Shofar – The Sound of the High Holidays

27 Aug

Rachel headshot_ccThe haunting sound of the shofar marks important events in the Hebrew calendar.  In particular it is associated in our mind with the ‘Days of Awe,’ Rosh Ha-shanah and Yom Kippur as it marks their entrance and departure.  Let us look at the meaning of the word shofar and its significance.

The shofar is one of the oldest wind instruments known to man.  It was not a musical instrument, but rather used from early antiquity to declare important or impending events.  It is interesting that although mentioned in the Bible over seventy times, the shofar was not mentioned in conjunction with other musical instruments, but once (Ps 150:3).  Shofar in Hebrew means ‘ram’s horn.’  The origin of the word is not clear, but probably rooted in the Akkadian word sapparu meaning ‘wild goat’.

For ancient man the Shofar symbolized the ability to subdue natural destructive forces and over power enemies.  In biblical Israel its magical and mystical sounds were echoed in stories like the revelation on Mount Sinai (Ex 19:13-19) or the conquest of Jericho (Josh 6:6-20), where shofarot (plural of shofar) were used to mark these awe inspiring events.  Interestingly, with a few exception (Lev 25:9; Ps 81:4), it seems that an effort was made to connect the shofar with events that are not part of the ritual such as declaration of war (Judges 3:27), announcement of victory (I Sam 13:3), warning (Ezek 33:3) and coronation of kings (II Kings 9:13).

Only in the rabbinic era, the sound of the shofar received again a spiritual significance and its sound became a central part of the ritual, declaring the entrance of Shabbat, announcing Rosh Chodesh (‘new month’) and other events of the calendar.  The shofar, according to the rabbis, is to be made from the horn of a clean animal, like a mountain goat, to remind us of the animal presented to Abraham in lieu of Isaac.  However, it cannot be taken from an ox or a cow, which might remind one of the sin of the golden calf in the desert (Rosh Ha-shannah 3:2).

In particular, the sound of the shofar is associated with the High Holidays.  When Yom T’ruah, the biblical first day of the seventh month (Num 29:1) was designated by the rabbis as Rosh Ha-shannah, namely the first day of the first month of the year, distinctive notes (teki-ah, she-varim, teru-ah) were assigned to call for repentance, to arouse consciousness and self-improvement.

May the mellow sound of the shofar reverberate throughout the year bringing on its waves the blessings of health, joy and peace.

Dr. Rachel Zohar Dulin is a professor of biblical literature at Spertus College in Chicago and an adjunct professor of Hebrew and Bible at New College in Sarasota. She lectures and writes in the field of biblical literature.

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