The Sounds of the Shofar Against the Backdrop of War
This year our Rosh Hashanah cannot be like all the other years. This year on a daily basis our brothers and sisters in Israel were murdered simply because they were Jews. This year we are all devastated by the horror of the murders of the World Trade Center bombing. This year our Rosh Ha-Shanah is different.
This year the sound of the Shofar is also different, it is not like the sounds of past years. This year the meaning the shofar’s sound takes on cosmic importance. Lets
explore together what the shofar might mean to us this year.
The first place where the shofar of Rosh Hashanah is mentioned in the Torah is in Va-Yikrah 23: 24. The Pasuk states: Ba-Chodesh ha-Sheveiei ba-echad la-chodesh
yehiyeh lachem shabbaton zichron teruah mikrah kodesh, The first day of the seventh
month shall be a day of rest. It is a zichron teruah, a holy day.
The difficult phrase in this pasuk is zichron teruah, literally a remembrance blast.
But this phrase is very difficult to understand. What does it mean to call the sounding of the shofar a remembrance blast? What are we remembering?
The ancient Jewish theologian, Philo of Alexandria explains that the shofar is a “remembrance blast” in the sense that the shofar was a tool used in the military. The
shofar in this sense served different purposes. It was a call to charge, it was a call to retreat, and above all it was a call to remember the ideals and values that the soldiers were fighting for.
In Tanakh, when the shofar was sounded it would most often be associated with the sounds of war. The shofar stands at the center of the greatest military victory in
Tanakh—Joshua’s defeat of Jericho, which he accomplished simply by blasting the shofar. The shofar stands at the center of the book of Judges, when Gidon accomplishes a miraculous victory through the use of the shofar. In short, it is likely that when the people in the time of Tanakh heard the shofar, one of the first thoughts that came to mind was military might.
We are living in a different world today, but the sounds of the shofar connote something similar today. Just before we blast the shofar, we read Psalm 47. Why Psalm 47? Perhaps the psalm is teaching us this connection between the shofar and physical strength. The Psalm is raising the image of the strength of goodness and righteousness in the face of the evil of the world.
Lets look at the Psalm together (p. 316). Look at pasuk bet, hariu lelokim be-kol
rinah, These words can be translated as a direct command to other false gods, O False gods of the world shout out in praise to the true God. This might also be the way to translate the phrase, zamru elohim zameru, sing praises, O false gods. Sing praises to
No wonder we recite this psalm seven times before we blast the shofar. By doing so we are reenacting Joshua’s circling of the walls of Jericho. We are reciting a prayer for physical strength in the face of our enemies. The shofar is a symbol for us to stand strong, to be proud of our values, to have courage in the face of our enemies.
Now more than ever we need that sound of the shofar to resonate purely and to be heard by God. At a time when terrorism seems to be ruling the world in the name of a false religion—a religion which a distortion of everything true and pure--at a time where
we could easily despair, both in New York as well as in Israel. We need the sound of the shofar—the zichron teruah-- to remind us to be strong, to remind us not to waver.
But there is also another way to read these words--zichron teruah. The same
Philo of Alexandria offers another explanation of that difficult phrase zichron teruah.
Philo writes that the shofar is intended to be a reminder of the heights that were achieved at Mount Sinai. At Sinai the blasts of the shofar rang out from heaven.
This approach sees the blasts of the shofar as musical notes that have the ability to teach, to inspire, and to unite. No where were we more united than at Sinai. No where were we educated more effectively than at Sinai. And the sounds that filled our ears at Sinai were the sounds of the shofar.
The sounds of the shofar at Sinai correspond to another symbol of the shofar in the time of Tankah. Over and over again in Tanakh, the shofar is sounded in order to demonstrate the coronation of a king. When a new king was announced, it was done with the blast of the shofar. This is seen from Avshalom, from Yehu, and from Yoash.
The coronation of the king in Tankah, and the coronation of the King of Kings at Sinai are both accompanied by the shofar because the shofar is a symbol of unity, of harmony, and of hope.
This understanding of the shofar is also embedded within an alternative reading of Psalm 47.
We saw before how this Psalm could be read as a prophecy of strength in the face of isolation from the evil forces and false Gods of the world. An entirely different read sees it not as a poetic description of physical supremacy, but as a universalistic comment
on the reign of God. Its possible to read this psalm as an invitation extended to all the nations of the world to join together in worship and recognize the One God.
Lets return to the text of the the Psalm. In this approach, pasuk bet, “kol ha-
amimim tiku kaf, now reads as an invitation to all the nations: Come clap your hands and rejoice in the presence of God. In pesukim vav through chet, the psalmist turns to the people who are praying and ushers them along this path, “Alah elokim be-teruah. Bring
praise up to God with a shout, bring praise up to God with the sound of the shofar. Sing to god, sing to our king.” Finally, the entire psalm ends with all of the nations of the world coming together to praise God. Nedivei amim ne-esafu, all of the princes of the
world gather together in praise of God.
The psalm as a whole now becomes a description of the ascension and coronation of God, King of the Universe upon His heavenly throne. God ascends His throne to the tunes of the shofar and the shouts of the people. The psalm ends with God sitting on his throne with all the nations of the world gathering before Him and recognizing His greatness.
According to this last approach, the reading of Psalm 47 immediately before the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Ha-Shanah imitates the heavenly coronation ceremony. As worshippers we are about to perform our own crowning of God. When we sound the shofar, the universal proclamation of dominion, we declare ourselves subservient to the true King of the Universe.
In imitation of the shofar blasts at Sinai we sound the shofar. In recognition of God as King we blast the shofar. But according to Psalm 47, we do this not out of physical triumphalism, but out of a yearning for universal harmony and recognition of
God’s mastery. We long for the time when the whole world can gather and united as one
call out to God.
Perhaps the reason why the rabbis selected this psalm as an appropriate reading to precede the shofar blasts is to convey both of these powerful messages. Paradoxically, the sound of the shofar is both a prayer for the physical might and strength of our own people, as well as a prayer for universal harmony in recognizing God’s greatness.
How do we understand this paradox? The answer is that we pray for physical strength so that we are able to stand in the face of adversity and proudly teach the values of the Torah—of righteousness, morality, purity—values that we hope will bring
harmony and peace to the world.
This double message of the shofar is the prayer that each of us might be making this year as we hear the blasts of the shofar. On a year in which far too many were murdered by terrorists, including people who many of us knew, the blast of the shofar is a prayer for physical strength. It’s a prayer for God to protect us and strengthen us.
And on a year in which the very moral fiber of the Jewish people was attacked and repeatedly condemned by the world, the sound of the shofar is also a prayer for universal harmony.
The shofar is a prayer for physical strength so that we can help the world gain peace and harmony. This explains the paradox of Psalm 47. This is why the Torah calls Rosh HaShanah, zichron teruah, the remembrance of the shofar. For with each blast of
the shofar, we remember and pray for both physical security for our people, as well as eternal bliss for the entire world.
(This Dvar Torah was delivered on Rosh Ha-Shanah, 2001, at the Hebrew Institute of