The shofar is the only Jewish musical instrument to have survived two millennia in its original form. The sound of the shofar, wrote Rabbi Saadia Gaon, struck awe in the hearts and souls of the people. According to the Rambam, the sounding of the shofar served as a reminder to mankind of its obligations toward God, while the Holy Zohar notes that the sound of the shofar awakens the aspect of Higher Mercy.
The shofar is the musical instrument most frequently mentioned in the Tanach (72 times). It played a role both in the religious and secular lives the Jewish people. Only Kohanim (priests) Levites were permitted to sound the Shofar in the Jewish Commonwealth.
The shofar is first mentioned in Shemos 19:16, at the theophany on Sinai. It was also used to proclaim the Jubilee Year (Yovel) and the proclamation of “freedom throughout the land” (Bamidbar 25:9-10). It was sounded on Rosh Hashana, which is designated as Yom Terua (“A day of blowing” Bamidbar 29:1), and was sometimes used in processionals (Joshua 6:4), as accompaniment for other musical instruments (Tehillim 98:6), as a signal (Shmuel II 15:10, Joshua 6:12), as a clarion call to war (Shoftim 3:27) and to instill fear (Amos 3:6).
When used in the Temple, the shofar was generally sounded in conjunction with the trumpet (chatzotzra).
The shofar had several religious roles recorded in the Tanach, such as the transfer of the Ark of the Covenant (2 Shmuel 6:15, Chronicles 15:28), notification of a New Moon (Psalms 81:4); the start of the new year (Numbers 29:1), the Yom Kippur (Vayikra 25:9), the procession preparatory to Sukkot (Mishnah Chullin 1:7), the libation ceremony (Mishnah Rosh Hashana 4:9) and the Havdalah ceremony marking the end of a festival (Mishnah Chullin 1:7).
The shofar also served several secular roles, such as coronating a king (Shmuel II 5:10; Kings I 1:34, Kings II 1:13) and for signaling in time of war to rally troops for an offensive, to pursue enemy soldiers and to proclaim victory (Bemidbar 10:9; Judges 6:4; Jeremiah 4:5 and Ezekiel 33:3-6).
On Rosh Hashana and other full holidays (i.e. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and the three pilgrimage fesitvals, Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos) a single priest performed two sacrifices in honor of the day.
On Rosh Hashana, something special occurred during the Mussaf sacrifice. According to one opinion, two shofar sounders played the long notes and one trumpet player played the short note. Rosh Hashana, therefore, is referred to as Yom Teruah (the Day of the Blast). Otherwise, the trumpets had “top billing.” Rosh Hashanah 27a, supports this claim: “Said Raba, or perhaps Rav Yehoshua Ben Levi: What is the scriptural source for this? It is written, ‘With trumpets and the sound of the shofar shout ye before the King in the Temple,’ therefore we require trumpets and the sound of the shofar, elsewhere not.”
Indeed, on Yom Kippur, the shofar was blown to announce the Jubilee Year (every 50 years Jews were granted freedom, forgiveness of debts and sold lands reverted to their original ownership. The shofar is first mentioned in connection with the Yovel (Jubilee Year – Vayikra 25:8-13). Indeed, in Rosh Hashana 33b, the sages ask why the shofar sounded in Jubilee year. Further support is found in Rosh Hashana 29a, where the Talmud speaks of trumpets for sacrifices, but the shofar in the Jubilee Year does not apply to priests who are exempt from the obligations of the jubilee.
Otherwise, for all other special days, the shofar was sounded for a shorter duration and two special silver trumpets announced the sacrifice.
When the trumpets sound the signal, all the people who are within the sacrifice area prostate themselves, stretching out flat, face down toward the ground.
The shofar was blown at the Temple to usher in Shabbat every week. On the lintel of the wall at the top of the Temple an inscription read, “To the house of the blowing of the trumpet [ i.e. shofar]”. Every Shabbat two men with silver trumpets and a man with a shofar sounded three trumpet blasts, twice during the day.
On Rosh Hashana, the procedure differed. The shofar is the primary trumpet. According to Vayikra 23:24 and Bamidbar 29, Rosh Hashana is the day of the blowing of the trumpets. The original name is Yom Terua (the staccato sound of the horn, which also means “shout”). According to the Mishna (Rosh Hashana 16a, Mishnah Rosh Hashana 3, 3), the trumpet used for this purpose is the ram’s horn, not trumpets made of metal, as in Bamidbar 10. On Rosh Hashana a shofar is used for the first blast, a silver trumpet the second, and then the shofar follows with the third.