The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn
Book One – The Call of the High Holy Day
By Michael T. Chusid
BOOK ONE – THE CALL OF THE HIGH HOLY DAYS
1-1 An Awakening: A personal account of how shofar awakens spirituality.
1-2 Five Translation Challenges: Biblical and rabbinic basis for shofar.
1-3 My Shofar is My Beloved’s: Teshuvah and preparation for the Days of Awe.
1-4 Meditations for each Day of Elul: Warm-up exercises for the spirit.
1-5 Blast, Break, Shatter, Blast: The blessings, the calls, and the code.
1-6 The Ram’s Midrash: What the Akedah teaches about listening to shofar.
1-7 The Ewe’s Horn: Shofar speaks in both masculine and feminine voices.
1-8 Our Father, Our King: Stories about kings, children and shofarot.
1-9 Remembering Shofar: To blow, or not to blow, that is the Shabbat question.
1-10 The Dinner Bell and One Last Blast: An encore and a separation.
1-11 Azazel and the Goat that is Set Free: Two goats and two paths.
1-12 The Jubilee and the Prophet’s Words: The call for justice.
1-13 From the Belly of a Wail: Jonah revisited.
1-14 Epilogue – Elul Story
BOOK TWO – FOR THE SHOFAR BLOWER Click here.
BOOK THREE – THE PEOPLE OF THE RAM Click here.
Cover Illustration: Sefer Minhagim (Book of Customs), Amsterdam, 1722, www.library.yale.edu/exhibition/judaica/brbml.20.html, January 7, 2006.
Here we go a davening,
These are the Days of Awe.
Soon we will be fasting
According to the Law.
Health and peace be to you,
And to you a good year too!
L’Shanah tovah v’tikatevu.
L’Shanah tovah v’tikatevu.
(To the tune of the traditional
English New Year carol,
“The great shofar is sounded and a still small voice is heard.”
“What is the sound of a shofar no one hears?”
When, from time-to-time, a friend asks me, “Do you have a spiritual path?” I reply, “Yes, I am Jewish.” Being well meaning, my friend might reply, “I didn’t ask about your religion; I wanted to know if you had any spiritual practices.”
Until a fifteen year ago, I might have seen the dichotomy between Judaism and spirituality in the same way. For while I intensely identified with the Jewish people and was active in a synagogue, all I knew about spirituality was a vague, unnamed longing. This emptiness was most apparent when I attended synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the High Holy Days of the Jewish calendar. While desperately wanting to know the Eternal, all I experienced was the eternity of sitting (and standing and sitting and standing) as I passively listened to a Rabbi drone on in an unfamiliar language and a performance by a choir of operatic wannabes. Towards the end of the day, I noticed people around me started getting excited that they would soon hear the shofar, and I figured it was because it meant they would soon be able to go home.
Now, I eagerly look forward to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. The High Holy Day services are filled with almost every emotion except the boredom and alienation I used to experience. And when I hear the shofar, I am filled with the awe and trembling of which our liturgy speaks. And not only do I hear the shofar; I blow it. I sound shofar both in the synagogue for the congregation and throughout Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah, as a personal meditative practice.
The shofar is a musical instrument made from a hollowed horn of an animal, usually a ram. Hearing it blown is central to the observation of the Jewish New Year and the Jewish people’s identification with its voice is ancient and deep.
My personal discovery of the power of shofar and of other spiritual practices in Judaism began during a period of personal trial during which I had to learn to depend upon a higher power for strength. Then, as they say, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears.” I was exposed to wonderful guides to Jewish spirituality including Rabbis Jonathon Omer-Man who introduced me to Jewish meditation traditions, David A. Cooper who lifted a few of the veils from the mystical paths of kabbalah, and Moshe Halfon whose drumming workshops helped me connect unspoken sound with prayer. From them and many fellow travelers on spiritual paths, I learned that prayer could be transformed from rote recitation into an intimate conversation with the Eternal; that Judaism was such a big tent that its devotional traditions ranged from sitting in silence to dancing with ecstasy; and that I had the opportunity, perhaps even the obligation, to re-examine Jewish rituals to find a way to breathe fresh life into them. It was within this context that, if you will excuse a pun, a full-blown passion for shofar arose in me.
When I was a child, my neighbor, Mr. Shapiro, blew shofar for our little congregation in the soybean fields on the fringe of the Chicago suburbs. Mr. Shapiro was a big man with a full beard and a European accent who conveyed an aura of Old World Jewish traditions that most of my Jewish neighbors in our multi-cultural community had lost. I had not yet developed into a religious cynic, and the loud noise and the exotic custom of the shofar excited me. After the holidays, I asked to borrow his shofar and he lent it to me. I did not ask for instructions, and none were offered. With great expectation, I blew into the horn, and heard nothing. So I blew harder, and then harder still. I was quickly exhausted, and my checks and sinuses hurt and I had developed a headache. I returned the shofar to Mr. Shapiro, convinced that it was a very difficult instrument to play and that the skill it required was beyond my ken. Being a shofar blower, I figured, required years of training – like being a rabbi.
Fast forward thirty years, and I found myself led to spend the High Holy Days with Makom Ohr Shalom (www.makom.org), a Los Angeles, California congregation affiliated with Aleph (www.aleph.org) and the Jewish renewal movement and where, for over a decade, I have had the privilege of celebrating the High Holy Days with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, an inspiring teacher who brings ancient traditions alive in a contemporary context. Inspired by Reb Zalman, Makom’s services offered one delightful surprise after another: Instead of being shushed in shul, I was actually encouraged to talk with the people sitting next to me to discuss my shortcomings of the past year and to set out my intentions for the new one! Congregants brought tambourines and got up and danced when the spirit moved them! In the afternoon of the Yom Kippur fast, we had a “hands-on” healing meditation! And when it came time to hear the shofar, more than a dozen shofar blowers came forward. Oy! You should have heard the loud, wonderful, soulful noise their combined blasts made. I was as excited again as I had been as a kid that very first time I heard the loud, wonderful, soulful shofar blasts. For the first time in decades, the sound pierced my calloused psyche and awoke a sleeping soul.
That year, I purchased a shofar of my own. To my delight, it turned out to be amazingly simple to blow. Instead of having to puff my cheeks and huff with all my might, I just had to let my lips vibrate as I exhaled into the horn. Like so many other obstacles in my life, the only thing I had to overcome was an attitude problem and a little bit of ignorance. When the next Rosh Hashanah came, I joined the congregation’s choir of shofar blowers.
My learning about shofar had only just begun. As my studies of Jewish spirituality continued, I was introduced to the practice of blowing shofar daily throughout Elul, the month leading to the start of the new year. I began to understand that teshuvah – the process of making amends for our flaws in character and behavior and for seeking and giving forgiveness – takes time. We are given the month of Elul to take inventory of our lives and make amend for our errors. The daily practice during Elul of blowing (and listening to) shofar encourages me to meditate for a few moments and consider where I need to take action to do teshuvah or allow healing to occur.
A side benefit of this spiritual practice was that it also facilitated “practice” of the rehearsal type. At the beginning of Elul, the toots emanating from my shofar are weak and wavering. But with daily attention, the tones became purer and higher on both the acoustical and spiritual planes. As Rosh Hashanah draws nearer, my daily practice takes on added fervor. And by the final tekiah gedolah of Yom Kippur, my shofar and I are ready to blast-off!
Over the years, I started getting recognition as a ba’al tekiah – a “master blaster” – of the congregation. This opened a still deeper level of shofar insight, since people started asking me to teach them to blow shofar. While working one-on-one with students, I developed the “Chusid Method” that enables me to teach most individuals to get a satisfying toot from their shofarot (the Hebrew plural of “shofar”) in as little as five to ten minutes. “The rest,” I tell them, “is commentary. Go and study.”
For those who wanted to go deeper into the practice, I began teaching workshops at the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), to synagogue groups and chavarot (study groups or social clubs), and at gatherings in private homes. So far, I have taught nearly a thousand people to sound the shofar and have had a 98% success rate among my students. (How’s that for tooting my own horn!) Makom Ohr Shalom has formed a Shofar Corps that visits hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and individuals who are unable to leave their homes to sound the shofar for them. And by listening to and sharing feedback with their class and corps mates, participants also deepen their ability to hear the shofar.
The call of the shofar is imprinted into the spiritual DNA of the Jewish tribe. It is to the children of Israel what the didgeridoo is to the Australian aborigines, the conch shell is to the peoples of Polynesia and South Asia, and the council drum is to the First Nations of North America. It is the technology we use to assemble our community, call to our higher power, and to bring down blessings from heaven.
Tradition tells us that we all stood at Mt. Sinai, even generations not yet born, when God revealed Torah to us accompanied by the blasts of the mighty shofar. Those blasts continue to resonate within you and me, seeking to emanate through our lips so that God can enjoy hearing them again and we can be reminded of our Covenant.
We are a nation of priests and, as we strive to live with mitzvah-consciousness, we each gravitate to special areas of holiness where we can share our gifts with our community. As I look around the sanctuary during the High Holy Days, I see members of my community singing in the choir, caring for children in the nursery, bringing home-baked challah for the break fast, and helping with the myriad administrative details it takes to transform an assembly hall into a sanctuary; each is helping to raise the sparks of the Divine. In the same spirit, the deeper I take my practice of shofar, the higher the prayers of the entire congregation can go.
This book is written primarily for Jews and about Jewish practices and teachings. The New Testament of the Bible, the Qur’an, and the ancient religions of Northern Europe also contain teachings about horns and the trumpets that were patterned after horns, however, and members of other religions also use horns in their rituals. I hope readers of all faiths will find some value in this book. If, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “the Holy Spirit shouts forth even from the tales of the gentiles,” then there is hope that the tale of a Jew can speak to those who travel different paths. Let us learn from and respect each other’s horn blowing traditions; as the kabbalist Moses Cordovero said, “each type of bird sings a different language, but all sing to the Divine.”
I hope this book will inspire you to listen more closely to shofar, to deepen your spiritual practice by raising your own horns, and to join the cadres of shofar blowers serving our communities and our planet.
“Why do we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah? Why do we blow it? The All-Merciful told us: ‘Blow.’”
Why do Jews blow a shofar during the High Holy Days? For many, “tradition” is an adequate answer. Indeed, memories from childhood of hearing shofar while in the loving embrace of parents or grandparents create a powerful momentum from generation to generation. A friend recalls with warmth, “The first time I remember hearing the shofar, I was a little girl, standing next to my father during the High Holidays, and he leaned down and gathered me into his tallit.” That shared embrace implanted an indelible memory of blessing, protection, and love.
Shofarot made from animal horns decay rapidly when buried in earth, and none have survived from antiquity. However, this ivory trumpet found at Megiddo is from the 14th century BCE, and is testimony that horns have been part of Semitic culture for hundreds of generations.
For many, the significance of a religious tradition is not in understanding it’s meaning, but simply in the observance of its rituals. At Sinai, after all, we said, “We will do” before we said, “We will hear,” even without understanding God’s commandments. It has been observed that, “Provided the worshipper fulfilled the ritual with accuracy, no one cared what he believed about its origin.” Or, as Tevye the milkman says, “Where do our traditions come from? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.”
Many contemporary Jews, however, have a spiritual hunger that drives them to ask fundamental questions. Rapid changes in society make it necessary to reexamine ritual and rejuvenate them so they remain vital in our lives. Heschel says:
“There are spiritual reasons that compel me to feel alarmed when hearing the terms ‘customs’ and ‘ceremonies.’ What is the worth of celebrating the seder on Passover Eve if it is nothing but a ceremony? An annual re-enactment of quaint antiquities? Ceremonies end in boredom, and boredom is the great enemy of the spirit. A religious act is something in which the soul must be able to participate; out of which inner devotion, kavanah, must evolve. But what kavanah should I entertain if entering the sukkah is a mere ceremony?”
The word, “Kavanah,” in the above quotation is Hebrew meaning “intention, mindset, or intentionality.” A shofar blast with the kavanah of fulfilling the mitzvah of shofar will have a very different meaning than a shofar blast used as a sound effect in a movie, even if the two blasts sound the same. Delving further into questions about why we sound shofar can help develop a clearer kavanah with regards to the ritual and attune our listening to the shofar’s voice.
The sound of the shofar is the approved soundtrack for the Days of Awe. The Torah makes it clear that sounding shofar on the High Holy Days is a mitzvah, a commandment from God.
The pertinent clause governing Yom Kippur is:
“Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year.” Leviticus 25:9
While translated as “horn,” the Hebrew says “shofar.” The verse requires the blowing of the shofar on Yom Kippur every fiftieth year, the Jubilee year. Torah prescribes a sabbatical every seven years during which the land is to be left fallow. The Jubilee occurs after seven cycles of sabbaticals and adds several additional requirements: slaves are to be freed and land is to be returned to the family or clan to whom it was originally given.
While we (unfortunately) no longer observe the Jubilee, we now sound shofar on Yom Kippur to memorialize this commandment and to symbolize our emancipation from sin through atonement on the Day of Atonement. More will be said on the shofar of Yom Kippur in Part Four of this Book.
Two other Torah verses lay the basis for blowing shofar on Rosh Hashanah:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the Israelite people thus: In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.” Leviticus 23:23-25
“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations. You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.” Numbers 29:1
While the sense of these two English verses is accurate, they present us with several translation challenges.
1. The first is in the translation from Hebrew to English. Neither verse actually mentions a “horn” or the word “shofar.” Instead, they both prescribe “teruah,” a word that can be translated as “blast” or “blowing.” Leviticus, in other words, commands us to “remember the blowing,” and Numbers commands that the first day of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah, shall be a “day of blowing.”
2. The second translation problem is in interpreting the intent of the original language; what are we to “blow”? The clue is the reference to “remembering” – the blowing we are to remember is the call of shofar at Mount Sinai:
“When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they [the people] may go up on the mountain.”
“On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the shofar grow louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.”
“All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking…”
The original production of The Ten Commandments had even better special effects than the movie and was, the critics say, “unforgettable.” Tradition teaches us that “all the people witnessed” God’s revelation, including you and me. How could we not remember the teruah of shofar?
Now that we understand that the Torah bids us to observe teruah on Rosh Hashanah with a shofar, our next two translation challenges are:
3. What, exactly, is meant by the word, “shofar”? And,
4. What is a “teruah” supposed to sound like?
There are two ways we determine the answers to these questions:
First, we can rely on tradition, the living Torah, as alluded to in the introduction to this Chapter – we know the answers because “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; the Prophets handed it down to the Great Assembly.” They, in turn, taught the rabbis, who told their students, who told me, just as I now tell you.
The second technique is to search the written Torah for evidence that can be constructed into proofs, a search that has produced the Talmud – particularly Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate Rosh Hashanah – and twenty-five hundred years of commentaries.
Either methodology yields the same answers:
· A shofar is the hollow horn of an animal, preferably a ram and definitely not a cow or bull, with a bore through the tip that allows us to blow through the horn and produce a sound.
· Teruah is a fragmented blast of the shofar that can be compared to the sound of crying or wailing.
These definitions will be augmented throughout this book.
5. The final challenge is to translate the sounds of shofar so they have spiritual meaning and motivate us toward teshuvah – the process of making amends to those we have harmed, correcting our defects of character and seeking and giving forgiveness.
Before we proceed, however, there is at least one more Torah passage that dictates blowing on Rosh Hashanah. As the first day of the month of Tishrei, Rosh Hashanah is also a Rosh Hodesh, the head of the month marked by the first appearance of the new moon, and governed by the following commandment:
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Have two silver trumpets made: make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the community and to set the divisions [of the Tribes] in motion. When both are blown in long blasts, the whole community shall assemble before you at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and if only one is blown, the chieftains, heads of Israel’s contingents, shall assemble before you.
“But when you sound short blasts, the divisions encamped on the east shall move forward, and when you sound short blasts a second time, those encamped on the south shall move forward. Thus short blasts shall be blown for setting them in motion, while to convoke the congregation you shall blow long blasts, not short ones.
“The trumpets shall be blown by Aaron’s sons, the priest; they shall be for you an institution for all time throughout the ages.
“When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies. And on your joyous occasions – your fixed festivals and new moon days – you shall sound trumpets over the burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being.
“They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the Lord, am your God.”
Silver trumpets used by the Aaron’s sons may have been like this one, found in Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s tomb..
Like other commandments prescribed for the priests in the Mishkon and Temple, this ritual is no longer observed in its original form. When Jews need to blow today, we use the humble ram’s horn instead of silver trumpets. (I doubt the redactors of Torah anticipated the silver trumpets we now blow at Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties and other simchas or celebrations.) Still, these verses establish the precedent for blowing to assemble our congregations and call us to action, to sound the alarm to struggle against sin and injustice, to create holy noise at times of celebration, and to remind God of our needs and prayers.
The drawing shows a trumpet being used in Egyptian military maneuvers.
The trumpets from the Temple are shown in this relief on the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the Roman booty from the destruction of the 2nd Temple.
The injunction to blow a horn on Rosh Chodesh – the new moon – is restated in Psalm 81:4:
“Blow the shofar on the new moon… because it is a decree for Israel, a judgment for the God of Jacob…”
One commentary on this verse makes it clear that, in the final analysis, it is not necessary for us to fully understand why we blow shofar. “The Hebrew word for decree’ usually alludes to a Torah law the reason for which is not revealed in Scripture. The Hebrew word for ‘judgment,’ on the other hand, alludes to a law that has a readily understood rationale. Thus, the mitzvah of shofar is a decree to Israel, for God has not revealed His reasons for the commandment. Nevertheless, we are certain that to Him, in His infinite wisdom, it is a judgment with a clear and logical base.”
“There are ten reasons why the Creator, blessed be He, commanded us to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah:
1. “Because this day is the beginning of creation on which the Holy One, blessed be He, created the world and reigned over it. Just as is with kings at the start of their reign — trumpets and horns are blown in their presence to make it known and to let it be heard in every place — thus it is when we designated the Creator as King on this day. As David said: ‘With trumpets and sounds of the horn, shout ye before the King the Lord.’
2. “Because the day of New Year is the first of the ten days of repentance, the shofar is sounded on it to announce to us as one warns and says: ‘Whoever wants to repent — let him repent; and if he does not, let him reproach himself.’ Thus do the kings: first they warn the people of their decree; then, if one violates a decree after the warning, his excuse is not accepted.
3. “To remind us of Mount Sinai, as it is said: ‘the blare of the horn grew louder and louder,’ and that we should accept for ourselves the covenant that our ancestors accepted for themselves, as they said ‘we will do and we will obey.’
4. “To remind us of the words of the prophets that were compared to the sound of the shofar, as it is said: ‘Then whosoever hears the sound of the horn, and takes not warning, if the sword come and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head... whereas if he had taken warning, he would have delivered his soul.’
5. “To remind us of the destruction of the Temple and the sound of the battle-cries of the enemies, as it is said: ‘Because you have heard, O my soul, the sound of the horn, the alarm of war.’ When we hear the sound of the shofar, we will ask God to rebuild the Temple.
6. “To remind us of the binding of Isaac who offered his life to Heaven. We also should offer our lives for the sanctification of His name, and thus we will be remembered for good.
7. “When we will hear the blowing of the shofar, we will be fearful and we will tremble, and we will humble ourselves before the Creator, for that is the nature of the shofar — it causes fear and trebling, as it is written: ‘Shall the horn be blown in a city and the people not tremble?’
8. “To recall the day of the great judgment and to be fearful of it, as it is said: ‘the great day of the Lord is near, it is near and hastens greatly...a day of the horn and alarm.’
9. “To remind us of the ingathering of the scattered ones of Israel, that we ardently desire, as it is said: ‘And it shall come to pass in that day, that a great horn shall be blown; and they shall come who were lost in the land of Assyria...and they shall worship the Lord in the holy mountain at Jerusalem.’
10. “To remind us of the resurrection of the dead and the belief in it, as it is said: ‘All ye inhabitants of the world, and ye dwellers on the earth, when an ensign is lifted up on the mountains, see ye; and when the horn is blown, hear ye.’”
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe left us the following additional reasons for shofar:
11. Its sound is compared to that of a child crying out to his/her parent (and, in turn, to our crying out to God, our Father).
12. The use of an animal’s horn reminds us that even our most hardened “animal-like” instincts are included in the service of God.
13. Although many ritual vessels can become “tameh” (ritually impure), the shofar cannot – the shofar is the device with which we express our innate connection with God; this connection can be neither severed nor sullied; it remains intact and is always ready to be drawn upon.
14. The shofar preferably has a bend in it, symbolizing our willingness to bend our will to that of God.
15. The mitzvah of shofar is only fulfilled when it is blown with the intent of connecting to Godliness; the same is true of all mitzvot – they are not simply tasks to be blindly carried out, but rather are spiritual tools to connect with God in a meaningful way.
Drawing upon the stories of women that inform our hearing of shofar (see Chapter 7 – The Ewe’s Horn), we can add:
16. To remind us of our mother Sarah who, upon hearing what God had asked of her husband and son, sobbed and wailed like the cries of a shofar, and then died.
17. To remind us of our mother, Hannah, whose horn was exalted when God answered her heartfelt prayers.
I find the following additional reasons:
18. To remind us that there is “a time for war and a time for peace.” A time for war as it is written, “When you hear a trumpet call, gather yourselves to me at that place; our God will fight for us!” And a time for peace, as it is written: “Joab then sounded the horn, and all the troops halted…and stopped the fighting.”
19. To remind us that Judaism evolved from and is still connected to the Earth-based, shamanistic practices of a tribal cult.
20. To see that our journey through life follows a spiral path of growth.
21. To help exorcise the dybbuks – demons – that we may bear.
22. To remind us that when the Holy One calls, we may hear light and see sound.
23. To renew us in the Covenants of Noah, the Akedah, and Sinai.
24. To remind us, as God said to Cain, we can master the urge to sin.
25. To maintain a legacy of the High Priest’s Yom Kippur ritual with the two goats, one sacrificed and the other sent to Azazel.
26. To call forth with the voice of a sheep to acknowledge our Shepherd.
“A hasid once hurried past his rabbi on the first day of Elul. The rabbi asked him, ‘Why are you hurrying?’
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘I must look in the Machzor and put my prayers in order.’
“‘The prayer book is the same as it was last year,’ replied the rabbi. ‘It would be far better for you to look into your deeds, and put yourself in order.’”
“Rosh Hashanah is coming. I am so not ready. The other day, someone remarked to me that Elul is coming early this year. I think he must have been joking; Elul comes early every year.”
“In Psalm 150, ‘praise God in His sanctuary,’ the word ‘hallelu’ [praise], occurs twelve times, corresponding to the twelve months of the year. Elul, the sixth month of the year, matches the sixth Hallelu, ‘praise Him with the blast of the shofar.’ This alludes to the custom of blowing the shofar during the month of Elul.”
Many Jews hear the shofar daily throughout the month of Elul – the Hebrew month that precedes Rosh Hashanah – to stimulate spiritual preparations for the Days of Awe. The exceptions to this are that shofar is generally not sounded on Shabbat, nor on the last day of the month (the day before Rosh Hashanah).
The tradition is linked to our hearing shofar at Mt. Sinai:
“After the sin of the golden calf, Moses pleaded with HaShem for forty days. At the end of that period, on Rosh Hodesh Elul (the new moon beginning Elul), Moses was told to ascend the mountain and remain in Heaven for forty days and forty nights to receive the second Tablets. During each of those forty days, the shofar was sounded throughout the camp, and an announcement was made: “Attention please! Let it be known that Moses went up the mountain. He will not return before forty days and forty nights!” this was done to prevent the people’s miscalculation that occurred when Moses ascended to Heaven the first time, which led to the making of the golden calf. To commemorate the month-long sounding of the shofar, we blow the shofar during the month of Elul.”
The thirty days of Elul plus the ten days of the Days of Awe represent the 40 days of Moses’ sojourn on Mt. Sinai.
Elul is the secret to unlocking the power of the New Year. It is a time for self-inventory and an opportunity to draw closer to God through spiritual preparation for the New Year. The importance of this is summarized in the following poem:
Accounting of the Souls
Reading the Torah is like reading your bank statement;
You know it's important, but it is indecipherable.
Some of what you read is obviously significant.
Much appears not to be.
Yet, if a single number or letter were to be different,
The Truth of the Total would be lost,
And all would be changed.
Somewhere in the past you made an error.
You search the text, seeking to restore balance.
The longer you wait to reconcile your accounts,
The harder it is to reconcile.
Some walk into their accountant's office once a year,
And throw a box of loose, unexamined receipts upon them.
Some appear before God once a year, unprepared and untidy.
They expect the Rabbi to do the reckoning.
But in the end, each of us stands alone before God.
Either your check is covered or not.
May none of you cash in this year.
May all of you be inscribed
in the balanced checkbook of life.
An older teaching also uses a financial metaphor to explain the shofar’s significance in the spiritual work of the month:
“Beit din [rabbinic court] gives a debtor a thirty-day deferment to pay his bills before his property is confiscated. Similarly, the shofar blasts of Elul remind us to pay the debts we have accumulated with our shortcomings. We “pay off the debt” by doing teshuvah, tefillah and giving tzadakah. We have thirty days to settle our accounts, so we will not be found wanting on Rosh Hashanah.”
“A native villager, born and reared in an obscure rural environment, came to a big city for the first time and obtained lodging at an inn. Awakened in the middle of the night by the loud beating of drums, he inquired drowsily, “What's this all about?" Informed that a fire had broken out and that the drum beating was the city's fire alarm, he turned over and went back to sleep.
“On his return home he reported to the village authorities: ‘They have a wonderful system in the big city; when a fire breaks out the people beat their drums and before long the fire burns out.’ All excited, they ordered a supply of drums and distributed them to the population.
“When a fire broke out some time later, there was a deafening explosion of drum beating, and while the people waited expectantly for the flames to subside, a number of their homes burned to the ground.
“A sophisticated visitor passing through that village, when told the reason for the ear-splitting din, derided the simplistic natives: ‘Idiots! Do you think a fire can be put out by beating drums? They only sound an alarm for the people to wake up and take measures to extinguish the fire.’
“This parable, said the Maggid of Dubno, applies to those of us who believe that beating the breast during the Al Het (confessional), raising our voices during worship, and blowing the shofar will put out the fires of sin and evil that burn in us. They are only an alarm, a warning to wake up and resort to heshbon ha-nefesh (soul-searching), so that we may merit the favor of God.”
Shofar is incorporated into the weekday synagogue prayer service during Elul. Not only is shofar sounded within the minyan, Psalm 27 is also read stating:
“I sacrifice in His tent with teruah (shofar blasts) of joy,
Singing and chanting a hymn to the Lord.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud;
Have mercy on me, answer me.”
Adopting these shofar practices as a personal daily meditation during Elul provides a structure and discipline that has become essential to my preparation for the High Holy Days.
My regimen is simple, and you are encouraged to modify it to suit your temperament and practices. I spend a moment getting centered in my body, feeling the earth beneath my feet and the air coursing in and out of my lungs. If there is some aspect of my life in which I want to stimulate the process of teshuvah, I say a prayer to ask God to help me hear whatever it is I need to hear and to find the conviction to take appropriate actions. Then I recite the blessing for hearing the shofar, and blow tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah. (See Chapter 5 – Blast, Break, Shatter, Blast for an explanation of the shofar blasts.)
And then I listen.
I listen as the shofar calls’ vibrations spread out into the universe and decay. I listen for responses that ripple through my body. I listen to whatever images, thoughts, or feeling come to my awareness. I listen to the arguments of my mind telling me that I should ignore any pain, resentment, or sin around which I need to pursue teshuvah. I just listen.
Then I put away the shofar and I go about the rest of my day.
It is seldom that I have cosmic revelations during this practice. Instead, I have a slow coming to grips with areas of my life that need reconciliation. Perhaps I realize that I have to apologize to or forgive someone. Or I will remember a pledge I made that I have not yet fulfilled. Or I realize that I have been holding onto a belief or attitude that is no longer serving me. Teshuvah can be a slow process, and listening to shofar during Elul has helped me, blast-by-blast and step-by-step, seek the “at-one-ment” with my self, my neighbor, and with God that is the substance of atonement.
By the end of Elul, when Rosh Hashanah arrives, my shofar and I have both been awakened, my lips are tuned, my heart is attuned, and I am ready to both sound and hear the great shofar.
For help in developing your own shofar practice during Elul, please see the meditations for Elul in the next Chapter. Reading and reflecting on these meditations may help you find more meaning in a daily shofar practice.
Finally, “May you be shofar-driven to a good, sweet year...”
“In the few days remaining of this year, let us be smart enough to choose the proper thoughts to concentrate upon during Rosh Hashanah.”
It is a richly rewarding tradition to hear the shofar daily during the Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah. If you participate in a morning minyan – communal prayer service, that is the best time for shofar. Otherwise, take a few moments to sound and listen to shofar yourself or with your family.
