Can You Hear Me? Multiple Meanings of the Sound of the Shofar
Rabbanit Sally Mayer, Rosh Midrasha, Maria & Joel Finkle Overseas Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum
The sound of the shofar is always shocking at first, piercing the synagogue during the month of Elul, reminding us that Rosh Hashanah is near. It seems like ages since last Rosh Hashanah, when our homes were filled with guests and our shuls were overflowing.
What does the sound of the shofar mean? There are many answers to this question. The Rambam famously explains that the shofar is a call to repent: “Wake up, sleeping ones, from your slumber! Investigate your actions, repent, and remember your Creator” (Hilchot Teshuvah, 3:4).
Rabbeinu Bechayei echoes the Rambam, describing the shofar as a frightening sound, inducing the fear of the Day of Judgment. In the Shofarot section of the Musaf prayer, we see the shofar as a sign of God’s presence on Har Sinai:
“ובקול שופר עליהם הופעת בקולות וברקים עליהם נגלית“ – You revealed Your presence with sounds and lightning, and You appeared to them with the sound of the shofar.” The prayer also represents the shofar as the herald of the ultimate salvation of the Jewish people and the ingathering of the exiles.
And Rav Saadia Gaon mentions these and other symbolisms of the shofar, including reminding us of Akeidat Yitzchak (the binding of Isaac) and inspiring us to be willing to sacrifice for God. The explanations above share a common thread: the shofar is a medium to send a message from Hashem to the Jewish people. It might be heralding His awesome presence, reminding us to repent, or even calling us to come home, but in all of the above explanations, Hashem is speaking to us through the shofar.
During the coronavirus pandemic, we have all been plagued by questions. What is Hashem trying to tell us? Why is this happening? Why all the suffering and loss — physical, emotional and financial? In a way, the shofar is as enigmatic as this time — a sound, evocative but unclear, frightening and humbling.
Other sources, however, take a different view of the shofar. The Talmud in Rosh Hashanah (16a) states: “Say before Me on Rosh Hashanah…Malchuyot, so that you shall coronate Me; Zichronot, so that your memory will come before Me; And how? Through the shofar.” In this Gemara, the shofar is an instrument we use to remind Hashem of His relationship with us.
Additionally, the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 21a) rules that we may use the horn of any animal as a shofar, except for that of a bull. Why? The Gemara explains that the sound of the shofar goes up to God, and is considered as if it enters the Holy of Holies; just as the High Priest does not wear golden clothing to go into that sacred space on Yom Kippur because it evokes the Golden Calf, so too it would be inappropriate for us to use another symbol of that terrible sin as an instrument to communicate with Him on the Day of Judgment. The shofar is our means of communicating with God, not the other way around.
Furthermore, the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 26b) debates whether a bent or straight shofar is preferable, and relates that argument to whether a person’s mindset should be “bent over” in submission, or straight and confident.
And finally, when describing the sounds we are to produce with the shofar, Rabbi Abahu wondered whether the middle sound should be 3 longer sounds or 9 short sounds. The Gemara parallels these sounds to different types of crying — sobbing and wailing, and in fact says that we need not put the short teruah sounds before the longer shevarim blasts as one of the combinations, because people simply don’t cry that way.
These explanations of the shofar are the polar opposite of the first set. The shofar here represents our entreaties to God, our bent and wrenched emotions, our sobbing and begging for mercy. The shofar is our wordless, primal scream, asking Hashem to heal His world and bring an end to suffering.
During the pandemic, at times, it has been hard to pray. It’s been hard to even know what to say, as we find ourselves confused in an ever-changing world, where so much of what we took for granted, simply going to shul or having guests, has now become elusive.
Perhaps it’s no accident that this year Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, when the shofar is silent on the first day. It echoes the silence of the quiet homes where people suffer loneliness, the silence of those we have lost, and even the sense of distance from Hashem that we may experience.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the shofar will be even more piercing, expressing our pent-up anguish and humble pleas for help and healing. And may those shofar sounds that we express be met by the shofar that Hashem uses to call us — to return to Him and to herald His healing and salvation for the world.