The Origins of the Shofar

The command to sound the ram's horn is found in the Torah.

Most holy days have some specific action‑symbol connected to them. On Passover, it is the Pascal Lamb and the unleavened bread that we eat; on Sukkot, it is the four species: the lulav (composed of the palm branch, the myrtle, and the willow) and the etrog (citron) that we wave, along with the Sukkah, the booth in which we sit; and on Rosh Hashanah, it is the shofar, ­the ram’s horn that we sound and heed.

Biblical References to the Shofar

The commandment to sound the shofar is found in Leviticus: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts” (Lev. 23:24), and in Numbers: “You shall observe it as a day when the horn is sounded” (Num. 29:1).

Although it may have been the practice to sound the shofar on every new moon, the specific commandment applies only to the seventh new moon. Aside from cessation of work and the bringing of specific sacrifices, this is the only biblical commandment connected with Rosh Hashanah.

Reinventing a Pagan Ritual

Anthropologists and historians of religion have argued that this symbol was not born de novo when Judaism came into being. Long before the inception of the religion of Israel, there existed religions in which the sounding of the horn was part of ritual practice. Judaism, then, did not invent this ritual, but rather reinvented it, divesting it of all former pagan meaning and incorporating it into the framework of monotheism.

Some scholars have suggested that the making of loud noises on the New Year (a common practice even in the modem world) was originally connected with an attempt to frighten demons away so that the forces of good would triumph and the New Year would be a happy one. There is no evidence that this approach informed the act of blowing the shofar in the religion of ancient Israel. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that the Talmud ascribes to the shofar the power “to confuse the accuser,” suggesting that the sound of the shofar would destroy the power of Satan to speak against Israel on these holy days. Latter‑day mystics, following this talmudic tradition, added a collection of verses from Psalms to be read before the blowing of the shofar. One of them, Min ha‑meitzar (out of the depths), is composed of an acrostic that reads kera satan (destroy Satan).

Proclaiming God’s Coronation

Another ancient use of the horn on the New Year was to proclaim the coronation of the victorious gods. We can see how this practice has been reinterpreted in Jewish tradition, which sees Rosh Hashanah as the day when God, having completed the work of creation, is crowned king. In the words of the psalmist, “With trumpets and the blast of the horn, raise a shout before the Lord, the king” (Ps. 98:6).

Connection to the Binding of Isaac (Akedah)

Over the course of time, other meanings were ascribed to the symbol of the shofar. The most important is the connection made between the horn of the New Year and the horn of the ram in the story of the binding of Isaac. According to the Midrash, God instructed Abraham that whenever his children were in danger of punishment because of sin, they were to blow the shofar–the horn of the ram caught in the thicket. That act would “remind God,” as it were, of the merits earned by the binding of Isaac, and the people would therefore be forgiven. The biblical idea of “remembrance” is thus enhanced with another meaning: God recalls the merit of Isaac and so redeems us from punishment for sin. The blowing of the shofar, then, serves to signify not only the coronation of God, but a means of arousing God to mercy.

This article is excerpted with permission from Entering the High Holy Days, published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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