Blowing the Shofar: The Voice of Freedom

Rabbi David Stav

One of the symbols most closely identified with Rosh Hashanah is the shofar. Shofar motifs adorned Jewish New Year’s postcards back when people sent postcards to each other. We sound the shofar dozens of times during the month of Elul, reaching the climax on the holiday itself, when we sound the shofar one hundred times. Some of these blasts (“tekiah”) are simple, others (“teruah”) sound like bleating, while others (“shevarim”) still sound like moaning.

Immediately following the reading of the Torah, thirty shofar blasts are sounded, which are called “teki’ot de’meyushav”. An additional thirty blasts will be sounded during the Musaf service, when the Amidah prayers are repeated by the chazzan (some have the tradition of sounding these blasts during the silent prayer), and are called “teki’ot de’me’umad”. The remainder of the shofar blasts are sounded at the end of the service.

Most surprisingly, the Torah never explicitly commands us to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The verses vaguely refer to a “Yom Teruah” (a Day of Teruah) and a “Zichron Teruah” (Remembrance of a Teruah) but never mention the word “shofar”.

Theoretically, these blasts could be interpreted as trumpet blasts, since trumpets were commonly used musical instruments in those days. They were also used by the Jewish People at public gatherings and during the service in the Holy Temple. Our Sages explained that the Torah is indeed referring to a shofar, by comparing the verse with another case in which the word shofar appears alongside the word teru’ah.

The source to which our Sages allude in reaching this conclusion is the Jubilee Year, which in ancient times occurred once every fifty years, during which time slaves are set free, regardless of when they were sold into slavery.

At this juncture, we should ask the following question: we know that the Jubilee Year was observed only in the Land of Israel, only once every fifty years, and only when the Holy Temple stood. If so, how could the Torah have wanted us to use this case to deduce that the shofar should be sounded on Rosh Hashanah, which is celebrated all over the world, at all times, and every year?

Why did the Torah not explicitly state that the shofar should be sounded on Rosh Hashanah, instead of merely hinting that this is to be done by sending us on a scavenger hunt to a verse that discusses the Jubilee Year?

According to rabbinic tradition, Rosh Hashanah is the day on which humankind was created. On this day, humans received the ability to make choices and take responsibility for their actions. This is the day we declare that all human beings, regardless of who they are, were created in the image of God. Hence, they are all responsible for their actions. According to tradition, the Jews’ bondage in Egypt ended on the Rosh Hashanah that preceded the first Passover holiday.

One of the ways of expressing our faith in human liberty is fulfilling the obligation to release slaves to their homes in the Jubilee Year, even if they wish to retain their status as slaves. People who ran into debt and had no choice but to sell themselves into slavery will have to be released by their masters, since the right to liberty is a human being’s most basic right. The prophet Jeremiah chastised the Jewish people for not releasing their slaves, warning them that this practice may have disastrous consequences for the entire nation.

The Jubilee Year is symbolic of the place we aspire to reach. A place where society embodies the values of mutual respect and social equality, devoid of masters and servants. In such a society, people are their own masters. The Torah wants us to understand the Rosh Hashanah can be likened to a “miniature Jubilee Year” for each of us.

This is why it sent us on this scavenger hunt – so that we can discover that the obligation to sound the shofar derives from the Jubilee Year, and so that we can realize that each of us can achieve personal liberty if we desire to. All we need to do is to listen to the sounds of the shofar, which beckon us to break free of all our subjugators, be they external or internal. Let us exclaim, as we do in our daily prayers, “Blast a great shofar for our freedom!”

Shabbat Shalom 


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