Ask the Expert: Why blow the shofar?

What's the point of using an ancient instrument

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Question: Is there a reason we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, and not a real trumpet? I know it's traditional, but is there a reason that the shofar is so special?

--James, Salt Lake City

Answer: Well, I don't want to toot the shofar's horn too much, James, but it really is pretty special. Allow me to explain.

In the Torah, we're given a commandment that on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) "you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts." (Leviticus 23:24) These loud blasts, or teruah, were understood by the rabbis to allude to the blasts of the shofar. So on Rosh Hashanah we blow the shofar in order to fulfill this commandment. The biblical text doesn't go into precisely the reason that it's so important that we hear a teruah, but there are a few possibilities.

You might imagine that a shofar was chosen for Rosh Hashanah just because it was the only horn-like instrument that the Israelites had in the desert when they were given the commandments. But actually, the Torah mentions a number of instruments the people had with them, including silver trumpets, so the use of the shofar doesn't seem to have been borne from necessity.

The Bible contains many explicit references to the shofar, not just the Rosh Hashanah commandment. When the people receive the Ten Commandments from God on Mt. Sinai, they hear a very loud blast of the shofar. We're commanded to blow the shofar not only on Rosh Hashanah, but also at the beginning of the Jubilee year. Shofars were also blown by warriors in battle, and by musicians in the Temple.

The sound of the teruah is both earthly and Divine. It comes from an animal, but makes the same sound that was heard on the top of Mt. Sinai when God addressed the people. Music can be celebratory, but the sound of the shofar is more than just a sound of jubilation. It is the sound of the presence of God, and the sound we use to cry out to God when we need God's intervention.

The Talmud struggles with the same question that you have, James. In Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a we read: "R. Abbahu said: Why do we blow a ram’s horn? The Holy One, blessed be He said: Sound before Me a ram’s horn so that I will remember on your behalf the binding of Isaac, the son of Abraham, and to account it to you as if you had bound yourselves before me."

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