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The Three Shofar Blasts: Inner meaning based on the Zohar

by Simcha Shmuel Treister

The following excerpt is from Tikkunei Zohar, Tikun 21 p. 42a.

One of the central commandments related to Rosh Hashanah is to hear the blowing of the shofar, the ram’s horn. On the simple level, we are declaring G-d to be King, and this coronation ceremony is accompanied by trumpet blasts. The following Zohar translation deals with the inner meaning of the different types of shofar blasts and their purpose.

There are three main “notes” blown on the shofar: Terua, consisting of nine short blasts; Shevarim, three short blasts, each one taking the same length of time as three blasts of the Terua; and Tekia a single blast that is the length of the Terua and Shevarim combined when those blasts are sounded one after the other.

Terua: You shall break them [in Hebrew, “tero’aim“] with a rod of iron; you shall dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. (Psalms 2:9) The Terua blasts are in the sefira of tiferet and break the power of the negative spiritual energies, the Sitra Achra, breaking them with powerful shattering blasts. These blasts act like an iron rod shattering pottery, and this is why King David chose the word teroaim, which shares the same root as teru’a, to describe a shattering action.

Tekia: Take all the chiefs of the people and hang them up in broad daylight [in Hebrew, “neged hashemesh, literally “opposite the sun”, so that the fierce anger of G-d may be turned away from Israel (Numbers 25:3). The teki’a blast is rooted in the sefira of chessed. After the people sinned with the Midianite women, who enticed them into idolatry, Moses was instructed to placate the anger of G-d by executing them and hanging them up on a poll. Note the similarity between the word for hanging up, “hoka“, and the English word “hook.”

The teki’a blast is rooted in the sefira of chesed. Here the verse is interpreted to mean that the blast takes the Sitra Achra and hangs him up “opposite the sun.” “The sun” is a code for Zeir Anpin, the loving and active influencing power of the Divine. Acts of kindness (chessed) avert even fierce anger. And the shofar is the [simple] voice. From her issues the voice [from which come the blasts of] Tekia, Shevarim and Terua. The feminine gender of the word “shofar” hints at the sefira of bina, which is the root of the sound that issues from it. She is the root of chessedgevura and tiferet, which are the three sefirot represented by the different types of blasts made with the “voice” which issues from the shofar.

Tekia comes from the brain. The sefira above chesed in the diagram of the sefirot is chochma. This is the state of chesed in elevated consciousness.

Shevarim comes from the heart. This is reflected in the verse, The contrite [in Hebrew, “nishbar“] spirit is a sacrifice [in Hebrew, “zevach“] to G-d; O G-d, You will not despise a contrite and broken [“nishbar“] heart” (Psalms 51:19). When the heart is broken, as opposed to being full of itself, the light of the Divine can enter.

The word “shevarim” means “broken” and is related to the sefira of gevura since it takes strength, i.e. gevura, to break something. In the quoted verse, the same root word, shever, describes the contrite and broken heart. The higher source of the sefira of gevura is bina. This is reflected in the diagram of the sefirot where bina is above gevura, hinting that gevura, when elevated in conscious, becomes bina. Bina in turn relates to the heart. When the heart is broken, as opposed to being full of itself, the light of the Divine can enter.

The Shevarim blasts of the shofar represent the breaking of pride in the heart that diminishes bina consciousness. This also [represents] the broken, i.e. contrite, spirit that is the sacrifice to G-d. The harsh judgments are “slaughtered” (from the word “zevach“, meaning to “slaughter” above) by a broken and contrite spirit. The harsh judgments have hold over a person in a state of egotism. As soon as this state is renounced for true humility, these forces have no source to grasp onto and automatically fall away. It requires true gevura – strength – to conquer egotistical desires, but once this is done a person can receive binaconsciousness and truly see reality.

The sound of the Terua is from the wings of the lungs [the source of the sound], and the lungs and the windpipe contain it completely. They make the simple sound and the mouth makes the speech. The Neshama and Ruach and Nefesh of a person are also represented by the sounds of Tekia, Terua and Shevarim.

