISROEL
• Ultimate TCHIYAS HAMAYSIM
The Shofar provides this link through Jewish history that connects the important stages of our birth and maturation both as a nation and as individuals. Seen in this light, the Shofar soundings enable our mind's eye to see our entire lives flashing before us -- a certain catalyst for positive change and for Teshuva.