How can one object inspire an entire community? Through the mighty blasts of a shofar, an awakening call that sounds out during the Jewish high holy days.
Central to the observance of Rosh Hashana, the blowing of the shofar is sounded 100 times through a series of sequential blasts during the two-day celebration. Striking, grand tones emerge from this humble object and evoke a sense of urgency and awareness.
But why use a shofar? A closer look at this natural, simple object reveals complex meaning, an ancient history and beautiful tradition that continue on today.
The shofar is made from the hollowed-out horn of a kosher animal. Each one is different. They range in color from dark to light and their shape twists and bends, mapping out the years of growth from the animal’s head. The horn is very lightweight, and if you’ve never heard one, you’ll be amazed at the massive sound that comes out of this modest object.
Rabbi Robert Waxman of B’nai Israel Synagogue said, “sounding a shofar is not easy and takes practice.” As a matter of fact, if you just blow air through the small end it will pass right through to the other without making a sound. It’s like a trumpet, so your lips must be held in a certain way to create the sounds that are heard during Rosh Hashana, Waxman said.
He demonstrated the blowing of the shofar, and you can listen to part of his demonstration here.
The shofar blowing tradition during Rosh Hashana is marked by three different sounds, signifying the complex meaning behind the calls. The first blast, tekiah, refers to royalty and says that God is King: past, present and future. The second call, shevarim, is a reminder that God remembers. Finally, the third sounding, teruah, is the wake-up call that inspires change for the New Year.
Waxman explained that these calls have meaning for the Jewish community today.
“God is King means to put God in our lives; to put spirituality in our lives," he said. “God remembers, we remember what we do. Our actions over the past year have implications, what we say has implications. . .We should remember our loved ones.”
Upon hearing the sounds of the shofar, it’s hard not to imagine the ancient echoes through the landscapes and early Jewish temples thousands of years ago. In fact, the beginnings of this practice are rooted in Genesis 22, where Abraham binds his son, Isaac. The shofar serves as a reminder that Isaac’s life was spared and a ram was the sacrifice, instead. Through this story, God’s remembrance of life is observed.
With deep traditions in the past, Waxman explained that the ancient customs of Rosh Hashana included the coming of the high priest as he made way for entry into the holy of holies – the most sacred place in the temple. Today, Rosh Hashana is more participatory, and includes people from the congregation for readings and shofar soundings.
The shofar announces a wake-up call to the Jewish community. Waxman said the sound of the horn “shatters our complacency . . . to improve our lives. It breaks us.”
“The shofar is a call to action. What are we going to do this year to improve our lives?" he added.
Rosh Hashana is a time of reflection, redirection and response. The shofar beckons people to make changes for the New Year to come. Not only does it inspire positive change, more importantly, it redirects those to God.