Reading and reflecting on these meditations may help with the inner work or required to spiritually prepare for the Days of Awe, and with the external work required to make amends to yourself and others.
It is customary to not blow shofar on Shabbat. Instead, either skip that day’s reading or read the meditation and try to remember the voice of shofar without sounding one. (See Chapter 9 – Remembering Shofar.)
“In the beginning…God said…”
The world was not created by thought, but by action. God’s speaking created a vibration, a ripple in the cosmos, that continues to move outward from its source and exchange energy with everything it contacts.
When we blow shofar, we are acting in God’s image, creating change in the world through sound.
In the physical world, sound vibrations transfer mechanical energy and generate minute amounts of heat due to molecular friction. In the physical world, the energy of shofar, like any other sound, entropies, dissipating until its impact is lost and forgotten.
In the higher worlds, however, the vibrations of shofar becomes amplified when they are heard and act as a stimulus for teshuvah, the process of making amends for our sins (missing the mark) and returning to a life more in alignment with divine purpose.
Hearing is more than the passive registration of acoustic energy by our auditory nerve; to hear shofar requires us to be spiritually present. We must become so receptive that the vibrations enter our minds, hearts and souls and move us towards taking the actions that produce teshuvah.
Teshuvah is not created by thoughts alone; action is required. For sins between us and God, we must ADMIT our error, FEEL regret and RESOLVE to not repeat the sins. For sins between us and another person, we must also ASK forgiveness and MAKE restitutions.
If we do not actively hear shofar in a way that prompts teshuvah, then the vibrations merely pass through us, doing little else than imperceptibly raising our body temperatures.
Years ago, a professor gave me the assignment to calculate how much sound energy was required to heat a cup of tea. During Elul, the month proceeding Rosh Hashanah, we can do better than that. We can use the energy of shofar to move us to brew an entire pot of tea, and then to sit down and share a cup with our family, neighbors and associates to settle old scores, heal festering wounds, ask for forgiveness for our offenses, and forgive those against whom we may hold grudges.
When we do this, we are truly acting in the image of God, moving against the flow of entropy to create a new world. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, visualize sitting down with a cup of tea with your worthy opponents. What would you like to say and hear that may lead to healing?
“The Lord God formed man… He blew into his nostrils the breath of life…”
This is the breath we return when we blow shofar.
The connection between breath and knowledge of God is so deep that it is rooted in our languages. In English, “respiration” and “spiritual” share the same root. In Hebrew, “neshamah” (soul) and “neshēmah” (breath) share the same root, while “ruach” can mean either “wind” or “spirit.”
One could reasonably assume that a powerful exhalation is the breath required to produce a strong shofar blast. As a shofar blower, however, I have found that the most important breath is my inhalation before blowing shofar.
On the practical level, filling my chest with air provides the substance that will later be channeled into the shofar. Plus, it oxygenates my blood so I do not faint during a prolonged tekiah gedolah.
But on a deeper level, the inhalation fills us with life. In that first breath, Adam had to inhale to receive the breath God blew into his nostrils. In the same way, inhaling continues to fill us with the spirit of life.
We are reborn with every inhalation. Then, like a newborn baby, we cry. Our cry is the voice of shofar announcing the birth of a New Year, a new world. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, feel the spirit flowing through your body with each breath.
“And the Lord said to Cain,
‘Why are you distressed,
And why is your face fallen?
Surely, if you do right,
There is uplift.
But if you do not do right
Sin couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.’”
The voice of shofar blares out of the story of Cain, introducing fundamental themes that resonate throughout the liturgy of the Days of Awe.
11th Century Romanesque ivory bas-relief shows God accepting Abel’s sacrifice of a sheep over Cain’s offering of grain, and the events that followed.
The story of Cain is not usually associated with shofar and the High Holy Days. But consider the evidence; Genesis introduces four motifs that are interwoven into the Days of Awe:
1. The sacrifices offered by Cain and Abel are the first instance of WORSHIP in Torah.
2. Abel’s slaying is the first mention of SIN in Torah.
3. God’s exhortation to Cain, above, is the first place in Torah that lays out the basic tenets of TESHUVAH, an individual’s opportunity to chose to do right.
4. When Cain prayed, “My punishment is too great to bear!” we have the first instance in Torah where God, by placing a mark of protection on Cain, shows MERCY.
· Abel was a keeper of sheep, and his offering was accepted while Cain’s offering from the fruit of the soil was not. This is the first mention of sheep in Torah and foreshadows the myriad instances in which sheep are woven into the historical and spiritual identity of the Jewish people, including: the binding of Isaac, the blood of the lamb that marked our doors on the night of the Passover, the blaring of the ram’s horn at Sinai.
· From Cain descended Jubal, the father of all musicians. Talmud explains that his name means “ram”, signaling the significance of the ram’s horn in our tradition and tying the generations of Cain to the shofar.
· We are told that both Cain and Abel (and their twin sisters) were born on Rosh Hashanah.
· Legend has it that the mark God placed on Cain was a horn.
When I blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah, I viscerally experience God’s declaration, “Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” While shofar’s sound is produced by buzzing my lips, I feel it as a vibration rising out of the earth, coursing through my body, and rushing out the shofar to create a conduit between heaven and earth.
We are the children of Cain, “a restless wanderer on earth.” Yet in the sound of shofar, we remember that we can be masters of the evil inclination. There is sin, but there is also teshuvah and mercy. There is hope. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, ask for strength and courage to master your urge to sin.
“Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”
The shofar is a tool for amplifying and modulating sound. Perhaps anthropologists can tell us which came first, spoken language or the use of tools; spoken prayer or horn blowing. I do not know.
However, I do know that before any of these things, we did quite well communicating emotions using non-verbal sounds and body language. Like many other animals, we expressed ourselves with grunts and growls. Thumping our chest and puffing our chests. Flailing our extremities and shaking heads. And roaring and howling – just as shofar still does.
Hearing shofar enables us to return to a time before Babel when we all shared a common language. Now, as then, we understand clearly the raw emotions and instinctual behaviors aroused by shofar: fear, awe, love, courage, bewilderment, passion, commitment, release, joy, and…
There is no need to process the voice of shofar through the higher speech centers of our minds, only to hear it.
The Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgies are floods of words. Even if we read Hebrew, Aramaic, and the other languages in which our prayer book is written, how many of us really understand them? Do the words have the same meaning to me as they do to you? Can they possibly have the same meaning now as when first spoken on the other side of the world and the millennia?
Halfway through services, are we even capable of hearing more words? Or have they become burnt hard like bricks and stacked one on top of the other in an attempt to build a tower of words with its top in the sky?
But then shofar sounds. The tower of words tumble and we return, if only for an instant, to an ancient primal language we all understand. We look at each other and know that nothing we propose to do will be out of our reach.
Stripped of our words and reduced to naked souls, we stand trembling together. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, quiet the flood of words in your mind and simply hear sound.
“…but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?”
The wild sheep of the ancient world was an important source of protein, fat, and hide. But it was also a terrifying animal that was strong, fast, and crowned with powerful horns that outmatched the primitive weapons of our ancestors. The creature was literally the source of life and death to the Paleolithic hunter, and inspired magical attempts to influence its behavior. Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man has said that the early humans who attributed divine qualities to the forces of nature were the “spiritual geniuses” of their age. The ram was a god to the ancient Semites that wandered between the Tigris and Nile Rivers.
Later, when horned animals were domesticated, they were no longer seen as gods beyond human control. Yet the memory of an all-powerful ram still existed; a god that still demanded death to be propitiated. By then, our agriculture had advanced enough to afford the sacrifice of an animal now and then, especially since our flocks yielded more males than were needed for breeding.
This was the world in which Isaac was reared. His father’s god was no longer in the shape of a beast, but still demanded blood, smoke, and the crackle of sizzling fat.
Still later, we were taken as slaves into Babylon, and we no longer had the fat of the land to burn. Worship turned from Temple-based sacrifice, to the offering of all we had left to give – our voices. Yet the memory of the ram still existed. And then, as today, we mark the vernal New Year with a charred bone of a sheep, and the autumnal New Year with the voice of sheep, shofar.
There is a story about the Hasidic master who, on the New Year, would go to a certain spot in the woods, and recite a particular blessing, and it was enough. Later, his disciples no longer knew the certain spot in the woods, but would welcome the New Year with the particular blessing, and it was enough. Today, we no longer know the certain spot in the woods or the particular blessing. But we tell the story, and it is enough.
When we now blow shofar to welcome the New Year, it tells the story of nearly six thousand years of spiritual growth. And it is enough. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, let the modern self and your primitive self embrace.
“Go to the flock and fetch me two choice kids, and I will make of them a dish for your father, such as he likes…and she covered his hands and the hairless parts of his neck with skins of the kids.”
Our sages tell us that, when we hear shofar, the ram’s horn should remind us to meditate on the faith of Abraham and how he was tested. The Akedah, the binding of Isaac, is a story of infinite significance, yet sometimes I question why it was singled out to be read every year on Rosh Hashanah. The entire Torah is sacred, after all, so what would it be like if we read a different story on the New Year?
If, instead, we read about Esau and Jacob, on what would we then meditate when we heard the ram’s horn?
Meditation often produces surprising leaps of creative association, and our thoughts may turn to Chad Gadya, the allegorical Passover song about the “one kid my father bought for two zuzim,” two coins. Except that in this story, there are two kids – Esau and Jacob – who bought one zuz – their father’s inheritance.
These two kids fought each other from the womb like rams in rutting season. Moreover, they are both symbolically offered as a sacrifice when Rachel makes a meal for Isaac with “two choice kids” from the flock. When the father eats the sacrifice, he gives a blessing that is along the lines of what the Patriarchs hoped to receive when they offered a kid to The Father. During the Days of Awe, we too pray for a blessing from Father.
The Pesach song can be understood as a parable about how powerful regimes fall, one after another, just like the estates of Esau and Jacob fall one to the other. Was the mix-up in Jacob’s blessing due to just the machinations of a mother playing favorites, or is the unseen hand of God working behind the scenes. The answer is implied in our question during the High Holy Days, “Who shall be humbled, and who exalted?”
The competition between the sons of Isaac turns to hostility and then to threats of death. The family is torn apart, and the brothers do not see each other for 20 years. Eventually, Jacob decides to seek reconciliation with his brother. While Jacob is returning to his homeland, a divine messenger renames him Israel. From this, we learn the transformational potential of teshuvah, a Hebrew word that means, “to return.”
Israel makes amends to his brother by gifting him with flocks and bowing to the ground to ask forgiveness, and is accepted in love by his brother. What started as a dreamy meditation now comes into focus as a tale about blessings, standing in judgment before God, and teshuvah – the process of healing rifts and returning to wholeness.
Then came the Holy One, blessed is He. Chad gadya, chad gadya. Amen.
As you hear shofar today meditate on the unseen hand shaping your destiny. Where is there estrangement in your life? To where or what must you return?
“When Joseph came up to his brothers, they…cast him into a pit.”
The Talmud says, “If one blows a shofar into a pit… the law is as follows: If he heard the sound of shofar without an accompanying echo, he has fulfilled his obligation. But if he heard the sound of shofar’s echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation.”
For most of us, the image of blowing shofar into a pit seems so preposterous, that we may not immediately grasp why the sages considered it. But time and again, it has been necessary for Jews to perform the mitzvah of shofar clandestinely, hiding in cellars and caves, to circumvent oppression.
What did Joseph do while at the bottom of the pit? Perhaps he napped and had another prophetic dream. Or did he pray for release? For courage to face his ordeal? For compassion to forgive his brothers? Or for…
If he prayed, would his prayers have ricochet off the walls of the cistern? And if so, would his prayer echoes have become invalidated before God heard them?
Topologically, a shofar is a tube, a hollow space that acts as a megaphone to modulate and amplify vibrations. Understood this way, Joseph was at the bottom of a huge earth-based shofar. Dug vertically into the ground, the pit was on an axis passing through the planet’s center and straight into the heavens. His prayers from the bottom of the pit, even whispered, would have been amplified far beyond any tekiah gedolah (big shofar blast) emanating from an ordinary ram’s horn.
But there is a qualification. Joseph’s prayers would only have escaped the gravity of self-pity or recrimination if his kavanah, the intention behind his prayer, was inclined towards teshuvah – making whole the worlds.
Otherwise, his words would have done little more than bounce from one wall to the other. Inside the pit, the reverberation would make his voice sound big and booming; very satisfying to hear on a superficial level, but not nearly as effective as the still small voice of the heart for communicating with the One. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, meditate on the pits in which you are confined. Are you dozing or praying? What is your kavanah?
“I am the Lord your God…”
A more literal translation of the Hebrew is, “I am Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay, your God…,” using the four letter name of God that is beyond translation and beyond pronunciation.
Rabbi Arthur I. Waskow has written about pronouncing The Name and asks, what if there are no vowels in The Name, only the consonants yud, hay, and vav? Pronouncing these letters sounds like, “yyyyyyyyy-hhhhhhhh-vvvvvvvv-hhhhhhh,” a rush of air that is only slightly modified by our lips and tongues.
The voice of shofar is, similarly, only a rush of air slightly modified by our lips and tongues and amplified by a conical horn. It is, perhaps, as much of The Name as we are able to hear as humans, the rest of the name is on spiritual or dimensional bandwidths to which mortals cannot attune.
While the Temple still stood, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and utter The Name. Now, during the Days of Awe, we must each be our own high priest and enter the Holy of Holies that is indwelling within each of us. There, we can hear “yyyyyyyyy-hhhhhhhh-vvvvvvvv-hhhhhhh” – the Eternal Exhalation of shofar – as The Name whispered in a rush of air. Amen.
When you hear shofar today, remember standing at Sinai and hearing, for the first time, “I am yyyyyyyyy-hhhhhhhh-vvvvvvvv-hhhhhhh, your God…”
“...the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God.”
Most Jewish communities do not sound shofar on Shabbat. The rabbinic prohibition against doing so is assurance against someone carrying shofar or doing anything else that might be construed as work; it is a fence around Torah to protect the sanctity of the day of rest.
Even if you drive or do other “work” on Shabbat, you may want to refrain from shofar blowing on Shabbat as a symbolic way of embracing the day of rest.
Hearing shofar is a call to make teshuvah, the making of amends for our errors. But on Shabbat, we do not have to make anything; we simply have to be.
While teshuvah is a worthy goal, pursuing it relentlessly may be counterproductive. I have heard that a historian studied the records left by the wagon trains of American settlers moving west across the great plains and mountains. The records indicate that the groups that observed the Sabbath, resting themselves and their horses one day out of seven, actually made the journey in less time, on average, than those who hitched-up their wagons every day. Amen.
When you hear shofar today, unhitch your wagon to enjoy the blessings of the moment.
“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor, in order that your ox and your ass may rest…”
Including a day of rest for animals was one of the ethical revolutions of the Torah. In this restatement of the Fourth Commandment, animals are not just a beneficiary of the Sabbath; they are the reason for it. While the ox and ass are named in this verse, we should understand it to apply to all livestock, including sheep.
A shofar can be made from the horn of any animal whose horn has a bone core, with the exception that it cannot be made from horns of the cow, ox or similar bovines. Most often, it is made from the horn of a sheep, particularly a ram’s horn.
Long before Sinai, when our ancestors discovered that blowing into a horn could produce sound, they made its call a central feature of their primitive rituals. They believed that blowing the horn enabled them to magically acquire the animal’s power and gain control over the forces of nature.
Our rituals have become more sophisticated today, and we do not recognize animals as avatars of the divine. If we listen, however, we can still hear the voice of the animal resonating from its horn whenever we blow shofar. The essence of the living animal that remains in the horn is what distinguishes the sound of a shofar from that of a metallic trumpet.
When you rest on Shabbat, let the essence of the animal from which your horn came rest too. Amen.
When you hear shofar today, offer a blessing in honor of the animals that provide horns for shofarot.
“You shall make the altar… Make its horns on the four corners, the horns to be of one piece with it; and overlay it with copper.”
There are spiritual lessons hidden in even the most prosaic verses of Torah; what can we learn from the altar horns that will illuminate our understanding of shofar horns and our blasts during the Days of Awe?
Some scholars say the horns are vestiges from when our altars were shaped like horned animals such as the Golden Calf. Others posit that the beaten metal horns are a legacy from when altars were decorated with horns of animals that had been sacrificed upon them. Certainly, horns are symbolic of power and fertility and have been used in mythology and ritual since very primitive times. From this we learn that shofar connects us to one of the oldest, most deeply rooted needs we have as humans. If the use of horns did not serve us, the practices would not have survived thousands of years.
The altar horns are called “keren” in Hebrew. Keren means “horn,” but also “ray” or any sort of eminence. From “keren” comes the Latin “cornu” meaning “horn” or “point” and the English word “corner.” Architecturally, the altar horns are part of the ancient tradition of erecting prominences at the corners of structures, like the acroteria that add emphasis to corners of classical Greek pediments. Where structure meets sky, the horns act as a sort of visual and spiritual lightning rod or antennae to join heaven and earth.
That they were copper suggests the horns could conduct electromagnetism, so why not other energetic fields as well? From this we learn that shofar blasts, in the acoustical spectrum of the electromagnetic field, serve as focal points to our worship at the altar of prayer.
Perhaps the Temple’s alter had horns similar to these on the corners of a small limestone altar from Megiddo in Israel, dating from the Iron Age (1000-586 BCE).
There were four keren on the altar, and four calls on shofar – tekiah, shevarim, teruah, and tekiah gedolah. Talmudic discourse indicates that shofarot are made of keren, the horn of an animal. But not all keren, such as the horns of cattle, are acceptable for use as a shofar. Keren is of the physical plane; shofar enters the spiritual plane when it channels our prayers. From this we learn that we must breathe life and intention into our horns in order to imbue them with ritual meaning.
From other references in Torah, we know that blood of sacrificed animals was dashed against the horns during Temple rituals, and that someone grasping the horns was to be granted asylum and refuge from attackers. From this, we learn that shofar sounds must be energetic blasts, just as the blood was dashed against the horns and not dribbled. Also, that hearing the blasts of shofar offers us relief and protection from the evil inclination.
Finally, we learn that the shofar has to be of one piece with our worship. We must enter into the shofar blasts and hear them, feel them, and become one with them. Our offerings on the altar, then and now, are made holy by wholeness. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, visualize yourself grasping the horns of the altar. From what do you seek refuge?
“In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts…and you shall bring an offering by fire to the Lord.”
This is one of the injunctions establishing the Holy Day of Rosh Hashanah. An “offering by fire” originally required the sacrificial burning of an animal on the altar in the Mishkon, the Tent of Meeting, and later at the Temple in Jerusalem.
How are we to observe this commandment today when we no longer observe Temple-based rites?
Now, our offering is tefillah, prayer. However the mere recitation of words from the prayer book does not satisfy the requirement. To serve as our sacrifice, our prayers must be offered with our souls on fire.
The High Holy Day liturgy says “Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzadakah” – repentance, prayer and performance of good deeds – temper the harsh decree as our record is reviewed by the Judge. Taking this T-cubed path can reduce sin to ash that is rich in nutrients that can be mixed into the soil of our soul to support growth.
Authentic prayer is a catalyst that creates transformation without mechanical effort, allowing us to pray while still observing complete rest. It is also, like fire, an exothermic reaction that releases energy in the form of teshuvah. The loud blasts of shofar amplify our prayer; it is the bellow that blows air onto a spark to create flame. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, breathe deeply to fully oxygenate your blood and stoke the fire of teshuvah.
“Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land…You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family.”
“Jubilee” is derived from the Hebrew “yovel,” a word that also means “horn.” In ancient Israel, the yovel created a periodic redistribution of economic wealth. It blocked the establishment of a landed aristocracy, for example, because land-use rights that had been acquired over five decades returned to the clan to which the land had originally been assigned. Slaves and indentured servants were granted their freedom. Debts were forgiven. And everyone had an equal opportunity to make a new beginning.
What would our country be like if we observed a nation-wide yovel? Would the land be returned to the Sioux, Chumash and Iroquois? Would the time remaining until the yovel be so factored into loans as to make the forgiveness of debts meaningless? Would it really be justice if giving freedom to the indentured meant turning them out onto the street without the means to support themselves?
There is one aspect of the yovel that is still available to us, and we can enjoy its blessing each Yom Kippur and without waiting until the fiftieth year – the opportunity to make a new beginning.
We are granted the right to return to the spiritual home of our ancestors; I am not referring to the Land of Israel, but to live in a sukkot shalom – a divine shelter of peace. Our emotional debts – all the baggage we carry about the “could haves,” “should haves,” and “would haves” of human existence – can be blasted into forgiveness by shofar. And we are granted the right to choose freedom from our servitude to addictions and false gods. We truly have an opportunity to make a new beginning.
Some of us may feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of the opportunity presented by the yovel that we become paralyzed and choose to stay in bondage. So here is a suggestion. It is not essential, nor is it likely, that we will be able to completely liberate ourselves in a single moment of atonement. Be we don’t have to – it is enough to take even a small step into the yovel. You will have another opportunity next year, God willing, to take another step along the spiraling path towards liberation.
Rabbi Mordecai Findley has put it this way: instead of praying to be freed from all sin in the coming year, “pray for a better class of sin,” for the ability to make better choices and take healthier actions in our lives. When we do this for ourselves, we also become better able to “proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.” Amen.
As you hear shofar today, meditate on the meaning of the yovel in your life. What can you do to liberate yourself? How can you help others enjoy the blessings of liberty?
“Have two silver trumpets made; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the community and to set the divisions in motion. When both are blown in long blasts, the whole community shall assemble before you at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and if only one is blown, the chieftains, heads of Israel’s contingents, shall assemble before you. But when you sound short blasts, the divisions encamped on the east shall move forward; and when you sound short blasts a second time, those encamped on the south shall move forward. Thus short blasts shall be blown for setting them in motion, while to convoke the congregation you shall blow long blasts, not short ones. The trumpets shall be blown by Aaron’s sons, the priests; they shall be for you an institution for all time throughout the ages. When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies. And on your joyous occasions – your fixed festivals and new moon days – you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder of you before your God: I, the Lord, am your God.”
Rosh Hashanah occurs on the new moon of Tishrei, the first day of the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar.
Torah commands us to sound two kinds of wind instruments; the ram’s horn (shofar) and the silver trumpets described in this verse. Now, the only Jewish rites in which we still use silver trumpets are during b’nai mitzvot, wedding parties, and other joyous occasions. When we need a more spiritually potent instrument, we rely today on shofar.
During the High Holy Days, shofar still summons us to assemble. The blasts call us to teshuvah, to set ourselves in motion to return to wholeness. In our struggles to overcome moral weakness, fear, addiction, and other character defects, shofar remembers us to our Higher Power and strengthens us in our struggles with our enemies within.
Happy are the people who know the sound of shofar, for we will enjoy the new moon of Tishrei as a day of sounding and remembering shofar, and will experience a sacrifice in honor of our well-being. Happy are the people who sound and hear teruah, shofar blasts, as “an institution for all time throughout the ages.” Amen.
As you hear shofar today, meditate on what you will offer as your sacrifice of well-being.
“Surely, this instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too difficult for you, nor is it far off. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may hear it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may hear it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it.”
In an important way, shofar is not the horn, but the energy that flows through the horn. It is both the mechanical energy of acoustic vibration and the spiritual energy of prayer.
Many people have told me, “I could never blow shofar, it’s just too difficult. I could never get to where I could sound it. I guess it is just not in me.” I remind them of the above words of Moses. Then I add, “The shofar is already in you. You are the shofar.”
In physics, objects each have a fundamental frequency at which they will vibrate. If the pitch of a sound impinging on an object is a harmonic of the object’s fundamental frequency, the sound will set the object into motion. As the sound continues, more and more of its energy is transferred into the object, and the amplitude of the object’s vibration increases. This is called resonance.
In the same way, each soul has a fundamental frequency that resonates to the sound of shofar. Our fundamental frequencies are not across the sea or in the heavens; they are programmed into every one of us. Activated by the harmonics of shofar, the amplitude of our vibrations increases and causes us to tremble.
This effect only occurs, however if we hear and listen to the sound. Otherwise, our inattentiveness and distractions act as dampers to suppress any spiritual resonance. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, remove all stops from your hearing and tune into shofar’s resonance with your soul.
“On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the horns. And when a long blast is sounded on the horn – as soon as you hear that sound of the horn… the people shall advance, every man straight ahead.”
I am not a pacifist, for I understand the need to take up arms in self-defense. Our taking of Jericho and the rest of Canaan, however, was an outright war of conquest. The words, “God is on our side” have been spoken by too many aggressors for them to justify our actions. We can only redeem our history if we learn from it to improve our character – individually and as a nation.
One way we can do this is by hearing shofar as a call for peace.
“Shalom al Yisrael – Peace upon Israel” appears in mosaic floor of 6th century synagogue in Jericho. Note lulav, menorah, and shofar – ritual implements from the Temple and common graphic motifs in early synagogues.
Jericho has fallen and been rebuilt many times throughout the ages. During the Roman era, a synagogue was built in the city with a tile mosaic of a shofar and Hebrew letters spelling out, “For the peace of Israel.”
In my meditation, I see a conference table. The descendents of Jacob and the descendents of Ishmael sit around it, each clan stiff-necked and barricaded behind stony walls of suspicion and intransigence. When their words no longer translate, one tribe stands, and walks around the conference table, an exercise that allows them to see their adversary and the possibilities from all possible angles. Then, the other tribe walks around the table and also gets new perspectives.
For six days, wordlessly, they take turns circumambulating and watching the other and looking into their own hearts. Then, on Friday evening, at the intersection of the seventh day of the Islamic calendar and the seventh day of the Hebrew calendar, the customary Jewish proscription against shofar on Shabbat is suspended because the mitzvah of making peace is given precedence. The two tribes circle the table together, seven times, like a bride and groom under a chuppah – bridal canopy, each taking in the full essence of the other.
Then, when a long blast is sounded, the walls of separation fall. Each people advances, every man and woman straight ahead, to embrace cousins. Together, they rebuild a new Jericho with an inscription, “For the peace of all the children of Abraham.”
It is only a vision, but I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the promising land of peace. May it come speedily and in our own lifetime. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, listen closely for someone who is responding with his or her call for a truce, forgiveness, and peace.
“[Gideon] divided the three hundred men into three columns and equipped each with a ram’s horn and an empty jar… Gideon and the hundred men with him arrived at the outposts of the camp… They sounded the horns and smashed the jars that they had with them, and the three columns blew their horns and broke their jars…[and] they shouted… They remained standing where they were, surrounding the camp; but the entire camp ran about yelling, and took to flight. For when the three hundred horns were sounded, the Lord turned every man’s sword against his fellow…and the entire camp fled…”
There is nothing like the surprise attack to confound an
adversity. Mindful of this principle, our shofar blasts have been designed to
yield maximum strategic value in our
Our sages offer many strategies for confounding Satan. We are told, for example, that God will slay the angel of death at the end of time and that, since “The Great Shofar” will herald the end of time; our vigorous and repeated blasts during Rosh Hashanah bewilder Satan into thinking its time is up.
In the synagogue, we announce the approach of each new month on the Sabbath before the new moon. But we do not announce the coming of Tishrei because it coincides with Rosh Hashanah and we do not want to remind Satan of this fact. Similarly, we do not sound shofar on the final day of Elul, the day before Rosh Hashanah, in order to confuse Satan into thinking it has missed its date in court to testify against us.
I cannot attest to the effectiveness of these gambits. However, there is a spiritual offensive in which I do have faith: teshuvah, returning to the light of Torah. Shofar calls us to create teshuvah, and hearing shofar daily throughout Elul gives us many opportunities to atone for our sins. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson says, “When a Jew repents properly prior to the onset of Rosh Hashanah, then he is already assured that he will be written and sealed in the Book of the Righteous. In other words, by repenting prior to Rosh Hashanah, his judgment for the good was already assured during the month of Elul.”
When this happens, the prosecutor shows up in court only to be surprised that the case has already been dismissed. Amen.
When you hear shofar today, remember that cases can be settled before the Court date. Make the most of this opportunity for teshuvah.
“Abner then called to Joab, ‘Must the sword devour forever? You know how bitterly it’s going to end! How long will you delay ordering your troops to stop the pursuit of their kinsmen?’ …Joab then sounded the horn, and all the troops halted; they ceased their pursuit of Israel and stopped the fighting.”
In too many chapters of Torah, the ram’s bugle calls the charge into battle. Fortunately, it can also sound the call for a truce. We must be like Abner and speak the truth to warmongers and those who profit from fear. There are no winners and losers in war, only the dead and the survivors.
We are given a choice between life and death, and are commanded to choose life. To the question, “Must the sword devour forever?,” we must answer, “NO!”
