Rabbi David Lazar: official blog | Arise From Your Slumber You Who Are Asleep – Making sense of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah
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A Yemenite Shofar

Arise From Your Slumber You Who Are Asleep – Making sense of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah

We are surrounded by symbols. In our homes and in our synagogues, on our bodies, in the streets, on our computers – everywhere! And symbols matter. We are constantly negotiating their meaning. They can be powerful – enough so that we are moved to tears, or to anger in protest. We use them in love and we use them in war.

And so, in their very nature, symbols can be quite tricky. One object, or word – after all words, along with the letters that spell them, are some of the most common types of symbols we have – might have a different meaning to two different people, not to mention what it might mean to many  others. Some symbols have had in the past one meaning but then have lost that meaning. Sometimes they remain without meaning, and therefore are perhaps irrelevant. Sometimes they are filled with new meanings, ones very different than those held in the past for the very same object or word. And of course, there are those symbols which are so filled with meaning, that no matter how hard we might try to fill them with another, perhaps, more valuable meaning in our eyes, we are unable to do so. They are simply too full.

So symbols really do matter. But we must avoid getting stuck on the symbol itself without realizing or reaching the message, or intention, behind it. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest teachers in the Masorti Movement in the 20th century devotes a chapter to this and other aspects of symbolism in his book Man’s Quest for God. Here he warns of the following:

 Symbolism is so alluring because it promises to rehabilitate beliefs and rituals that have become meaningless to the mind. Yet, what it accomplishes is to reduce belief to make-believe, observance to ceremony, prophecy to literature, theology to esthetics …  A symbol is often like a plaything, an imitation of reality, cherished for the emotional satisfaction it affords… (p. 142-143)

The shofar is one of the oldest Jewish symbols, as found on mosaic floors of ancient synagogues in the Land of Israel. Far older than the Magen David, the Star of David, and right up there with the menorah , the 7-branched candelabra which was found in the Temple, the shofar, despite its universality as a musical instrument throughout the ancient world, has been something that Jews could call their own. It is something that somewhat mysteriously links them with the generations of yesteryear in the most primal way.

Sigmund Freud’s disciple Theodor Reik (1988, Vienna – 1969, New York City) was particularly fascinated with this ritual and argued that it, perhaps more than any other Jewish rite, stemmed from the most ancient of times. He devoted an entire section of his Ritual: Four Psychoanalytic Studies (1946) to his understanding of how the shofar is indeed an exceedingly ancient relic and frames his opinion thus:

The conservatism of the Jewish religious ritual in this and in other ceremonials is astonishing. The immortality and independence of time of unconscious impulses appear also in the ritual of Judaism. Strong impulses from the primal period of the people have found expression in the shofar-blowing in spite of all religious advances…. (p. 276)

In a somewhat bizarre example of psychoanalytic methodology being applied to ancient text and practice – both, one might say, somewhat passive and unresponsive when “lying on the coach” – Reik goes on to claim that the custom is actually playing out the ancient myths of the creation of music and ensuing patricide, expressed no less in the Biblical story of Moses dealing with the people’s sin of the Golden Calf. In essence, says Reik, it is Moses rebelling against the Bull-like father deity and the destruction of the Calf is actually our ancestral hero killing his father. In short, he sums up:

We know that the shofar reminds the faithful of the primal guilt which each individual unconsciously renews in harbouring death wishes against his father… (p.288)

Needless to say, reading Reik wasn’t easy for me and I will admit that I needed to skip pages here and there to get through to the end. For me, his approach is an example of reading into the sacred text something that isn’t really there, something that really only serves one’s personal, or in this case, a school of thought’s agenda. In any case, this interpretation doesn’t really work for me, and I’m guessing not for many others today. In any case, I do not believe that this is why practicing Jews have been, and will be, listening to sound of the shofar. But I did benefit from Reik’s intuition that the shofar really is something quite primal and even perhaps a bit animal-like and this is the first aspect of the shofar which I would like to explore with you.

Reik was not without knowledge in rabbinic literature and he includes in his study a number of Talmudic traditions. Perhaps the most well known of these which deals with the symbol as nexus between human behavior and the animal world is with regard to what kind of shofar shall be used. There is general distaste (though by all means, not unanimous) towards using a representative of the cow, or bovine, family on Rosh Hashanah. We can’t expect a symbol so closely related to the greatest sin of which is graphically described in the Five Books of Moses – that of the Golden Calf (Ex. 31) to be of prominent assistance on the day upon which we stand in judgment for our own sins. Likewise, there is a general preference (though here too, not unanimous) for using a ram’s horn, since this animal has a prominent role in the story of what is probably the greatest acts of faith told in the Torah, the Binding of Isaac by Abraham. You will remember that after the father had shown his willingness to kill his son who was already on the altar, with the sacrifice ready to go, God provided a ram on the scene to take the son’s place. In the same way that it would seem unwise to bring up the matter of the calf/cow on this day, it might be beneficial to make mention of the poor animal whose horns got stuck in the bushes nearby.

One might see both of these as childish, in thinking that we can “pull the wool over” God’s eyes. Or one might simply understand the basic psychological state in which we find ourselves on Rosh Hashanah – we do things that enable us to reach the deepest meanings and the highest spiritual states and we use symbols to get there. In this case, perhaps we want to learn for the positive examples of our people’s past and not the negative.

Experts argue whether the shofar is the oldest musical instrument in the world, or perhaps just one of the oldest. But one thing is certain, it is simple and unsophisticated and very close in form and shape to how it is found in nature as the horn of an animal. It is primitive and the sound that it makes is likewise quite primitive. Yes, there are those very talented and professional musicians who succeed in producing quite elegant and graceful tones. But the blasts of the shofar that many of us remember from our childhood and how they are sounded in many synagogues today can be quite harsh and well … quite primitive.

