The Sound of the Shofar
Rosh Hashanah (Day 1: Genesis 21; Day 2: Genesis 22 )
The holiday celebrating the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, has been marked for millennia as a time for introspection, celebrated by blowing the Shofar and eating apples dipped in honey . Yet the scriptural evidence does not explicitly specify any of the familiar elements with which the festival is so closely associated. The Torah states:
Speak to the People of Israel, saying, "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a sabbatical, a commemoration of teru'ah, a holy gathering." (Vayikra 23:24)
And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy gathering; you shall do no labor; it shall be a day of teru'ah for you. (Bamidbar 29:1)
When the Torah commands observance of this holiday there is no clear reference to the identity of this day as the start of a new year, no mention of the Shofar - not even the apple and honey. The crux of the problem is the word teru'ah. What is teru'ah, and why are we required to remember or commemorate it? How is that commemoration achieved?
This word is used elsewhere in the text: Not far from the first reference, in the Book of Vayikra, we again find the word teru'ah. The context is the commandment to observe the Jubilee Year; significantly, the word teru'ah is attached to the word shofar.
Then shall you transmit shofar teru'ah on the tenth day of the seventh month, on the Day of Atonement shall you sound the shofar throughout all your land. (Vayikra 25:9)
This passage teaches us that the word teru'ah is the sound of the shofar. Additionally, there is one earlier source that connects shofar and yovel (Jubilee): Both of these terms appear in the Book of Shmot in the context of the Revelation at Sinai.
There shall not a hand touch it, but he shall surely be stoned, or shot through; whether it be beast or man, it shall not live; when the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mount…19. And when the voice of the shofar sounded long, and became louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him by a voice. (Shmot 19:13,19)
Mount Sinai, which heretofore had been a non-descript, insignificant location, became, for a limited time, the holiest place on Earth. The temporary change in status was signified in various ways, and these verses indicate the very severe consequences of trespassing the boundaries of this holy area during the days leading up to and including the Revelation. The Revelation itself was accompanied by a crescendo of shofar sound, and the signal that the restrictions were lifted and the mount returned to its earlier mundane status was the sounding of the yovel, a long, final note of the shofar. Thus, when we read in our present context that the first day of the seventh month should be observed as "a commemoration of teru'ah" or "a day of teru'ah", we know that the intention is to blow the shofar. What remains unclear is - why? What is the particular spiritual character and significance of this day and how is it connected to the sound of the shofar?
From what we have seen thus far in the verses, the commandment to blow the shofar seems most appropriate as an observance of Shavuot, the day on which the heavens opened and the Torah was given at Sinai, accompanied by the blast of the shofar and the final blast of the yovel. Why, then, shofar on Rosh Hashana? Similarly, the association of the yovel blast with the Jubilee Year observance, held on Yom Kippur of the fiftieth year in the sabbatical cycle, could easily explain our tradition to sound the shofar on Yom Kippur each year. Yom Kippur is the day the Jewish People actually received the Torah, in the form of the Second Tablets that Moshe brought down from on high after the nation was forgiven for the Sin of the Golden Calf. This would be an additional reason to sound the shofar on Yom Kippur, continuing the association of the shofar with the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. Yet we are none the wiser as to the reason we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashana; simply put, what do the things we know about Rosh Hashana have to do with shofar blasts?
The Mishna teaches that the Jewish year is layered with multiple calendars. The cycle of months begins with Nisan, commemorating the Exodus from Egypt and the birth of our national identity celebrated on eve of the 15th of the month. This is the particular calendar of the Jewish People, the cycle of our particular national history. On the other hand, the start of the natural, universal year is in the autumn, and begins with the month of Tishrei. The Mishna teaches that the 1st of Tishrei marks the beginning of the natural cycle, and all of creation passes before God in judgment. This aspect of judgment that is associated with Rosh Hashana is embedded in our Oral Tradition, and is not hinted at in the text of the Torah. In fact, when we are told that the first day of the seventh month is a day to commemorate the teru'ah, no rationale is offered, making Rosh Hashana unique among the biblically ordained holidays in this respect.
According to Rabbinic tradition, Creation took place on Rosh Hashana - specifically, Creation of Man. On the very same day that Man was created, he sinned, and was judged:
It was taught in the name of R. Eliezer: The world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul. The view of Rav agrees with the teaching of R. Eliezer. For we have learned in the blessing for the Shofar composed by Rav: ' This day, on which was the beginning of work, a memorial of the first day, for it is a statute for Israel, a decree of the God of Yaakov. On it, sentence is pronounced upon countries: which of them is destined to the sword and which to peace, which to famine and which to plenty; and each individual creature is visited on that day, and recorded for life or for death.' Thus we learn that on Rosh Hashana, in the first hour the idea of creating Man entered His mind, in the second He took counsel with the Ministering Angels, in the third He assembled Adam's dust, in the fourth He kneaded it, in the fifth He shaped him, in the sixth He made him into a lifeless body, in the seventh He breathed a soul into him, in the eighth He brought him into the Garden of Eden, in the ninth he was commanded [against eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge], in the tenth he transgressed, in the eleventh he was judged, in the twelfth he was pardoned. 'The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Adam, 'This will be a sign to your children. As you stood in judgment before Me this day and came out with a free pardon, so will your children in the future stand in judgment before Me on this day and will come out from My presence with a free pardon.' When will that be? 'In the seventh month, on the first day of the month.' (Midrash Rabba Vayikra 29:1)
The 1st of Tishrei is therefore an auspicious day: the day of our creation, and the day when we were given a second chance. Subsequently Rosh Hashana becomes a day of taking stock, with one eye on the actions of the previous year and the other eye on the upcoming year.
