The Shofar as Prayer

Lessons from tradition about the meaning of the shofar

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Each section in the following article represents a different teaching drawn from traditional Jewish sources about the sounding of the shofar. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Holy Days: Their Spiritual Significance (Jason Aronson).

Praying With Our Breath 

On Rosh Hashanah we pray in the purest form for spiritual guidance and understanding. We want to choose a life based on the needs of our spiritual well­-being. We no longer want to go astray with lust and desire for the impermanent.

Normally, during the entire year, we pray for our physical needs. Then we pray with our physical being: our throat, tongue, teeth, and lips. But on Rosh Hashanah we use only our breath, our spiritual es­sence, and blow into the shofar.

The shofar sound is our Rosh Hashanah prayer to God: "May this year be one in which we seek the path of spiritual benefit, and not purely physical lusts."

Sounds of the Shofar

There are three types of sounds we blow with the shofar: a tekiah, a steady blast; a shevarim, a broken note; and a teruah, a shattered quavering note. They symbolize our prayers on Rosh Hashanah.

shofar as prayerDuring the year when we pray, we approach our creator directly, as we do in the Amidah, the silent prayer, which originally consisted of 18 sepa­rate prayers. We stand before God in awe, fear, and trembling, and we bow and sing His praises. Then we cry, plead, and beg, as creatures, for our life and sustenance. We then exit from our encounter with praise and honor to God.

On Rosh Hashanah we pray with the shofar. The steady blast of the shofar, tekiah, signifies our direct approach to God. We need not travel, but are imme­diately before Him. We thus realize that we are His creatures, impotent, broken, and shattered. These are the sounds of the shevorim and the teruah. They are expressed, not in words, but in sounds that bellow forth from our inner being and essence as creatures. Once we have made this intimate encounter, we exit and praise God with another steady blast. There are a total of three short notes and nine shattered notes, corresponding to the 12 prayers of the Amidah dealing with life and sustenance.

Let us open our heart on Rosh Hashanah to expe­rience the true brokenness of our being and our exile as a people. Then God will answer with the steady blast of the shofar, signaling our total redemption.

Shofar of the Past

There will come a day when all the crooked will be straightened, all the valleys will be raised, and all the mountains will be lowered; God will reign supreme, and all will know that He is one. The World to Come will be ushered in with an infinite, piercing, steady sound of the shofar.

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Moshe Braun

Moshe Braun is the author of Sabbath Peace: A Book of Meditations and other books on Jewish tradition.