Ten reasons why we blow the shofar
The sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) is blown on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is a plaintive and primitive sound, unlike any a human could produce. Jews wait in anticipation year after year for the privilege of hearing the sound of the shofar; a sound unlike any other, produced by blowing into the horn without the intervention of a mouthpiece.
The atmosphere at the service is palpable. There is a pregnant pause as congregants wait to hear the first sound of the horn. Some congregants say they feel transported back to the biblical times of Babylonia, so deeply do they feel the ancient and powerful sound; others imagine the gates of heaven opening or they hear the cry of their soul.
What is the intention of the universal clarion call? Yes, it does inspire one to try to be your best self. Yes, we feel it helps us grow in motivation to be better, to love more easily, not to wound others intentionally. Is this what the call of the shofar intends?
This year on Rosh Hashanah, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands Rabbi Stephen Fuchs’ sermon was entitled “Ten reasons why we blow the shofar.” He based his presentation on the teachings of Saadia Gaon, a Babylonian Jewish thinker of the ninth and 10th centuries. Fuchs shared the following:
– It is a reminder of creation. We celebrate the anniversary of the world’s birth and resolve to live in a certain way.
– It is a call to repentance. We question how we put our pride away.
– We recall the events of Mount Sinai and remember the Torah’s teaching and its attempt to civilize the world.
– The sound of the shofar makes us think of the prophets, those champions of social justice and hopefully they still inspire us today to do right.
– We remember the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and how a religion based on prayer and kindness, took the place of human sacrifice, for now the temple is in our minds.
– We recall the story told every Rosh Hashanah — the binding of Isaac — and we remember how many times our people have been forced to sacrifice themselves throughout the ages. We are forced to think about our fellow citizens today and how, although circumstances have changed, people are still being sacrificed for others’ beliefs.
– The sound of the shofar brings us up short and we feel fear, and we should approach this day with fear, because we know we have done bad things. And we know we will hear the words later in the service, “The gates are closing, the gates are closing” and we want to walk through those gates and be inscribed in the book of life for another year, and so we are fearful.
– The High Holidays often take place later in September, under the sign of Libra (the balance scales) which measure both good and bad deeds. The shofar again urges us to think of this and if we are to be judged, we should be as sheep and as a group pass under the shepherd’s staff and be counted and be inspired to do better.
– Along with the fear, the shofar directs us to hope, to redemption. This is the day to pray for redemption, not only of our people, but of all the people in the world. Hope has existed for 4,000 years. We imagine our messiah on wings of eagles bearing us to the promised land. This is a strong image and it serves to comfort and inspire us.
– The shofar reminds us of generations passed, and we think of our parents and ancestors and other loved ones and they become alive again, if only in our hearts.
This is what it means to hear the plaintive, ultimately triumphant sound of the message of joy, the message of the shofar. It can take us to a place higher than heaven — by doing good on earth.