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Treasure Chest of Shofar Insights

by D. Weinberg

The shofar has long been a central symbol in Judaism, with many meanings and interpretations offered regarding the blowing of the shofar and its hidden message. From a triumphant war cry to a primal cry from the depths of the soul, from a symbol of remembrance to a proclamation of God’s majesty, and from a call to action to a call to freedom, the significances are many and varied. The following is a collection of some of the most poignant and inspirational insights gleaned from the sounds of the shofar.

  • Call to Teshuva (Repentance): According to the Rambam (Maimonides), the shofar blast contains the hidden message: “…Arise from your slumber, you who are asleep; wake up from your deep sleep, you who are fast asleep; search your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator…look into your souls, amend your ways and deeds…” (Rambam, Hilchot Teshuva, 3:4).
  • Key to the Heart: According to the Baal Shem Tov, the shofar blast has a way of penetrating the human heart like no other instrument or tool: “In the palace of the king there are many chambers and each one needs a different key. There is one key, one instrument, however, which can open all the doors – the ax. The shofar is an ax. When a person passionately breaks his heart before the Almighty, he can smash any gate in the palace of the King of Kings.” Accordingly, the shofar holds the key to the deepest recesses of the heart, allowing us to reach otherwise impenetrable places within ourselves and to thereby achieve an emotional breakthrough in our Avodat Hashem (service of the Almighty).
  • Intellectual Experience: In Tehillim (Psalms), King David proclaims: “Happy is the people who know the tru’ah [the shofar blast]” (Psalms 89:16), suggesting that knowledge or intellect is the means understanding and benefiting from the shofar.
  • Infusing the Physical with the Spiritual: Just as God blew breath into Adam, transforming him from a purely physical creature formed from the dust of the earth (“Adam” meaning from the adama or ground) into a spiritual being, so too the shofar begins as merely a physical instrument, the hollow horn of a ram. Once human breath is blown through the shofar, however, it becomes infused with holiness and spirituality, undergoing a transformation similar to the one we hope to achieve by hearing the sounds of the shofar.
  • Kol Pnimi – Finding One’s Inner Voice: In the blessing over the shofar, we are reminded of the commandment on Rosh Hashanah, which is to “hear the voice of the shofar.” The sages explain that merely ‘listening’ to the shofar blasts is not enough. Rather, we must “hear” the shofar in a deeper and more significant way, in a way which truly affects or transforms us.

This helps us understand a fascinating discussion in the Talmud regarding a case wherein one shofar is placed inside of another shofar. Can one fulfill his/her Torah obligation by hearing sounds from a double shofar? The conclusion brought by the Talmud is: Im kol p’nimi shama, yatza – If the voice of the inner shofar is heard, one has fulfilled his obligation. It is the sounds of the inner shofar which count, just as the goal of hearing the shofar is to affect us from within.

  • Agent of Forgiveness: According to the Midrash, the blowing of a ram’s horn evokes God’s mercy, serving as a reminder of Abraham’s actions in the story of Akeidat Yizchak, the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24). At God’s command, Abraham was willing to sacrifice his only son, only to stopped by an angel of God, whereupon a ram “caught by its horns in the bush” was sacrificed instead.
  • Reminder of Our Holiness: Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, in one of his many insights on the meaning of the shofar, wrote: “Our holy rabbis teach us that the sound of the shofar is the sound of our innermost soul and heart, but also the sound of a newborn baby. It is everything. It wakes us up, gives us strength, reminds us how holy we are and how holy we can be, and also how close we are and how easy it is to be the best and most exalted.” (September 2, 1994)

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