THE FIRST BREATH
But why blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana? Rav Yehonatan Eybeshutz points out a deep and meaningful connection between the day of the Creation of Man and the commandment to blow the shofar:
And the Almighty God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Bereishit 2:7)
Man becomes a living, sentient being when God breathes His breath into him, transforming him from physical matter into a living hybrid of the physical and spiritual. When we blow the shofar on the day of Man's creation, it serves as a memorial to that first breath, the divine breath of life blown at the dawn of Creation, on Rosh Hashana.
We may now take a closer look at the mitzva of shofar: On Rosh Hashana, we are commanded not to blow the shofar, but to hear the blast of the shofar. When our Sages composed the wording of the blessing we recite each year on Rosh Hashana, they attempted to focus our concentration on that first breath, that primordial breath which infused mankind with a Divine soul. In the course of the year, the sound of the shofar may become distant and we may turn our attention away from the divinity that is at our very core. This cycle is interrupted on Rosh Hashana, as it was on certain other occasions in our history when we were able to hear that sound collectively, to hear it clearly, and to recognize its divine source: At Mount Sinai, when we received the Torah, on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee Year.
Once each year we are commanded to listen intently, with proper concentration, to the sound of the shofar. We are called upon to tune in to that cry that supplants words, the sound that is made by our breath, and to hear the echoes of that first breath that reverberates through time, ever since God blew His own breath into Man.
Just as the sound of the shofar is the sound of the beginning of human history, it is also the sound of the culmination of human history: The prophetic description of the End of Days includes the sound of the great shofar blast that will reverberate throughout the land. Once again, God's breath will animate the entire world. God Himself will sound the shofar , just as He breathed a soul into Man, just as He sounded the shofar at Sinai. On that day, all of mankind will hear the sound and recognize God, Creator and King.
And it shall come to pass on that day, that the great shofar shall be blown, and those shall come who were lost in the land of Assyria, and the outcasts in the land of Egypt, and shall worship the Almighty on the holy mount at Jerusalem. Yishayahu 27:13
When we truly hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana, we hear echoes of the act of Creation, and we reaffirm our anticipation of the future sound of the shofar that will usher in the Messianic Age, the apex of the cycle of Creation commemorated on the day of Man's creation.
1. See Rav Moshe Isserlis in Shulchan Aruch section 583:1. The custom of eating foods as part of a prayer can be traced to the Talmud Kritut 6a: 'Said Abaye: Since you hold that symbols are meaningful, every man should make it a habit to eat on New Year pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beet and dates.'
2. Mishna 1:1: 'There are four new years. On the first of Nisan is New Year for kings and for festivals. On the first of Elul is New Year for the tithe of cattle. R. Eleazar and R. Simeon, however, place this on the first of Tishreei. On the first of Tishri is New Year for years, for release and jubilee years, for plantation and for [tithe of] vegetables. On the first of Shvat is New Year for trees, according to the ruling of Beit Shammai; Beit Hillel, however, place it on the fifteenth of that month.'
3. Mishna Rosh Hashana 1:2, found in Talmud Bavli 16a: At four seasons [divine] judgment is passed on the world: at Pesach in respect of produce; at Shavuot in respect of fruit; on Rosh Hashanah all creatures pass before him [God] like children of maron, as it says, 'He that fashions the heart of them all, that consider all their doings' (Tehilim 33); and on Sukkot judgment is passed in respect of rain.
4. See Talmud Bavli Rosh Hashana 10bf. Rabbi Yehoshua voices a conflicting opinion: "It was taught, Rabbi Eliezer said; in Tishrei the world was created, in Tishrei the Avot were born, in Tishrei the Avot perished, on Pesach Yitzchak was born, on Rosh Hashanah Sarah, Rachel, and Hanah were answered. On Rosh Hashanah Yosef left prison, on Rosh Hashanah the slavery came to an end in Egypt. In Nissan we were redeemed, in Tishrei we will be redeemed in the future. (Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a).
5. The relationship between the judgment of Rosh Hashana and that of Yom Kippur deserves separate analysis. See commentary of the Ramban on Vayikra 23:24.
6. Rav Yehonatan Eybeshutz (1690-1764), Y'arot Dvash, vol. 1:1.
7. See the formulation of the Rambam in Laws of Shofar, introduction, and 1:1.
8. See R. Judah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), in the S'fat Emet, Rosh Hashana 5659.
9. See Sifri Baha'alotcha, piska 76.