Perhaps this is what Rabbi Ya’akov the Southerner, as documented in the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Ta’anit 2:1 [65a]), meant when he said:

 Why do we blow horns?

So that You, God, will see us as if we are squealing like an animal before You.

Perhaps this resonates with some people, and I respect this approach to a relationship between God and Human. But for me this is a bit disturbing, and I am guessing that it is for many of you as well. While this might be one aspect of our mitzvah of sounding the shofar, it is clear, that there is a bit more sophisticated approach that expects a number of different types of sounds. At least this is what comes out of the rather long and somewhat confusing discussion of the various types of blasts that must be sounded in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b-34a). On those two pages of Talmud, there are a myriad of views of just how, and in which order, three basic sounds: teki’ah, terua’h, sh’varim, need to be made. I will admit to you that I have studied this passage many times and I still come up empty from a spiritual point of view. While there are references to all sorts of biblical verses, from the laws of the holidays in Leviticus (25:9) and Numbers (29:1), to the story of Sisera’s mother crying in the window as she waits for her son’s return in the book of Judges (5:28), this seems to me to be a lot of words that postulate about how a custom came into being without actually helping us to navigate the custom in a way in which we might go back to that very primal nature of the sound, in a way that might enable us to have a transformative experience.

And if that wasn’t enough, we repeat the shofar blasts at least three more times during the musaf service (and some do much more) under the three separate categories of malchuyot, “sovereignties”; zichronot, “memories”; and shofarot, “horns”. We have here a mitzvah, performed through a very colorful and even exotic symbol, which is just begging for meaning. I am well aware of the nostalgic nature of how many of us approach the shofar each year with the feeling that we are simply keeping the tradition, and there is nothing wrong with this. But I want to challenge us to explore, to find out if perhaps there might be many other ways for us to enrich our prayer experience and indeed, our lives, through the meanings we pour into this ancient symbol.

So I will share with you what I have come up with over the years, both for the sounds themselves as well as for the three separate contexts in which they will be heard again during musaf.

Teki’ah – a long blast that seems to say that something important is about to happen. We have all come, in far greater numbers than usual, to the synagogue, to worship and we stand in anticipation of being judged, both by God and by ourselves. It’s not that God hasn’t been here, or anywhere for that matter, all along during the year. And it certainly isn’t that WE haven’t been here. But we do set aside days for this purpose since we know that maintaining a higher sense of awareness like this can’t work the year round.

Shvarim – a tri-partite broken series of blasts that sounds a lot like a fanfare for when royalty (or today, heads of state) arrive on the scene. If getting our attention has been achieved through the teki’ah, we are now led to expect something royal in nature with the shvarim but then…

Teru’ah – nine staccato notes, rough, rapid and not terribly calming. In fact, to my ears, this is like a primal scream. Or if that is too extreme, perhaps like an alarm clock, you know the kind that beeps, and beeps, and beeps … until we find the button that turns it off.

All this build up and boom, we get thrown back to our primitive past?!
All the attention getting, the anticipation and all we get is an alarm clock?

Well, yes, or as Maimonides, the Rambam put it

Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator. Those of you who forget the truth because of daily trivialities, indulging throughout the year in the useless things that cannot profit you nor save you, look into your souls, amend your ways and deeds. Let everyone give up his evil way and his bad purpose… (Hilchot Teshuva, Chapter 3:4)

Now let’s take a look at the three different contexts in which these blasts are sounded, which we are meant to interface with the above:

Malchuyot – Sovereignty! We reaffirm at the beginning of each year that indeed there really is only one true Ruler in the world and this is God. But we can also see God as a role model for us, calling us to exercise leadership, strong and clear, both within the community and out.

Zichronot – Memories! We Jews are pretty good at remembering: the Exodox from Egypt, the Shoah, our loved ones who are no longer with us. And we take our cue from God, the One who does not forget. But just in the same way our tradition encourages us to be mindful of positive memories, like the ram stuck in the bush, as opposed to negative memories, like the Golden Calf, we too must be very careful to cherish and sanctify the positive memories of our people and of our lives and not overwhelm ourselves with the negative ones.

Shofarot – Horns! We not only have a wide variety of stories and uses for the shofar as told in the Bible – in freeing slaves, in the heavens at Sinai, in war, not to mention on this day, but there are many different types of animals from which we can make a shofar, providing they are kosher. And even those made from one particular animal, no two shofarot look alike, or make the exact same sound. God has created the world that way and God has given us this mitzvah  in this way to teach us that there are many faces, or many aspects to truth and in ways to experience God. For me this is the essence and the sanctity of pluralism.

There is even one more aspect to speak of, perhaps not this year, but when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and it is our custom not to blow the shofar at all. Here is an opportunity which presents itself only every few years to actually listen and hear the voice of silence. Or, as is so poetically put in the story of Elijah the Prophet on Mt. Horev, waiting for God to show Godself – kol d’mamah dakah – a small still voice….

Giving our attention, expecting something important and waking up to the real meaning of life – these are potential meanings of the sounds themselves. Stepping up to leadership, cultivating all of our memories, realizing the plurality of religious life and learning to listen to the message of silence – these are the frameworks in which we utilize this wonderful gift which we have cherished for generations.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu U’Tichateimu

  • samuel
    Posted at 17:05h, 29 September Reply

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge! Looking forward to reading more from you in the future. All the best and shana tovah

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