Shofar is earthly and primal

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Q: Is there a reason we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and not a real trumpet? I know it’s traditional, but is there a reason that the shofar is so special?

A: Well, I don’t want to toot the shofar’s horn too much, but it really is pretty special. Allow me to explain.

In the Torah, we are given a commandment that on the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei), “you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts” (Leviticus 23:24). These loud blasts, or teruah, were understood by the rabbis to allude to the blasts of the shofar. So on Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar to fulfill this commandment.

You might imagine that a shofar was chosen for Rosh Hashanah just because it was the only hornlike instrument the Israelites had in the desert when they were given the commandments. But actually, the Torah mentions a number of instruments the people had with them, including silver trumpets, so the use of the shofar doesn’t seem to have been born from necessity.

The Bible contains many explicit references to the shofar, not just the Rosh Hashanah commandment.

When the people receive the Ten Commandments from God on Mount Sinai, they hear a very loud blast of the shofar. We are commanded to blow the shofar not only on Rosh Hashanah, but also at the beginning of the jubilee year. Warriors in battle and musicians in the Temple also blew the shofar.

The sound of the teruah is both earthly and divine. It comes from an animal, but makes the same sound that was heard on the top of Mount Sinai when God addressed the people. Music can be celebratory, but the sound of the shofar is more than just a sound of jubilation. It is the sound of the presence of God, and the sound we use to cry out to God when we need God’s intervention.

You asked why we don’t use a real trumpet, and I think it’s reasonable to consider that a trumpet is perhaps too technical for the function served by a shofar. Trumpets have evolved over time, and there are many different kinds of horns, all regulated to sound a certain way.

A shofar is taken from a living being. Every shofar sounds different, just like every community and every listener is different.

For more insight, I contacted Rabbi Josh Feigelson, campus rabbi at the Northwestern University Hillel. Feigelson is a trained tuba player, and he wrote to me about some of the differences between playing the tuba and blowing the shofar.

“Pitch is not so much an issue in playing the shofar,” he said. “You’re not out to create a melody, which you are trying to do when playing the tuba. When I’m playing the shofar, I’m more focused simply on the sound.”

He goes on to say, “The shofar isn’t a musical instrument. It is a battle cry, or a mournful cry, but its symbolism comes from its sound and the fact that it is the shofar making the sound on the day of Rosh Hashanah. The tuba has no inherent symbolism, and its sounds are ultimately judged and understood within the context of a melody or a larger work.”

I also think there’s something to be said for the primitive nature of the shofar. It is nature-made. It is simple. Many people think that a teruah sounds like a voice crying out. Isn’t it appropriate for the instrument that calls us to reflect and repent to sound like a human voice?   

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