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How does the shofar operate on a spiritual plane?

Obviously the shofar has its effect in the spiritual realm. What exactly does it do? The Rambam addresses that question, not in Hilchot Shofar, but rather in Hilchot Tshuva. There, in Halacha 4, he notes that blowing the shofar is first and foremost a written statute (“gezeirat hak’tuv“), i.e. the meaning behind the shofar is not necessarily something we need to delve into. However, he explains, a hint to its significance can be found in a Biblical verse.

עורו עורו ישנים משינתכם, והקיצו נרדמים מתרדמתכם

This is a reference, writes the Rambam, to those who forget the truth in the pursuit of emptiness, as time passes by, and in their slumber they chase after emptiness that has no purpose.

The mashgiach of Yeshivat Mir-Brachfeld explains that when a house catches fire and someone is asleep inside, the real danger is if he does not wake up. But once he wakes up, smells the smoke and sees the flames, he leaps onto his feet and runs out the door. Once he’s a wake, he knows what to do. So really all he has to do is hear the shofar, internalize the meaning and the message, and depart on a new course.

However, he adds, citing Rav Yisrael Salanter, waking up is a multi-phase endeavor in our day and age. We’re like people who sometimes wake up in a daze, not sure where we are — or even who we are — and take a while to come to our senses.

Leveraging the Sound of the Shofar

I heard an observant woman say recently, “The shofar has no real effect on me.” It seems she is under the misconception that along comes the blast of the shofar and sets you onto the right course automatically, pushing you along.

That may be true, to some extent, but only if you have your sail is unfurled!

The Sefer HaChinuch, in Mitzvah 405, explains that Rosh Hashanah is about pleading for clemency. To achieve this, first one must be fully cognizant of the gravity of the situation. To awaken to this reality we have a powerful tool at our disposal: the shofar. The sound of the shofar has the power to stir the heart of those who hear it. And even more powerful is the sound of the terua, the broken blast of the shofar.

Interestingly, in Mitzvah 331, the Sefer HaChinuch seems to take a different tack. There he contrasts the mitzvah of blowing the shofar to declare freedom in the Yovel year to the mitzvah of shofar on Rosh Hashana, which he explains is meant to encourage us to contemplate Akeidas Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac), and to imagine ourselves doing the same for the love of Hashem. As a result, a positive remembrance will arise before Him, i.e. we will be acquitted before Him.

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