The nine blasts of the Terua require a deep breath. This involves the two wings of the lungs that represent tiferet, a sefira that is the combination of two others. The wind generated and carried through the throat represents bina consciousness and the sound completes the rectification of Zeir Anpin.

The mouth and specifically the lips make the “speech” of the shofar, namely the three types of blasts. Speech always represents the sefira of malchut and so in the very act of blowing the shofar we have a representation of the unification of the Divine. In addition to this, the Neshama and Ruach and Nefesh of a person are also represented by the sounds of Tekia, Terua and Shevarim.

The Nefesh is in the heart, and that is represented by the Shevarim as is derived from the [above] verse “a broken and contrite heart.” The Nefesh is the raw life force and is represented by the blood. The heart distributes the blood and so it represents the Nefesh.

The name Elo-him is mentioned 32 times in the description of Creation in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis. In Hebrew the number 32 is represented by the letters lamed (=30) plus beit (=2). These two letters also spell the word lev, meaning “heart”. In the constricted state of consciousness, the heart is controlled by these 32 names of Elo-him. In expanded consciousness the name Elo-him is replaced by the name Havayah, so that a person sees the mercy of G-d in every aspect of reality instead of feeling his own constricted essence.

The Neshama is in the brain, and that is the Tekia (elevated from chessed to chochma, as explained above).

The Ruach is in the two wings of the lungs that cool the heart, which is like a burning fire. If it were not so, the heat of the heart would burn the whole body. The secret of this is revealed in the verse “You shall shine like the wings of a dove covered with silver” (Psalms 68:14). [Silver represents chessed and the word “wings” hints also at the wings of the lungs]. The Ruach also includes fire and water chessed and gevura, and because of this, the Ruach is represented by Terua [which is in tiferet, which combines chessed and gevura]. Concerning this, it is written: “Happy is the people who know [in Hebrew, yodei] the Terua blast; they shall walk in the light of Your countenance G-d” (Psalms 89:16).

The nine Terua blasts are in tiferet. That sefira is below daat in the sefira diagram, hence the word yodei, derived from the same root as daat, is used to describe the state of mind of those who are made happy by hearing these blasts. Because they understand the spiritual source of these sounds and internalize their message, they merit to walk in G-d’s light.

Translated by Simcha Shmuel Treister and posted with permission from

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Shofar meaning: The Dubna Maggid’s parable

The Maggid of Dubno, Rabbi Yaakov Kranz (ca. 1740-1804), was a legendary Torah scholar and speaker, famous for his astute use of parables from everyday life to bring out deep concepts. The following parable hints at the meaning of the shofar and the type of preparation required for the shofar to have the proper effect on the listener.

A destitute farmer had a rich uncle who lived in the city, and who once invited him for a visit. Thrilled by the invitation the farmer wasted no time setting out for his rich uncle’s home. Upon arrival he was greeted warmly and led into a large dining hall with a long table.

As they spoke and shared stories about the family, the uncle picked up a brass bell and clanged it. Immediately, a troop of servants emerged from side doors with trays of appetizers. The farmer had never seen such enticing food in his life. The servants returned to the kitchen quarters and the two relatives continued the conversation. Shortly thereafter, the uncle clanged the bell again and the servants reappeared, taking away the old trays and bringing out new ones with the first course. The farmer’s eyes bulged. He had never seen such enormous quantities of food and such dedicated service.

This pattern continued throughout the evening. Every time the uncle rang the bell an entourage of servants answered his call, removing the old food and replacing it with the new. And with each clang the poor farmer was more dumbstruck.

Before taking his leave, the farmer thanked his uncle heartily. On the way home he made a stop at a local store.

When he came home he woke up his wife and excitedly told her. “You’ll never believe what I did!”


“I spent our last penny!”

“You did what!!?”

“Don’t worry. I spent it on something you will thank me a million times for buying. Here, look.” And he took out of his pouch a brass bell just like his uncle’s. “This,” the farmer said, “is a magic bell.”

His wife looked at him as if he was crazy. Undaunted, the man proceeded to explain. “You’ll see, all I have to do is ring it and, immediately servants will come forth and serve us the most exquisite food, which we can eat to our hearts content.”

