How the Shofar is used on Shabbat

Why is the shofar blown during the preceding month of Elul?

Why is the shofar blown during Elul? It forces the ‘ba’al tekiah’ to rehearse.  (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Why is the shofar blown during Elul? It forces the ‘ba’al tekiah’ to rehearse.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, “a day of blowing blasts” (Numbers 29:1). Teruah literally means “shouting,” since the day was probably initially a great popular acclamation of God, enhanced and led by trumpet calls.
Why is the shofar blown during the preceding month of Elul? It forces the ba’al tekiah, the shofar blower, to rehearse. His art is much harder than most people realize. The Talmud calls it hochmah v’einah melachah, “art but not hard work,” but the art is not for everyone.
I once trained a ba’al tekiah who became a virtuoso, far better than me, which reminds me that Enrico Caruso’s singing teacher couldn’t sing a note. Historically, we know that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai the second time, the people were told to sound the shofar in the camp so they would not sin again. Since this happened in Elul, we take care during this month not to commit any further transgressions, and the shofar is our warning signal.
If, like this year, the first day of the festival falls on a Shabbat, the shofar is silent and the day is zichron teruah, “a reminder of the blowing of blasts.” (The Babylonian Talmud holds that not blowing on Shabbat was introduced by the sages, whereas the Jerusalem Talmud says the rule is biblical.)
Why doesn’t the shofar override Shabbat in the same way as the mitzvah of brit milah, circumcision, takes precedence? The Mishna (Rosh Hashanah 4:1-2) says that on Shabbat in Temple times, the shofar was blown in the Mikdash (sanctuary) but not in the medina, i.e. outside the sanctuary. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai allowed the shofar on Shabbat wherever there was a Beit Din (rabbinical court). R. Elazar limited this to Yavne. Others said it applied both in Yavne and wherever there was a Beit Din. In actuality, wherever people could see Jerusalem they blew the shofar on Shabbat, but in Yavne, only in the Beit Din.
Rashi says that Mikdash means the Temple, and medina includes the rest of Jerusalem. Maimonides says that Mikdash includes all of Jerusalem, and medina is everywhere else. The practice as it firmed up is as we have it today. The sages applied the ban to lulav as well, so there is no netilat lulav (waving of palm fronds) if the first day of Sukkot is on Shabbat.
The authority to make such rulings is from Deuteronomy 17:10. Rabbah explains (Rosh Hashanah 29b) that as not everyone is skilled in tekiat shofar, one might take the shofar through the streets on Shabbat to get expert guidance.
THOUGH THE rabbis sought to protect the laws of Shabbat by preventing people from carrying the shofar on the Sabbath, this did not apply in the Temple.
But if there was a biblical ban on blowing the shofar on Shabbat, how could Yohanan ben Zakkai allow it outside the Temple? He feared that people might learn to live without a Temple, so Temple procedures had to be preserved.
The Hassidim Harishonim, the early pietists, said the shofar symbolizes man’s yearning for a good relationship with God, but on Shabbat, the day already provides that happy relationship. Why then was the shofar still blown in the Temple on Shabbat? Because the stature of the Temple was so high that no concession was made in its procedures.
There is evidence from the Cairo Genizah, a collection of ancient Jewish manuscript fragments, that until the 12th century some places practiced Shabbat shofar-blowing. About a century ago there was an attempt to reinstitute the practice in Jerusalem, but without success. When the Temple is rebuilt, the problem will solve itself.
Samson Raphael Hirsch said that the first shofar note (tekiah) draws our attention to God. The second note (shevarim/teruah) sees the idea of God shake your consciousness and penetrate your inner being. The third note (tekiah) strengthens you and sends you off to a life before God.
Rav Moshe Feinstein said that everyone yearns for a smooth ride (tekiah) but sometimes we end up with a broken life (shevarim). Often the years turn out to be short spurts of joy or sadness (teruah), but in the end most of us decide we’ve really had quite a smooth and good life (tekiah gedolah).
The first-century BCE Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria said the shofar connotes both war and peace – one of the theological tensions of Judaism. The war is not just the Almighty’s eternal battle against evil and inhumanity, but “a kind of war ordained by God, when nature is at variance with itself and its different parts attack one another.”
When creation is out of joint there cannot be harmony in the world. Redemption – peace – comes when man and God unite to stabilize the universe, “not allowing a single spark that could lead to destruction or destructiveness.”
When man and God work together, they are at one and the world is at one. The same applies in our personal lives. When the shofar calls us to personal equilibrium, we are no longer mixed-up personalities torn apart by conflicted drives and desires, but endowed with stability and harmony throughout our being.
The writer is emeritus rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia.