The blessing that is recited before the blowing of the shofar is not to “blow the shofar” but “to listen to/understand the sound of the shofar” [“lishmoa kol shofar”].
Learning about the Shofar and its many mean¬ings can enhance our emotional and religious experience this Rosh Hashana as we stand together and hear its visceral, piercing sounds.
The words "Shofar" and "Shofar blast" first appear in the Torah during the theophany [manifestation or appearance of God] at Mt. Sinai. At that time, the Israelites experienced an encounter with God that gave them/us feelings of being loved, of independence and of spiritual elevation. The only other time the Torah men¬tions 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 pro¬claim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants" says the Torah. The Shofar is associated with those times that the Jewish people experi¬enced 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 experi¬ences inspires us to change, to improve — to be all that we can be.
The meanings and the messages of the three types of Sho¬far blasts are:
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 tri¬umph". 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 avoid¬ed 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 ancients considered the head and horns of the ram to be symbolic of activity and creative energy. The ram also was one of the animals widely used for offerings in the Holy Temple.
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. Its uses have permeated, and continue to be a part of, many facets of Jewish communal life:
o Announcing the New Year and the New Moon
o Introducing the arrival of Shabbat
o Calling mourners to a funeral
o Publicizing fast days
o Alerting the community to an individual's excommunication
o Part of the prayer/fasting ceremony to relieve droughts
• Secular –
o Coronation of a king
o Inauguration of the President in modern Israel
• Military –
o Assembling troops to attack
o Frightening, then defeating, the enemy
o Proclaiming victory
• Liturgical - part of the Temple service and now a highlight of the Rosh Hashanah service
Many explanations exist for the Mitzvah 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 sur¬vive and flourish. A person is giving over his entire essence, his entire life force in reaching out to the divine. 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. “Sleeping ones! Awaken from your sleep! Slumbering ones! Awaken from your slumber! Examine your deeds. Remember your Creator and do teshuva…”
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
• INGATHERING OF THE DIASPORA TO ERETZ YISROEL
• Ultimate TCHIYAS HAMAYSIM
The Shofar provides this link through Jewish history that con¬nects 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.
Rosh Hashanah is the festival when we remind ourselves that God is our King and Judge. The ceremony for the accession of an earthly king to his throne is typically marked by majestic music. On Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of creation, God renews the creative energy that sustains our world. Once again He is crowned as King of the universe. Just as trumpets are sounded at a coronation, the shofar announces God’s continued kingship.
In the words of Rav Ahron Soloveichik, “The shofar symbolizes the obligation incumbent on all human beings to wake up from their spiritual coma. We have to be spiritually awake and not sink in a spiritual and moral slumber. That is why the shofar should be blown from the right side of the mouth [because the right side represents that which is regular] - to symbolize we should be on guard every minute of the day and every minute of the night” ... Rosh Hashana doesn't only mean first day of the year, it means “mind of the year”… on Rosh Hashana we must regain spiritual and moral consciousness in our minds, the source of consciousness. The mind is the coordinating factor in the human organism so our lives must be in accordance with the moral order instituted by Hashem. And the mind, in order to function properly, must not sink into depression. If one sinks into depression, he's like a vegetable.”
Why is Rosh Hashana Considered the Beginning of the New Year?
The Torah explicitly states that the month of Nisan is the first month of the Jewish calendar and that the holiday “for remembrance and sounding the ram’s horn” [which we call Rosh Hashana] is to take place on the first day of the seventh month. There is no reference to creation or to judgement. There is no hint that Rosh Hashana is the main beginning of a New Year. The text merely characterizes the day as “a day of teruah” and “a remembrance of teruah”.
But by the time of the Mishna in the second century Rosh Hashana gained status as a day of judgment when three “books” are open before God, and a time when “all human beings pass before Him in a single file…” [The Mishna indicates that Rosh Hashana is considered one of the four New Years, the one for counting years; for beginning shmittah and yovel; for planting and for tithing vegetables and grains. The others are the first of Nisan for calculating the reign of Jewish kings and festivals; the first of Elul for tithing of animals and the first of Shevat which is the New Year for trees.] ashanaHashaRegarding when the universe was created there is a debate in the Talmud between Rabbi Yehoshua who thinks it happened on the first day of Nisan and Rabbi Eliezer who thinks it happened on the first day in Tishrei.
Ramban reasons that when the month of Nisan is called “first” and Tishrei “seventh,” the meaning is: the first from the redemption from Egypt and the seventh month after the redemption. And this is the meaning of the Torah phrase “the beginning-one let it be for you.” It is not the beginning of the year, but the beginning for you, so-called in memory of our redemption. Nisan is first month for national focus for the Jewish people but Tishrei is when Adam was created and sinned and brings to mind universal ideas about sinning and repenting and forgiveness.
Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s analysis is that the month of Tishrei is when the current agricultural year ends and the new one begins. It is that critical time in the cycle when farmers plow and sow their fields in order to catch the winter rains. Unlike Egypt whose water supply needs are filled year-round from the Nile River, Israel is dependent on rains during the autumn and winter months. If there is insufficient rain, crops will fail; famine and drought will prevail—and fighting will break out among the people over the limited availability of food and water.
A major theme in the Torah is the acknowledgement that the creation of Nature was a willful, conscious decision by God, and that He continues to control it. If God does not direct Nature to send rain, death and war could result.
The long steady sound of the two golden trumpets’ tekiah was an “all clear” signal. The teruah sound, however, signals impending danger and the need to travel in military formation and prepare for war. The listener becomes fearful of terrible war and destruction. In Rabbi Leibtag’s view the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is meant to “create an atmosphere that simulates the tension and fear of war…to create an atmosphere of a day of judgement to help us feel that our lives are truly on the line …in anticipation of the forthcoming agricultural year—to remind ourselves that its outcome is in God’s hands”. Rosh Hashana is not only a day of teruah but also of zichron teruah when we l “remember our God…proclaim His kingdom over all mankind in recognition of His mastery over nature and our destiny.”