Likewise, sometimes people are prone to simply listen and find the shofar imbued with tremendous meaning.

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Shofar Meaning: The Sound of Heaven

by Esther Jungreis

From early childhood, I remember standing beside my mother in synagogue as the shofar was blown. A sense of awe and trepidation descended on the congregation as the call of the shofar reverberated within its walls. Time stood still, nobody moved. Though I was young, I was struck by the sanctity of it all.

Overnight, our fate changed. Our synagogue became a wistful memory as the suffocating darkness of the Nazi concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, enveloped us. But even in that hell on earth, as Rosh Hashana of 1944 drew near, we yearned to hear the ancient sound of the shofar and were ready to make every sacrifice to see our dream fulfilled.

Through heroic efforts and at great risk and sacrifice, we managed to collect 200 cigarettes, which we bartered for a shofar.

Adjacent to our Hungarian compound was a Polish camp, and they somehow got wind of our treasure. When Rosh Hashana came and we sounded the shofar, our brethren in the Polish camp crept close to the barbed-wire fence separating us so that they too might hear its piercing cry. The Nazis came running and beat all of us mercilessly, but even as the truncheons fell on our heads, we cried out, “Baruch atoh Hashem Elokeynu Melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvosov vitsivanu l’shmoa kol shofar.” “Blessed art Thou L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.”

Many years later, I was lecturing in Israel in Nevel Aliza, a village in Samaria. It was late summer, just before the High Holy Days, and I related the story of the shofar of Bergen-Belsen. When I finished, a woman in the audience stood up. She had a strong, handsome face and appeared to be a bit older than I was.

“That shofar that you spoke of,” she said, “I know exactly what you are talking about because, you see, my father was the rabbi in the Polish camp. You may not know this, but the shofar was smuggled into our camp, and my father blew it there.”

I looked at her, dumbfounded. My eyes filled with tears. There were no words to express the awe that filled my heart.

“I have that shofar in my home,” she went on to say, and then dashed off to her house and returned with it moments later. We wept, hugged, reminisced, all the time clutching the shofar in our hands.

shofar meaning in Holocaust
Shofar brought into Theresienstadt ghetto by Avraham Hellman

The miracle of that shofar left us breathless. The entire world had declared us dead. Hitler’s “Final Solution” had taken its toll. Millions of our people were gassed and burned in the crematoria, but the shofar triumphed over the flames. And as if in vindication of that triumph, G-d granted me the privilege of rediscovering it in Eretz Yisrael, in the ancient hills of Samaria. Who would ever have believed it? The shofar from Bergen-Belsen was now in our Holy Land held by two women who were young children in the camps, and who, by every law of logic should have perished in the gas chambers. After almost 2000 years of wandering, oppression, torture and Holocaust, we returned to our land and the shofar accompanied us. Indeed, who would have believed it?

What is it about the shofar that makes it so special? Why is it incumbent upon every Jew to hear its call? What is the shofar meaning behind those hauntingly primitive sounds? What gives them the power to enter our innermost souls? And why does the Torah designate these sacred days as Yom Teruah, the “Day of Blowing,” rather than Rosh Hashana, the New Year?

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Shofar Meaning & Kabbalah

by L. Rappaport

The shofar is a widely recognized symbol of Jewish life, often sounded to rally the Jewish nation or to convey a sense of Jewish unity, particularly in the face of adversity. The shofar is most frequently associated, however, with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, when Jews are expected to reflect and renew their dedication to observance and to their own spiritual development.

Shofar Meaning & Rosh Hashana Service

Jewish mysticism, known as Kabbalah, discusses the meaning of the shofar and its importance in the rejuvenation of the Jewish soul during the Rosh Hashana contemplations. One such link can be seen during the shofar blowing service held on Rosh Hashana after the Torah reading. During this service the congregation reads Psalm 47: “All nations should clap their hands and call to God with a joyous voice because God is the highest and the most mighty… God ascends with the teruah with the voice of the shofar…”. According to the Lurianic kabbalists, scholars who studied and taught Kabbalah in Tzfat in the 1500s, this Psalm is to be recited seven times because it embodies the two main themes of Rosh Hashanah: the shofar and God’s coronation.

