The Torah could have commanded us to arouse ourselves to tshuvah by looking at a startling sight or by sniffing a powerful scent. But instead we are commanded, at the start of the year, to a hear a sound. That sound must come from a shofar, connecting us, through a primeval instrument, to other spiritual planes.
The big question then is what exact sound must we hear? There is an extended discussion in the Gemara about how to fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the shofar. And because certain doubts remain unresolved, we sound the required set of nine shofar blasts three times, each time in a slightly different manner.
The core of the dispute is how to interpret the word תרועה. The Torah tells us (Bamidbar 29: 1) that we must have a day of teruah: יום תרועה יהיה לכם. And elsewhere (Vayikra 23:23-25) we are commanded to have a day of remembrance during which the shofar is sounded.
דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד
לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ
It’s not an easy verse to translate, but roughly it comes out to “it shall be a Sabbath for you, a remembrance of [Israel through] the shofar blast, a holy occasion.”
Then the Gemara (Rosh Hashana 33b) tells us as follows:
מר סבר גנוחי גנח ומר סבר ילולי יליל
Interestingly, the Gemara says any tone that comes from the shofar is fine, whether it is a thin, high-pitched tone (e.g. from a small ram’s horn shofar) or a deep baritone (e.g. from a long kudu shofar).
The first opinion says we should similate moaning and groaning with the shofar. According to the other opinion, the shofar sound should resemble the rapid, truncuated sound of weeping.
At first glance this does not seem to fit in with the spirit of Rosh Hashana. But perhaps the idea is simply that sometimes, when are emotions are stirred, we feel a need to express those emotions vocally (e.g. crying, sighing). On Rosh Hashana, to truly forge and feel a powerful connection with Our Father in Heaven, we have to create an emotional release through sounding the shofar. As if we are letting loose a great sigh: ‘Father, I’m coming home!’