“The Sounding of the Shofar”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

Undoubtedly, the most moving part of the Rosh Hashana service is the sounding of the shofar, which takes place in the service soon after the Torah reading and Haftarah have concluded.

Psalm 47 is first recited seven times, containing the word “Eh’lo’kim,” G-d, seven times, referring to G-d who dwells in the seven firmaments. Six biblical verses, each beginning with another letter of the Hebrew words “K’ra Satan,” cut off the accuser, are then pronounced responsively. A hush falls over the congregation, the shofar blower recites two blessings, first the blessing of G-d who has sanctified us and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar, followed by the blessing of G-d who has sustained us and kept us alive until this time.

Although different customs prevail, 30 sounds of the shofar are sounded in the beginning, an additional 30 sounds during the repetition of the Amidah, and the final 40 sounds during or after the final Kaddish, totaling 100 sounds. Others have the custom of sounding 30 blasts in the beginning, an additional 30 sounds during the silent Amidah, 30 more during its public repetition and the last 10 during the final Kaddish.

The 10th century philosopher, R’ Saadiah Gaon (882-942, Saadiah ben Joseph, great Babylonian leader and scholar) ascribes ten reasons for sounding the shofar.

1. On Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of creation, the shofar proclaims the sovereignty of the creator.
2. On Rosh Hashana, the beginning of the Ten Days of Penitence, the shofar warns the people and stirs them to amend their lives.
3. The shofar reminds us of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, when “the trumpet blast grew louder and louder,” and the people said, “We will do and we will obey.”
4. The shofar brings to mind the warnings and exhortations of the prophets.
5. The shofar reminds us of the battle alarm in Judea during the destruction of the Temple.
6. The shofar reminds us of the Akeidah, the attempted sacrifice of Isaac.
7. The shofar inspires the heart with awe and reverence.
8. The shofar reminds us of the day of judgment.
9. The shofar inspires us with hope for the restoration of Israel.
10. The shofar inspires us with hope for the resurrection.
(Based on the High Holiday Prayer Book by Philip Birnbaum)

Three times the Torah mentions the word “Teruah,” a shofar sound, with reference to the blowing of the shofar. Each “Teruah” must be preceded by a straight sound called the “Tekiah.” Thus, on Rosh Hashana, a person is obligated to hear at least nine shofar sounds: “Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah;” “Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah;” “Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah.”

Citing the Talmud Rosh Hashana, R. Eliyahu Kitov, in his wonderful The Book of Our Heritage, explains that over the years doubt has arisen as to which is the proper manner to produce the “Teruah” sound. Uncertainty has arisen over whether it is a wailing tone, such as women utter among themselves when they lament, or is it a sigh, such as a person might repeatedly make in a state of acute anxiety, or a combination of both the sighing and the wailing tones. The wailing sounds, are known as “Teruah, the sighing sounds are called “Shevarim.” In order to make certain that all possible combinations are sounded, we first sound three repetitions of “Tekiah, Shevarim-Teruah, Tekiah;” three repetitions of “Tekiah, Shevarim, Tekiah,” and three repetitions of “Tekiah, Teruah, Tekiah,” a total of 30 sounds.

However, there is a long tradition that 100 shofar blasts are sounded on Rosh Hashana. The concept of 100 sounds is derived symbolically from the 101 letters in the lament uttered by Sisera’s mother as she anxiously awaits her son’s return from the battle with Israel (Judges 5). (She was unaware that he had already been killed by Yael.)

While the shofar sounds are intended to awaken the mercy for the offspring of Isaac who was bound like a ram on the altar, the sounds of the lamentations uttered by Sisera’s mother were suffused with incomparable brutality. Usually when a mother anguishes over her son, she strongly identifies with other mothers, who may be weeping over their children. Sisera’s mother, however, was different. She sought consolation in a bitter and merciless fantasy: “Are they not finding, are they not dividing the spoil? A maiden, two maidens to each man.” Instead of invoking compassion at this sensitive time, Sisera’s mother was obsessed with the thought that her son was presently inflicting death and agony upon Jewish captives and shattering the limbs of their infants. These were the thoughts that she used to assuage her grief. Can there be a greater cruelty?

Therefore, the rabbis say, let the 100 shofar sounds of compassion nullify every one of those outcries of brutality, except for one. For even the most brutal of mothers is not devoid of a mother’s compassion. This one lament of compassion, the shofar does not seek to nullify.

Others find this message totally inconsistent with the concept of shofar. Let the shofar focus on Israel’s owns concerns. Sisera’s mother doesn’t need Israel to nullify her prayers. Her son’s own actions have already determined his fate. Let us instead use the instrument of the shofar to ask for Divine compassion on all those who are in need, and deserving of compassion. Let that be the focus of our thoughts during the time of the sounding of the shofar.

Perhaps, the following message can help us set the proper frame of mind for our thoughts and prayers, especially during the shofar sounding on Rosh Hashana.

A voyaging ship was wrecked during a storm at sea and only two of the men on it were able to swim to a small, desert-like island. The two survivors, not knowing what else to do, agreed that they had no other recourse but to pray to G-d.

However, to find out whose prayer was more powerful, they decided to divide the territory between them and stay on opposite sides of the island.

The first thing they prayed for was food. The next morning, the first man saw a fruit-bearing tree on his side of the land, and he was able to eat its fruit. The other man’s parcel of land remained barren.

After a week, the first man was lonely and decided to pray for a wife. The next day, another ship was wrecked, the only survivor, a woman, swam to his side of the land. On the other side of the island, there was nothing.

Soon the first man prayed for a house, clothes, more food. The next day, like magic, all of these were given to him. However, the second man still had nothing.

Finally, the first man prayed for a ship, so that he and his wife could leave the island. In the morning, he found a ship docked at his side of the island.

The first man boarded the ship with his wife and decided to leave the second man on the island. He considered the other man unworthy to receive G-d’s blessings, since none of his prayers had been answered.

As the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a Voice from Heaven booming, “Why are you leaving your companion on the island?”

“My blessings are mine alone, since I was the one who prayed for them,” the first man answered. “His prayers were all unanswered and so he does not deserve anything.”

“You are mistaken!” the Voice rebuked him. “He had only one prayer, which I answered. If not for that, you would not have received any of My blessings.”

“Tell me,” the first man asked the Voice, “What did he pray for that I should owe him anything?”

“He prayed that all of your prayers be answered.”

For all we know, our blessings are not the fruits of our prayers alone, but those of another praying for us.

Let us pray this Rosh Hashana that all worthy prayers be answered, for good and for blessing.

Rosh Hashana is observed this year on Wednesday evening, and all day Thursday and Friday, September 12th, 13th and 14th, 2007. The New Year holiday is immediately followed on Friday night, and Saturday, September 14th and 15th, by Shabbat Shuva.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life and may all our prayers be answered favorably.

May you be blessed.