Renewal of the Covenant

An additional Kabbalistic discussion about the shofar relates to the “Tikun HaBrit,” the renewal of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people. This renewal is particularly important in our day, kabbalists teach, because we are living in the sixth millennium, a time which is connected to the “sefirah” — Divine Radiance — of the “Yesod” — foundation — of the Covenant. Through the Yesod God channels blessings and illumination into the world. The Yesod can become blocked due to man’s transgressions, which can cause an estrangement from God.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the renowned kabbalistic master, wrote that the the sound of the shofar rises to transcendental spiritual worlds via angels. During Rosh Hashana Jews attempt to reopen the channels between the Jewish People and God in order to receive His Divine blessings. The shofar has the power to unite the Jewish People with God by activating the sefirah of Yesod to bring Divine blessings down onto the Jewish nation and to the entire world.

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1930s Kotel Crooks: Western Wall shofar blowers put behind bars

In the late 1920s, the Arabs had begun to gripe that sounding the shofar at the Wailing Wall was an affront to Islam. During the British Mandate in Palestine, the British Mandatory Government made every effort to appease the Arabs, often at the expense of Jewish residents.

The Arabs objected to the blowing of the shofar at the Western Wall as a “provocation.” In fact, the British claimed that the Arab riots of 1929, which left 135 Jews dead, were triggered by shofar blowing. In 1930 the British acquiesced and banned shofar-blowing from the Kotel area.
Shofar Blown at Wailing Wall 1934
In 1931 the King’s Order in Council (the legislative authority of the Mandatory government) stipulated that the Moslems’ ownership rights to the Temple Mount also encompassed the Western Wall area. As a result, Jews were banned from blowing the shofar at the Kotel, even as part of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur prayer services.

The ban deeply offended Jews, and the Irgun decided to act. After the imposition of the ban, Irgun and Betar members “smuggled” a shofar into the Western Wall area every Yom Kippur. There a volunteer was waiting to blow the Tekia Gedola, the blast which marks the end of the fast. This was not easily done, since large numbers of British policemen were stationed along the routes to the Wall where they would conduct careful searches of the belongings of the Jews visiting the Wall.

British soldiers patrolled the Western Wall area every year during Yom Kippur prayers to prevent the shofar-blowing. When a smuggled shofar inevitably sounded the British soldiers pounced on the young man and arrested him — some of the boys who were caught were routinely sentenced to six months in jail for the “crime” of blowing the shofar at the Kotel. Yet each year new volunteers took up the challenge to ensure that the shofar could be sounded at the Kotel.

In one famous incident in 1931, a man named Moshe Segal blew the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. As the prayers at the Western Wall were coming to an end, Rabbi Orenstein, the rabbi of the Western Wall, revealed to Moshe where the shofar was hidden and Moshe blew it loud and clear.

In his memoirs, Moshe Segal wrote, how could “we possibly forego the sounding of the shofar that accompanies our proclamation of the sovereignty of G-d? Would we forego the sounding of the shofar, which symbolizes the redemption of Israel?”

The British promptly descended and arrested him. Though Segal had fasted for the previous 25 hours, the British detained him without food or water until midnight, when he was released. It was later reported that the release came about when then-Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook informed the commander that he himself would not eat until Segal was released.

The blowing of the shofar at the Western Wall at the end of Yom Kippur was not only a religious ceremony, but also boosted national pride throughout the country. At the end of Yom Kippur 5703 (September 1942), Menachem Begin visited the Western Wall, where he witnessed British policemen charging out of the Kishleh, the police building in the Old City, in search of the Betar member who had blown the shofar. (The building is still standing and is now used by the Israeli police).

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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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Shofar: Crying out to Heaven

The blowing of the shofar has many purposes and many layers of meaning.

The blowing of the shofar, which is typically made of a ram’s horn, calls to mind the ram that the Patriarch Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac. And it helps us remember to feel fear of Hashem’s glory, as it says in Amos 3:6: “If a ram’s horn is sounded in the city, can the inhabitants fail to be alarmed?”