A Christian once asked me to blow shofar in his church where they were trying to understand the meaning of the shofar blasts at Sinai. Most of the preaching during the Sunday worship service was in a language I did not know, but I was startled by the minister’s frequent shouts, fist in the air, for, “Victory!” Sensitized by history and the congregation’s unfamiliar ethnic culture, I became frightened and wondered if he was exhorting his congregation to go to war against Jews.
Eventually I realized that, indeed, he was calling them to battle. But the enemy was not you nor I, anyone nor any nation. It was a call for victory in the eternal struggle against temptation to do wrong and an exhortation to his flock to struggle against the evils of sin, oppression, and injustice. His call for “Victory,” in reality, was what we also hope to hear when we blow shofar during the Days of Awe.
In reflecting on how his words had seemed, initially, like a threat, I realized how often the sword is drawn simply because neighbors do not understand their neighbors, even when they and we are calling for the same things. It is my prayer that we are allowed to hear shofar as the voice of “Victory” announcing the end of fear and that the sword had been forever sheathed. Amen.
When you hear shofar today, listen for the call of Victory in your life.
“David whirled with all his might before the Lord…Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the Ark of the Lord with shouts and with blasts of the horn.”
My sister, Hanna Chusid, quoting her teachers, explains why we remember the yahrzeit – the anniversary of a person’s death – rather than their birth date by saying, “When a person dies, their essence becomes more available to all of us.” Applying this concept to the Temple in Jerusalem, the reality of its loss makes its sanctity more accessible to each of us.
In David’s time, only the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. Now, we are each capable of entering the inner precincts through prayer and meditation.
Then, the King and the priests performed the sin offerings to propitiate the Lord. Now, we must each perform teshuvah, tefillah and tzadakah – repairing the rifts in our soul, offering sincere prayer, and performing acts of justice – as our sacrifice.
Then, the presence of the Eternal was most accessible within the walls of a structure. Now, we can also know the indwelling presence of Spirit.
It is fitting and proper that we mourn the destruction of the Temples. Yet we redeem the loss whenever we worship with all our might before the Lord and praise God with cheers and blasts of shofar. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, visualize yourself in the presence of the Ark and offer praise.
“But Absalom sent agents to all the tribes of Israel to say, “When you hear the blast of the horn, announce that Absalom has become king in Hebron.”
“Joab…took three darts in his hand and drove them into Absalom’s chest. Absalom was still alive in the thick growth of the terebinth, when ten of Joab’s young arms-bearers closed in and struck at Absalom until he died. Then Joab sounded the horn, and the troops gave up their pursuit of the Israelites; for Joab held the troops in check.”
This pair of verses marks the beginning and end of Absalom’s rebellion against King David. The references to shofar do not, at first reading, advance the narrative or appear to impart spiritual or moral instruction.
Regarding Biblical references to shofar, Cyrus Adler says in his scholarly paper, “The Shofar – Its Use and Origins,” published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1893, that, “the shofar is not as frequently mentioned as the constancy of its use for certain purposes might lead us to expect. The infrequency of its mention is in a way, however, a sort of evidence of the frequency of its use. The blowing of the bugle is as regular a part of a charge as the horses on which the cavalry is mounted. Its picturesqueness would naturally strike the mind of a poet and so references to the shofar in the prophetical books are numerous.”
Understood this way, these references to shofar are used as literary devices to mark the beginning and end of an episode.
We can still use shofar this way, to mark the beginning of new chapters in our lives and the end of behaviors or attitudes that are no longer healthy or useful to us. This is shofar’s call to teshuvah, a call to end our inner struggles with the parts of ourselves that are in rebellion against our higher purposes. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, hear its voice announce a new beginning. What rebellion – against yourself, your family, your community, or God – are you ready to end?
“And in that day, a great ram’s horn shall be sounded; and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt shall come and worship the Lord on the holy mount, in Jerusalem.”
Sounding shofar recalls the prophetic vision of the ingathering of exiles. May the day not be distant, of course. But meanwhile, what are we to do until the Messiah comes?
The answer is, create tikkun olam – the healing of the world.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has compared the world to a living organism. Within the world, each nation or tribe is an organ vital to the well-being of the organism. Similarly, each person is like a cell necessary to the functioning of the nation or tribe. If too many cells become unhealthy, the organ becomes diseased and can no longer do its part to sustain the whole organism.
Each of us lives, to one degree or another, in exile from ourselves. Our hearts argues with our heads. Our feet don’t follow our visions. And it is all too easy to close our eyes to truth. We put on psychological armor when we need extra protection, but forget to take it off when we among friends and loved ones.
We do not need to wait for the “great” ram’s horn to get started; even a very ordinary shofar will suffice. By hearing and heeding shofar’s call to teshuvah – the return from our exiles – we can move towards health and wholeness.
Then, when we pray, “May the one who creates peace in the heavens create peace on earth,” the reverse will also be true: by creating peace – wholeness – on earth, we create wholeness throughout all the worlds. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, listen for the faint voices of the parts of you that are in exile. Allow shofar to be a beacon to guide your fragmented self back into wholeness.
“Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression.
To the House of Jacob their sin.
“To be sure, they seek Me daily.
Eager to learn My ways.
Like a nation that does what is right,
That has not abandoned the laws of its God,
They ask Me for the right way,
They are eager for the nearness of God:
“Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?
“Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
Your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
“Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
“No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry.
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to cloth him,
And not to ignore your own kin.”
The words of the prophet are as urgent today as when first spoken. In our individual quest to feel the nearness of God, we must not forget the needs of others. Our liturgy for the Days of Awe tells us that we do not merit Divine mercy by prayer and repentance alone; we must also perform tzadakah. While often translated as charity, a fuller meaning of this concept is to take actions that lead to justice. When we hear shofar, it calls us to tzadakah.
Even when we do not hear shofar, we must be the shofar and cry out against injustice with our own voices. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, become the shofar and raise your voice as a call to action. What steps will you take today and in the coming year to create justice?
“Thus said the Lord;
Stand by the roads and consider,
Inquire about ancient paths:
Which is the road to happiness?
Travel it, and find tranquility for yourselves.
But they said, ‘We will not.’
“And I raised up watchmen for you:
‘Harken to the sound of the horn!’
But they said, ‘We will not.’
“Hear well, O nations,
And know, O community, what is in store for them.”
The road to happiness is not the road of comfort and ease sought by so many in our society. Instead, the prophet maps for us the road of living according to God’s commandments and in moment-to-moment Torah-consciousness.
The ancient path is rigorous. It requires us to perform acts of loving kindness without measure. To seek peace and pursue it. To leave the corners of our fields unharvested so the widow and orphan can feed themselves. To care for the sick. To love the stranger in our midst. To maintain fair weights and measures. To redeem the enslaved. To refrain from poisoning the land. To remove the stumbling blocks before the blind.
Torah-consciousness is Jewish spirituality. There is a prevailing illusion that the spiritual path goes from peak to peak of blissful awareness of the Divine. If we pursue only those moments of awe, we loose sight that all of life is holy, and that we can sanctify every moment by observing mitzvot and lifting up holy sparks.
The watchman has blown the shofar: The ice caps are melting, yet we maintain our addiction to fossil fuels. We do not maintain the levees because we cannot afford sandbags, yet war profiteers stuff their sacks with gold. Our leaders lie and are caught in their lies, but are not held accountable.
Soon after Jeremiah issued his warning, we were led away as captives to Babylon. Today, as I write this, we are again captives in Babylon, in the quagmire of a war without end in sight.
Oh, indeed, the watchman has sounded the horn. Hear it well for the prophet has told us what will happen if we fail to head its clarion call. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, reflect on how you can help our nation return to the path of happiness.
“All you peoples,
clap your hands, raise a joyous shout for God… God ascends midst acclamation;
the Lord to the blast of the horn.”
This Psalm is typically read in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy just before the blowing of shofar. It is an appropriate verse for the occasion because of its reference to shofar and reiteration of two major themes of the High Holy Days: God’s coronation (malchuyot) and glorification (shofarot). Beneath the surface, however, it is also a parable about the power of teshuvah, repentance.
While most Psalms are attributed to King David, this is one of eleven written by or dedicated to the “Sons of Korah.” Numbers tells how Korah orchestrated a rebellion against the leadership of Moses. While the language of his challenge is an intriguing appeal to a more egalitarian society, midrash expounds that Korah was a demagogue who clothed himself as a populist to advance his own agenda. God, apparently, agreed, for the ground, “opened its mouth and swallowed them up with their households.”
Yet, when Korah’s story is restated several chapters later, we learn that, “the sons of Korah, however, did not die.” Not only did they become psalmists, they merited producing the prophet Samuel among their descendants.
Midrash explains the discrepancy by saying the sons honored their father by appearing to follow his lead, but realized that his cause was, ultimately, a rebellion against God. This led the sons to feel remorse and to feel the stirring of repentance in their hearts. While they remained in the rebel camp, even this small stirring of teshuvah, repentance, was sufficient to merit God’s mercy. Instead of going to Sheol, the pit, when the earth swallowed them, they were preserved in a special place in Gehenon – a place of perdition – where they composed and sang their songs of gratitude and praise to God.
During the Days of Awe, we are like the sons of Korah, neither condemned to Sheol nor fully pardoned, dependent upon God’s mercy. We read their Psalm for its reassurance that there is yet hope for us. If the sound of shofar creates even a small stirring of repentance in our hearts, there is yet hope for us. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, have the courage to look into even the darkest corners of your soul and know that there is yet hope.
“Happy is the people who know the joyful shout; O Lord, they walk in the light of Your presence.”
This verse is read in many congregations after shofar is blown.
The shofar blast is a joyful shout.
We do not know what tomorrow brings, but we have had the gift of life for the past year; so we shout with joy.
We have enough breath within us to blow the horn. The Ba’al Shem Tov says that “the difference between nature and miracles is its frequency.” So we shout for the miracle of breath.
Despite our disappointments with God, our fears of God, and even our anger at God, we still shout. Rabbi Jonathon Omar-Man says, “God always answers our prayers, even if sometimes the answer is ‘No’.” So we shout with joy because our God is a true God.
Oy! We have sinned. The alphabet is not long enough to enumerate all the ways we have missed the mark. But we know that through tzadakah, tefillah and teshuvah – acts of justice, prayer, and sincere effort to improve our ways – we can avert the harsh decree. So we shout with joy because we have a merciful God.
There is no problem too enormous, no attitude too intractable, and no problem too complex to resist being bathed and purified in the sonic mikvah of the shofar. Happy, happy, happy are the people who know how to release their cares into the joyful shout.
Even when it cries, the shofar blast is a joyful shout. It is the raucous, joyous cry of a newborn year.
Yes, the shofar blast is a joyous shout. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, feel the joyous shout wash your soul.
“Nebuchadnezzar spoke… ‘Now if you are ready to…worship the statue of gold that I have set up when you hear the sound of the horn…well and good; but if you will not worship, you shall at once be thrown into a burning fiery furnace, and what god is there that can save you from my power?’”
In most of these meditations, I have used the first person plural, “we,” after the manner of making our confessions as a people during the Days of Awe. Here, however, I am confronted with a personal recognition that I must confess as an “I.”
In my enthusiasm to understand all the teachings of shofar, I have come perilously close to making it into an idol or at least a physical presence in which I recognize the divine. As I read the story in Daniel of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, a tongue of the super-heated furnace in which they were tested leaps out and singes me as a warning against worshiping a physical object, whether made of gold or of common horn.
It is not the instrument that makes shofar precious. Neither does the breath that animates the calls nor even the blasts that we are commanded to hear – they too are of the physical realm. What makes shofar dear is the kavanah, the intention we have to obey the HaShem’s commandment to remember shofar.
Maimonides says the following about the kavanah of shofar: “If the person hearing had the intention of fulfilling his obligation, but the person blowing did not have the intention of facilitating the latter’s performance of the teshuvah, or the person blowing had the intention of facilitating his colleague’s performance of the teshuvah, but the person hearing did not have the intention of fulfilling his obligation, the person hearing did not fulfill his obligation. Rather, both the person hearing and the one allowing him to hear must have the proper intention.”
Hearing a blast of the horn had no power over our three friends in Babylon because it was neither sounded nor heard with the kavanah of remembering God’s revelation at Sinai. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, concentrate on your intention to hear its voice in fulfillment of the mitzvah – God’s commandment.
“As for the builders, each had his sword girded at his side as he was building. The trumpeter stood beside me. I said… ‘There is much work and it is spread out; we are scattered over the wall, far from one another. When you hear a trumpet call, gather yourselves to me at that place; our God will fight for us!’”
I was only eight or nine years old the first time I read the story of Ezra and Nehemiah in my Child’s Book of Bible Heroes. There was something that set the two of them apart from other Bible heroes, something attractive to me even as a young child.
Many of the heroes in the book were men (that’s how they taught it back then) of faith who wrestled with ideas I could not yet understand. And others were exciting action figures who could triumph against seemingly impossible odds. However, the resolute pioneers who returned to Zion from exile in Babylon had the best qualities of all the other heroes combined. Moved by faith, they built something tangible, practical, and magnificent while fighting off an enemy at the same time. They were our good guys, and they were cool!
Now, I too wrestle with ideas that I still don’t understand. And against all odds, I am also a survivor of too many struggles to recall. But Ezra and Nehemiah and their followers are still my heroes.
Only now I know that the true heroes are not just those we read about in books. Heroes are also very ordinary men, women and children who quietly and steadfastly live their lives one day at a time, build their communities, create tikkun olam – the repair of the world, and defend the weak, the hungry and the needy even while struggling with questions of faith they do not understand.
It takes a real hero to listen to the call of the trumpet. Shofar asks, “Will you respond when your community needs you?” “What are you building?” “Are you engaged in a just struggle?” “With what tools have you girded yourself?” “Is this a wall that should be built or a wall that should be removed?” “Have we spread ourselves too thin?” “Are we too far from one another?”
The prophet says, “Our God will fight for us.” But first, he says, we have to respond to the trumpet call. The Hebrew term for, “that place” – “Ha’ Makom” – is also used as a name for God. Are you ready to gather at “That Place”? Are you listening for the call? Amen.
When you hear shofar today, listen to hear where you are called.
“Whoever would not worship the Lord God of Israel would be put to death, whether small or great, whether man or woman. So they took an oath to the Lord in a loud voice and with shouts, with trumpeting and blasts of the horn.”
Asa, the King of Judah, was King Solomon’s great grandson. We are told that, “Asa did what was good and pleasing to the Lord his God.” He rid Judah of altars to other gods, built defenses so “the land was untroubled for ten years,” won a stunning victory over a much larger invading force, and restored the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.
We are also told that, “He ordered Judah (the nation) to turn to the Lord God of their fathers and to observe the Teaching and the Commandment,” and that, “All Judah rejoiced over the oath, for they swore with all their heart and sought Him with all their will.” (Emphasis added.) These two statements seem at odds with each other.
If the people were in a mood to rejoice over their oath, why did they have to be ordered at the price of their lives to take the oath? Can true teshuvah, the return to God’s ways, really be ordered at the edge of a sword? It does not seem to work when Jews are forced to convert to another religion. During the Spanish Inquisition, for example, many people who sang the loudest in church continued to practice as crypto-Jews at home. One of the origins of the Kol Nidre prayer we recite on Yom Kippur was to release ourselves from vows that we were forced to make in order to preserve our lives.
Perhaps the reason for Asa’s ardor in imposing his Faith was that he, himself, had little faith. We are told that he eventually stopped trusting in God, bringing wars upon the country and illness upon himself as a consequence.
Asa was not trying to convert gentiles; his order was to members of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin whose allegiance to the God of Israel had lapsed. Perhaps there may have been a more effective way for him to promote teshuvah. Instead of forcing the fallen to take an oath and then hear shofar, he should have tried blowing shofar first. For over three thousand years, its cutting cry had turned the children of Israel back to the Lord, God of their fathers and mothers, even without the threat of blood.
In the language of 12-Step programs, shofar’s calls work by “attraction, not promotion.” It’s the nonviolent alternative in teshuvah. Amen.
As you hear shofar today, feel gratitude for the freedom you have to decide for yourself whether “to observe the Teaching and the Commandment.” Then, make the right choice.
Tomorrow is Rosh Hashanah. It is customary to refrain from sounding the shofar on this day.
There are many legends that say this abstention is done to confuse the Satan – the accusing angel – so Satan will not know when to appear before God to present the evidence against us. For example:
“Not blowing the shofar on erev Rosh Hashanah confuses Satan, the Accuser. When he does not hear the shofar blasts on erev Rosh Hashanah, he becomes bewildered. He wonders if Rosh Hashanah has already passed. He believes that he missed the day on which HaShem judges the world, and that he passed up his chance of denouncing the Jewish people. Baffled and perplexed, he is speechless and remains silent.”
Others offer a more prosaic explanation. For example:
“We do not blow shofar on erev Rosh Hashanah to make a distinction between the sound of the shofar during Elul, which was instituted by the Rabbis, and the sound of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, which is a mitzvah of the Torah.”
I find more inspiration from another explanation rooted in human nature: After nearly a month of hearing shofar, we may have become habituated to its sound. By refraining from blowing shofar today, the blasts we hear tomorrow will seem fresher and more powerful. Amen.
May you be written and sealed for a good year.
May the utterance of our lips be pleasant before You, exalted One.
You understand and give ear.
You see and you harken to the sound of our shofar.
Accept with favor and compassion our meditations on
Malchuyot – Majesty, Zichronot – Memory, and Shofarot – Redemption.
As Below, So Above
“Once, when Rav Abba was studying with Rav Shimon, he said to him, ‘I have often enquired about the significance of the shofar but I have never yet received a satisfactory answer.’ Rav Shimon replied, ‘When the Supernal Shofar – that which contains the illumination of all – removes itself and does not shine on the people, then judgment is awakened. But when the people return to the Divine Will accompanied by the sounding of the shofar below, the sounds ascend on high to awaken the Supernal Shofar of mercy. Subsequently, judgment is removed.’”
“On Rosh Hashanah you must be joyous… and on Rosh Hashanah you must weep.”
There are four traditional patterns or types of blasts for sounding shofar on Rosh Hashanah: tekiah, shevarim, teruah, and tekiah gedolah:
PATTERN GRAPHIC NOTATION RYTHYM
Tekiah _____________ tuuuuuu
Shevarim ____ ____ ____ u-tuuu, u-tuuu, u-tuuu
Teruah _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu, tu
Tekiah Gedolah ___________________ tuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
These calls are also notated as follows, read from right to left:
The first three motifs should have approximately the same overall duration. That is, each of the three parts of shevarim is about 1/3 the duration of tekiah, and all the trills in a teruah add up to the same duration as the tekiah. The tekiah gedolah should be sustained for a great a duration as possible. Examples of these motifs can be heard at www.HearingShofar.com and elsewhere on the internet. There are many ethnic and regional variations of the calls; one, from the Ashkenazi tradition, is scored as follows:
Medieval manuscripts gave graphic depictions of the blasts:
13th – 14th Century: Great Machzor of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Israelitische Houfdsynagoge uses acronyms and symbols (in second line) to notate shofar blasts.
13th Century: Codex Adler, Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, Codex no. 832, fol. 21b.
10th Century: Siddur of Saadiah Gaon, Oxford, Codex Hunt 448, fol 149r.
Tekiah translates approximately into “blow” or “blast,” and describes a loud, single blow of the shofar. Tekiah shares its root with the word takua means “set” or “fixed” in its place, and can be translated as “to be fixed, driven into the ground,” in the sense that a blow with a mallet can drive a peg into the earth. From this, we can understand that tekiah, in the sequence of shofar blasts, grounds us; it gives us a place of beginning and then helps anchor us in a new state of being after hearing the broken notes of shevarim and teruah.
The duration of tekiah is typically two to three seconds, about the same time as an exhalation in normal breathing. Tekiah should be loud and piercing, as if you shouting forcefully to get someone’s attention, sound an alarm, or startle someone awake from a deep slumber.
Shevarim is the plural of the word shever that translates as “broken” Indeed, the single blast of tekiah is now broken into a sequence of three shorter wavering blasts delivered within a single breath. It is as if someone was insistently calling to you, “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” or, depending on where you are in your process of teshuvah, “Beware! Beware! Beware!”
Teruah translates approximately as “shattered” and minces the shofar blast into very rapid short bursts of sound. In musical terms, teruah is a “tremolo,” a quivering effect produced by the rapid reiteration of the same tone.
Teruah comes from the same root word as ra’uah that means “shaky" or “tremor” and brings to mind the trembling or powerful emotions one might feel while one is being judged or during a time of rapid transformation. It is also related to teraim, the Hebrew word for “shatter” as in, “Shatter them (tero’eim) with an iron rod.”
With very different and equally meaningful connotations, teruah is also related to the Hebrew for “‘affection and friendship’ as in, ‘and the friendship (veteruot) of the King is with him.’ The commandment to blow the shofar expresses God’s great affection for us.”
“Gedolah” means “BIG” or “GREAT,” and tekiah gedolah is distinguished from regular tekiah by being drawn out for as long as possible. It is analogous to the long blast of Exodus 19:13 that marked the departure of the Shechinah – Devine Presence – from Mt. Sinai after the acceptance of the Torah.
The High Holy Day liturgy says we have three tools that can help us avert the harshness of the decree by the divine Judge, and shofar is implicated in all three:
1. Teshuvah (repentance and correcting the errors of our ways) – Teshuvah requires us to take personal inventory, make amends for errors we have made, offer forgiveness to ourselves and to others, accept the genuine apologies of others, and set the intentions by which we wish to live in the coming year. Yet each of us is stuck, to one degree or another, in our ways. We do not change course easily. Shofar, then, is likened to the alarm that wakes the sleeping soul to take account of itself and return to the right path.
2. Tefillah (prayer and supplication) – Shofar is a type of unspoken prayer. The shofar service proclaims the majesty of God, begs that we be remembered with compassion, and pleads, in the metaphoric voice of a bleating sheep, that we are allowed to pass under the staff of our Shepherd.
3. Tzadakah (observing God’s commandments, including performance of charitable acts) – Hearing shofar fulfills the central mitzvah – commandment – of Rosh Hashanah. In addition, shofar blowers perform tzadakah when they enable others, especially the ill and shut-in, to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing shofar during the Days of Awe. There is a great need in most communities for shofar blowers who will visit the homes of the sick and the hospitals, nursing homes, prisons.
When understood in this way, further metaphors can be employed to understand the relationship of shofar and teshuvah. For example, our sins often feel as weighty and unyielding as a huge block of stone. How can we ever be free of the burden?
· We begin with tekiah, which is like a mighty blast with a sledgehammer that can break the stone into chunks.
· Next, shevarim are like the repeated blows used to shatter each of the chunks into still smaller pieces.
· Then teruah is the rapid striking used to pulverize each of the pieces into small particles. As it is written, “My word…is like a hammer that shatters rock!” Through teshuvah, our huge, immutable shortcomings are reduced to dust.
· But we should not leave our environment polluted with the dust of our sins. Instead, we can recycle the particles by gathering them together like cement and reshaping our intentions, our spirit, and our actions into a new, solid commitment for mindful living. This is the purpose of the tekiah that is sounded after each sequence of broken notes.
There are other metaphors that are gentler yet no less effective. For example, our sins are like klipot, Hebrew for shells or husks; like barnacles, they have a hard shell and grip our souls tenaciously. Shofar can remove them by immersing us in a sonic mikvah (ritual bath). Like the ultrasonic and acoustical techniques used in industry for cleaning, the psychological, spiritual, and physical vibrations of the shofar blasts can wash away the grip of our sins so we can find the freedom or courage to perform teshuvah. While teshuvah work can occur anytime of year, the focused intensity of being in community for the High Holy Days infuses our efforts towards teshuvah with extra intensity. Still, people report that they spend the Days of Awe still feeling trapped by the sins of their past. For many of them, the spiritual wave of the shofar’s sonic mikvah provides energy that, in an instant, can free them from the grip of their past, give them hope, and boost their teshuvah-making into high gear.
The sequence in which the four types of blasts are sounded on Rosh Hashanah is a code. When understood, it provides a guide through the emotional and spiritual work of the High Holy Days. The code can be understood in many ways:
“Each series of blasts begins and ends with tekiah - a whole note. In between is shevarim and teruah
- broken notes. This reflects a theme of Rosh Hashanah: We begin whole. Along the
path of life we become broken (through pain, mistakes, loss, failure, illness,
weakness, etc.). The end is whole; we will be whole again. There is hope.”
“HaShem created man upright and flawless. Through his sins, man became warped and twisted. By turning to the shofar in teshuvah, he is straightened out again. This thought is reflected in the sounds of the shofar: tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah. The first tekiah, a straight, clear sound, represents man’s original rectitude and virtue. The broken shevarim sound is indicative of the spiritual breakdown that comes as a result of sinning. This is followed by the sobbing teruah sound, which mirrors the sinner’s brokenheartedness, inner turmoil and deep remorse, the forerunners of teshuvah. The culmination is reached in the steady tone of the final tekiah, which signifies the inner tranquility of the ba’al teshuvah [penitent] whose missteps have been forgiven.”
“The clear, straight sound of the tekiah suggests “love,” a person’s straightforward feeling of adoration. The shevarim-teruah sound represents “awe and fear” – a person who is afraid shakes and trembles. The sound of the shofar tells us to resolve anew to love HaShem and be in awe of Him, keeping His Torah and fulfilling His mitzvot.”
“The Gemara says: In a place where ba’alei teshuvah are standing [in Heaven] the perfectly righteous cannot stand.  The Shelah says that the straight sound of the first tekiah symbolizes the tzaddik who has not sinned. The broken shevarim sound stands for the sins that cause an inner breakup in a person’s soul, which leads to the weeping sound of the teruah. When he does teshuvah, he is straightened out again like the second tekiah sound. The final tekiah gedolah indicates that a ba’al teshuvah is on a higher level than a tzaddik who has never sinned.”
“Each of the three shofar notes denotes the soul in a different stage of spiritual well-being. The unbroken, unwavering sound of the tekiah indicates that the soul was created pure and straight. Any impurities, crookedness, or spiritual malady was introduced by the sufferer himself. The broken groan of the shevarim calls to mind the moaning of the sick, while the staccato sobbing of the teruah represents uncontrolled crying over the death of a dear one. Nevertheless, at the very end, the tekiah is repeated to teach that God is always ready to receive the penitent who sincerely attempts to return to his original state of spiritual purity.”
“The shofar cries out… “I was whole, I was broken, even smashed to bits, but I shall be whole again.”
“Grace – Judgment – Compassion – Grace”
The ritual blowing of the shofar begins with the blessing:
Baruch atah Adonai Elohaynu Melech ha-olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lishmo-ah kol shofar.
Blessed are you, Eternal One our God, Universal Sovereign, who sanctifies us with holy ways and commands us to hear the voice of the shofar.
Note that the blessing is to “listen” or “hear” to shofar, not to “blow” shofar. The root word of “lishmo-ah” is the same as the root of “shema,” the prayer that harkens us to, “Listen, people of Israel! The Lord is our God. Our God is One.” The spiritual implications of this commandment to listen are explored in depth in Book 3 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn.
Before blowing the shofar for the first time in a service, the blessing above is followed by the shehechayanu blessing:
Baruch atah Adonai Elohaynu Melech ha-olam,
shehechayanu, v’kiyamanu, v’higiyanu lazman hazeh.
Blessed are you, Yah, spirit guide of the world. You have kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this moment.
Each community has its own minhag (custom), and local tradition should be followed. In general, most communities use the following sequence of blasts:
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
If it is the last blast of a sequence, the final Tekiah is sustained as Tekiah Gedolah.
Many congregations expand this basic series of ten blasts so that the shofar is heard up to 100 times on each day of Rosh Hashanah. For example:
After Reading the Haftorah 30 Blasts
These are called the tekiot meyushav – sitting blasts – because the congregation, which has been seated during the reading of the Haftorah – reading from the Prophets – remains seated while the shofar is blown.
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah Gedolah
During the Musaf (Additional) Service 30 Blasts
These are called the tekiot me’ummad – standing blasts – because the congregation is standing for the Amidah prayers when these blasts are sounded. This section of the service has three parts: Machuyot (Majesty), trumpets God’s majestic rule. Zichronot (Remembrance), asks God to remember the Covenant and have mercy on us for the sake of our ancestors. Shofarot (The plural of “shofar”) alludes to divine revelation and our redemption – both heralded by the sounds of shofar. Each of these parts begins with short scriptural readings related to its theme, followed by sounding shofar.
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah Gedolah
During Kaddish after Musaf 30 Blasts
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah Gedolah
At Conclusion of Services
Tekiah Shevarim-Teruah Tekiah
Tekiah Shevarim Tekiah
Tekiah Teruah Tekiah Gedolah
These multiple sets of multiple blasts form a persistent and concussive attack on spiritual complacency. The repetition of simple sound patterns work like a niggun, a wordless song, to help the listener express prayers that cannot be articulated with speech.
How many blasts should be sounded on Rosh Hashanah? While Talmud requires a minimum of thirty, the practices of various sages and scattered communities added additional blasts to their liturgy. Thus, we have traditions that call for 30, 40, 41, 42, 60, 61, 70, 100, or 101 blasts. The Yemenite tradition is to sound 41 blasts. Take your pick.
Today, most communities sound shofar 100 times on each day of Rosh Hashanah. The origins of this custom are lost in time. It is often explained that the 100 blasts are to counterbalance the 100 groans said to have come from Sisera’s mother described in Judges 5:28-30. (See Chapter 1-7 – The Ewe’s Horn.) While she undoubtedly groaned, there is no basis for assuming her cries numbered 100, and I suspect that the 100 blasts tradition predates the events in the book of Judges.
In place of this legend, I offer the following thoughts:
Ten is a very significant number in our heritage. For example, there are:
· Ten utterances that created the world.
· Ten commandments given at Sinai.
· Ten Sefirot in the kabbalah’s Tree of Life.
· Ten plagues struck Egypt before the Exodus.
· Ten Days of Awe – the period from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur.
· Ten people required for a minyan for group prayer.
· Ten times during Yom Kippur, in the time of the Temple, that the High Priest would pronounce the name of God to invoke divine pardon.
100 is ten squared; a minyan of minyanim. It maintains the spiritual energy of 10 and multiplies it into an additional dimension. It is clearly a very significant number.
But there are many other quantities that appear to have special significance in Torah. 40 days of rain in the time of Noah, and 40 years in the desert. 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 months of the year. 7 days of creation, and 7 patriarchs and matriarchs. With all these possibilities, why then are the shofar blasts in a base-10 numbering system?
Perhaps it is because we have ten fingers. Compared with 7, 12, 40 and all other numbers, 10 is the number most closely identified with the human body and is the fundamental system by which humans reckon.
Mark Twain said, “Humans are the only animals that blush, or need too.” And humans, apparently, are the only specie that has the opportunity for teshuvah, or the need for it. When seen in this manner, it seems only right that the shofar blasts, the call to teshuvah, be counted in the human-centric number system based on ten digits.
In ordinary time and space, our ten-fingered identities commit a plethora of sins. But in shofar time-space, an added dimension is offered us to stimulate teshuvah, and we are summoned by ten to the second power blasts of shofar.
God’s revelation at Sinai so overwhelmed those witnessing the event that it jumbled their senses; Exodus 20:15 states that people “saw” the voice of shofar. An artist has recently given us the means to have a similar experience by transcribing the 100 shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah into visual meditations. American-born artist Avraham Loewenthal paints and studies kabbalah in Tzfat, Israel (www.kabbalahart.com). He says his work create spiritual maps of transcendental harmonies that describe concepts of kabbalah and reflect meditative states of consciousness. He continues:
“In one of the many kavanot (meditations) of the shofar blowing, the sounding of the shofar is associated with the aspects of right, left, center, and completion. In kabbalistic spiritual language, the aspects right, left, and center represent spiritual states of consciousness, and not directions in space. Right corresponds metaphorically to our experience of thankfulness and our aspect of giving. Left corresponds metaphorically to our experience of lack and our aspect of receiving. The center is the harmony of right and left. These three aspects of giving, receiving, and harmony, come to completion in the fourth aspect of completion – the realization of unconditional love and oneness. These four stages of consciousness correspond to the four letters of the Divine Name, yud – hey – vav – hey.
“The kavanot of the shofar blowing breaks down on one level into the four aspects as follows:
tekiah gedolah--extra long sound--completion/oneness—hey.
“In this painting, the 100 sounds of the shofar are depicted horizontally, starting from the bottom of the painting. One triangle represents the whole sound of the tekiah. 3 triangles represent the 3 sounds of the shevarim. 9 triangles represent the 9 short sounds of the teruah. The larger triangles represent the extra long sound of the tekiah gedolah.
“The long whole sound of the tekiah is associated with giving. The 3 broken sounds of the shevarim are associated with receiving. The 9 sounds of the teruah are associated with harmony. In addition to the shevarim being associated with receiving, it contains 3 sounds that correspond to all 3 aspects of giving, receiving, and harmony. In addition to the teruah being associated with harmony, its 9 sounds correspond to giving, receiving and harmony of giving + giving, receiving and harmony of receiving + giving, receiving and harmony of harmony.
“The right column is discussed in the kabbalah as the consciousness of thankfulness – feeling in our hearts overflowing with thankfulness. This corresponds to the sound of the tekiah, which is a whole sound. The left column corresponds to the sound of the shevarim that is the 3 broken cries of the shofar – our feelings of brokenness and lack. The center column corresponds to the teruah, whose sound is so broken that it is whole. The central column is associated with faith and prayer. It is taught in the kabbalah that when we reach our truest prayer of the heart, all our brokenness is brought to wholeness in the realization of complete oneness and unconditional love at the root of all creation.”
In some Sephardic communities, the minhag – custom – is to sound 101 shofar blasts. It is explained that 100 is the gematria (numerical) value the Hebrew letters sameach (60) + mem (40) that spell the unpronounced name of the accusing angel (Satan). On the other hand, the value 101 is equivalent to equal to name of the angel Michael, the righteous angel whose name means “the one who is like God.” Michael is spelled mem (40) + yud (10) + chaf (20) + aleph (1) + lamed (30).
According to legend, it was Michael who was sent by God to stop Abraham from slaying Isaac, a legend binding Michael to the central Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah and to the sacrificed ram of the Akedah whose voice is memorialized by the shofar (See Chapter 6 – The Ram’s Midrash).
In the Torah, speech brings reality into being; God spoke and the world came into existence. And so it is in the shofar service. It is customary for each shofar blast to be announced before it is blown. The caller who announces the blasts is a “makrei” and the shofar blower is a “tokea.” Another term for the shofar blower is “ba’al tekiah” (masculine) or ba’alat tekiah (feminine), term that poetically translate as, “master blaster.”
Jewish life is full of similar call and response rituals. For example:
· The question: “Who knows One?” brings the reply, “I know One” in a traditional Passover song.
· A blessing is answered with an “amen.”
· God asks his prophets, “Where are you?” They reply, “Heneini – I am here and spiritually present.”
The Rosh Hashanah ritual is designed to ask each of us, “Where are you?” To which the shofar replies for us, “Heneini.”
When the calls are chanted with the traditional cantillation, they form a musical unit with sound of the shofar; the pronouncement of “tekiah” combine with the blasts from the horn to comprise the tekiah as it is experienced. The calls are raiment that adorn the blasts and gives them a fitting liturgical setting.
First, they add to the power of the shofar to speak to the listener. For while we have pointed out that the voice of shofar can take the place of unspoken words, we yet need words to create the space in which the blasts can occur. It is as if the blast of the shofar can take the place of a thousand words, but we still need a word for the sound of the shofar. The shofar speaks to the right side of the brain – the side that governs emotions and patterns – while the spoken name calls to left side of the brain – the rational mind; together, the full mind is stimulated.
On a pragmatic level, the calls are also necessary to cue the shofar blower. Standing at the ready, with the shofar in my hands, I am often unable to follow the progress of the services in the machzor – prayer book. Moreover, in my meditations preceding blowing the shofar, I frequently enter such a deep place that I no longer hear what is being spoken. But somehow, when the call for “tekiah” rings out, I raise the shofar to my lips and blow without having to think or remember what I am supposed to do. Like the infantry bugler who blows the charge on the verbal command of his officer, I am able to follow instructions and discharge a volley from the shofar. The demands on the spiritual warrior are high, and the shofar blower needs the makrei the same way that a Torah reader relies on a gabbai – prompter, for assistance in following the sequence of the Torah reading.
“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
The birds of the sky, they will tell you,
Or speak to the earth, it will teach you;
The fish of the sea, they will inform you.”
Any naturally hollow animal horn (beside a bovine horn) can be used as a shofar. However, the sages say that a ram’s horn is preferred on Rosh Hashanah because of its association with the ram that Abraham sacrificed instead of his son Isaac in the Akedah, the Torah portion read during the New Year’s services.
But what do we know about this ram?
Legend has it that God created the ram even before the first day of creation, allowing the potential for redemption of humans even before the creation of humans. In the Moslem tradition, the ram is, “the very same animal which Abel had once sacrificed to God.” The Torah, however, is silent about the ram; its thoughts, feelings, and voice are not recorded.
The artist placed the ram in the foreground of the Akedah.
In this regard, the ram is like the other central figures in the Akedah drama, for the Torah does not document what Abraham and Isaac said to each other during their three-days march to Mount Moriah, what each thought as father bound son to the altar, or what Sarah felt when she intuited, from afar, that Abraham had raised his knife. But in another regard, the animal is different than the humans; while midrash after midrash delves into the psyches of the people, little is said about the beast’s.
Book 3 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn posits that the ram is the totem of the Jewish people and that the voice of the shofar, the ram’s horn, is the symbolic voice of our people. If we accept this conceit, then it is time for us to listen to what the ram of the Akedah has to tell us. As it is written, “The righteous person knows the soul of their animal.”
While our scriptures tell stories about lions, whales and other animals, only the serpent in Eden and Balaam’s ass are endowed with voices. Schochet’s study of Jewish attitudes towards animals describes how Torah “demythologized” animals. The sages, for the most part, reinforced this teaching. It has been said, for example, that, “as soon as [Balaam’s talking ass] finished speaking, she died, so that people should not say, ‘This is the animal that spoke,’ and so make of her an object of reverence.” While animals were “remythologized” to a certain extent by the early rabbis, it was, “more accurately, perhaps, a poetic remythologization of the animal kingdom… It constituted no real threat to the supremacy of man, and carried within itself no practical implications vis-à-vis the powers of the beast. To the popular mind, the animal was neither divine nor demonic, it was merely subordinate to man, created by God to serve him.”
Later, Jewish mystics stressed, “the underlying kinship of all living creatures, man as well as beast.” They noted that, “divinity is manifest in all of creation, with divine life pulsating as surely as any animal as it does in man.” Despite this, “at no time did the animal occupy an exalted place in Jewish religious symbolism, certainly nothing comparable to that of the lamb in Christian religious motifs. The animal was essentially a nonsymbolic creature… man’s spiritual development entails a lonely climb to the summit. He must ascend far above the level of the animal and must leave the animal behind in his quest for ideal interpersonal relationships.”
This is in marked contrast with other ancient wisdom traditions that describe many interactions between humans and other intelligent species. Recall, for example, the Native American legends that describe lessons Coyote taught to humans, or the Vedic writings about elephant-headed Genesha and Hunaman the monkey.
Anthropomorphizing (let alone deifying) animals seems to go against something in the Jewish cosmology; it comes too close to the ban on idolatry. When we left Egypt – where sheep, cats, jackals and falcons represented gods – spiritual communication with animals was prohibited, a dicta reinforced by our encounter with a golden calf.
While honoring this stricture, can we allow ourselves the mental exercise to imagine the ram as an intelligent, sentient being with whom we can communicate? What could we learn from a dialog with the ram that might deepen the shofar’s ability to inspire teshuvah and spiritual awakening?
If we could hear, what is the ram saying to us? Listen to what the ram might tell us:
Yeah. I was there. Of course I was there. I was stuck in that bush since before He-Is-Whom-He-Is created the world, just for this occasion. I couldn’t have missed it if I tried.
By the way, you do know what bush that was, don’t you? Well, if a bush can burn without being consumed, this was a bush that could grow since before the start of time without getting larger. You figure it out.
What was I saying? Oh, yeah, I was there all right.
Really, a very sad sight watching this old man and his son climbing the hill. The old guy had tears running down his checks. And the son just looked ashen. Wouldn’t you? I mean, he was too old to be called a kid anymore. But he was a smart fellow; he knew what was going on in the neighborhood; that old, “harvest a child or two if you want a good crop,” business. Wasn’t it enough that Pop had already sent his brother off to who-knows-what-fate in the desert?
You sure wouldn’t catch any of us sheep doing that. Yeah, sure, we guys have to bash each other every now and then; a ram’s got to ram, after all. But snuff out our own lambkins? No way!
I had understood since the Big Bang the purpose for which I was stuck on that hilltop. And for me, beating it out of the bush was my path to liberation. Glory, Halleluiah! So as Abe and Yitz came close, I started shaking the shrubbery and bleating to say, “Come on Abie, light my fire.”
But they didn’t seem to hear me, no sir. Each too wrapped up in his own mishegoss, listening to his own troubles, to pay attention to anything else.
Abraham should have known what was what. When he said, “God will provide the lamb,” he had it almost right. I mean, how can some sheep older than time be considered still a lamb? But he was generally right. He knew it didn’t make sense to kill our kids. God knows, humans ought to be at least as smart as us sheep. But Abe was caught up in this game of “people” (I won’t insult my fowl friends by calling it a game of “chicken”). Abe, he was sort of toying with HaShem, testing God’s sense of justice while God was testing Abraham’s faith – and neither wanted to be the first to blink.
And what was it with the lad? Was he caught in a bush, too? Why didn’t he put up a fight or run away?
Too bad Jewish summer camp hadn’t been invented yet, ‘cuz if they had been, he might have learned the lesson in that song, “Who told you a ‘lamb’ to be? Why don’t you have wings to fly with, like the swallow so swift and free?”
So there they are – Isaac in denial on the altar, Abraham raising his knife, and Sarah feeling the pain only a mother can feel. And I keep shooting as loud as I can. “Hey Guys! Over here, heneini! I’m the lamb. Look, thick wooly skin like Esau, horns in bush. God will provide the lamb - Me! Let me fulfill my dharma; I’m the sacrifice God wants.” But did they listen?
I have experienced a lot of miracles in my time, including the creation of the heavens and the earth. So what happened next didn’t surprise me. My, “Baaaaa! Baaaaa!” suddenly became, “Aaaabraaaaham! Aaaabraaaaham!” And thank God, may His Name be blessed forever and ever, amen, Abraham finally heard. ”Wake up, old man, your dream is over.”
Now the Holy Book, she says Abraham, he “lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him, a ram” -- that’s me.
Now does that make any sense to you? Did Abie Baby have eyes in the back of his head or something? No way. He heard me making a ruckus, and then he turned around and did his beholding. Sort of like the way Hagar couldn’t see that well until she heard her wake-up call. You know, there’s a reason why you don’t have earlids; it’s so you can hear what’s going down even when you’re in the pitchest dark.
Well, you probably know the rest of the story about the life of Sarah and Abraham and their flock. As for me, one of my horns blew at Sinai when God gave the Torah, and the other is on alert to blow the instant Messiah comes. My blood marked the homes of the children of Israel on Pesach. The Temple is built on my ashes. And Elijah wears my skin as his mantle. A nice legacy for a four-legged critter, if you ask me
But in my opinion, the most important gift I got to give was my voice. My calls were able to awaken Abraham so he could return to his senses. And from generation to generation, my voice continues to speak through the shofar, my horn, calling people to wake up to their potentials and return to their true purposes.
But the shofar can only work if you listen, so you have to do your part, too. Then, as The Boss says, “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed because you have listened to My voice.”
I’ve got to go now. Miriam’s bringing her tambourine, those Koresh Brothers have got some new tunes, and David’s got on his dancing shoes. I’m sitting in, naturally, on horns. We sure are going to wail tonight.
So you be good, and keep your ears open.
I suggest above that the ram of the Akedah called mightily to draw Abraham’s and Isaac’s attention, and that the humans were too stricken with angst and fear to hear the call. There are, of course, other ways to explain why Abraham and Isaac did not hear the ram when they arrived at the mountaintop. For example, what if the ram was silent?
This hypothesis poses its own interesting set of questions:
· Was the ram silent because, after half of eternity caught in the bush, it had become too weary to struggle or care?
· Was he quiet in self-defense, preferring to remain hidden instead of becoming incense?
· Was it dumbstruck with awe by an awareness of the import of the events unfolding before him? Because its animal instincts sensed a heavenly messenger nearby?
· Was it obeying a command from God to be silent and let events unfold?
· Or, was the ram even there, on Mount Moriah, until Abraham turned and looked? Perhaps Abraham or Isaac (or God) had to complete an initiation or trial before the ram was transported form its abode in Paradise.
Each of these possibilities can provide instruction on teshuvah and other themes of the Yomin Noraim. For example, how does one hear the still small voice when the ram of redemption is silent?
You are invited to create your own “ram drash” to explore the mysteries.
“The shofar sounds like a baby crying, and is supposed to make the milk rise in God’s breast.”
This Chapter begins with questions:
Why do we call the shofar a “ram’s” horn when our tradition also allows us to use the horn of female sheep, goats, and other horned ungulates?
Why do the compilers of Talmud say “we blow with the horns of males” and then annotate their remarks to say that’s not what they really mean?
The animal sacrifices required in the Torah specified that rams were to be used for certain sacrifices and ewes for others. Can we deduce from this that there are different spiritual qualities to the genders, differences that may also be heard in a shofar depending on whether it is a ram’s horn or an ewe’s horn?
While I cannot provide definitive answers to these questions, exploring gender-related issues provides useful insights into how to hear and heed shofar.
We are told that a ram is the preferred source for a shofar because it memorializes the ram used as a sacrifice instead of Isaac. For example:
“Rabbi Abbahu said: ‘Why is the horn of a ram sounded on Rosh Hashanah? The Holy One praised be He said, ‘sound before Me the horn of a ram, that I might be reminded of the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and thus consider your fulfillment of this commandment [of sounding a horn] as though you had bound yourselves upon an altar before Me.’”
This story, the Akedah – the Binding of Isaac – is the Torah portion traditionally read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. One understanding of the story is that God tests Abraham’s faith by ordering him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. When Abraham passes his ordeal by binding Isaac on the altar and preparing to slaughter him, God renews the Covenant binding God and the descendents of Abraham.
There is another compelling understanding of the Akedah – that it is Abraham who is testing God’s compassion and justice. Abraham, who vocally argues with God over the destruction of life at Sodom and Gomorrah, argues even more effectively by silently witnessing what he knew to be an immoral command. It is only when God sends an angel to stop the slaughter that Abraham accepts the renewed Covenant.
Whichever midrash resonates most deeply with us, we sound the shofar during Rosh Hashanah as a reminder – to ourselves and to God – of that Covenant.
Three of the central characters in this story are males: Abraham – the father whose name even derives from the Hebrew root meaning “father”; Isaac – the son; and a ram – a male sheep whose horns can even be understood as phallic images.
On their way to Mt. Moriah where the sacrifice is to take place, father and son walk together for three days with almost nothing spoken between them – the epitome of the image of men who do not share their emotions. This is a guy’s story: instead of exploring feelings and relationships, the Akedah is an action-drama of command, courage, strength, duty, resolve, fear, and violence.
The shofar blasts that recall the Akedah’s anniversary still resonate with the story’s masculine energy. They demand that God inscribe us for another year and are alarms to rouse us to teshuvah, battle cries to shock and awe Satan, and fanfares for a triumphant King. They are the voice of Abraham’s unexpressed rage at God and the stifled whimpers of Isaac struggling to live up to his father’s expectations. They are the voice of the ram in every one of us, caught-up by the very horns about which we are most proud.
We hear the masculine voice of shofar as a bellow, a trumpeting, and a demand; we note the size, length, and power of the blasts.
The shofar calls of Abraham declare that whether we yield to or challenge God’s call, we must respond when called.
The shofar calls of Isaac are the struggle each of us must go through to create or preserve our own identity without breaking the bonds that tie us with our family, tribe, and heritage.
The shofar calls of the ram remind us that even when we feel trapped, we may yet be part of the Divine plan.
The shofar also speaks to us with feminine voices that we hear in the shofar’s cries, its pleading implorations, the silences between notes, the pregnant expectation before the first tekiah – blast, and the lingering reverberations of the tekiah gedolah – the prolonged blast at the end of the shofar service.
We also have scriptures and stories of women in whose voices (or silences) can also be heard in the feminine aspect of shofar. Among these are Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, the mother of Sisera, Rachel, and Rahab.
Sarah is wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac, and the original Matriarch of the Jewish people. Yet the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading of the Akedah does not mention Sarah. Abraham receives his orders from God and rises early in the morning to take Isaac to the place of sacrifice. We are not told what either said to Sarah, if anything, about the purpose of the trip or what their good-byes were like. Nor are we told what Sarah and Abraham said to each other after he returned from his journey without Isaac. We do not even know if husband and wife ever saw each other again. Instead, Genesis 22 ends with Abraham returning to and dwelling in Beer-sheba, and the very next chapter, Genesis 23, “The Life of Sarah,” begins by telling us that Sarah died, at the age of 127 years, in Hebron.
This silence, like all family secrets, has lead to endless speculations and rumors. The gossip is that Abraham’s actions and the threat to her child caused the death of Sarah. We are told, for example:
“The death of Sarah is narrated directly after the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, because, as a result of the tidings of the Akedah – that her son had been fated for slaughter, and had been all-but-slaughtered – her soul flew away and she died.”
“Isaac returned to his mother and she said to him: 'Where have you been, my son?' Said he to her: ‘My father took me and led me up mountains and down hills,’ etc. ‘Alas,’ she said, ‘for the son of a hapless woman! Had it not been for the angel you would by now have been slain!’ ‘Yes,’ he said to her. Thereupon she uttered six cries, corresponding to the six blasts of the Shofar. It has been said: She had scarcely finished speaking when she died.”
“Satan…told Sarah, ‘Ah, Sarah, have you not heard what’s been happening in the world? Your old husband has taken the boy Isaac and sacrificed him as a burnt offering, while the boy cried and wailed for he could not be saved.’ Immediately, she began to cry and wail. She cried three sobs, corresponding to the three Tekiah notes of the Shofar, and she wailed three times, corresponding to the staccato notes of the Shofar. Then, she gave up the ghost and died.”
In another telling of the story, Satan is in disguise as Isaac; Sarah dies upon hearing about the near sacrifice even though she sees her son still living. The implications of her son’s survival are also explored in other midrashim:
“But others teach that Satan reveals to her that Abraham has spared her son from his knife; and then her heart bursts from joy. Such is the anatomy of a mother’s heart.”
“When Sarah heard of Abraham's mission to Mount Moriah, she marveled at his spiritual heroism. Had she been told that Yitzchak was sacrificed, she would have been filled with joy at the fact that her son was accepted by HaShem. She, however, was told that he had almost been slaughtered. Upon hearing this, she was terribly saddened, because she presumed that at the last moment her son was found unsuitable. Sarah feared that perhaps her influence was in some way inadequate and her education of Yitzchak imperfect. This was so profoundly saddening that her soul departed.”
Whether due to Isaac’s brush with death or his rescue, the Binding of Isaac tears his mother from life. If the masculine voice of shofar is to memorialize the ram that was sacrificed instead of Isaac, the feminine voice of shofar is reminder of the sacrifice of Sarah.
“The Shofar blasts on the New Year are to transform Sarah’s death into atonement, because the teruah – the broken Shofar tone – is groaning and wailing.”
The shofar calls of Sarah remind us that our actions – and even our intentions – have consequences for others.
Hagar’s story is traditionally read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Hagar is an Egyptian woman, Abraham’s concubine by whom she conceives Ishmael. Sarah is concerned about the rivalry between Abraham’s two sons – Hagar’s and her own – and told Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael to the desert. God instructed Abraham to listen to Sarah, and said that Ishmael, too, will also become the father of a great nation.
Hagar, apparently, did not know of God’s plan for her son. When their small supply of water was depleted, she placed the child under a bush and sat down a “bowshot” away from him, saying, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.” And then she “lifted up her voice, and wept.”
What happens next is one of the great mysteries of Torah. We are told that Hagar wept, but that “God heard the voice of the lad.” Tank cars full of ink have been consumed in exegeses on the seeming incongruence of this verse; but it should not be hard to imagine that the mother’s cries were also those of her young child’s. What is relevant to our discussion of shofar is that God heard the cries and responded. “And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.”
No horns were blown that day in the Negev. Sitting in the silence of the desert, Hagar could hear the still small voice of an angel awakening her to new hope. Relieved of her anguish, she could recognize the solution that had been at hand all along.
The shofar calls of Hagar awaken us to discover new hope and opportunity, even from the depths of despair.
Hannah’s story is the Haftorah – prophetic reading – traditionally read after the Torah reading on first day of Rosh Hashanah. It relates thematically to the day’s Torah reading about another childless woman, Sarah. Just as Sarah and Hagar share a man, Hannah shares her husband, Elkanah, with a co-wife, Peninnah. Peninnah has children and taunts Hannah for being childless. Hannah’s longing for a child does not receive empathy from Elkanah who asks, “Why are you so sad? Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?”
While accompanying her husband to Shiloh to offer a sacrifice at the Mishkon, “in her wretchedness, she prayed to the Lord, weeping all the while.” Hannah vows to God that, if her petition for a son is granted, the child will be given into the service of the Temple.
Meanwhile, Eli, the priest, has been observing her.
“Eli watched her mouth. Now Hannah was praying in the heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard. So Eli thought she was drunk. Eli said to her, ‘How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Sober up!’ And Hannah replied, ‘Oh, no, my lord! I am a very unhappy woman. I have…been pouring out my heart to the Lord…out of my great anguish and distress.’ ‘Then go in peace,’ said Eli, ‘and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of Him.’”
After this, Hannah conceived and bore Samuel (whose name means “I asked the Lord for him”). Her son served in the priesthood and became one of the great prophets.
The Rabbis say that Hannah provides a model for how to pray. I add, that she also provides a model for both the kavanah – attitude – and technique of shofar sounding: “praying in the heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard.”
The shofar calls of Hannah sound for all those who cannot utter their prayers aloud.
The Talmud goes to great lengths to describe the shofar calls to be heard on Rosh Hashanah. We are told that, for example, “The length of a teruah is like three whimpers.” But what type of whimper? To answer this, the sages offer us Sisera’s Mother as a model:
“And it is written regarding Sisera’s mother: Through the window she looked, and she cried, Sisera’s mother.”
Examining the emotions beneath her cries, then, may help us to understand the shofar’s cries.
Scripture does not record the name of Sisera’s mother, but does tell us about her son, Sisera. He commanded the army of Canaan in its struggle with the Israelites over dominion of the lands along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. “He had nine hundred iron chariots, and he had oppressed Israel ruthlessly for twenty years.”
Ultimately, his army was routed by the Israelites under the leadership of Deborah and General Barak. Sisera flees and takes refuge in the tent of Jael whom he believes to be an ally. Jael makes a comfortable bed for him and gives him milk as a sedative. “Then Jael, wife of Heber, took a tent pin and grasped the mallet. When he was fast asleep from exhaustion, she approached him stealthily and drove the pin through his temple till it went down to the ground. Thus he died.”
In a song of triumph attributed to Deborah and Barak, the brutality of his death is rendered as:
“She struck Sisera, crushed his head,
Smashed and pierced his temple.
At her feet he sank, lay outstretched,
At her feet he sank, lay still;
Where he sank, there he lay – destroyed.”
The song then tells of Sisera’s mother waiting at home for her son’s return:
“Through the window peered Sisera’s mother,
Behind the lattice she whined:
‘Why is his chariot so long in coming?
Why so late the clatter of his wheels?’
The wisest of her ladies give answer;
She, too, replies to herself:
‘They must be dividing the spoil they have found:
A damsel or two for each man,
Spoil of dyed cloths for Sisera,
Spoil of embroidered cloths,
A couple of embroidered cloths
Round every neck as spoil.’”
Poetically, the domesticity in this description of Sisera’s mother provides counterpoint to the violence of the battlefield. At the same time, it makes the horror of war all the more unpalatable by underscoring the disregard for life in favor of material gain. The incredible cruelty of Sisera’s people is shown in that, “her anguish for her son could be assuaged in the thought that he must be in the process of making other mothers childless.”
What does this mean with regard to the shofar? Some commentators say that Mother Sisera’s whimpers were halfway between joyous laughter in expectation of her son’s return and wails of despair due to her intuitive understanding that he had been killed. Would she continue to enjoy her status as the mother of a hero, or would her self-identity and status in the royal court fall in ruin? In the same way, we do not know, when we hear the shofar blow on Rosh Hashanah, whether we have been inscribed in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, and we whimper in turmoil over the uncertainty, unsure whether to laugh or cry.
It is also said that Sisera’s mother cried one hundred times during her wait for her son. Because of this, the one hundred shofar blows sounded in many congregations on Rosh Hashanah are to countermand the hundred cries of Sisera’s mother, cries that were filled with hatred for the Jewish People, in an attempt to eradicate an evil that reaches from Amalek to Hitler and into this very day.
But others say that Sisera’s mother cried one hundred and one times. While we can interdict one hundred of them as being full of hate, greed, and self pity, the remaining cry is the genuine pain of a mother who has lost a child, and we must not attempt to drown out maternal love with our shofar blasts.
It is this 101st cry that I long to hear in my shofar blowing, for it is a call for peace. To kill in war, soldiers must believe that their opponents are less human. Denying their mothers’ names is one way of doing this. Remembering that they have mothers who will cry at their gravesides makes it harder to kill them.
We are told that, when Pharaoh’s army drowned as they pursued the children of Israel, the angels started to rejoice. God admonished them for singing praises saying, “My creatures are drowning in the sea, and you are singing?” In the same way that we spill drops of wine during the Passover seder to diminish our joy by remembering the suffering of others, I pray that my shofar blasts will remind me that the fates of all people hang in balance during Rosh Hashanah; that it is not just my own personal Day of Judgment.
The shofar cries of Sisera’s mother beckon the messianic age when all nations shall live together in peace.
Amidst all these tears, we are also reminded of the tears of Rachel, whose name is Hebrew for “ewe.” The Haftorah from the prophet Jeremiah, read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, say:
“A cry is heard on a height –
Wailing, bitter weeping –
Rachel weeping for her children.
She refuses to be comforted
For her children, who are gone.
Thus said the Lord:
Restrain your voice from weeping,
Your eyes from shedding tears;
For there is a reward for your labor
– declares the Lord:
They shall return from the enemy’s land
And there is hope for your future
– declares the Lord:
Your children shall return to their country.”
This prophetic vision foretells the ingathering of exiles, a time when the Great Shofar of the Messianic Era will be sounded. Jeremiah is referring to the Ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel that where vanquished by the Assyrians in the 8th Century BCE and disappeared into the diaspora. The Haftorah, however, speaks to all of us who have experienced loss.
The exile that afflicts most people today is not from a piece of land, but from themselves, their families and communities, and from God. The High Holy Days provide a chance to experience High Wholeness-Days when we can recalibrate our lives. Rachel’s tears comfort us for we are told that we can also return from exile to “at-one-ment.”
The shofar calls of Rachel comfort us and fill us with hope for the future.
I cannot leave Rahab out of this chorus of female voices. While her story is not usually linked to the Rosh Hashanah observances, she and her family were the only survivors of the Israelite’s attack on Jericho, a city whose very name is inextricably linked to the sounding of shofar. What did she think, feel and experience as she heard the blasts of the horn that preceded the collapse of her city’s walls?
The story of Jericho’s fall is usually told through the masculine voice of shofar. It is a military narrative with its emphasis on espionage, logistics, command structure, strategy, tactics, maneuvers, dispatches from the field, establishment of hegemony, and decoration of the victors. As with so much of Torah, the inside stories of the individual participants are left out, leaving room for us to create midrash – stories – speculating about what the participants were thinking or feeling. What was it like to be besieged within the city’s walls, without avenue of escape? Living in a pressure cooker of emotions where the people, “lost heart, and no man had any more spirit left,” and “all the inhabitants of the land are quaking”?
For six consecutive days, 40,000 shock troops escorted the Ark of the Covenant – symbol of the Hebrew tribe’s national might – in a march around the city’s wall. Ahead of the Ark marched seven priests continuously blowing shofarot. On the seventh day, as the “psy-ops” intensified, the procession marched around the city seven times. With each circuit, I imagine more residents of the city climbed to the ramparts to watch the spectacle as their anxiety increased. At the completion of the seventh circuit, the troops broke their silence and joined the shofarot in a mighty shout.
My theory is that the sudden aggressive acoustic blasts terrorized the citizens. In panic, they started shouting and running, creating tremors that ruptured the already overloaded city walls. An ethnic cleansing of the city followed. Only Rahab and her family were spared the sword in recompense for covert assistance she had rendered to the Israelite’s spies.
Having spent their entire lives in the desert within the confines of a tribal structure, was it any wonder that the two young men sent by Joshua to spy on the city found their way into the house of a prostitute? Like any good entrepreneur in that business, is it any wonder she shielded her customers when the law came looking for them? Were the Israelite spies the first men who had to escape out her window under cover of night?
Rahab clings to a red cord, literally “hope,” as the spies escape through her window.
What did she have to lose by striking a bargain with them for her safety? If the siege failed, she would continue her business in its established location; if it succeeded, then of course she would become a camp follower. Living as an outsider in her own city (figuratively as a prostitute and literally since her house was within the city’s walls), my guess is that she could go either way.
Our wisdom tradition sees it less cynically. Legend has it she married Joshua and became a mother in Israel, creating a lineage that included the prophets Huldah and Jeremiah. Rahab, we are told, underwent a battlefield conversion and confessed that the God of Israel, “is the only God in heaven above and on earth below.” Rahab’s faith prompted God to say, “‘On earth thou couldest see with thine eyes that there is no other God besides Me; but to acknowledge also that I am the only God in heaven needs special faith. I promise thee, therefore, that one of thy descendants [referring to Ezekiel] shall see what no prophet before him shall have seen,’ thus making Ezekiel one of Rahab's descendants” The New Testament also includes King David among her descendants.
As the shofarot blew, I imagine Rahab standing by her window wondering about her fate. In this regard, she mirrors Sisera’s mother who also stood by her window, but the two windows had different views: Sisera’s mother was at the center of her society; Rahab on the fringe. Sisera’s mother expected her city to celebrate a victory; Rahab expected hers to be destroyed. Sisera’s mother hoped for the destruction of the Jews; Rahab cast her lot with the Israelites. Sisera’s mother whimpered out of uncertainty about losing her position in society; Rahab probably cried to, but her tears more likely were out of uncertainty about entering into her new spiritual and social estate and the pending death of her neighbors.
As Rahab heard the shofarot, was she wondering if she was right to trust the spies to remember their pledge? Would the commanders of this foreign nation honor the commitment of their agents? In her line of work, surely she knew that not all men could be trusted. Would she be welcomed by this new people, or relegated to the fringes once again? And was the cost of her redemption worth the lives of her neighbors?
On a deeper level, did she feel uncertain that her faith in the God of Israel was justified? Would this unseen God reward her for her collusion with the Israelites and treat her with mercy? Would she be a martyr in her adopted religion or, worse, cut down like another stalk of grass by the scythe of battle, without any apparent divine reason or regard? If she had a vision of herself becoming a mother in Israel, would God laugh at her plans?
These are not unlike questions each of us confronts as we hear shofar on the New Year. Did I make good choices? Will I make better choices? Is my faith (or lack thereof) justified? How…? Who…? When…? Why…?
Negotiating with the spies, Rahab insists that the Israelites protect her and her family during the invasion. They agree, but warn, “We will be released from this oath which you have made us take [unless,] when we invade the country, you tie this length of crimson cord to the window through which you let us down.” The Hebrew word translated as “cord” is “tikvah” and also means “hope.” When we are filled with doubts during the Days of Awe, the shofar sounds to bring hope.
What all these women have in common is that they are mothers. This points to another feminine aspect of the shofar: Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of human consciousness in the world, and the shofar recalls the cries both of the mother giving birth and the child announcing its first breaths of air. Midrash describes the one hundred traditional shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah as, “a mother in labor as crying out ninety-nine times for death (i.e., from the pains of labor) and one time (the hundredth time) for life (i.e., in joy at the birth of the child).
Reinforcing the connection between birth and Rosh Hashanah, we are told that Sarah, Hannah, and Rachel were each “remembered” in their barrenness on Rosh Hashanah, leading to the conception and birth of children, and that Abram/Abraham and Jacob/Israel – two men who were reborn in their faith – were also born on the First of Tishrei.
“Hayom horat olam – Today is the birthday of the world.” This prayer “is the only prayer recited verbatim in all three sections of the shofar service…” Of this, a contemporary writer has said:
“‘Today is the birthday of the world’ means today, now. Today the world is born again. This day is ‘the beginning of your works,’ reminiscent of the very first time the world was made. Only that the first time the world was born, it was a free gift. Since then, it depends on us, the Adam. And so, it occurs on our birthday, Rosh Hashanah. We are reborn, and within us, the entire cosmos…
“Curious, isn’t it, that a shofar with its narrow blowhole and wider opening resembles a birth canal? In fact, the Bible mentions a great woman with a name of the same etymology: Shifrah. She was the midwife of the ancient Hebrews who left Egypt. Her name means, “to make beautiful,” and that is what she did: She ensured that the babies would emerge healthy and viable, then swaddled and massaged them to foster their strength and beauty.
“The shofar is the midwife of the new year. Into its piercing cry we squeeze all our heartfelt prayers, all our tears, our very souls. All that exists resonates with its call until it reaches the very beginning, the cosmic womb. And there it touches a switch; The Divine Presence shifts modalities from transcendence to immanence, from strict judgment to compassion. In the language of the Zohar, ‘The shofar below awakens the shofar above and the Holy One, blessed be He, rises from His Throne of Judgment and sits in His Throne of Compassion.’
“New life enters the world and takes its first breath. It is our own life, as well, and it is in our hands.”
While giving birth is the prerogative of the feminine, human consciousness also requires the masculine. “…male and female, He created them,”, and both are in the Divine image. In Oriental philosophies, the feminine is yin and the masculine is yang; complements that form a unity. Yang is associated with the outward direction of energy; it is the blowing of the shofar. Yin is associated with the receiving of energy; it is the hearing of shofar.
In Torah, the first man and woman were named, respectively, Earthling and Breath, for Adam is “earth” in Hebrew and Chava – the Hebrew name of Eve – is “breath.” To create its voice, the shofar needs the unification of the earthen, masculine horn and the feminine breath.
The shofar speaks in a universal voice. Its call is neither male nor female, human nor animal, earth nor air, yin nor yang. The sound of the shofar vibrates at the frequency on which we commune with the One and, despite its fractured blasts, sounds only whole notes.
Talmud states that women are not obligated to perform time-bound commandments. While this may sound patriarchal, it is also a pragmatic recognition that a pregnant woman or nursing mother does not have the freedom to set her own schedule. This precept applies to the hearing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. For example, “Every man is obliged to hear the sound of the ram’s horn but women and children are free of the obligation. Although the Scribes have prohibited the blowing of the ram’s horn on a holiday when it is not during the course of observing a commandment, nevertheless the prohibition has been waived for women, in order to satisfy them.”
This position is still upheld in most Orthodox Jewish communities. And while a woman, within this interpretation of the law can say the blessing for the sounding of the shofar and blow the shofar for herself or another woman, a man hearing her blast is not considered to have fulfilled his mitzvah of hearing the shofar.
Yet Torah is clear that ALL of us heard the shofar at Mt. Sinai, male, female and the androgynous or sexually indeterminate. As a carrier of that “truth,” I do not understand why “his” blowing is acceptable but “hers” or “the other’s” is not. Then again, I had an orange on my seder plate this year.
I am told; musicians auditioning for a symphony orchestra do so from behind a screen so only the sound of their playing is heard. Perhaps we should do something similar when it comes time to hear shofar; pull our tallitot – prayer shawls – over our heads so we can hear the shofar without distraction about who is blowing it.
For the Shofar Blower
By Janet Zimmern
At this awesome season
with all possibility we pray today:
By our choices and deeds,
with Divine Intervention,
Supernal Midwife of Israel
and of All Creation,
to birth as yet unknown wonders,
miracles of Life.
With an awesome fear of God,
I place this shofar to my lips.
May the breath
You breathe inside me,
now return to You
to be renewed and return again
to this world for Life, for Peace
May the birthcries of my shofar blasts
be pleasing to you,
as the words and deeds of Shifra
with fear of You, she
lovingly births Your People:
to do Your Will.
in Your advocacy
Encourage us toward Life
even when we ourselves may feel discouraged,
distressed in the midst
of life's hard pangs.
Breathe life into us anew!
While others take us for dead.
Lest we face despair of lost hope,
may abandon ourselves.
In the name of God that is Birth,
let the joy of becoming, of hearing
sounds from this birthing shofar
overcome and become us all.
God, cleanse us of our sins
like the midwife
who cleanses the newborn infant.
Wrap us in the beautiful garments
of the Soul.
Bathe us in Your Light
so our Divine nature may shine
even as we walk joyously in Your Light –
B'or paneha yehalayhun!
May the breath of my being
blown into this shofar
back to the shofar
that is Shifra
and the breath
that is Puah.
Deliver us from the narrows
of, God Forbid, an evil decree,
into the breadth of sound.
Signal in us an expansion.
may we birth this coming year!
send me no angel, no seraph, not even
Be Thou my Midwife!
Be Thou my angel!
Be Thou My Self!
Birth me yet again anew,
renewed for this coming year.
“The worst of the impulses to evil is to forget one’s royal descent.”
One of the central themes of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy is Malchuyot, reaffirmation of the sovereignty of God. Just as the shofar was used to announce the coronation of the kings of Israel and as trumpets still sound fanfares for royalty, we sound shofar to announce God as our ultimate Ruler.
In the Avinu Malkanu prayer, recited throughout the Yomim Noraim, the metaphor becomes more intimate; God is not only our King, but also our Father to whom we beseech, “Avinu Malkanu – our Father, our King, have mercy on us.” God as majesty and parent are inadequate metaphors for the Divine; finite concepts we grasp in our attempt to understand aspects of God. While a growing number of egalitarian congregations translate the verse as “our Parent, our Sovereign,” the anthropomorphication is most machzorim is decidedly masculine.
Many midrashim compound the metaphor by describing the King’s children as sons – the princes of the realm. The Hassidic masters, especially, used this imagery in their stories to explore the meanings of the High Holy Days and of shofar.
The first group of stories relate to the wordless communication between king and subjects:
“A king and his son, who had married and had moved to a distant land, carried on a correspondence which contained many items of a personal nature. In order to prevent the couriers from intercepting their messages, the two devised a coded language which they revealed to no one else. Anybody could now read the letters, but would not understand their hidden meanings.
“On Rosh Hashanah, God – the King – does not want the messages from His son – Israel – to be intercepted by the Accuser or any of his henchmen. He therefore taught Israel a secret language – the sounds of the shofar – to use in sending them their personal message of repentance.”
“A king's subjects love their king, and when they approach the king to make a request, his greatness and their veneration for him increase and they are struck with the fear that they might not speak properly before their king, and that they might give the prosecutor reason to interfere. Consequently, they make their request only by hinting at it, and then the king fulfills their request.
“Likewise, on Rosh Hashanah, when we, the people of Yisrael, go up before the Creator,
great fear and awe overtake us, and we become fearful to speak, for perhaps we might stumble, Heaven forbid, giving the prosecutor an excuse to disturb us, and that is why we cry out without speaking.
“In other words, we use the sound of the shofar, which is a simple sound, a great cry from the depths of the heart. And the Creator, who examines our heart and knows all that is hidden, fulfills our requests. That is what is meant by ‘O clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with the voice of triumph.’
“On Rosh Hashanah, when everyone comes to appear before the Creator – we shout in a single voice, without speaking, for we fear that we might give reason for prosecution; and the Creator, in His abundant mercy, fulfills the requests of the people of Yisrael.”
“We can compare this to a king who sent his young wife on a goodwill tour to a distant country. Wherever she went, she was greeted with great pomp and celebration. She was so overwhelmed that she momentarily forgot her mission. Days passed; she moved from party to party, from one testimonial to another. Suddenly, at one affair, as the band started to play, the queen stood up in surprise as she heard the melody of her wedding march. She was overcome with emotion as she remembered her wedding day and was ashamed how quickly she had forgotten her husband’s bidding.
“When we hear the sound of the shofar, we remember the piercing shofar blast of Mount Sinai and how God had chosen us to be His own. We are overjoyed in our chosenness, but remorseful for our shortcomings.”
The stories below explore the theme of exile:
“A king’s children were once kidnapped. Over a period of time they became friendly with their abductors and slowly, unwittingly, began to imitate their ways and their speech. As more time went by they were unaware of the subtle changes that took place in their character and mannerisms. Nevertheless, this new life-style soon disgusted them and they longed to return to their royal background.
“When the opportunity presented itself, the princes fled from their captors and made their way to the king’s palace. But how surprised and distraught they were when the king ignored their claims that they were his long-lost sons and paid them no heed. At first they did not realize that the coarse speech and boorish manner they had acquired during their years of captivity were proof to the king that these were imposters who stood before him. But after hearing the conversation and observing the actions of the nobility and the court officers, they understood how different they had become while they were absent from the king’s palace. It then dawned on them that they did not even ‘speak the same language’ as the king.
“Finally they burst into tears, and the wordless cries that they emitted evoked the king’s compassion, for he recognized the cries as those of his sons.”
“A noble king enjoyed listening to the lyrical musical compositions his children sang and played for him. Whenever he was depressed, the sound of his children’s choir, accompanied by harp and violins, would always cheer him up.
“In the course of time, the princes became disloyal and rebelled against their father. Infuriated by their folly and arrogance, the king expelled them from his palace, sending them into exile.
“The princes suffered greatly in their remote exile. They finally came to realize how badly they had hurt their kind father. Remorseful over their disobedient behavior, the children sent groups of singers to their father to perform the musical compositions they used to sing for him as youngsters, hoping that the sound of the old tunes would reawaken the king’s love for them.”
“This is...the story of a king who went hunting in the forest. He got deep into the forest and could not find the king’s highway that would lead him back to his palace. Seeing some countrymen, he asked them the way, but they could not answer him, for they did not know it either. Finally, he found a wise man, and asked him the way. Realizing whom the king was, the wise man trembled and showed him to the highway, for he knew the way. So he led the king back to his kingdom. Now the wise man found great favor in the eyes of the king, who lifted him up above all the lords of the realm, and clothed him in costly garments, and ordered his old clothes to be laid in the king’s treasure house.
“Sometime afterward the wise man sinned against the king, who grew wroth and commanded the lords who stood highest in his kingdom to judge the man as a transgressor against the king’s commandments. Then the wise man was in sad straits, for he knew that they would decide against him. So he fell on his face before the king and pleaded for his life and asked to be allowed before the verdict to put on the same clothes he had been wearing when he had led the king out of the forest. The king accepted his request.
“And it came to pass when the wise man had put on those clothes, that the king recalled the great kindness that the wise man had done him by returning him to his palace and to his royal throne. The king’s compassion was kindled, and the wise man found grace and kindness in his eyes, and the king allowed his sin to pass unpunished, and returned him to his position.
“So it is with us, O people of Israel! When the Torah was about to be given, the Holy One, blessed be he, went from nation to nation, asking them to accept the Torah, but they would not. We accepted it with such joy and delight that we said, ‘We will do,’ before ‘We will hear.’ We took the yoke of the kingdom of heaven upon ourselves, and made Him king over us, and accepted his commandments and his sacred Torah.
“But now, we have transgress and rebelled against him, and on Rosh Hashanah we are fearful of the Day of Judgment, when he sits in judgment on all the hidden things, and pronounces the verdict of every man according to his deeds. Therefore we sound the ram’s horn and put on the same dress we were wearing at the time of the giving of the Torah, when we accepted the Torah and crowned Him King with the ram’s horn, as it is written: “And when the sound of the horn waxed louder and louder” – in order that He may remember the aiding merit of ours, forgive us our iniquities and willful transgressions, vindicate us in judgment, and inscribe us at once for a long and happy life.”
“A king’s son was at a distance of a hundred days’ journey from his father. Said his friends to him, ‘Return to your father.” He said to them, “I cannot.” His father sent to him and said, “Go as far as you are able, and I shell come the rest of the way to you.” Thus, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, ‘Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you.’
“This is how it is with the shofar. We go as far as we can in returning to God. Then, with the blast of the shofar, we call for God to come the rest of the way.”
“The shofar proclaims God’s kingdom, and there are two aspects of this proclamation. One is that God is the absolute ruler of the universe and tends to one and all with uncompromising judgment. The other is that therefore we are pitifully empty and broken creatures who constantly need God’s loving-kindness to survive.
“We can compare this to a king’s servant who rebelled against him. He left the palace and traveled from kingdom to kingdom to find a place where he could live in comfort. After many months of searching, he returned weary and embarrassed. Begging and pleading, he was finally allowed to appear before the king. He bowed and said, ‘O great and mighty king, your rule extends to many lands. Your riches are unsurpassed, and your palace is replete with a thousand pleasures. Your army is mighty.’ ‘Stop that!’ interrupted the king. ‘My greatness I’m sure you have not forgotten. But what about you? How do you feel now about yourself?’ ‘And I,’ continued the former rebel, ‘I am your humble servant who has nothing in this world, except to serve your royal highness.’
“Similarly, the broken sounds of the shofar remind us of our true conditions as creatures… If we listen carefully and reassess our condition, then we are worthy of loving-kindness.”
The story below also explores exile, but from the perspective of having landmarks so we know where we are in our exile.
“A king was traveling with his child through the wilderness. And when a king travels, his entire entourage travels along: ministers, guards, attendants and servants, all at the ready to serve their master and carry out his will. Suddenly, the procession ground to a halt. The king's child had a request. ‘Water,’ said the crown prince. ‘I want water.’
“The king convened his cabinet to address the crisis. ‘My son is thirsty,’ he said to his ministers. But how is water to be obtained in the wilderness?
“After much deliberation, two proposals were laid before the throne. ‘I shall dispatch my ten ablest horsemen on my ten fastest steeds,’ proposed the commander of the royal cavalry. ‘They will ride to the nearest settlement and fill their waterskins. Within the hour, there will be water for the prince.’
“‘I shall put my men and equipment to the task,’ proposed the chief of the royal engineering corps. ‘They will erect a derrick and sink a well right here, on the very spot at which we have stopped. Before the day is out, there will be water for the prince.’
“The king opted for the latter proposal, and soon the royal engineers were boring a well through the desert sand and rock. Toward evening they reached a vein of water and the prince's thirst was quenched.
“‘Why,’ asked the prince of his father, after he had drunk his fill, ‘did you trouble your men to dig a well in the desert? After all, we have the means to obtain water far more quickly and easily.’
“‘Indeed, my son,’ replied the king, ‘such is our situation today. But perhaps one day, many years in the future, you will again be traveling this way. Perhaps you will be alone, without the power and privilege you now enjoy. Then, the well we dug today will be here to quench your thirst.’
“‘But father,’ said the prince, ‘in many years, the sands of time will have refilled the well, stopping its water and erasing its very memory!’
“‘My son,’ said the king, ‘you have spoken with wisdom and foresight. This, then, is what we will do. We will mark the site of this well on our maps, and preserve our maps from the ravages of time. If you know the exact spot at which this well has been sunk, you will be able to reopen it with a minimum of effort and toil. This we shall do at every encampment of our journey,’ resolved the king. ‘We shall dig wells and mark their places on our map. We shall record the particular characteristics of each well and the method by which it can be reopened. So whenever, and under whatever circumstances, you will travel this route, you will be able to obtain the water that will sustain you on your journey.’
“Each festival marks a point in our journey through time at which our Heavenly Father, accompanying us in our first steps as a people, supplied us with the resources that nurture our spiritual lives. Like the king in the above parable, told by Chassidic master Rabbi Yechezkel Panet to explain the soul of the Jewish calendar, God sunk wells at various points in the terrain of time to serve as perpetual sources of these blessings. As we travel through the year – the year being a microcosm of the entire universe of time – we encounter the festivals, each marking the location of a well of nurture for our souls.
“God also provided us with a map of these wells – a calendar denoting their locations in our journey through time. The map also comes with instructions on how to reopen each well and access its waters: sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah will regenerate the divine coronation that transpired on the first Rosh Hashanah when Adam crowned God as king of the universe… And so it is with every such appointment on our calendar: each comes supplied with its own mitzvot and observances – the tools that open the well and unleash the flow of its waters.
The next two tales are from the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement. In one, he prescribes sounding shofar with joy, and in the next with a broken heart. Either will work, according to the spiritual needs of the shofar sounder or hearer.
Gladden the King
“Once, just before the New Year, the Ba’al Shem came to a certain town and asked the people who read the prayers there in the Days of Awe. They replied that this was done by the rav of the town. ‘And what is his manner of praying?’ asked the Ba’al Shem. ‘On the Day of Atonement,’ they said, ‘he recites all the confessions of sin in the most cheerful tones.’
“The Ba’al Shem sent for the rav and asked him the cause of this strange procedure. The rav answered: ‘The least among the servants of the king, he whose task it is to sweep the forecourt free of dirt, sings a merry song as he works, for he does what he is doing to gladden the king.’
“Said the Ba’al Shem: ‘May my lot be with yours.’”
This reminds us that sounding shofar need not be a dirge. If we are sincere in our teshuvah, then the shofar blasts should be joyous because we are serving the King.
“Once the Ba’al Shem Tov dreamed that he was walking outside his hut, and he saw a tree, shaped like a shofar, twisting in and out of the earth, as if a giant ram’s horn had taken root. The sight of that great shofar took The Ba’al Shem’s breath away. And in the dream, the Ba’al Shem gathered all his hasidim together by that tree and told them to see who among them could sound it. So, one by one, they approached the mouth of that mighty shofar, but none of them could bring forth a single sound. At last Reb Wolf Kitzes approached it, and this time a deep and long-sustained blast came forth, like a voice from deep in the earth. He blew only one note, but it rose up into heaven.
“When the Ba’al Shem awoke, he was still being borne along by that long note, and he sighed because there was no such shofar in this world, only in the world of dreams.
“The next day the Ba’al Shem called upon Wolf Kitzes and told him that he wanted to teach him the secret meanings of the blasts of the shofar so that he could serve as the ba’al tekiah for the High Holy Days. Of course, Wolf Kitzes relished this chance to delve into the mysteries with The Besht. So it was that he learned, over many months, that every blast of the shofar is a branch of the Tree of Life, and that there are great powers residing in the shofar. So mighty are its blessings that a note blown with the right meaning and intensity could rise on a single breath all the way to the Throne of Glory.
“Now Wolf Kitzes listened carefully to the words of the Ba’al Shem, and wrote down the secret meaning of each and every sound, so that he could remember it precisely as he blew on the shofar.
“Then it happened that on the day of Rosh Hashanah, when he was about to blow on the shofar before the Ark for the first time, the notes with all the secret meanings vanished. He frantically searched for them everywhere, but to no avail.
“Then, weeping bitter tears, he blew on the shofar with his broken heart, without concentrating on the secret meanings. And the sound of the shofar rose up in long and short blasts and carried all of their prayers with it into the highest heavens. And everyone who heard him blow the shofar that day knew that for one moment heaven and earth had been brought together in the same place.
“Afterwards, the Ba’al Shem said to Wolf Kitzes: ‘In the palace of the king there are many chambers, and every one has a lock of its own. But the master key is a broken heart. When a man truly breaks his heart before the Holy One, blessed be He, he can pass through each and every gate.’”
The next story uses a king simile to give insight into the meaning of shofar blasts.
“A tekiah is a whole sound, but a teruah is a broken and fragmented and represents stern judgment. This is like a king who was angered by his son’s behavior and was about to punish him. The prince’s mentor begged, ‘Please, Your Majesty, don’t punish all at once, but each time you want to be kind to him, give him a little less.’
“Loving-kindness flows in a steady and uninterrupted steam, like the sound of the tekiah. Stern judgment, if it were to come all at once, would be unbearable. It is therefore broken into smaller pieces. Like the shevarim and teruah. But as small pieces, they are no longer judgment, but bits of kindness instead.”
The shofar ritual is often described as a memorial to the covenants formed in the Akedah – the binding of Isaac – and at Mount Sinai. In the final tale, we learn that it is also linked to an even earlier covenant with God.
The rainbow has a curved shape similar to that of a shofar. More, “The Zohar teaches: The rainbow (keshet) was created to protect the world. It is like a king who every time he gets angry at his son and wants to punish him, the queen appears in her radiant garment. When the king sees her, his anger at his son disappears. And he rejoices in the queen.
“Rabbi Nachman of Breslov observed: ‘This also corresponds to the shofar blasts… The mnemonic for this is KeSHeT (rainbow) – i.e., teKiah, SHevarim, Teruah.’ When God hears shofar, he is reminded of the covenant He made with Noah, ‘I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth,’ and shows compassion for His children.”
In the story of The Rainbow, the queen is a metaphor for the Shechinah – the Divine presence that carries the feminine energy of God. Perhaps it shows the way towards developing new midrashim – stories – about shofar and Imeinu Malkatenu – Our Mother, Our Queen.
At the height of The Beatles’ popularity, band member Ringo Starr brushed aside a question about the meaning of one of the band’s songs by saying, “I’m just the drummer.” As a ba’al tekiah – shofar blower, I often feel in a similar predicament about the shofar service. I become so drawn into my meditations and prayers for the shofar blast, that I become all but oblivious to the proceedings around me. From somewhere above the din of the liturgy, I hear the rabbi inform me that it is time to say the blessing for shofar, and I return to this plane just long enough to make the blessings and listen for the makrei – caller – to announce “tekiah.” Like the drummer, I have to know my cues but not the lyrics.
With this apology, I have recently begun to consider the significance of the words spoken as part of the shofar services. The shofar service during mussaf – the additional prayer service of Rosh Hashanah – has three parts: malchuyot – sounding the shofar to announce the sovereignty of God, zichronot – remembering the covenants between God and the children of Israel, and shofarot – celebrating the mitzvah of sounding shofar and alluding to the shofar that sounded when we received Torah and the shofar that will sound with the arrival of the messianic era. Each of these themes is marked with the reading of appropriate verses from scripture and the sounding of shofar.
While malchuyot – the metaphor of God as sovereign – is very old, it is not a primal part of the human story. The shofar dates from the time when humans lived in clans and tribes, long before civilization make it possible for power to be concentrated into a king.
Aside from the anthropomorphication and genderization inherent in referring to God as “the King,” the imagery of a monarch is not part of my understanding of the Divine. Trying to circumscribe God as “King of kings” is as meaningless as saying infinity is just “everything plus one”; the Whole transcends the sum of the parts.
My concern stems, at least in part, from my rejection of the authority of kings in the temporal realm. I claim faith in the American principle of the rule of law by the people and the Twelve Step principle that. “Our leaders are but trusted servants.” As a Jew, my memory of suffering under kings, czars, caesars, emperors, and other high and mighty magnates leaves me with no desire to tarnish HaShem with their rubric. As God cautions, “warn [the people] and tell them about the practices of any king who will rule over them.”
It is with interest then that I find a recent re-visioning of the shofar service for Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Lisa A. Edwards points out that zichronot and shofarot are based on the commandments in Torah “to remember” and “to blow” on the New Year (Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1) There is, she points out, no similar basis for malchuyot.
Instead of malchuyot in the shofar service, Rabbi Edwards finds instructions in Torah for a different mitzvah on Rosh Hashanah. The phrase mikra kodesh – appearing in both Leviticus 23:24 and Numbers 29:1 – is usually interpreted to mean, “a holy convocation” to be sanctified by abstaining from doing work. She points out, however, that mikra kodesh can also mean, “a public reading of sacred text.” “Convocation” means, “with voice,” and the root of mikra, translated as “a public reading” is related to the root of makrei, the caller who announces the shofar blasts.
With these insights from both English and Hebrew, she suggests that the mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah is not a ritual coronation but to hear our stories. This is the meaning that appears operative in Nehemiah’s description of Rosh Hashanah: “On the first day of the seventh month, Ezra the priest brought the Teachings before the congregation of men and women and all who could listen with understanding. He read from it…from the first light to midday, to the men and the women and those who could understand; the ears of all the people were given to the scroll of the Teaching.”
In Rabbi Edwards’ re-visioning, the malchuyot portion of the shofar service would be replaced with blessings and readings that are drawn from wider range of Torah teachings relating to shofar. In her feminist analysis, many of these teachings would bring stories of women – such as those in Chapter 6 – The Ewe’s Horn of this book – into more prominence in the High Holiday liturgy); many of the other Torah teachings on shofar, found throughout this book, could also be drawn upon.
A dozen years after writing her thesis, Rabbi Edwards has still not implemented her re-visioning into the minhag – customs of her congregation. This underscores that changing long established liturgy should not happen in haste.
Yet even the awareness of an alternative vision can inform our approach to the Rosh Hashanah shofar service. I know it has had at least one effect on me: This year, I will try to hear the scriptural readings of malchuyot even as I prepare to hear the voice of shofar.
“Sound the shofar; hear the aleph in your heart.”
An idiosyncrasy of the Hebrew calendar is that the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat – the Jewish Sabbath (beginning Friday at sunset and lasting until sunset on Saturday) – in about one year out of three. Shabbat, like Rosh Hashanah and the shofar ritual, is full of meaning, and the conjunction of the three creates a richly textured and multilayered moment. It also raises a question: Should shofar be blown when Rosh Hashanah coincides with Shabbat?
In Orthodox Judaism, Shabbat is a time to refrain from all forms of work, including the playing of musical instruments. This suggests that shofar should not be blown. However, our sages also say,” Blowing shofar…is just a skill and is not considered creative labor.” Hence, it is not work and, one might think, shofar could be blown on Shabbat.
Judaism, however, is built on argument and counter-argument. So a second case against shofar on Shabbat is made: God forbid, someone might be careless and carry a shofar or receive training on sounding the horn, thereby violating the Sabbath.
Nu! What if the shofar blower practiced ahead of time so last moment instructions were not required, and took precautions to make sure the shofar was brought to the place of worship before Shabbat. Then surely it would be acceptable to blow shofar despite the Sabbath.
Not so, the retort goes. Shabbat is a day when we are already cloaked in special holiness and have no need for the intercession of shofar in our prayers.
And this position is rejoined, in turn, by those who feel that the sanctity of the shofar elevates the observance of Shabbat and besides, Talmud even says the shofar was employed in the Temple on Shabbat.
Sensing that the “antidisemploymentarianist” has walked into a trap, the Shabbat-totaler declares, “Precisely; shofar was blown in the Temple, not in unwalled cities.” To which, with equal faith in the truth of his argument, the pro-blower replies, “I know, but the Torah says we must blow shofar on Rosh Hashanah but nowhere does it say we must not blow on Shabbat.
And so the halachic debate over Jewish law rages back and forth.
Or more precisely, so the debate rages among Jews who do not observe Rosh Hashanah as a two-day long event. For example, many Reform congregations observe only the first day of the New Year. For them, omitting shofar in deference to Shabbat would mean congregants would not hear the shofar at all, leaving their New Year’s observance seemingly incomplete.
Based on anecdotal evidence, most single-day shuls sound the shofar at the appointed time just as they would when Rosh Hashanah does not fall on Shabbat. But others have adopted innovative strategies that reconcile the traditions of both Shabbat and Rosh Hashanah. Some, for example, blow shofar late Friday evening before welcoming Sabbath. And others wait until Saturday evening, ending the day with Havdalah – the ritual ending Shabbat, and then blow shofar.
In congregations that observe both days of the Holy Day, foregoing shofar on the first day is balanced by the seemingly heighten import of the second day’s blasts. Yet one only receives the benefit of this trade-off by attending both days of services, and many shuls report that second-day attendance is significantly less than first-day attendance.
The debate over whether shofar should be blown on Shabbat misses the mark, as Torah offers a way to have our shofar and Shabbat too.
There are two verses in Torah regarding the shofar on the New Year. One seems to demand blowing shofar:
“You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded.”
The other, however, tells us that the mitzvah of the day is to:
“…zachor – remember – loud blasts.”
Shofar is just one of many things Torah commands us to remember. Another is the Sabbath. The fourth of the Ten Commandments is to remember the Sabbath. There is a profound link between these two remembrances since the Commandments were given at Mt. Sinai as the “voice of the Shofar grew louder and louder.”
Just as the noun, “shofar,” appears in Torah as the object of two verbs: “blow” and “remember,” “Shabbat” is also the object of two verbs: “keep” and “remember.” It is as if, when we “keep” Shabbat on Rosh Hashanah, we are to “remember” shofar. And when we “blow” shofar, we are to “remember” Shabbat and the other commandments given at Sinai while the shofar blew.
Keep Shabbat à Remember Shofar
Remember Shabbat ß Blow Shofar
It would be wrong to assume that blowing shofar is “active” and remembering is “passive.” Remembering, like active listening, takes full effort. Making the effort can help you do the work of teshuvah – the repentance or realignment that the High Holy Days can foster.
As one spiritual leader describes this:
“There will be times when re-enactment is appropriate and there are times when you will have only memory. You will remember the sound without actually hearing the sound. Instead you will focus on the sound by being acutely aware of its absence. It will be through the force of your mind alone that God will be removed from the throne of judgment to the throne of mercy. It will be through your concentration alone and not through the intermediary of the shofar. This Shabbat, for those who do not hear the shofar, our memory has to be enough, for it is our minds and hearts that truly have to do the work.”
Using our minds and hearts to create transformation is embedded in the spiritual renewal of the High Holy Days. Standing in confession, we remember our sins so vividly they become as palpable as our pounding of our chests. As we pray for forgiveness, we create a visualization of the life we vow to create for ourselves. Visualization is a powerful psychological mechanism. It is used by motivational coaches who tell us that what we visualize is what we become, and by athletes who use visualization as an adjunct to physical training. If one listens with attention to the remembered or imagined voice of shofar, the experience is as real and as spiritually effective as audible shofar blasts.
Silence has an honored place in the Jewish meditative and spiritual traditions. While Torah begins the story of creation with bet, the second letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, our mystics say that the world really came into being with aleph – the silent first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the sound of God anthropomorphically inhaling before speaking.
It is in silence that we often hear the answers to prayers, and this experience can be especially powerful in the silence of the unblown shofar.
While the Orthodox Jewish liturgy omits the shofar service altogether when Rosh Hashanah and Shabbat coincide, other communities have found meaningful ways to retain the ritual without violating the Sabbath. At places in the liturgy where shofar would normally be blown, have the makrei – the individual who calls out the shofar blasts before they are sounded –cries out, “tekiah.” But instead of hearing blasts of shofar, hear the blasts of silence that fill the synagogue.
In the silence following the makrei’s cry of “shevarim,” hear the silence that breaks your heart.
In the silence following the cry of “teruah,” allow silence too shatter resistance to teshuvah.
And in the silence following the cry of “tekiah gedolah,” the silence of the aleph that precedes creation, hear the rebirth of the world.
Listen to the silence. Hear the silence.
In the voice of the silent shofar, hear the voice of God.
Another way to remember the voice of shofar is to recreate it with the human voice. Vocal expression is allowed on Shabbat even when the playing of an instrument is not. This technique is not only useful on Shabbat, but also when – God forbid – there is not a shofar or shofar blower available.
In one realization of this alternative, an individual can become the shofar for a community. His or her voice does not have to be beautiful, but the human shofar’s kavanah must be true to the spirit of sounding shofar. The experience can have an even greater visceral power if all members of the congregation sound-off together. Coming from the gut, the shofar sounds become a primal scream in which each of us individually, and all of us collectively, can petition God unencumbered by words.
Words, however, can also be used to emulate the shofar calls. On one Shabbat of Rosh Hashanah, I got to be the makrei at my congregation, Makom Ohr Shalom. I divided the congregation into four sections, and assigned each section to one of the following phrases:
1. For the initial Tekiah: “LISTEN.”
2. For Teruah: “WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP!”
3. For Shevarim: “NOW IS THE TIME FOR TESHUVAH.”
4. For the closing Tekiah: “LISTEN.” 
As I called the traditional sequence of shofar blasts, each quadrant of the congregation voiced their shofar message:
Listen. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Now is the time for teshuvah. Listen.
Listen. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up! Listen.
Listen. Now is the time for teshuvah. Listen
Finally, when I called “Tekiah Gedolah,” each person shouted whatever he or she needed to say to God in that moment. Fully invigorated by the meditative chanting, some asked for health, some gave blessings, and others shrieked sounds that had meaning only to God.
By becoming the shofar, we all heard the shofar.
I want to add one final note to this exploration of the nexus of shofar and Shabbat. As a shofar blower, not blowing shofar on Shabbat allows me to focus on the prayers and the readings that are part of the musaf service, parts of the liturgy that I usually miss because I am focused on preparing to blow shofar.
The Shofar’s Three Distinctive Ring Tones Won’t be Heard
“You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the shofar loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the shofar sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holdings and each of you shall return to his family.”
The Hebrew for the highlighted phrase is, “V'haavarto SHofar Tru'oh Bachodesh Hashvii.” The initial letters of these words can be rearranged to spell out “teshuvah” and represent the call of the shofar for people to repent.
[G’mar] Chatimah Tovah – May you be sealed for a good year.
“Blessed are You, Lord, who separates between the holiness of sacred time and the holiness of secular time.”
Shofar is so central to the soundtrack of Rosh Hashanah that it has come to play second fiddle in the score of Yom Kippur. True, Torah mandates a shofar recital annually for Rosh Hashanah blasts and only once in fifty years on Yom Kippur – the blasts during non-Jubilee years being a rabbinic invention. Yet, there is intense spiritual, emotional, and dramatic significance to Yom Kippur’s shofar. If we have to sound 100 blasts on Rosh Hashanah and only one blast on Yom Kippur, perhaps it is because the single blast of Yom Kippur has 100 times the efficacy.
Referring to the Jubilee, Torah says:
“Then you shall sound the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the horn sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year.”
The Hebrew word translated as “sound” is “teruah.” In the context of Rosh Hashanah, teruah is a broken, shattered note. But on Yom Kippur, the custom in most Jewish communities is to sound one mighty tekiah gedolah – an extended single blast of shofar – at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. (Other congregations sound a ten-blast shofar sequence as a memorial to the Jubilee; see Chapter 12 – The Jubilee and the Prophet’s Words.)
Compositionally, this blast is a magnificent coda to the musical motif of the High Holy days, reprising a theme introduced during Elul and given full expression in the blasts of Rosh Hashanah. It provides a rousing “AMEN” to all the prayers of the Days of Awe.
The sense of this is captured in the following extract:
“…Esther dreamed away the long grey day, only vaguely conscious of the stages of the service – Morning dovetailing into Afternoon service, and Afternoon into Evening; of the prostrations full length on the floor; of the rhyming poems with their recurring burdens shouted in devotional frenzy, with special staccato phrases flung heavenwards; of the wailing confessions of communal sin, with their accompaniment of sobs and tears and beatings of the breast…
“Suddenly, there fell a vast silence… It was as if all creation paused to hear a pregnant word.
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!’ sang the cantor frenziedly.
“And all the ghostly congregation answered with a great cry, ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!’
“They seemed like a great army of the sheeted dead risen to testify to the Unity. The magnetic tremor that ran through the synagogue thrilled the lonely girl to the core, and from her lips came in rapturous surrender to an over-mastering impulse the half-hysterical protestation: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!’
“And then, in the brief instant while the congregation, with ever ascending rhapsody, blessed God till the climax came with the seven-fold declaration, ‘The Lord, He is God,’ the whole history of her strange, unhappy race flashed through her mind in a whirl of resistless emotion. She was overwhelmed by the thought of its sons in every corner of the earth proclaiming to the somber twilight sky the belief for which its generations had lived and died. The grey dusk palpitated with floating shapes of prophets and martyrs, scholars and sages and poets, full of a yearning love and pity, lifting hands of benediction…
“The roar dwindled to a solemn silence. Then the ram’s horn shrilled – a stern long-drawn-out note that rose at last into a mighty peal of sacred jubilation. The Atonement was complete.”
What else, other than shofar, could possibly provide the grand finale needed to conclude such a day?
Shofar issues a wake-up call. On Rosh Hashanah, the call is meant to wake us spiritually. On Yom Kippur, however, shofar’s wake up call makes havdalah – a separation – to summon us back from the altered consciousness of prayer, meditation, and fasting to the physical world so we can return to our homes, our work, and the ordinary holiness of the rest of the year. “God may ascend,” as we read in our Machzor, but we have to become grounded so we can begin building our sukkot for our celebration of being part of the earth.
During Yom Kippur, we become like the angels who neither eat nor drink; all our attention is focused on prayer without regard for our physicality. If we stepped out of the shul in this condition, without waking up, we would be in danger of being caught off guard by the hazards that lurk on the mortal plane. While I understand this in the pragmatic sense of not looking both ways before crossing a street, the sages explain the same phenomenon in more mystical terms:
“Throughout Yom Kippur, the yetzer hara [evil inclination, Satan] was powerless. Now that Yom Kippur is over, he is returning full force. So we confuse him with the shofar blast, reminding him of the coming final redemption when, “a great shofar will be sounded’ – and the yetzer hara will die.”
It has also been said that, “the blast of the shofar announces that it is nightfall, time to prepare the meal for the hungry family after the fast.” Like a dinner bell, it calls us to partake of the break fast, a meal that the sages tell us that is as important as the fast itself. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we hear its blast and begin to salivate; at last the fast is over and we can eat.
Its loud blast had a practical value, too; I can imagine our mothers in the shtetls – villages, – hearing the tekiah gedolah from the village’s shul and knowing that Papa would soon be home, it was time for the kinderlach – children – to wash and come to the table.
The shofar blast is a reprise of the High Holy Day theme of malchuyot, our acceptance of the majesty of God. Just as the King or Queen is welcomed with a fanfare, protocol calls for trumpets while the Ruler of the Universe “leaves” the stage. The tekiah gedolah at the close of Yom Kippur symbolizes that “the Shechinah, which dwelled among us throughout Yom Kippur, is returning to the higher realms. ‘God has ascended with the blast; HaShem with the sound of the shofar.’”
This imagery recalls the revelation at Sinai and provides insight into why the long blast was selected to end Yom Kippur:  In preparation for theophany, God instructs Moses to set boundaries around the mountain to caution the people against trespassing. Afterwards, “When the ram’s horn sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” This long blast “would be the signal that the Manifestation was at an end, and the mountain had resumed its ordinary character.”
The tekiah gedolah is a sonic mikvah – spiritual bath – that washes us with echoes from forty days worth of prayers. We extend the tekiah gedolah for as long as possible so that we have one final chance for teshuvah before the gates close. As Rabbi Debra Orenstein says, “It only takes a single instant for that change of heart that can lead to teshuvah; let the shofar blast be that moment.” The protracted cry also gives God an few extra moments on the Seat of Mercy so we can be sealed us for a good year.
The blowing of shofar during fasts (see Book 3 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn), also factors into the shofar blasts of Yom Kippur. But in the final analysis, the shofar of Yom Kippur is sounded in joy and not with the trepidation associated with fasts. Two verses from Torah make clear that we are to sound Yom Kippur’s shofar with jubilation (a word that even derives from a Hebrew word for horn, yovel):
“And on your joyous occasions…you shall sound trumpets…”
“Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the… seventh month shall become an occasion for joy and gladness, a happy festival for the House of Judah...”
More, we blow in the gladness that comes from knowing our fate has been sealed and that we will accept whatever comes with gratitude as the will of God.
Several of the scriptural readings prescribed for Yom Kippur provide clues to the meaning of the shofar of Yom Kippur. The readings tell us, among other things, to:
· Choose life (Leviticus 16, Yom Kippur morning Torah portion),
· Raise our voices against injustice (Isaiah 57:14 - 58:14, Yom Kippur morning Haftorah),
· Wake up to our responsibilities, and
· Move beyond fear and constriction to serve the greater good (Jonah, Yom Kippur afternoon Haftorah).
Other clues to shofar’s meaning can be heard in the shofar that was blown on Yom Kippur at the end of each 50-year cycle to announce the commencement of the Jubilee (Leviticus 25).
These themes are explored in the chapters that follow.
“Such a tiny scapegoat for such a huge load of sins!”
In Torah, we are commanded to blow shofar on Yom Kippur only once in a fifty-year cycle, on the Jubilee. But there is a Yom Kippur ritual that is required annually, the ritual of the two goats, one sacrificed on the altar and the other sent to Azazel. While the ritual is no longer practiced since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, we still observe the ritual as “a law for all time” by making its story the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning. The story about these two horned animals resonates within my psyche throughout the day and becomes interwoven with my experience of the sounding of shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. The shofar is their horn and its blast the bleat of their voice, and hearing the horn keeps the archaic ritual alive and meaningful for me.
The ritual was part of the High Priest’s preparations for entering the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary to consummate his confession and atonement on behalf of the People. The relevant passage is:
“And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering… Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering. While the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel… He shall then slaughter the people’s goat of sin offering, bring its blood behind the curtain, and…he shall sprinkle it over the cover and in front of the cover. Thus he shall purge the Shrine of the uncleanness and transgression of the Israelites, and he shall do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which abides with them in the midst of their uncleanness… he shall take some of the blood…of the goat and apply it to each of the horns of the altar, and the rest of the blood he shall sprinkle on it with his finger seven times…
“When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus shall the goat carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness… He who set the Azazel-goat free shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; after that he may reenter the camp.”
Torah contains many injunctions for sacrifices as sin offerings. This verse also parallel’s another in which one animal is killed and another released:
“If the priest sees that that the leper has been healed of his scaly affliction, the priest shall order two live clean birds… The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered… and he shall take the live bird… and dip the…live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered… He shall…set the live bird free in the open country.”
In both instances, we may ask what does the release of the animal signify? And for the Yom Kippur reading, we may – perhaps even should – ask what is Azazel and what does it mean to be “marked for Azazel”?
To simplify thousands of years of rabbinic and scholarly debate, Azazel is either understood to be either the place where the goat was sent, or a demonic “power” to which it was sent.
Scapegoat shown being thrown to a demon Azazel.
If a place, Azazel is “an inaccessible region” or wilderness destination from which it was unlikely that the sin-laden goat would return. A minor rearrangement of the Hebrew letters in “Azazel” gives it the meaning of “hardest of the mountains” and suggests the cliff from which the goat was, in the time of the Second Temple, pushed.
If a demon, sending a goat for Azazel may be seen as an attempt to satiate Satan or other demonic forces. For example, in the apocryphal book of Enoch, the angel Raphael punishes Azazel, a fallen angel, for sleeping with daughters of men, banishing him to desert from which he controlled acts of harlotry, war and sorcery.
Others interpret Azazel as a goat demon, a popular mythological figure in ancient world. There is a sense in which making an offering to Azazel was an ironic attempt to undermine the authority of this superstition among Jews. For example, the Torah chapter immediately after the discussion about the goat for Azazel requires people to bring their sacrifices into the Temple, and not to do them in the open anymore, “that they may offer their sacrifices no more to the goat-demons after whom they stray.” About this, scholars have observed:
“The worship of the goat, accompanied by the foulest rites, prevailed in Lower Egypt. This was familiar to the Israelites, and God desired to wean them from it. Some commentators point to this verse as giving a main purpose of the sacrificial system in the Torah; viz, gradually to wean Israel away from primitive ideas and idolatrous practices. The manner of worship in use among the peoples of antiquity was retained, but that worship was now directed towards the One and Holy God. ‘By this Divine plan, idolatry was eradicated, and the vital principle of our Faith, the existence and unity of God, was firmly established – without confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of sacrificial worship, to which they were accustomed.’”
“…the goat for Azazel was neither a gift to a pagan god nor a pagan rite, but a rejection of the influences and temptations of evil symbolized by Azazel. The ritual was ‘based on the awareness that, even in a world ruled by God, evil forces were at work – forces that had to be destroyed if God’s earthly home… was not to be defiled.’ The ritual forced the inequities back onto Azazel, their ‘point of departure.’ This demonstrated that only God had power on their lives and that they had defeated the symbol of evil.”
Azazel shown as a goat-like demon.
Another perspective explores how the scapegoat is a substitute for the nation. For example:
“Using ‘sympathetic magic’ – that is, fighting fire with fire – the High Priest would dispatch the sin-laden goat once each year to cancel the goat-demon’s sinful influence on the people… Although nowadays we only read about this ritual as part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, we might consider…designating during this period our own totem figures: symbolic images, words, or objects that we could release against those demonic forces that scapegoat us or encourage us to stray.”
“It may be tempting to view the scapegoat as a surrogate or substitute for the life of the human being who has transgressed, but more accurately, the animal is merely the vehicle for the removal and disposal of the taint of transgression.”
Others view the two goats – the one sacrificed in the Temple and the one sent to Azazel – as a symbol of the choice we each get to make on the Day of Atonement. Taking the clue from another Bible reference to two goats, we can choose to follow either the path Jacob our patriarch, or of Esau who has come to represent a life out of sync with Jewish values. For example:
“Abravanel…believes the two goats…are to remind Jews of Jacob and Esau. Esau, like the he-goat marked, ‘for Azazel,’ wondered into the wilderness away from his people, its laws, and its traditions. Jacob, like the he-goat marked ‘for God,’ lived a life devoted to God’s service… Jews were to be reminded that they had a significant free choice to make. They could live like Jacob or Esau, ‘for God,’ or ‘for Azazel.’”
Elaborating on this theme:
“The law seems to teach us about the stark difference between service of God which is accepted and beloved by God, versus the ‘scapegoat’ which represents that which has been rejected by God. Yet there is more: ‘The two goats on Yom Kippur; the mitzvah is for them to be identical in appearance, size, and value, the two shall be chosen together.’
“The Talmud teaches that these two goats should look identical -- like twins… The most famous twins in the Torah are, of course, Jacob and Esau. They were complete opposites, one good, the other evil. No one could ever confuse them. On the other hand, perhaps they did possess some similarities. Rashi tells us that until the age of 13 they were indistinguishable, as does the midrash: ‘Esau was worthy to be called Jacob and Jacob was worthy to be called Esau.’
“…Perhaps their similarity represents the thin line between acceptable behavior and idolatry, between good and evil. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner noted this parallel, and suggested that when things look alike from the exterior, it is a sign that one must look within – at the essence – in order to discern the difference.
“The idea of the two goats is intrinsically related to the personalities of Jacob and Esau, identical on the outside but so different in terms of their essence. The reason that we need to offer the second goat – the scapegoat – is that so often we find ourselves dressing up like Esau instead of behaving like the Jacob/Israel that we are…
“Rabbi Menachem Azarya DeFano explains that the name Azazel is an acronym for ze le'umat ze asa Elokim – ‘God has made one as well as the other,’ as it says: ‘In the day of prosperity be joyful, in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.’
“According to Rabbi DeFano, the contrast between good and evil, with the recognition that both emanate from God, is encapsulated by this verse. In explaining further, the midrash makes a link that God made both Jacob and Esau… We understand from this that, in a sense, good needs evil in order to exist, if for no other reason than to have something to reject. It is the contrast with evil [that] allows good to shine.
“Problems arise when man adopts the ways of evil, identifying with them instead of rejecting them. This path is a rejection of God and the image of God within us, as is illustrated by another detail of the Yom Kippur service: Lots were drawn to determine which of the two identical goats will be sacrificed in the Sanctuary and which will be for Azazel.
“The idea of drawing lots is apparently a concession to the ‘random’ element of human existence. And yet this attitude that life is randomly determined, rather than orchestrated by God, is considered evil and associated with the nation of Amalek, whom Israel was commanded to obliterate from the face of the earth. ‘Remember what was done to you by Amalek on the way as you left Egypt. When they happened upon you...’ Rashi explains, ‘they happened upon you’ as ‘by coincidence.’ In his brief comment, we can discern the difference between Judaism and the philosophy of Amalek. We believe in a God who is involved in history, while for Amalek life is no more than a series of coincidences…
“When the Jew has sinned and has begun to act like Esau, forgetting God Who is constantly involved in history, God invites him to enter the Sanctuary, represented by the High Priest… The drawing of the lots forces us to examine our behavior and the underlying philosophy of chance or coincidence.”
In the time of the Second Temple, the goat for Azazel was taken to a high steep hillside and pushed off backwards so it would tumble to an almost certain death. But this execution may not have been the original practice; the text of Leviticus does not mention the death of the animal. Indeed, in the similar rite for the leper, the bird that was not slaughtered was “set free in the open country.”
While the place to which the goat for Azazel was taken is usually described as a place of desolation, it can also be understood in a positive light. In Jewish history, the wilderness was a place of great healing and spiritual efficacy. It was in the wilderness that the children of Israel obtained freedom after leaving Egypt. In the desert, they experienced revelation at Sinai, built the Mishkon – Sanctuary, received the teachings of Moses, and experienced the grace of manna. It was there that a weak and timid generation of slaves persevered and begat a generation of strong conquerors who were able to enter into and take possession of Canaan. And from Abraham receiving of holy messengers at Beersheba, through Hagar’s vision being sharpened so she could see the well, to Ezekiel’s visions – the desert has been the place of transformation and renewal.
In this context the goat sent to Azazel was not condemned to death and damnation, but given an opportunity for spiritual elevation and purification. That it escaped the death by sacrifice to which the other goat was subjected appears to be the original meaning of the word “scapegoat,” a term coined by a 16th Century Bible translator for the “goat that escaped.”
With which of the two goats do I most identify on Yom Kippur? Throughout the long Yom Kippur service, I am the sacrificial goat, with my flames of my prayers substituted for the fumes of the altar. Then, when I hear the tekiah gedolah – long blast of the shofar – at the conclusion of services, I rejoice that I have escaped to wander another year in the land of Azazel, that “hardest of the mountains” we call “Earth” where I may yet seek to know and serve God. Or, as David Henry Thoreau wrote, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”
“Perhaps, in the case of this ancient tradition of the scapegoat, we have an example where all the interpretations provided through the centuries may be correct!” The shofar blast of Yom Kippur reminds us that, like either of the goats, an individual may live or may die. At the prospect of death, the shofar stokes the embers of our soul so our prayers will blaze in flame. And at the prospect of life, the shofar calls us forth to face the demons we fear and enter the uncharted wilderness of the new year.
“It is possible that the world will be without the opportunity to perform the freeing of slaves [because there could be a time when there are no more slaves], but it is impossible that the world will be without the opportunity to perform the sounding of the shofar.”
On Rosh Hashanah, we are charged to hear shofar in the first person singular. Each of us focuses on personal teshuvah – the individual’s making of amends to himself or herself, with others, and with God.
The shofar blast of Yom Kippur is different. On Yom Kippur, we confess our sins in the first person plural, saying “we” have sinned. As Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” The tekiah gedolah is a powerful call for the collective teshuvah of our family, community, clan, tribe, and nation.
On Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to listen in silence as shofar is blown so we can each do the inner work of teshuvah, the turning of the heart. In the quiet, a worshipper may hear the still small voice of the shofar whispering, “Don’t just do something, sit there.”
The shofar of Yom Kippur is different. The tekiah gedolah at the fast’s conclusion signals that we are purged of the sins of the past and our souls are purified. We are sealed, God willing, in the Book of Life, and to be alive requires us to take action.
In the desert after Sinai, God commanded us to blow trumpets to gather and set the tribes into motion and to provide for the common defense. The tekiah gedolah of Yom Kippur still commands us to act and to provide for the common good.
Talmud says, “An individual’s repentance will not overturn Yom Kippur’s unfavorable decree. However, a community’s repentance has the power to tear up an evil decree that has already been issued against it.” Even though, in the final moments of Yom Kippur, one’s judgment may have already been sealed, the teshuvah of the community can bring mercy even on its members.
How do we know that the final shofar blast has the power to move a community? We know because the shofar announces the Jubilee, “a unique Israelite attempt to combat the social evils that had infected…society and to return to the idyllic period of the desert union when social equality and fraternal concern had prevailed.”
The sages say, “It is the custom in all Israel to blow the ram’s horn at the close of Yom Kippur; we have found no reason to believe it is an obligation, but it seems to be a memorial to the Jubilee.” It is recorded in Leviticus that,
“You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven times seven years – so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the shofar loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month – the Day of Atonement – you shall have the shofar sounded throughout your land and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holdings and each of you shall return to his family.”
In the Hebrew, “jubilee” is “yovel,” another term for shofar and a word that devolved into “jubilee.”
The Jubilee was a revolutionary approach to building an egalitarian society.
· Land returned to the clan to which it had been originally assigned to impede the establishment of a landed aristocracy.
· We neither sowed nor reaped our fields so the land had a chance to rest and regain fertility.
· Slaves were freed and debts forgiven so that everyone could make a fresh start among equals.
There is a spiritual precept underlying the politic: We must not abuse the land “for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me.” Slaves must be redeemed, “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants whom I freed from Egypt. I the Lord your God.”
The Jubilee worked. “These halachot and practices exercised a decisive influence, which accounts for the fact that in the last generations of the Temple period and for a considerable period afterward, most of the land in the country was not in the hands of large landowners but remained in the possession of small holders.”
As a nation, Jews stopped observing the Jubilee when we were taken into exile in Babylon. But the ordinance is still on the books.
Moreover we no longer have to wait until the fiftieth year to proclaim freedom. Now, on each Yom Kippur when we hear the Tekiah Gedolah, we are called to take action to build a more just and equitable society.
As the excerpt above describes, the Yom Kippur shofar blasts during the yovel consisted of a ten-blast reprise of the Rosh Hashanah pattern: tekiah shevarim-teruah tekiah, tekiah shevarim tekiah, tekiah teruah tekiah gedolah. While most communities sound a single tekiah gedolah at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, some congregations preserve the 10-blast sequence as a memorial to the Jubilee.
I believe that one of the trials of this generation is to foster an increased yovel-consciousness – an understanding that we must take action to restore justice. Ritual is one way of creating the awareness that can lead to action, and I suggest a change in the shofar ritual of Yom Kippur to sound the watchman’s alarm.
I propose that at least once every seven years, on the shemittah – sabbatical year, all congregations sound the Yom Kippur shofar as if it were the start of yovel. Breaking from tradition may cause some to ask, “Why is this year different from all other years?” and provide an opportunity for individuals and communities to resolve to take actions in alignment with the purposes of the Jubilee.
However, we must not wait until the Jubilee or Sabbatical to pursue tzadakah – justice. Indeed, the Haftorah we read every year on the morning of Yom Kippur, from Isaiah, contains an urgent plea, and the shofar is its herald. We are told to
“Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!”
The prophet decries the hypocrisy of people who beat their chest during prayers on Yom Kippur, and then beat their employees on the following day.
“Is this the fast I desire?” The prophet asks rhetorically in the name of God. Then he answers, NO!
“…the fast I desire is
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free.
It is to share your bread with the hungry.
To take the wretched poor into your home;
And when you see the naked, to cloth him.”
To “raise your voice like a ram’s horn,” you must sometimes become the shofar and be the teruah that breaks and shatters convention in order to end complacency. This is dramatically described in the following essay:
“Praise the Lord…all sea monsters and ocean depths.”
It is customary to read The Book of Jonah during the long Yom Kippur afternoon. I hear the sound of the shofar resonating in the story of the prophet; it rings with shofar imagery and the horn’s call to action
God instructed Jonah to take action:
“Go at once to Nineveh, and proclaim judgment upon it; for their wickedness has come before Me.”
Instead of obeying, Jonah fled in the opposite direction. He boarded a ship that soon became embroiled in a life-threatening storm. With all hands on deck struggling to keep the ship afloat, Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel and fell asleep. We are told,
“The captain went over to him and called out, ‘How can you be sleeping so soundly! Up, call upon your god! Perhaps the god will be kind to us and we will not perish.’”
The captain’s words echo Maimonides statement about shofar as a wake up call: “Awake, ye sleepers, and ponder your deeds. Remember your Creator, and return to him in penitence… so that God may have mercy on you.”
It is as if the captain blew the shofar to sound the alarm. Like shevarim he urges, “Wake Up! Wake Up! Wake Up!” If the captain had been Jewish, he might literally have woken Jonah with a shofar since, “a Tannaitic source tells…of the Jewish sailors’ custom of fasting and blowing the shofar in the hour of danger on the high seas.”
The shofar of Jonah tells us to wake up to our responsibilities. Personally and collectively, Jonah represents the part of each of us that runs from God and our responsibility to others – the people of Nineveh in Jonah’s case – and sleeps through God’s call to action.
Jonah is thrown into the sea where he is swallowed by a giant fish. He remained in the fish’s belly three days and three nights. In his prayers, he cried,
“In my trouble
I called to the Lord,
And he answered me.
From the belly of the abyss
I cried out,
And You heard my voice.”
This verse echoes Psalm 118 that says, “Out of the narrow place I called upon God, who answered me in spaciousness.” The Psalm can be understood as a description of the shape of the shofar, narrow at one end and wide at the other, and of the process of teshuvah, moving from the constricted space of the hardened heart to a place of redemption.
This imagery, consciously or not, has been captured by visual artists throughout the ages who depict the great fish in a distinctly shofar-like shape.
Artists throughout the ages have depicted the great fish as distinctly shofar-like.
Above: Speculum Humanae Salvationis, c.1400-1500.
Below: Phillip Ratner.
Perhaps, while in the depths, Jonah heard a deep silence that was like the still small voice of shofar. Or did he hear the calls of sea creatures? Many people have compared the voice of shofar to the song of a whale. For example, the composer of a “soundscape” inspired by Jonah says:
“‘Jonah Under the Sea’ is an attempt, through the medium of electroacoustic composition, to ‘listen in’ during Jonah's journey [from the ship into the fish’s belly]… In Jonah's mind's eye, while freely descending into the sea, he perceives an endless array of images and sounds, particularly those relating to his watery environment. He remembers earlier moments in his life near a port of call, especially the call of fog horns. Jonah notices how similar these sounds are to those of the whales that surround him now. The sounds also call to mind the ancient call of the shofar, the ram's horn.”
Like cetacean calls, shofar can be haunting and ethereal. The song of the whale travels great distances in the watery realm, just as shofar blasts transverse the vast spiritual realm. Although unintelligible to us, the melodies of each are clearly informed by an intelligence.
Shofar in shape of fish.
It is said that, “The fish that swallowed Jonah had been assigned this task since the six days of Creation…” The ram of the Akedah – whose one horn was sounded at Sinai and whose other horn will be blown when the messiah comes – is also said to have been created at twilight at the end of the sixth day of creation. 
God sent Jonah to Nineveh to prophesize to its citizens. “Nineveh was an enormously large city, a three days’ walk across.” Jonah walked for one day into the heart of the city, and from there he proclaimed God’s message. Despite the size of the city, the midrash says, “The sound of his voice carried across the entire city.”
How did his voice carry throughout such a large city? Did he raise his voice “like a ram’s horn!” in fulfillment of Isaiah’s exhortation that is read on Yom Kippur morning? Or, as is more likely, did he actually sound a shofar to call the citizens to assemble and to repent?
While the Torah and Haftorah readings on Rosh Hashanah deal primarily with individual and family behavior, Jonah describes the redemption of an entire city. The shofar of Jonah calls us to move beyond self interest to serve the greater good. This is a central theme of Yom Kippur when,
“the confessional is in the plural – yet, it is clear that none of us have committed all these sins. Why should we confess even to transgressions of which we are innocent? ...Our concern on Yom Kippur is not just for the self. Toward the end of the day, after spending so much time looking inward, we read the Book of Jonah. Jonah, called by God to save the city of Nineveh, flees the responsibility of carrying out God's word. When at last this reluctant prophet reaches Nineveh and prophesizes the city's doom, people repent and God relents. Instead of being happy that he has succeeded, the only prophet in the Bible that anyone ever really listened to, Jonah is unhappy. For Jonah was never worried that he might fail, but rather that he might succeed. He just did not care about the people of Nineveh nor their fate. In the end, sitting outside of town, he swelters in the sun until God causes a sheltering plant to miraculously grow over him. Jonah is briefly happy until the plant dies. God asks him if he is deeply grieved about this single plant and Jonah says: ‘Yes, so deeply that I want to die.’ God responds: ‘And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons...and many beasts as well?’ God is disappointed in Jonah. For despite everything that has happened, Jonah just doesn't get it. His concern lies only with himself. We read his story to remind us that, even as we spent hours looking inward examining who we are, we can not forget to look at the world around us.”
As another teacher puts it,
“Jewish universalism is carved into the sacred texts of the Bible selected to be read aloud during the Days of Awe… Why else did the rabbis choose for the prophetical portion to be read on Yom Kippur the Book of Jonah that repudiates the provincialism of Jonah who thinks that a Jewish prophet is to be concerned exclusively with Jews and with no others? The narcissism of Jonah, self-buried in the narrow womb of the whale is repudiated… Jonah had forgotten Abraham who was blessed so that ‘in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’”
Like the other prophetic text read on Yom Kippur, Jonah tells us that our atonement is only complete when we take action to serve the greater good. As the prophet tells us, Nineveh was saved not through prayer, but through their actions:
“God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment he had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.”
Soon after the Yom Kippur reading of Jonah, we enter the final service of the day and then hear shofar. It is the conclusion of the fast, but it is also our call to action throughout the rest of the New Year.
Rosh Hashanah, the start of the New Year, is considered the birthday of the world, and the shofar blasts are compared to the cries of a newborn child (see Chapter 7 – The Ewe’s Horn). In the waning hours of the Yom Kippur, Jonah provides another reminder of the potential of spiritual rebirth, and prepares us to hear the birth cries of the ram’s horn. These ideas are expressed in the following essay:
“One answer to this question focuses on the symbolism of the belly of the fish. The fish, we recall, swallowed Jonah, after he fled God's call. He then remained and prayed in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before being vomited onto land… The symbolism of three days and nights is also associated with the time it takes to travel to Sheol, the Netherworld; Jonah's descent into the fish can thus be viewed as a descent into a type of death. Furthermore, the belly of the fish directly parallels the womb of a mother. Jonah's emergence from the fish can then be seen as a type of rebirth. After traveling to Sheol, Jonah repents and is then resurrected.
“This symbolism of death and rebirth appears in many of the customs associated with Yom Kippur… Is this…fast perhaps an attempt to simulate death? …Finally, when the Yom Kippur fast ends, we reenter the physical world with the blasting of a ram's horn, the simplest sound known to ancient man. Perhaps this shofar blast should be seen as parallel to the cry of a baby exiting the womb and emerging into the world.
“This explains why the story of Jonah in the fish's belly figures so prominently in the Yom Kippur liturgy, as the story teaches us that true repentance is accompanied by a metaphysical rebirth. And indeed, when true repentance occurs, like a newborn baby, our potential is infinite.”
Augmenting the theme of birth in Jonah is the midrash explaining that Jonah was in the belly of a pregnant fish.
The fish that swallowed Jonah is masculine in its Hebrew gender – “dag,” but the fish in whose belly Jonah finally prayed for relief is feminine – “dagah.” The midrash explains this discrepancy by suggesting that Jonah was too comfortable in the spacious interior of the male fish to feel the urge to repent. God had the male fish regurgitate Jonah and, in turn, a female fish swallow the prophet. The female fish is pregnant with thousands of tiny fish inside her waiting to be hatched. In this crowded environment, Jonah feels himself in the tight space of the pit; the confinement that precedes deliverance. Prayers are squeezed out of Jonah like shofar blasts are squeezed out of the belly of a shofarist. For then every ba’al tekiah knows the truth of Jonah’s song:
“In my trouble, I called to the Lord,
And he answered me’
From the belly of Shoel I cried out,
And You heard my voice.”
I did not set the brake when I parked my car. As a result, my car rolled into the car parked in front of it and pushed that car into a third car. Neither my car nor the one directly ahead of it were damaged, but the chain reaction dented the car at the end of the line. I realized that I had to locate the owner of damaged car, and inquired of people on the street until someone pointed out a building where they suggested I might find the one whom I was seeking.
I was not certain what type of building it was, and the neighborhood was unfamiliar, so it is with some fear that entered the building. Beyond the vestibule was a stairway that I started to ascend. At the top of a long fight up, an abrupt turn in the landing lead to another flight of stairs going down a few steps. At the bottom of this flight, a turn in the landing lead to another long flight up. Again, the next landing lead to several steps down, an abrupt turn, and another long flight up.
The landing at the top flight had a door that opened to a large, noisy room. Inside were many people. Artisans and traders busy at their work. Teachers and students. People coming and going. Some sitting idly, others sleeping. Cooking and eating. Crying. From somewhere came the muffled sounds of sex and the boom of laughter.
I wandered through the room, observing all the activity, until I came to another, smaller room. Around a large table, people were earnestly debating the merits of some enterprise and planning it's future.
Someone approached me and offered to show me the way out of the building. She was dressed and spoke in a manner that reminded me of how spirits are sometimes depicted on the stage. “She must be an actress,” my mind rationalized.
But there was nothing rational about the encounter, as this was a dream received during the full moon of the month of Elul, the month of preparation for the holy work of the Jewish New Year and a time for taking measure of one's life. I come from a long line of dream readers -- How would Joseph have interpreted the vision? The Ba’al Shem Tov? Freud?
The car accident was a call to repair any damage I had done to others, and a lesson in how my actions can have far reaching consequences, harming even those with whom I have no direct contact.
The stairway reminds me that the path to my higher self will not be without unusual turns and periods of descent.
The large room is my life. Here are Michael the businessman, Michael the child, Michael the lover. And all the other people I have been, am, and will be. “Take stock of your life Michael,” the dreamer says. “Are you pleased with what you see, Michael?"
In the small room, The Infinite One listens as the angels take the measure of my life and my days. No one can know his own future, so a spirit is sent to lead me from the room before judgment is pronounced.
As we hear shofar during the Days of Awe...
...may your heart be open to give and receive forgiveness.
...may you have the courage and strength to seek to know your soul.
...may you find satisfaction with your life and demand justice in the world,
...may your Judge have mercy and compassion. And
...may the Holy One send a messenger to guide you in times of need.
 Yiddish for “praying.”
 “L’Shanah tovah v’tikatevu” translates as “To a good year and [may you] be written [into the Book of Life],” a traditional greeting during the Jewish New Year season.
 From the Un’taneh tokef” prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah. Illustration is from a French book published about 1845. www.jhm.nl/objecten.aspx?database=museumcollectie&jhmnr=7439 SEPTEMBER 7, 2009
 Jewish koan. In Zen practice, a “koan” is a question or statement used to provoke thought.
 Rosh Hashanah, Hebrew for “Head of the Year” is the beginning of the Hebrew Calendar and marks one of several “New Year” days in the Jewish tradition. It is observed on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei and typically occurs around September. Yom Kippur translates as “Day of Atonement” and occurs on the 10th of Tishrei. The ten day period is called the Yamim Noraim, meaning “Days of Awe,” is a period for heightened spiritual introspection and making amends for our errors that have injured others.
 A long, sustained blow, see Chapter 5 – Blast, Break, Shatter, Blast.
 Hillel, Shabbat 31a.
 Conch trumpets also existed in ancient cultures around the Mediterranean. Braum says, “The only trumpet-instrument frequently attested archeologically in ancient Israel/Palestine is the one made from the shell of the Charonia tritonis nodifera…” from the late Bronze Age on and serving as both a cultic instrument and as a means of communication or signaling. (page 181-183)
 Exodus 19 and 20.
 Exodus 19:6.
 For example, Matthew 24:31 – “And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” King James Version.
 For example, Qur’an 6.73 – “And He it is Who has created the heavens and the earth with truth, and on the day He says: Be, it is. His word is the truth, and His is the kingdom on the day when the trumpet shall be blown; the Knower of the unseen and the seen; and He is the Wise, the Aware.” Translation by Shakir. www.usc.edu/dept/MSA/quran/006.qmt.html#006.073, January 3, 2006.
 The Norse god, Heimdal, had a horn named “Gjallarhorn” that could be heard throughout heaven, earth, and the lower world. It was believed that he would sound the horn the end of the world. See: www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/259662/Heimdall June 21, 2009.
 Quoted by Zalman Schacter-Shalomi in Fragments of a Future Scroll, 1975
 Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 16a.
 Exodus 24:8
 Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites, London, 1901 as quoted it Theodor Reik, Ritual: Four Psychoanalytic Studies, page 17f.
 A character in Fiddler on the Roof, based on Sholom Aleichem’s book, Tevye’s Daughters.
 Ma’or Vashemesh, Rimzei Rosh Hashanah, quoted in Meisel, pg 90
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God, 1954 as cited in The Wisdom of Heschel, Ruth Marcus Goodhill, editor, 1975, page 232. A “sukkah” is a semi-enclosed structure in which Jews are commanded to sit during the autumn harvest festival of Sukkot.
 Bible translations are from JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, 2nd Edition, Jewish Publication Society, 1999 unless otherwise noted.
 Some sources say the Jubilee is the forty-ninth year after the previous Jubilee, equal to the fiftieth year since the start of the previous Jubilee. I like the power of squared Numbers, so I side with the 49th year interpretation. From a practical side, this avoids the hardship that would occur observing a sabbatical in the forty-ninth year and the Jubilee the following year since crops cannot be planted in either.
 Teruah is related to the Hebrew word ruah and can also mean to make a loud noise, cry aloud (as in weeping), shout, sound an alarm, or blow a trumpet or shofar. It is derived from the root “to break” or “to shatter,” alluding to the fragmented blasts of teruah. The term if further defined in Chapter 10 – Blast, Break, Shatter, Blast.
 Exodus 19:13
 Exodus 19:16-19
 Exodus 20:15
 Pirke Avot 1:1
 Numbers 10:1-10
 Shabbat 36a. Compare Sukkah 34a.
 Cyrus Adler and I.M. Casanowicz, “Trumpet,” Jewish Encyclopedia, 1906, pg 268, www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=349&letter=T&search=shofar, July 22, 2006. Translation is also complicated because of the variety of trumpet-like instruments. “As a rule "shofar" is incorrectly translated "trumpet" or "cornet"; its etymology shows it to signify either "tuba" (comp. Jastrow, "Diet.") or, more accurately, "clarion" (comp. Gesenius, "Dict." ed. Oxford).” (From Adler, et al, “Shofar,” ibid, pg. 301, www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=653&letter=S&search=shofar, July 22, 2006.) Writings and sermons on shofar make frequent references to “the clarion call of shofar.” The meaning of this phrase, seems to be lost on the current generation, few of whom know that the clarion is a medieval trumpet or that, when used as an adjective, it means “brilliantly clear” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). As an idiom, “clarion call” means “a strong and clear request for people to do something” (Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms, Cambridge University Press, 1998, cited at http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/clarion+call, January 12, 2008).
 Braun, Joachim, Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine, translated by Douglas W. Stott (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002) page 16.
 R’Shlomo Hakoen of Radomsk in Tiferes Shlomo, quoted in Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers, pg 58.
 Psalm 81 is traditionally read as part of the morning service on Thursdays.
 Solomon B. Freehof, “Sound the Shofar: ‘Ba-Kesse’ Psalm 81:4”, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Jan., 1974), pp. 225-228. The paper goes into additional detail on this subject, including another translation: ‘Sound the Shofar on the New Moon; in the dark of the moon for (fixing) the date of our festivals.”
 Rabbi Shefa Gold, telephone conversation with author, August 14, 2009.
 Lived 882 to 942 and was head of an academy (ga’on) in Babylonia.
 Sefer Avudarham (Amsterdam, 1726). From The Rosh Hashanah Anthology, JPS 1993. Cited at www.jhom.com/calendar/tishrei/shofar.html, January 7, 2006. Compare Agnon, pp 70-72.
 Psalms 98:6.
 Exodus 19:19.
 Exodus 24:7.
 Ezekiel 33:4-5.
 Jeremiah 4:19.
 Genesis 22.
 Amos 3:6.
 Zephaniah 1:14-16,
 Isaiah 27:13.
 Isaiah 18:3.
 The Jewish Catalog, pg 69
 Edwards, page 42.
 Ecclesiastes 3:8.
 Nehemiah 4:14.
 II Samuel 2:28
 The “sacred geometry” of shofar will be discussed in Book 3 of Hearing Shofar.
 Exodus 20:15
 Agnon pg. 38 attributes this to Rabbi Mordecai of Nadvorna and Likkute Mahariah. Translation is from Bernard S. Raskas, Heart of Wisdom, 1962, Burning Bush Press, pg 344.
 http://rabbiwithoutacause.blogspot.com/2007/08/shofar-practice.html, August 11, 2007.
 Yeitev Panim, quoted by Meisels, pg 9.
 Tur Orach Chaim, quoted by Meisels, pg 10. See also Pirke DeRabbi Eliezer 46
 By Billbob, aka Dr. Bill Finn, author of “Where Will the Atheists Pray? – Life and Laughter in Israel.” Originally published in The Aquarian Minyan’s Newsletter, Sh'ma Kolaynum, Summer – Fall 1994.
 Rabbi Moshe Galant, Elef Hamagen, quoted by Meisels, pg 10.
 Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, the Dubner Maggid, Paraphrased from The Rosh Hashanah Anthology, JPS, 1993, translator Alexander A Steinbach, www.jhom.com/calendar/tishrei/parable2.htm, July 9, 2006. www.geocities.com/afinkle221/tales2.html, January 11, 2008 says the story is "The Alarm" by the Maggid of Dubnow, condensed from the story by I. L. Peretz in I.L. Peretz Reader, Ruth R. Wisse, editor (Yale University Press, 2002).
 Deuteronomy 30:6.
 Song of Songs 6:3.
 Esther 9:22.
 Based on Kitzer Shulchon Oruch, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried translated by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger, Chapter 1281:1, Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1991
 Psalms 27:6-7. Some translations interpret “teruah” as “shouts.” While this is more poetic in English, it misrepresents the central importance of hearing shofar as a wake-up call in the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Teruah, and ignores the blowing of shofar that occurred in “His tent” when sacrifices took place.
 Rick Dinitz, “That Elul Time Of Year,” August 25, 1993,
www.mljewish.org/cgi-bin/retrieve.cgi?VOLUME=3&NUMBER=38&FORMAT=html, December 30, 2007.
 Genesis 1:1-3.
 Genesis 2:7.
 Genesis 4:6-7.
 Photo: Gérard Blot. Location: Louvre, Paris. Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux /Art Resource, NY, Reference: ART155406, www.artres.com/c/htm/CSearchZ.aspx?o=&Total=68&FP=578425&E=22SIJMY9NY3CV&SID=JMGEJNTMACX93&Pic=39&SubE=2UNTWAO9C8N7,
August 12, 2006.)
 Genesis, Chapter 4.
 Adam and Eve’s fall is not considered sin because they had innocence of right and wrong.
 The Moslem tradition identifies the sheep sacrificed by Abel as the same one sacrificed by Abraham during the Akedah. See Chapter 6 – The Ram’s Midrash.
 Genesis 11:7.
 Genesis 22:7.
 Class at Metiva, Los Angeles, circa 1994.
 Genesis 27:33.
 Genesis 37:23-24.
 Rosh Hashanah 27b.
 Exodus 20:2
 Arthur I Waskow, Godwrestling-Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998.
 Exodus 20:9.
 Exodus 23:30.
 Exodus 27:1-2. Other Torah verses that refer to the horns of the altar are: Exodus 29:12 and 38:2, Leviticus 4:18, 4:34, 8:15, 9:9, I Kings 1:50:51, 2:28 and Psalms 118:27. Horns are also on the altar described in Ezekiel’s vision, Ezekiel 43:15 and 43:20.
 Location: Israel Museum (IDAM), Jerusalem, Israel, Photo: Erich Lessing /Art Resource, www.artres.com/c/htm/CSearchZ.aspx?o=&Total=428&FP=600929&E=22SIJMY9NQMX3&SID=JMGEJNTMAZKIT&Pic=255&SubE=2UNTWA79GTX8, August 12, 2006.
 Leviticus 23:39.
 Leviticus 25:9 –10.
 Sermon, Makom Ohr Shalom, circa 1995.
 Numbers 10:2-10.
 Deuteronomy 30:11-14
 Joshua 6:7.
 According to Jewish tradition, the Jewish people are descendants of Jacob (also known as Israel); Arabic people are descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son.
 Judges 7:19-22.
 II Samuel 2:26-28.
 II Samuel 6:14-15.
 II Samuel 15:10.
 II Samuel 18:16.
 Isaiah 27:13.
 Isaiah 58:1-7.
 Jeremiah 6:16-18.
 Psalms 47:2, 6.
 Numbers, Chapter 16.
 Numbers 26:11.
 See Sanhedrin 110a. Also, "The Song of the Shofar: The Lesson of the Sons of Korach," Hubscher, Malka. Vehigadet Levitekh, Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, http://jofa.org/pdf/uploaded/373-BVGD9535.pdf, February 5, 2006
 Psalms 89:16.
 Daniel 3:14-15.
 Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shofar 2:4
 Nehemiah 4:12-14.
 II Chronicles 15:13-14.
 II Chronicles 14:1.
 II Chronicles 13:23. Compare 14:5.
 II Chronicles 14:3.
 II Chronicles 15:15.
 II Chronicles 16.
 Magein Avraham, quoted in Meisels, pg 18
 Turei Zahav, quoted in Meisels, pg 18
 From Rosh Hashanah Shofar Service. Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers, pg 123, says, “According to Midrash Tehillim… the Hebrew word for “utterance” is related to the Hebrew word for “permission or authority,’ and refers to the authority granted God’s chosen to issue requests which He will fulfill. Thus, ‘areshet s’fataynu’ means ‘the authority vested in our lips.’”
 Artist unknown, illustration from first decade of 20th Century, New York.
 Zohar, Emor 99a-100a, translation from The Zohar, Vol. V, pp 124-127, Soncino Press, (1934) 1973. My source is Wosk.
 Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom 21.
 Based on The Book of Customs, 2004, Scott-Martin Kosofsky.
 Jewish National and University Library – National Sound Archive has examples from several different Jewish communities at http://jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/music/holydays/holydays_eng.htm#shofar, January 28, 2006.
 Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 14, pg. 1443.
 Symbols of Judaica, Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Editions Assouline, Paris 1995 pg 62.
 Moshe A. Braun, The Jewish Holy Days: Their Spiritual Significance, page 14, based on the teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter – the Sfas Emes.
 Encyclopedia Judaica 1971, 14:1444 describes shevarim as a tremolo and teruah as a staccato, descriptions that are at odds with my understanding of the traditional shofar blasts or the meanings of the musical terms. If authors living in the same century can differ on how best to describe or transmit the shofar, it is easy to imagine how the sages working across a millennium might differ in their descriptions of shofar.
 Psalm 2:9.
 Numbers 23:21.
 Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, Sefer Ham’amarim Kuntreisim, Vol. 1, pg 124 as cited in Days of Awe, Days of Joy, pg 34.
