Strangely enough the one source that gives us absolutely no clue about it is the Torah itself.

Shofar (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
THE RABBIS of the Jerusalem Talmud once wondered why in their time the sounding of the shofar, the only mitzvah connected with Rosh Hashanah, was not done until the musaf (additional) service rather than at the main morning service – shacharit.
Their answer was that indeed originally the shofar had been sounded earlier but it once happened that when it was sounded early in the morning, the Romans “assumed that this was the signal for an uprising against them so they attacked and killed them.”
Therefore it was moved to a later hour when it would be clear that it was part of a prayer service and not a signal for war (J.
Rosh Hashanah 4:8 59c).
But what exactly does it mean? What does it signal if not war? There is something stirring and haunting about the sound of the shofar. It is the echo of a bygone age, a message from ancient times that cuts through the cacophony of today to reach our inner souls. But it is not clear exactly what that message is. Any non-verbal symbol has the advantage of being capable of carrying more than one message at the same time and not being confined to one simple meaning. But it also has the disadvantage of not telling us clearly what it represents.
That is certainly true of the shofar blasts we hear on Rosh Hashanah. There are, however, several attempts in our classical literature at defining and explaining why we blow the shofar and why we listen to it on this particular holiday.
Strangely enough the one source that gives us absolutely no clue about it is the Torah itself. Although the sounding of the shofar is the only mitzvah the Torah proclaims for the nameless holiday it describes as the first day of the seventh month, no explanation is offered. Thus we read: In the seventh month on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts (Leviticus 23:24-25); In the seventh month on the first day of the month, you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded (Numbers 29:1-2). No name and no explanation. The book of Psalms, however, which contains prayers recited in the Temple at various occasions, includes several psalms in which the sounding of the shofar is connected to the proclamation of God as Sovereign over the entire world: With trumpets and the blast of the horn raise a shout before the Lord, the King (Psalm 98:6). The word teru’ah, the name of the sound of the shofar, appears in connection with the proclamation that God is the Sovereign in psalms 95, 98 and 100.
It is quite possible that these were part of an ancient liturgy for that day. Certainly the service designed by the Sages for Rosh Hashanah much later – probably in post second Temple times – clearly cites God’s sovereignty as one of the three central themes of the day. The others are the shofar itself and God’s remembrance of His promises to Israel (i.e. salvation). These themes are found in the three special insertions into the Musaf services, following each of which the shofar is sounded. This then may well be the original and most ancient significance of the shofar: the sounds heard at a great coronation ceremony when the Lord (i.e. the specific God worshipped by Israel) is proclaimed to be the sole ruler of the universe. In that case the shofar is being sounded in order to proclaim a simple message to us: the world has a Master, a Sovereign – the Lord of Israel. As the blessing recited before sounding the shofar states, the mitzvah is not blowing the shofar but listening to it. Listening to its message is important.
The second interpretation of the meaning of the shofar emerged after the Biblical period when, following the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sages interpreted the ancient story of the Binding of Isaac in the midrash in a new way that was suitable for their times. The Torah specifically describes that story as explaining why God blessed Abraham by making his descendants “as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore,” who would have their own land and become a blessing (Genesis 22:17-18). The midrash, on the other hand, gives an entirely different reason.
It connects the verse describing “a ram caught in the thicket” that Abraham sacrifices in place of his son (Genesis 22:13) with the ram’s horn blown on Rosh Hashanah.
Abraham says to the Lord, “Now when Isaac’s descendants sin and are in trouble, remember unto them the binding of Isaac.
Consider it as if his ashes were strewn before You on the altar and forgive them and redeem them from their troubles.” Said the Holy One, “In the future Isaac’s descendants will certainly sin before Me and on Rosh Hashanah I shall judge them. If they want Me to find some merit for them and remember the binding of Isaac, let them sound the shofar – the rams horn – before Me and I will save them and redeem them from their transgressions” ( Midrash Tanhuma Va-yera 23, Rosh Hashanah 16a).
That is the reason we read that particular story from the Torah on Rosh Hashanah and refer to it so often in the prayers. According to the Sages, then, sounding the shofar is not performed for us to hear as much as it is done in order to remind God, as it were, of His promise to Abraham that He would be merciful in judging his descendants when they sin and beg to be forgiven on Rosh Hashanah.
Yet a third verbal reference to the shofar is found in one of the most famous piyutim of the day, Unetaneh Tokef, which describes Rosh Hashanah as yom ha-din, the day of judgement. It is based upon the Mishnah that describes it as the day when “all human beings pass before God as troops in review” (R.H.1:2). God then judges them and decides their fate. It was probably composed in the Byzantine period by an unknown poet who seized upon that description and, combined it with ideas from Apocryphal and prophetic books describing the Day of Judgment at the end of time. He transfers these descriptions to Rosh Hashanah, depicted in vivid detail as an annual day of judgment. Central to that description is a reference to the shofar: The great shofar is sounded, a still small voice is heard, the angels are dismayed, they are seized by fear and trembling, as they proclaim: Behold the Day of Judgment! The Dies Irae (Day of Wrath) section of the requiem mass of the Catholic Church uses a similar description to describe the last judgement. In the many classical settings of the Mass, that is the point when trumpets are sounded from all sides of the concert hall. Verdi’s setting is especially powerful and I usually hear it in my mind when listening to the chanting of the words, “the great shofar is sounded.” The third interpretation of the shofar blasts, therefore, is that they are to make us aware that we are about to stand in judgment before our Creator.
Which is to be? The sounds of the coronation of God? The reminder to God to judge us in mercy because of Abraham’s loyalty? The signal to us to prepare to stand before God in judgment and to tremble? Perhaps all three and many others as well. Perhaps it is a message that goes deeper than words because there are feelings and truths that are beyond the power of verbal expression, so that each of us hears according to our own unique understanding and our lives are enriched and transformed accordingly.
Reuven Hammer, is a former president of the Rabbinical Assembly whose book Entering The High Holy Days (JPS) won the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy, available both in English (JPS) and Hebrew (Yediyot Books).