R’ Mordechai Housman writes that the word “shofar” is similar to the word shapru, Hebrew for “beautify,” which is to remind us to “beautify” our deeds and correct our actions. The shape of the shofar is very indicative of our relationship with Hashem.

The shofar has one narrow end and one wide end. We blow into the shofar at the narrow, tapered end, and the sound comes out of the wide end, as in some musical instruments. On Rosh Hashana, the verse “From the straits I called upon Hashem, Hashem answered me expansively” (Psalms 118:5) is recited before the Blowing of the Shofar. In other words, when we are in dire straits, in a bind, we pray to G-d for help and support.

According to Leo Rosten, “The bend in the shofar is supposed to represent how a human heart, in true repentance, bends before the Lord. The ram’s horn serves to remind the pious how Abraham, offering his son Isaac in sacrifice, was reprieved when God decided that Abraham could sacrifice a ram instead.”

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The Shofar as a Symbol of the Jewish People in Modern Times

by Adam Echad

The shofar has a central place in the Jewish religion and is symbolic of the Jewish People as a whole. Never was this truer than during the birth of Modern Israel…

The shofar as symbol of the Jewish People

The shofar is emblematic in the minds of most Jews – and even many non-Jews – of Judaism and Jewish Ritual. Biblical precepts prescribed the sounding of the shofar both during times of war and also to announce the arrival of the festivals (Psalms 81:4) and the Jubilee year (Lev. 25:9). To this day, the practice of sounding of the shofar during the month of Elul and the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is based on detailed instructions formulated by the Talmudic Sages, based on the Biblical verse about the “day of blowing” (Num. 29) and other verses.

The shofar’s place at the center of much of Jewish ritual and practice gave it a symbolic presence in the minds of the Jewish people. Some of the oldest Jewish artifacts depict the emblematic image of the shofar, for instance a synagogue screen discovered in Ashkelon and a Jewish tombstone discovered in Caesarea (both dating from the 4th–7th centuries CE). The iconic status of the shofar has persisted to the modern day, and a particularly interesting example is as a symbol of national liberation during the creation of Modern Israel.

A shofar-sounding of thanksgiving

It was absolutely forbidden to sound the shofar at the Kotel, the Western Wall, during both the Ottoman rule of Jerusalem and during the British Mandate which succeeded it. During the Jordanian occupation of the Temple Mount, the most sacred site in Judaism, Jews were not even allowed to approach the wall. This state of affairs came to a sudden end with the near-miraculous events of the Six Day War, when, for the first time in over 2,000 years, the Western Wall was returned to Jewish sovereignty. The moment this occurred, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, founder of the IDF Chaplaincy, broadcast a “Prayer of Thanksgiving” that was heard around the country, and shortly afterwards sounded the shofar at the wall.

The shofar in “Jerusalem of Gold”

One of the many people who heard and was moved by the broadcast was Naomi Shemer, a musician and songwriter whose career was just getting started. She had written the song “Jerusalem of Gold” for the 1967 Israeli Music Festival, but the original composition was basically a melancholy dirge, lamenting the still unfulfilled Jewish yearning for Jerusalem, after 2,000 years of foreign occupation. The capture of the Old City, the sounding of the shofar, and the fact that the paratroopers who liberated the ancient sites were heard singing “Jerusalem of Gold” at the Kotel, inspired Shemer to radically alter the song. The newer version celebrated the fact that Jews could once again return to the Kotel, and included the line “a shofar calls out on the Temple Mount,” a tribute to the actual events of June 7th.

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Shofars from Jerusalem

This week we received a big delivery of shofars from Jerusalem Shofars: ram’s horn shofars, Yemenite shofars and decorated shofars. I was very impressed with the level of craftsmanship. The shipment included some superb specimens of jumbo shofars.

Jumbo ram's horn shofar
A jumbo ram’s horn shofar from this week’s shipment

Jerusalem Shofars is a long-standing company located on the outskirts of Jerusalem in Atarot, near Ramallah and the Neve Yaakov neighborhood. If you were to ride a donkey in the wadi alongside Neve Yaakov, or nowadays drive a car in the road down to the Dead Sea, you would pass by Bedouin tents and soon arrive at Jericho. I think this is a winning combination of locations: Jericho, Jerusalem and Modi’in, where our offices are located. We ship from the Modi’in area, which is where the Maccabees lived.