As mentioned, the words "Shofar" and "Shofar blast" first appear in the Torah during the theophany at Mt. Sinai. Rabbi Nathan Laufer focuses on how the blowing of the shofar creates of a link between Rosh Hashana and the Mt. Sinai experience. “Since Rosh Hashana is a remembrance of trumpeting and the revelation at Sinai is the only previous reference to a trumpeting of any sort, it stands to reason that this is the historical event that Rosh Hashana is meant to commemorate.” At Sinai the word kol (voice, sound) means not only the sound of the shofar but also is used to refer to thunder; to the voice of [God]; and to the demands placed on the Israelites by God. Just as the Israelites trembled before God on that day, we too experience Rosh Hashana as a day of fear and trepidation that inaugurates ten days of awe leading up to Yom Kippur. Just as at Sinai “Moses would speak and God would respond with a voice [kol]” our custom in the synagogue is for two individuals to participate in the shofar blowing, one to call out the notes and the other to blow the shofar. That the word kol appears in the Torah before the word shofar explains that the reason for the blessing recited prior to blowing the shofar is “lishmoa kol shofar”.
Rabbi Laufer continues to trace the link between Sinai and Rosh Hashana in the day’s Musaf service. The first section [malchios] is about God’s kingship and brings to mind His words at Sinai “…then you will be to Me a kingdom of priests” over whom God will be their sovereign king. The second section about remembering divine covenants [zichronons] culminates with the covenant at Sinai. The third section, shofaros, starts with the revelation at Sinai .The root-word kol appears ten times, perhaps alluding to the ten verses that comprise each of the three sections or alluding to the Ten Commandments uttered at Sinai.
Understanding Rosh Hashana as a re-enactment of the Israelites’ experience at Sinai may explain two of the holiday customs. The custom for men to go to the mikvah [ritual bath] before the holiday may echo the tradition that the Israelites underwent ritual immersion prior to receiving the Ten Commandments. Dipping of apple and bread in honey on the holiday may mirror the manna bread that the Israelites began receiving some 21 days before the revelation at Sinai that is described in the Torah as “wafers dipped in honey”.
Rabbi Laufer speculates that the Rabbis’ linking of Rosh Hashana to creation was aimed at countering the grave threat posed to Judaism by early Christianity. The idea was to conceal the true meaning of the holiday--the story of the Israelites and their unique covenant with God--with a more universal association. Changing the holiday name to Rosh Hashana created the impression that it was a commemoration of the birthday of the entire world.
Perhaps the adoption of Rosh Hashana as the beginning of the year reflects the idea that spiritual renewal is of utmost importance in our lives. On the holiday we read tragic and transforming stories of Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, Hagar and Yishmael reminding us that there is hope for a new life. We engage in Teshuva in preparation for Yom Kippur-- praying for a wiping away of the slate, and an opportunity to change for the better…a new beginning…a new “year”.
Rosh Hashanah Guide for the Perplexed (Excerpts)
By Ambassador (retired) Yoram Ettinger
1. Rosh Hashanah is a universal, stock-taking, renewal and hopeful holiday, celebrated on the 6th day of The Creation, which produced the first human being, Adam.
2. Rosh means, in Hebrew, "beginning," "first," "head," "chief." The Hebrew spelling of Rosh (ראש) is the root of the Hebrew word for Genesis (בראשית), which is the first word in the Bible. Just like The Creation, so should the New Year and our own actions, be a thoughtful – and not a hasty - process.
3. Rosh Hashanah is celebrated at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which means beginning/Genesis in ancient Akkadian. The Hebrew spelling of Tishrei (תשרי) is included in the spelling of Genesis (בראשית).
4. Rosh Hashanah is also referred to as "Ha'rat Olam" (the pregnancy of the world), and it’s prayers highlight motherhood, optimism and the pregnancies of Sarah and Rachel, the Matriarchs, and Hannah, who gave birth to Isaac, Joseph & Benjamin and the Prophet Samuel respectively. Sarah (שרה, the root of the Hebrew word, Israel,ישראל) and Hannah (חנה, the root of the Hebrew words Pardon, Amnesty and Merciful,חנינה, חנון) were two of the seven Jewish Prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Hannah, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, Esther. Hannah's prayer has become a role-model for God-heeded-prayers which are recited by the "non-privileged".
Noah – who led the rebirth of humanity/world – also features in Rosh Hashanah prayers.
5. Rosh Hashanah underlines human fallibility, humility, soul-searching, responsibility (as a precondition to the realization of opportunity), renewal/rebirth, memory (lessons of history) and the need for systematic education.
6. The Shofar (ritual horn) is blown on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call to mend human behavior. Rosh Hashanah is also called "Yom Te'roo'ah" (the day of blowing the Shofar). Shofar (שופר) is a derivative of the Hebrew word forenhancement/improvement (שפור), which is constantly expected of human beings. It requires humility, symbolized by the Shofar, which is bent and is not supposed to be decorated.
The Shofar is the epitome of peace-through-strength: it is made from the horn of a ram , which is a peaceful animal equipped with strong horns, in order to fend off wild animals.
While the blowing of the Shofar is a major virtue, listening to the Shofar is at least as pertinent a virtue. The Hebrew root of "listening" (מאזין) is אוזן, ear, which contains the balancing mechanism in our body. אוזן is also the root of "scale", (מאזניים), which is the zodiac sign of the month of Tishrei. Both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (when people balance/examine their good deeds vs. bad deeds) are observed during the month of Tishrei.