The Sound of the Shofar


The Sound of the Shofar

Nomi Berman
Director of the Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program,
Midreshet Lindenbaum


At this time of year, barely a day goes by without a moving truck pulling onto my street.  Families moving out, new families moving in; families moving to larger apartments, new olim. The moving truck brings so many associations with it: exhaustion but also excitement, a sense of newness mingled with nervousness.  In a very subtle way, the Torah suggests that the emotional roller coaster of moving day is perhaps the best metaphor for the experience of ראש השנה.

Rosh Hashana, such a momentous day on the Jewish calendar, yet the Torah tells us surprisingly little about how to celebrate it.  We are told that the first day of the seventh month is a “יום תרועה יהיה לכם”, but the work of figuring out how to implement a יום תרועה  is left to chazal.  Employing their bag of tricks known as the מידות שהתורה נדרשת בהן, chazal (Rosh Hashana 33b-34a) figure out that a  תרועה is a note sounded with a shofar, and that it is always bracketed by another note, known as a “פשוטה” or a תקיעה, before and after.  Based on the repetition of the יום תרועה phrase three times in the Torah they add that this unit of תקיעה – תרועה – תקיעה must be repeated three times.  There is some debate however, as to the exact nature of the תרועה sound – should it more resemble a sigh or a wail, or a combination thereof?  In order to satisfy all of the possibilities, we repeat each of those options three times, and hence we arrive at the 30 minimal blasts.

After all of these exegetical acrobatics are complete, and the performance of יום תרועה  has been clarified, the gemara surprisingly begins again.  There is another b’raita, the gemara tells us, which derives the same information, but using different verses as their reference point.  Here the gemara launches into an explication of the Torah passage (במדבר פרק י) describing the חצוצרות.  Again, the conclusions are the same:  we mark our yom t’ruah by blowing a minimum of thirty shofar blasts, in the exact same pattern described above.  If the two b’raitot agree with each other completely, why then did chazal take the time to derive the same exact information twice? 

It would seem that the second derivation does not contribute any new information, but is brought to enhance our conceptual understanding of the יום תרועה, rather than our practical.   A more detailed look at the חצוצרות passage will help us appreciate this more fully.  After describing the construction of the חצוצרות, the Torah describes their various uses.  The trumpets, certainly in the desert, functioned as the nation’s public address system – they were used to gather the people, sometimes at large and sometimes only the leaders.  At times the purpose of gathering was informational, but at other times it could be for as disparate reasons as celebration or war.   And finally, the sound of the חצוצרות  would be a signal for the nation in the  מדברthat the time had come to pack up and move to the next stop on their journey towards Eretz Yisrael

The obvious problem that could arise:  if the people heard the חצוצרות, how would they know how to react?  Should they start packing up for their journey, or merely gather around the Ohel Moed, or perhaps they should be taking up arms for war?  In order to avoid confusion, the Torah carefully distinguishes between the various notes sounded with the trumpets.    One long continuous sound (what we would refer to as תקיעה) indicates gathering.  If the תקיעה  is sounded with two trumpets, this indicates a call to the entire nation, while the leaders would be assembled with only one trumpet.  A call to war on the other hand would employ a totally different sound – the  תרועהwould be blasted.  A combination of  תקיעה and תרועה  would signal that the camp was preparing to travel. 

As R.S.R. Hirsch points out, the symbolism of the various notes is readily apparent.  The even sound is used for gathering while the broken cry-like sound indicates war.  Indeed a similar system is employed in modern Israel.  The same sound system which warns us of incoming missiles also calls the nation to silence on Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron.  The critical difference would be the nature of the sound.  The emergency sound, unlike the solemn unbroken sound of the days of remembrance, is a broken sound which rises and falls, metaphorically mirroring the emotional reaction it invokes. 

What then is the appropriate “sound” for Rosh Hashana?  Again, we know that Rosh Hashana is a יום תרועה.  The תרועה sound alone, according to ספר במדבר, invokes an association with war.  Chazal, however, suggest that the appropriate metaphor for ourיום תרועה is the תקיעה and תרועה combination, the call to travel. 

The combination sound, on the symbolic front, is reflective of the moving experience.  תקיעה, תרועה, תקיעה –  stability, an up and down motion, followed by stability again.  We begin in the place where we are most comfortable, the place we have been calling home.  Then we go through the “ups and downs” of moving – the excitement mixed with fear, and finally settle into a new and improved stability.  

Indeed, chazal suggest that the mixed feelings we associate with moving day are an appropriate metaphor for t’shuva.  We generally enter Elul feeling settled, spiritually complacent.  The תרועה sound of the shofar suggests that it is time for spiritual travel, otherwise known as תשובה.  And תשובה, like travel, is invested with mixed emotions.  It is natural to experience fear of change, but the awareness of the new opportunities ahead helps motivate us to overcome that fear.  We risk the emotional upheaval based on the optimistic belief that ultimately we will find a new תקיעה, and new and improved spiritual home. 

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