The Shofar – A Special Form of Prayer
What is a Shofar?
The shofar (שופר) is a Jewish musical instrument made by removing marrow from the horn of a ram, sheep, or goat. While the shofar makes a beautiful, trumpet-like sound that resonates throughout the synagogue, it is much more than a simple musical instrument. Indeed, for Jewish people of all walks of life, the shofar is a spiritual tool that awakens their souls, providing a primal form of prayer during the highest holy days of the year.
The history of the shofar dates back many thousands of years, with explicit references to it in the Jewish Bible, rabbinic literature, and writings of the Sages. In perhaps the most dramatic moment in Jewish history, the shofar was blown as Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Similarly, shofars were used in the Book of Joshua to capture the city of Jericho. During the times of the First and Second Holy Temples, shofars were used along with trumpets to mark important occasions and ceremonies. In short, the shofar was blown to announce the start of holidays and wars throughout Jewish history.
When do we blow the Shofar?
Fittingly, the shofar is blown on the day the Bible refers to as “The Day of the Shofar Blast,” which corresponds to the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah as it is called in Hebrew. In fact, Jews are commanded in the Bible to hear the blasts of the shofar on both days of Rosh Hashanah, unless it is the Sabbath when the shofar is not blown. The Shofar is also sounded on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, as a call for repentance, self-sacrifice, and ultimately redemption.
Video: The making of a Shofar
Why do we blow the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah?
Simply put, G-d commanded Jews to hear the shofar, the blasts of which shake Jews out their spiritual slumber, reconnecting their souls to the Source of all life. Perhaps most importantly, the shofar helps the Jewish people recommit themselves to their divine mission in this world.
The famous Jewish Sage, Rabbi Sa’adyah Gaon (Egypt and Babylon, 882-942 CE) brought down ten symbolic aspects of the shofar’s sounds:
1. The shofar resonates through the breath of the shofar-blower, or tokea, who blows into the shofar to create its notes. The tokea’s breath provides a reminder that on Rosh Hashanah G-d created the world. The breath of the shofar blows are thus reminiscent of the breath of life, which G-d breathed into Adam, creating humanity. We also show our human acceptance of G-d’s rule by sounding the shofar, as it is customary to sound trumpets to exalt a king and proclaim one’s subservience to him.
2. As the first of the Ten Days of Repentance, the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah announce to every Jew, “Those who want to repent, now’s the time!” Serving as a literal wake up call, the shofar is a reminder to examine one’s actions, words, and thoughts and to reevaluate behavior and relationships with loved ones and with G-d.
3. Since the shofar is a reminder of the divine revelation at Mount Sinai, which was also accompanied by shofar blasts, listening to the sounds of this holy instrument prod Jews to accept upon themselves the obligation their fathers took on to be a light unto the nations.
4. The shofar is also reminiscent of the Prophets’ warnings to the Jewish people, such as Ezekiel’s exhortation, “And if the listener shall hear the sound of the shofar and not be careful, then the sword shall come and take him. And if he shall be careful, then his soul has escaped.” (Ezekiel 33:4-5).
5. The shofar recalls the trumpet calls of the armies who destroyed the Holy Temples in Jerusalem, which arouses Jews to pray for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.
6. The shofar brings to mind the ram at the binding of Isaac, during which God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Recounted in Genesis (22:1-24), Abraham demonstrated once again his unwavering commitment to serve the Creator. At the moment Abraham raised his knife to slay his son, G-d stayed his hand and called his attention to a ram caught in a nearby bush, which Abraham was instructed to sacrifice in place of Isaac. Whenever the shofar is blown, God figuratively remembers Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, which elicits forgiveness the descendants of Abraham who hear the shofar’s blasts. Just as the shofar blasts remind Jews to turn their hearts toward repentance, they remind God to forgive Jews for their sins in the merit of Abraham Our Father.
Video: The Meaning of the Shofar
7. The intense blasts of the shofar instill a sense of fear that leads the listener to humble him- or herself before G-d, as the verse states, “If the shofar is sounded in the city, will people not tremble?” (Amos 3:8).
8. Since the shofar is also blown on the Day of Judgment, it reminds Jews that the annual day of reckoning is nigh, as the verses state, “The great day of G-d is near, close and quick [to come]… is the day of [the sounding of] the shofar and the teruah.” (Tzefanyah 1:14, 16).
9. The sounding of the shofar also awakens a yearning in the Jewish people for the future ingathering of the dispersed exiles of Israel, as the verse states, “And it shall be on that day, the great shofar shall be sounded and those who have been lost among Ashur shall come [back].” (Isaiah 27:13).
10. The shofar also serves as a reminder of the resurrection of the dead, as the verse states, “All those inhabitants of the world and those who dwell in the earth, when a sign is lifted upon the mountains you shall see and when the shofar is sounded you shall hear.” (Isaiah 18:3).
Finally, in Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov’s definitive compendium on Jewish practice and theology, Our Heritage, he cites the famous Spanish scholar, Rabbi David Abudirham , quoting a commentary on the Psalms. In this commentary, the Sage Rav Berachyah teaches in the name of fellow Sage Abba that G-d tells the Jewish people to improve their actions, using the Hebrew word shapru, which is formed from the same root as the word shofar. The Rabbi Abudirham teaches that this teaches that just as the shofar is blown from one side, with sound emerging from the other side, so go the world’s accusations that the Jews’ sins make them unworthy of G-d’s mercy. He hears the accusations from one side, and they dissipate from the other side.
Who is obligated in this Mitzvah (commandment)?
Since everyone needs a periodic reminder to reconnect, all Jewish men and women must hear the blasts, and it is recommended that children also hear them.
How is the blowing of the Shofar actually performed?
On the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah), the shofar is blown according to the following sound patterns:
- Teki’ah – An unbroken blast lasting about three seconds
- Shva’rim – A teki’ah broken into three distinct segments
- Teruah – Nine rapid fire blasts
- Tekiah Gedolah – A triple teki’ah lasting at least nine seconds, though many blow these blasts significantly longer
The minimum requirement is to hear thirty shofar blasts. In the synagogue, a total of one hundred blasts are blown each day of Rosh Hashanah.