 Menoras Hama’or 293 quoted in Meisels, pg 55.
 Maharil quoted in Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers, pg 119.
 Exodus 19:19.
 Exodus 6:9.
 D’var Hameluchah, quoted by Meisels, pg 98.
 This topic will be discussed in Book 2 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn.
 Jeremiah 23:29.
 Based on R. Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, Makom Ohr Shalom, late 1990s.
 Rabbi Jonathon Omer-Man, Metivta Academy, early 1990s.
 The metal horns used in acoustic cleaning are sometimes curved and bear a striking visual resemblance to a ram’s horn. One manufacturer explains the principal of their technology, stating, “Acoustic cleaning encompasses the realm of sound transmission through solids. It is best described by the creation of rapid pressure fluctuations. These pressure fluctuations are transmitted into the particulate matter or ‘bonded’ dry material causing the solid particles to resonate and dislodge from the surface they are deposited on or bonded to. Once dislodged, the materials fall, either due to gravity or are carried away by the gas or air stream within the process.” www.primasonics.com/acoustic_cleaning.htm, January 10, 2009.
 Maimonides, Hilkhot Teshuvah 3.4, quoted in Agnon pp 74-75.
 Hassidic Teaching (As taught by R. Ayla Grafstein)
 Rabbi Aharon of Karlin, quoted by Meisels, pg 97.
 Hayashar Vehatov, quoted in Meisels, pg 97.
 Berachos 34b.
 Vayageid Yaakov, Rosh Hashanah 24. quoted in Meisels, pg 98.
 Rabbi Avie Gold, Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers, pg 64.
 Rabbi Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name, pg 174.
 Source unknown.
 Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe'iyah pp. 62-3; Celebration of the Soul pp. 38-9]
www.geocities.com/m_yericho/ravkook/ROSH61.htm, May 18, 2007
 From Yom Kippur liturgy, recited in the final moments before the shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur.
 Psalms 89:16.
 Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, “Shofrot,” Hashir V’hashevah – The Song and the Praise, undated booklet, B’nai Or Fellowship, Philadelphia, page 23.
 These sequences can be referred to by the following abbreviations:
Tekiah SHevarim-teRuah Tekiah = TaSHRaT
Tekiah SHevarim Tekiah = TaSHaT
Tekiah teRuah Tekiah = TaRaT.
 See, for example, Jonathan Baker, September 21, 2006, http://thanbook.blogspot.com/2006_09_01_thanbook_archive.html January 7, 2007
 The custom is cited in Shulchan Aruch HaRav 596:1, Mateh Ephraim, and Mishneh Berurah 596:2 where it is ascribed to the Shela'h. This information is from Eliezer C. Abrahamson, http://members.aol.com/LazerA/archive/year.html. February 9, 2006.
 Chapters of the Fathers, 5:1 referring to the ten locations in Genesis 1 and 2 where the word “vayomer” [and He said] is used in the story of Creation.
 Yoma 39b, cited in Phillip Goodman, The Yom Kippur Anthology, pg 329.
 This is a reference to the ten Sefirot or divine emanations on the kabbalah’s Tree of Life.
 Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, Likkutei Sichot, vol 2, pg 446 as cited in Days of Awe, Days of Joy, pg. 37.
 “The Meshech Chochmah (Parshas Tazria), citing midrash (Vayikra Raba 27:7), http://dafyomi.shemayisrael.co.il/rhashanah/insites/rh-dt-34.htm, May 7, 2006.
 Zvi Akiva Fleisher,
www.shemayisrael.co.il/yomtov/rosh-yk/fleisher64.htm, August 11, 2006.
 This teaching is from the Chazah Zion and is contained in The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet Rabbi Michael L. Munk, Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 1983, page 137.
 The Book of Legends, pg 41b.
 Genesis 1:3.
 Exodus 19:19.
 Greg Gershman, posted October 1, 2003 at http://presence.baltiblogs.com/2003/10/01/the_shofar.html, January 27, 2006.
 Adapted from Midbar Shur pp. 56-58,
www.geocities.com/m_yericho/ravkook/ROSH63.htm, May 20, 2007
 Isaiah 55:6.
 Rosh Hashanah 16.
 Job 12:7-8.
 Genesis 22,
 See Book 3 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn for legends about the origin of the ram.
 Louis A. Berman, The Akedah: The Binding of Isaac, Rowman and Littlefield (1999), pg. 191).
 Proverbs 12:10, translated by Gershon Winkler, Magic of the Ordinary, pg. 159.
 Genesis 3:1-5
 Numbers 22:28-30
 Numbers Rabah 20:4 cited in Schochet, pg 95.
 Schochet, pg. 109.
 Schochet, pg. 235.
 Schochet, pg. 299 f.
 Schochet, pg 134.
 Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 100b.
 Isaac’s age at the time is estimated to be either 25 or 37. See Louis A. Berman, The Binding of Isaac, Rowland & Littlefield (1997) pg. 62.
 “Dona Dona,” Aaron Zeitlin, translated by Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz, 1940, Mills Music. The original referred to a “calf,” but this is how the ram remembers it.
 In Genesis 22:2, God command Abraham to offer Isaac as a burnt offering. The next line, Genesis 22:3 says, “Abraham rose early in the morning” to begin his journey to the place where the offering was to be made. The juxtaposition of the two lines suggests that Abraham may have heard the voice of God in his dreams.
 Some of Psalms is attributed to the sons of Koresh.
 Yehuda Amichai: A life of Poetry, 1948 – 1994, Translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, Harper Collins Publishers, 1995, page 345, from An Hour of Grace, 1983
 An interesting comment on this poem is offered by Derek Penslar in a Devar Torah, 2d Day of Rosh Hashanah, 5769: “Note that twice, Amichai refers to the Akedah as the ‘Isaac story.’ Abraham is a side figure. Why do so many modern Hebrew writers de-center Abraham? True, in our tradition the story is known as akedat Yitzhak, but Abraham is the protagonist of the entire section of Bereshit in which the akedah story occurs. I think it is much easier for a modern, secular person to empathize with Isaac (or even the ram) than with Abraham.” www.narayever.ca/divreitorah/5769/penslar-rh-5769.htm, September 7, 2009.
 Rabbi Jacob Chinitz, personal correspondence with author, November 4, 2006.
 Rosh Hashanah16a.
 Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah 26b says, “And on fast days, we blow with the horns of males, which are bent…” and, “R’ Yehudah says: On Rosh Hashanah we blow with the horns of males…” In the Schottenstein Edition, the footnotes to these two passages say, “Although the Mishnah specifies a ram’s horn, any bent horn is valid…” and “According to most Rishonim, R’Yehudah requires only that on Rosh Hashanah the shofar be bent and on Yovel it be straight…”
 See Leviticus 14:10 and Numbers 6:14.
 Rosh Hashanah 16a, translation from Judaism, Arthur Hertzberg, George Braziller, Inc., 1961.
 Genesis 22.
 I am grateful to David Lubman for explaining this to me. I am reminded of the explanation for why apples (dipped in honey) are a symbolic food on Rosh Hashanah. As an allusion to the uncertainty about what may come to be during the New Year, we are told that one can always count the seeds in an apple, but never know the number of apples in a seed. In a similar manner, we may know how many horns are on a ewe, but not the number of potential shofarot that may still be inside a ewe.
 See, for example, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis (Doubleday, 1995) in the chapter titled, “HAYYEI SARAH: Vertigo – The Residue of the Akedah.”
 Rashi 23:2, translation from Zornberg.
 Leviticus Rabba on Genesis 23:1-2, Weinstein.
 Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 32, translation from Zornberg.
 Midrash Tanchuma on the Binding of Isaac, translated by Avi Weinstein, “Sarah is the Shofar - The Binding of Isaac, The Shofar: Sarah's Tears,” www.hillel.org/Hillel/NewHille.nsf/fcb8259ca861ae57852567d30043ba26/59f054b76866e47385256b13005553fe/$FILE/Sarah_Rosh_Hashanah.pdf, January 28, 2006
 Frankel, Ellen; The Five Books of Miriam, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.; 1996, pg 30
 Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky, “Vedibarta Bam — And You Shall Speak of Them, Volume I — Bereishit, Chayei Sarah,” published by Sichos in English, www.sichosinenglish.org/books/vedibarta-bam/005.htm November 11, 2006.
 Midrash Aggadah, quoted in Torah Shelemah, Bereshit, chap. 23, n. 17, translation from Zornberg.
 Rabbi Avi Weinstein, “Parshat Chayei Sarah,” Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/chayeisarah_hillel5759.htm November 13, 2006.
 Genesis 21:1.
 Serl (daughtor of Jacob ben Wolf Kranz, the Dubno Maggid), excerpted from Tkhine Imoches Fun Rosh Hodesh Elul (Lvov, n.d), translation from Ellen M. Umansky and Dianne Ashton, eds., Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality, (Boston, Beacon, 1992), 53-54. As cited by Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women, (Boston, Beacon 1998) pg 145.
 Genesis 21:9 – 21, translations from Hertz.
 Rabbi Alana Suskin, “Kol Ra’Ash Gadol,” October 3, 2004, http://kolra-ashgadol.blogspot.com/2004/10/erev-rosh-hashanah_03.html, August 17, 2007.
 See Chapter 9 – Remembering Shofar for more on the shofar of Shabbat.
 I Samuel 1:1 – 2:10.
 The portable sanctuary where the Commandments received by Moses were kept prior to the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
 I Samuel 1:10.
 I Samuel 1:12-17.
 I Samuel 1:13.
 I Samuel 2:1 and 2:10.
 Edwards, note 43, pg 27.
 Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33b
 She is called Themac in Ginzberg, Vol IV,
 Judges 4 and 5.
 Judges 4:3.
 Judges 4:21.
 Judges 5:26-27.
 Judges 5:28-30.
 The Jewish Catalog, pg 68
 According to The Jewish Catalog, pg 68, the 101 cries are linked to the 101 Hebrew letters of Judges 5:28-29. This seems an over-reaching explanation since it ignores the 76 thematically linked letters of verse 5:30.
 B.T. Megillah 10b.
 Many other messages can be heard in the cries of Sisera’s mother. See, for example, “The Voice in the Shofar – A Defense Of Deborah,” Yael Unterman, Torah of the Mothers, Urim Publications, 2000, pp 170 - 193.
 Sir Immanuel Jacobovitz, “The Morality of Warfare,” L’EYLAH, vol. 2, no. 4, 1983, quoted in “Reacting to a World at War” by Union of American Hebrew Congregations, http://urj.org/_kd/Items/actions.cfm?action=Show&item_id=3825&destination=ShowItem, February 14, 2006.
 Jeremiah 31:15-17.
 Joshua 2.
 Joshua 3 – 5.
 Joshua 5:13-15.
 Joshua 6:1-5.
 Joshua 6:6-10.
 Joshua 6:11-19.
 Joshua 6:20-25.
 Joshua 6:26.
 Joshua 6:27.
 Joshua 2:11, 2:24.
 Joshua 4:13.
 Image by Julius Schnorr van Carolsfeld, 1851-1860. www.pitts.emory.edu/woodcuts/1853BiblD/00011413.jpg June 21, 2009.
 Meg. 14b cited at www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=71&letter=R&search=rahab, July 13, 2006.
 Mek., l.c.; Deut. R. ii. 19 cited at www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=71&letter=R&search=rahab, July 13, 2006.
 Compare Ezekiel 1:1.
 Midr. Shemuel, in Yal., Josh. 10, cited at www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=71&letter=R&search=rahab, July 13, 2006.
 Matthew 1:5-6.
 Joshua 2:17-18.
 Joshua 2:19.
 Exodus 12:22.
 There is another connection between the red cord and horned animals. On Yom Kippur, the High Priest would mark a goat by tying a red thread to the head of a goat that was then sent into the desert “for Azazel” (Rashi on Yoma 39a). www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=2203&letter=A, July 15, 2006. See also Chapter 11 – Azazel and the Goat that is Set Free.
 Edward, pg. 96 citing Tanhuma in Emor 11 and Tazria 4.
 Rosh Hashanah 10b. Also Megillah 31a, cited in Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers, pg. 69. See also, Edwards, page 12.
 Edwards, pg. 56.
 Compare Psalms 118:5.
 Genesis 1:27.
 Yoma 53b.
 Rosh Hashanah 32a.
 Shulhan Arukh shel ha-Rav quoted in Agnon pg 69.
 An assessment of halachah and how it has evolved, from a “Jewish Orthodox feminist” perspective, is "Women and the Shofar," Pianko, Arlene. Tradition, 14:4, 1974, 53-62, www.jofa.org/pdf/Batch%201/0006.pdf, July 15, 2006.
 A contemporary commentary has this to say on shofar and those who do not fit into “normal” gender categories:
“The rabbis of the Gemara proceed to a lengthy discussion of the circumstances in which a person can truly claim to have fulfilled the commandment of hearing the shofar… There follows a most peculiar statement: ‘A hermaphrodite can perform a religious duty for a fellow hermaphrodite, but not for any one else.’
“Some folks are shocked to find the rabbis even mentioning hermaphrodites, what the Gemara calls androgynous, but the truth is that this being of unusual gender shows up all over Talmudic discourse. Perhaps in the days before the “medical miracle,” when a procedure on the birthing table, a kind of grotesque circumcision, purports to solve this riddle of nature forever, the alternately-sexed were simply more present in everyday life. But what the rabbis lack in surgical technique, they make up for in the rigidity of their intellectual categorization. In every discussion, it is determined whether the androgynous will be treated as a man or a woman, depending on circumstance. Only one sage, the forward-thinking Rabbi Jose, offers the suggestion that a hermaphrodite ‘is a creature unto itself.’ According to scholars, the androgynous may blow the shofar for other hermaphrodites because that which is male in one blows for that which is male in the other – it goes without saying that women do not blow.
“The rabbis were not terrified by the specter of this strange crossbreed. On the contrary, they file it away quite calmly, dissecting it along the dotted lines of gender normalcy, to deposit its pieces into the appropriate pigeonholes. If there is fear or confusion, it seems buried beneath an icy layer of intellectual artifice.
“We might wish it were otherwise. This kind of calm seems incongruous with the ritual under discussion. My imagination reaches for the fire beneath the ice, the almost mythological image of the bi-gendered body, all balls and breasts, blowing the shofar for the impermissible audience, shattering with the explosive power of its call the artifice of certainty and exclusion – bringing the destruction that makes for salvation.
“Who better to take the severed horn in hand, and blow our minds?”
Micah Gil, “Blow Your Own Horn,” www.killingthebuddha.com/manifesto.htm, July 17, 2006.
 A symbol that has been widely used in the past decade to call for the inclusion of Jews who have been marginalized in traditional Judaism, including women and homosexuals.
 Journey, Fall 2000, Ma'yan: The Jewish Women's Project, www.ritualwell.org/holidays/highholidays/roshhashanah/primaryobject.2005-06-20.7852796292 April 5, 2006. Also in Rosh Hashanah Readings edited by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins (Jewish Lights 2006), pp 166-168.
 Nervy, to have chutzpah.
 Shifra and Puah were Egyptian midwives who defied Pharaoh's orders and did not kill male Israelite children. Shifra’s name is etymologically related to “shofar.”
 Hebrew for “our mother.”
 Literally, “In the light of Your Presence they are exalted.” Psalms 89:16 adapted into feminine word forms. It is traditionally recited following the blowing of the shofar.
 Traditionally this term refers to celestial beings. Zimmern has reinterpreted it to refer to holy midwives.
 Edwards, pp 25-26.
 Rabbi Solomon of Karlin, quoted in Agnon pg. xxvii.
 Tiferes Uziel quoted in Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers pg 121.
 Psalms 47:2.
Kedushat Halevi, from Rabbi Levi
Yitzchak of Berdichev, quoted by Rabbi Michael Berg, http://groups.google.com/group/soc.culture.jewish/browse_thread/thread/19b76780fbfdd375/2cf2bfb5429c5088?lnk=st&q=%22who+examines+our+heart%22&rnum=1&hl=en#2cf2bfb5429c5088 May 13, 2006
 Moshe A. Braun, The Jewish Holy Days: Their Spiritual Significance, page 37, based on the teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter – the Sfas Emes.
 Toras Avot, from Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers, pg 120.
 Divrei Yoel, Rosh Hashanah, quoted in Meisel pg 90.
 Exodus 24:7.
 Exodus 19:19.
 Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, Kedushat Levi, in Agnon pp 64-66. A similar tale in Days of Awe, Days of Joy pg. 31f cites the source as Hemshech Vekaha 5637 ch. 70.
 Malachi 3:7.
 Midrash quoted in Agnon, pg ix.
 Moshe A. Braun, The Jewish Holy Days: Their Spiritual Significance, page 13, based on the teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter – the Sfas Emes.
EXCERPTS www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=332506 May 12, 2006
 Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book 1, pg 70.
 Or Yesharim, Warsaw, 1884 as retold by Howard Schwartz, “The Master Key,” Gabriel’s Palace, Jewish Mystical Tales, Oxford University Press, 1993, pp 198-199.
 Besht is an abbreviation of Ba’al Shem Tov.
 Moshe A. Braun, The Jewish Holy Days: Their Spiritual Significance, page 20, based on the teachings of Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter – the Sfas Emes.
 Genesis 9:13.
 Zohar III, 215a, from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Likutey Moharan, translated by Moshe Mykoff, annotated by Chaim Kramer and edited by Moshe Mykoff and Ozer Bergman, Breslov Research Institute, 2003, Lesson 42, Note 3 on page 325 of volume 5.
 If there are midrashim about The Queen and shofar, I would welcome hearing them. If not, then it is up to the current and future generations create them.
 I Samuel 8:9. See also verses 8:10 – 8.18.
 Lisa A. Edwards, A Horn of Plenty: A Re-Vision of the Shofar Service for Rosh Hashanah, thesis, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York, 1994.
 On the other hand, “coronation” is etymologically related to the Latin word for “horn.”
 Nehemiah 8:2-3.
 E-mail to author, August 2006.
 Aleph is a silent letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Lyric by Hanna Tiferet, quoted in When Rosh HaShanah Falls on Shabbat, Daniel Siegel, Ed., ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, 2002
 The second day of Rosh Hashanah never occurs on Shabbat.
 Rosh Hashanah 29b. According to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “…the Talmud Yerushalmi accepts the argument that it is a Biblical commandment to refrain from blowing the shofar on Shabbat.” Dof Yomi, January 3, 2007, http://www.steinsaltz.org/dynamic/DafYomi_details.asp?Id=495, November 5, 2007.
 Shabbat 35b.
 See Rosh Hashanah 29.
 Shabbat 12a.
 Divrei Chaim, the Sanzer Rav, quoted in Meisels, pg 127.
 Rosh Hashanah 29b.
 Numbers 29:1.
 Leviticus 23:24.
 Exodus 19:19.
 Deuteronomy 5:12.
 Reb Bunim of Pshis’cha quoted in Meisels, pg 127
 Baba Kamma 28b.
 Rabbi Avi Weinstein, http://www.hillel.org/jewish/archives/special/roshhashana/2002_roshhashana.htm, March 19, 2007.
 According to Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), pg. 31, “Since the mid-1990s, studies...using increasingly sophisticated brain-imaging techniques have shown that imaging music can indeed activate the auditory cortex almost as strongly as listening to it.” Sacks quotes a study by Alvaro Pascual-Leone ("The Brain that Makes Music and is Changed by It,” The Cognitive Neuroscience of Music, ed. Isabelle Peretz and Robert Zatorre, pp 396-409, Oxford University Press) that goes further; "The combination of mental and physical practice...leads to greater performance improvement than does physical practice alone."
 Rabbi Larry Bach, “Remembering the Sabbath,” http://www.templemountsinai.com/ uploads/57020030927labsermon.pdf, October 12, 2007.
 Hebrew phrases can also be used. For example: “Shema.” “Ku me! Ku me! Ku me!” “L’zman hazeh l’teshuvah.” “Shema.”
 Rabbi Binyomin Adilman, B'Ohel Hatzadikim, Rosh Hashanah 5760,
 Psalms 81:4.
 Psalms 89:16.
 Zohar III, 233b.
 Numbers 29:1.
 Numbers 25:9.
 Chesed l'Avrohom.
 US Dept. of Defense clip art. www.defenselink.mil/afis/editors/lineart/YomKippur03.jpg, January 13, 2008.
 Paraphrased blessings for havdalah ritual marking the separation of Shabbat and the rest of the week.
 Leviticus 25:9.
 Chochmas Shlomo, Orach Chaim 623:6, quoted in Meisels pg 254.
 Israel Zangwill, Children of the Ghetto, 1892 as excerpted in The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Revised Edition, Joseph H. Hertz, pp 936-937.
 The holiday of Sukkot begins on the fifth day after Yom Kippur. If Elul is a warm-up for the Days of Awe, many experience Sukkot as a cooling off period and an essential part of the cycle of holy days. Many sources recommend commencing construction of a sukkah immediately after the Yom Kippur so one can go from one mitzvah to the next,
 Hannah Chusid teaches that this is why give the blessing, “yasher koach – May you have strength!” to someone who performs a mitzvah; that it is exactly when someone is in a most holy state that they are most vulnerable.
 Isaiah 27:13.
 Levush 623, quoted by Meisels, pg 253.
 Tosafos Shabbos 114B, s.v. ve’amai as quoted in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Secrets pg 253.
 Psalms 47:6
 Rabbi Dovid Meisels, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Secrets, pg 253
 Exodus 19:13.
 The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Revised Edition, Joseph H. Hertz, Note to Exodus 19:13, page 293
 Sefer HaTanya 426:2 quoted in Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Secrets, pg 254.
 Numbers 10:1-10.
 Zachariah 8:19.
 Q’hal Hasidim beHadash, pp 11-12, translated by Raphael Patai in Gates to the Old City, pp 671-672. Story also told in Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book 1, pg 69f. Agnon, pg. 168 – 270 attributes story to Kehal Hasidim he-Hadash. A similar story, attributed to Nachlei Binah P. 317 #632 Tehillim Ben Beiti, Rabbi Eliezer of Komarno, is told at www.hasidicstories.com/Stories/Later_Rebbes/rosh.html, May 11, 2006.
 From a variant of the same story in Mintz, Legends of the Hasidim, pg. 338.
 Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, Elkins pg 306
 Yoma 6:4 quoted in Elkins pg 117.
 A phrase used with the Yom Kippur reading three times, at Leviticus 16:29. 31, and 34.
 Leviticus 16:5-26.
 Leviticus 14:3-7.
 15th Century machzor from Germany., Hungarian Academy of Science, ms. A387, Fol. 350v, from Encyclopedia Judaica pg. 3:999.
 Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 3, page 1002a.
 Ibid, page 2003b.
 Leviticus 17:7.
 Compare Joshua 24:14, “…put away the gods that your forefathers served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt…” and Ezekiel 20:7, “…do not defile yourselves with the fetishes of Egypt…”. (Footnote based on notes in quoted passage.)
 Attributed to Maimonides by quoted passage.
 J. H. Hertz, commentary on Leviticus 17:7, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Soncino, 1958, pg 486.
 Elkins pg 117f quoting Baruch A Levine, JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus pp 250-253.
 Ellen Frankel, The Five Books of Miriam, pg 172-173.
 Schochet pg 30.
 I feel the vituperation heaped on Esau is neither supported by the written text of Torah nor helpful in building bridges of understanding with the tribes of our cousin religions, but include the references here to offer insight that can add depth to our understanding of shofar.
 Elkins pg 119.
 Yoma 62a.
 Rashi on Genesis 25:27.
 Midrash Zuta Shir HaShirim 1:15.
 Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak, Purim, p.43.
 In his work Sefat Emet.
 Ecclesiastes 7:14.
 Rabbi Menachem Azarya DeFano, Pesikta D'Rav Kahana, Chapter 28
 Deuteronomy 25:17-18.
 Rabbi Ari Kahn, “Goat for Azazel,”
http://www.aish.com/hhYomK/hhYomKDefault/Goat_for_Azazel.asp, December 23, 2006.
 Yoma 6:2-6.
 Rabbi Jill Hammer, “The Ram, the Goat, and the Shofar,” http://telshemesh.org/tishrei/the_ram_the_goat_and_the_shofar.html, April 1, 2006
 Rabbi Jill Hammer, http://telshemesh.org/tishrei/yom_kippur_the_shrine_and_the_wilderness.html, April 1, 2006
 Dr. Barry W. Holtz, Elkins pg 234.
 Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, in Elkins pg. 120.
 Rosh Hashanah 9b.
 Numbers 10:2-9.
 Rosh Hashanah 17b. Expounding on this, Note 17 says, “There are a large number of statements in the words of the Sages attesting to the greater potential of a community over individuals. In this respect, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Midrash Tanchuma (Netzavim §1) teaches, for example, that the Jewish people are like a bundle of reeds: a single reed can be broken by even a child, whereas a bundle of reeds cannot be broken by even an adult. Although each individual may be unworthy of a certain spiritual level, together they are worthy of that level… the repentance of a community is great for it reaches until the Throne of Glory.”
 Jewish Encyclopedia 14:578a.
 Rav Hai Gaon (10th – 11th century), quoted in Agnon, pg. xv and pg. 270.
 Leviticus 25:9.
 Leviticus 25:23.
 Leviticus 25:55.
 Jewish Encyclopedia 14:582a.
 The Authorized Daily Prayer Book, Revised Edition, Dr. Joseph H. Hertz, ed., pg 143
 Rosh Hashanah 34b.
 Deuteronomy 6:5 and part of the Shema prayer. Me’odecha is frequently interpreted as “your might.”
 Ezekiel 33:2.
 Extrapolating from Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 14, pg. 586, the next sabbatical year is 5775 in the Hebrew calendar (2014/2015 CE).
 Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14. See Meditation for Twenty-Second Day of Elul.
 The actual quote from Kafka is “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.” It is found in Aphorisms, published in 1918, http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Franz_Kafka, December 30, 2007. Waskow says it is from Parables and Paradoxes, in a letter dated January 8, 1996 at www.mljewish.org/cgi-bin/retrieve.cgi?VOLUME=5&NUMBER=107&FORMAT=html, December 30, 2007.
 Psalms 148:7.
 Jonah 1:2.
 Jonah 1:6.
 Raphael Patai, The Children of Noah: Jewish Seafaring in Ancient Times (Princeton University Press, 1996), pg. 93.
 Yosef Y. Jacobson based on the Lubavitcher Rebbes’ teachings, www.jewish-holiday.com/insidejonah.html and www.askmoses.com/article.html?h=695&o=1952652&pg=2, January 27, 2008.
 Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, Book 2, pp 247-248. Also told in Rosh Hashanah – Its Significance, Laws, and Prayers, pg 117. Another version of the story is in The Complete Story of Tishrei, (Kehot Publication Society, Brooklyn NY) http://ramshornrammer.blogspot.com/2005/09/shofar-in-high-seas.html, May 7, 2006.
 Jonah 2:3.
 http://collecties.meermanno.nl/handschriften/showillu?id=17067, August 12, 2006.
 Bob Gluck , “On Composing Jonah Under the Sea,” 1997, www.olats.org/africa/projets/gpEau/genie/contrib/contrib_gluck.shtmlsansMP3, January 10, 2007. The essay explains, “Most of the sound materials in ‘Jonah Under the Sea’ derive from recordings of sea sounds: ocean waves, dolphins, whales, fog horns, plus sounds of voices and rams horns. At times these are highly digitally processed.” ‘Jonah Under the Sea’ has been recorded on the CD, Stories Heard and Retold (1998, EMF 008).
 Ethiopia, 19th Century, in Jewish Museum, New York City, www.britannica.com/eb/art/print?id=73196&articleTypeId=1, January 14, 2008.
 Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, “Jonah and the Sailors,” translated by David Stern, Rabbinic Fantasies: Imaginative Narratives from Classical Hebrew Literature, ed. David Stern and Mark J. Mirsky (Yale University Press, 1998) pg. 64.
 Chapters of the Fathers, Samson Raphael Hirsch, 1972, 5:9.
 Jonah 3:3.
 Rabbi Dovid Meisels, Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur Secrets, translated by Rabbi Avraham Y. Finkel, 2004, pg. 241.
 Isaiah 58:1.
 Jonah 4:9,11.
 Jonah 3:10.
 Book 3 of Hearing Shofar: The Still Small Voice of the Ram’s Horn discusses these topics in more depth.
 Shmuel Herzfeld, “Why We Read the Book of Jonah: A Fishy Tale of Repentance on Yom Kippur Afternoon,” Forward, 9/20/2000, www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1P1-79271127.html and www.rabbishmuel.com/files/torah_sermons34.whale.doc January 27, 2008.
 Midrash Jonah, see Yvonne Sherwood, A Biblical Text and Its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pg. 116—117, http://books.google.com/books?id=VDv-h76xSl8C, January 29, 2008.
 Jonah 2:2.