Getting back to the new shipment we received, I liked the long, straight flat necks on many of the ram’s horn shofars, as well as the elegant rounded curves. There was one tan ram’s horn shofar with very even coloring, which I liked, but of course shofar coloring is a matter of personal preference. And the sound, especially of the extra large and jumbo shofars, is superb. I tested all of them and found it quite easy to produce deep, clear, powerful tones (except for the very small ram’s horn shofars). In addition to the shaping and polishing, they also put a lot of effort into shaping the mouthpiece properly.

The polished Yemenite shofars are have fabulous purplish-red hues and dark tan coloration. The natural ones, i.e. polished on one side and unpolished on the other, feature a great mottled brown, that reminds you of the savannah where the kudu antelopes roam.

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The Three Shofars of Redemption

The following excerpt is part of a Rosh Hashanah sermon given in 1933 by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel (then known as Palestine), at a time when Zionist migration to Palestine was increasing in response to growing oppression by Nazi and Stalinist regimes in Europe.

What is the shofar horn made of?

There are three categories of shofars that may be blown on Rosh Hashanah. The first category, the optimal shofar, is made of the horn of a ram. If such a horn is not available, then a shofar made of the horn of any kosher animal (except a cow) may be used. If no kosher shofars are available, then one may blow on any horn, even from a ritually unclean animal. When using a non-kosher horn, however, no bracha [blessing] is recited.

These three shofars of Rosh Hashanah correspond to three “shofars of redemption,” summoning the Jewish people to be redeemed and redeem their land.

The preferred “shofar of redemption” is the divine call that awakens the people through holy motivations — out of faith in God and the sanctity of the people of Israel. This form of awakening corresponds to a shofar made of a ram’s horn, recalling the holy dedication of Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac) — It is for this “great shofar,” an awakening of spiritual greatness, that we pray.

There is also a second “shofar of redemption,” a lower level of awakening. This shofar calls out to the Jews to come to the Land of Israel, to return to the land of our ancestors, our prophets and our kings. It beckons us to live as a free people in our homeland, educate our children in a Jewish environment, and so on. This is a kosher shofar, albeit not a great shofar like the first type of awakening. We may still recite a bracha over this shofar.

There is, however, a third type of shofar. [At this point, Rav Kook burst out in tears.] The least preferred shofar comes from the horn of an unclean animal. This shofar is the wake-up call that comes from anti-Semitic nations, warning the Jews to escape while they still can and flee to their own land. Enemies force them to be redeemed. They sound out the trumpets of war, bombarding them with deafening threats of persecution and torment, giving them no respite. The shofars of unclean beasts are transformed into the messianic shofar.

Whoever failed to listen to the calls of the first two shofars, will be forced to listen to the call of this last shofar. On this shofar, however, no blessing is recited, for “one does not recite a blessing over a cup of affliction.”

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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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Shofar halacha: Rabbinical prohibitions

Although blowing the shofar is prescribed by Torah law, under certain circumstances Rabbinical decrees can override it and actually prohibit blowing the shofar entirely. The Sages determined that one must forego a positive Torah commandment if the alternative would be to transgress any Rabbinical prohibition. Therefore if a shofar was buried under a pile of rocks or another type of object that is forbidden to move on Yom Tov, or if was resting on a tree branch or beyond the 2,000 cubits we are permitted to walk, or on the far side of a river, we simply cannot fulfill the mitzvah.

Although a Jew is not permitted to ask a non-Jew to do a Torah prohibition for him on Yom Tov, it is permitted to ask him to do a Rabbinical prohibition when a mitzvah is involved. Thus the Mishnah Berurah (586, 21 s.v. 86), citing the Chayei Adam (140, 19), writes that if a shofar must be brought across a river by boat, it would be permitted to have a non-Jew transport it, if no other option is available.

The Mishnah Berurah adds that even if you had a type of shofar other than a a ram’s horn shofar, it would be permitted to have a non-Jew bring a ram’s horn shofar, which is considered the preferred way to fulfill the mitzvah