The shofar is a bridge to the sacred, lifting us from complacency

Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Ezekiel 44:15-31

Although there are 72 references to the shofar in the Bible, most Jews associate it only with the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, as does Emor, this week’s Torah portion:

“The first day of the seventh month, a day of solemn rest and a day of blowing” (Leviticus 23:24; also see Numbers 29:1). It was believed that Rosh Hashanah’s 100 calls of the shofar could awaken listeners from spiritual lethargy and turn worshippers’ thoughts to contrition and that Yom Kippur’s one call could provide forgiveness for the transgressions of the repentant. In that spirit, Maimonides suggests that the meaning of the shofar’s calls is to admonish the listener: “Awake, you sleepers, from your sleep … reflect on your deeds and repent; remember your Creator … mend your ways.”

Beyond its use to call the sinner to repent, other references say the shofar serves to assemble the community, sound an alarm in time of war or trouble, and announce the arrival of sabbatical and jubilee years. In the latter case, it heralds freedom for the enslaved, remission of debt or return of lost ancestral landholdings. Such actions are accompanied by the stirring narration: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” (Lev. 25:9)

The shofar, made from a horn from any kosher animal except cows and oxen (prohibited because they were said to remind a Jew of Israel’s unfaithfulness in worshipping the Golden Calf), was the focus of exhaustive rabbinic discussions. For example, the rabbis discussed the theoretical act of placing one shofar within another shofar. They concluded that in such an instance, hearing the sound of the inner shofar fulfills the mitzvah of listening to the shofar, whereas hearing the sound of the outer shofar does not. A second discussion resulted in the prohibition of a gold mouthpiece on the shofar because the pure sound that is heard must be that of the shofar and not that of gold.

A third discussion centers on a shofar blown inside an enclosure such as a cellar, which creates an echo. Such an amplified sound is forbidden because the commandment to listen to kol shofar — a voice of the shofar — a singular Hebrew noun, is fulfilled only by hearing one singular, pure, unadulterated native voice of the shofar. Furthermore, a shofar is compromised if it is broken. Even were it repaired, it still has lost its sanctity and its sound is pasul — flawed.

Although seemingly trivial, these discussions provide relevant lessons for today. The goal of the rabbis’ discussions was to remind people to look inward, to listen to the inner voice of conscience, character and heart, the voice that filters out external noises that deafen and prevent a listener from hearing the rich tones of inner life as well as the very voice of God. Thus, it is believed that the sound of the shofar can become a variety of sounds, depending on the needs of the listener.

The shofar is a bridge to the sacred. As its pure unadulterated sound moves through us, we look to it to fix our imperfections as well as those of the world. That is why Isaiah admonishes the worshipper: “Lift up your voice as a shofar.” (Isaiah 58:1)

By extension, Rabbi Dov Bear suggests that the shofar’s voice must become our voice because just as the breath of the shofar-blower must move through a shofar to produce a sound, God’s breath must move through praying Jews for their prayers to be efficacious. Thus, the breath of God that once breathed life into Adam moves through us when the sound of the shofar shatters our complacency, penetrates our innermost being, renews our drooping spirits, breaks our hold on what is fleeting, reveals the brokenness in our world, awakens us from our lethargy, heralds the triumph over temptation, shatters our bondage and summons us to serve the living God.

The jubilant pure sound of the shofar calls to the willing listener. Whenever we hear it, may we be privileged to hear its pure sound.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco.