The Ancient Cry of the Shofar

In my experience, the sounding of the shofar is one of the most emotionally charged moments on Rosh Hashanah. Its piercing cries break through our consciousness and implore us to better ourselves. The magical, almost supernatural cry of the shofar awakens our sleeping souls, as it did throughout Jewish history.

The shofar cries give a signal to our collective memory, national consciousness and identity and create a link between heaven and earth. Such an emotional cry was heard at the ancient limestone western wall in Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. Imprinted in our consciousness is the first blow of the ram’s horn by Lt. Col. Uzi Eilam, followed by the memorial prayer for all those who had been killed, recited by Rabbi Goren, upon which he sounded the shofar himself.

Rabbi Shlomo Goren, surrounded by IDF soldiers, blows the shofar in front of the western wall in Jerusalem. June 1967. Wikimedia 4.0 International.

The shofar is one of the oldest biblical musical instruments, that is still in use, and can be blown by anyone and everyone, and for any purpose. The shofar is a beautiful symbol of social equality and unity. There is even no gender barrier, as the Talmud observes, “On religious occasions the shofar was blown only by priests and Levites, in secular events sometimes also on fast days, by laymen, children, and in the case of emergencies, even by women.”

It has been used as an alarm signal, a war trumpet, a call for help, an instrument for celebration, an instrument for lamentation, as a time signal, and is blown around the Holy Days. The shofar possessed the power of frightening and dispersing evil spirits and gods of the enemies who helped their people in battle. Calls are distinguished by note length, inflection, and articulation. The Talmud specifies which variety of animal horns are permissible.

18th century shofar made of ram’s horn, with flattened profile. Hebrew inscription that is often found on shofarot:
תִּקְע֣וּ בַחֹ֣דֶשׁ שׁוֹפָ֑ר בַּ֜כֶּ֗סֶה לְי֣וֹם חַגֵּֽנוּ
“Blow the shofar when the moon is covered”, i.e. when the moon is small, on the 1st day of the month. Photo courtesy CC0 1.0, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

In the Pentateuch the range of symbolic meaning differs by the different functions of the shofar. From its associations of redemption from the story of the Binding of Isaac to social justice and freedom, as stated in the instruction to proclaim, “freedom throughout the Land,’ especially emphasised in the prophetic literature. As military signal, it means national physical survival and strength. As a ritual and ceremonial instrument, it functions to announce memorials and seasonal festivals, to emphasize their themes of national identity, communal repentance, and redemption.

To form the horn into a shofar, the tip is cut off and bored out to create an opening for blowing. The wide end of the horn forms its bell. The horn is often heated, so that the narrow end can be straightened and shaped and sometimes its body is also worked to produce a flatter profile. Two types of shofar are used by Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. The larger, curled instrument is made from the horn of a kudu antelope and is used by Yemenite Jews.

It is clear from the earliest depictions in Jewish history that the shofar was established as a symbol and religious emblem already by the third century CE. Its importance is seen in many early archaeological finds.

The catacombs of Rome yielded a series of decorated glass cups, representing some of the earliest known depictions of Jewish symbols to appear outside of the Land of Israel. They were made using a special technique, by applying a first layer of dark green glass, which was covered with a decoration, incised or outlined in paint, and finished with gold leaf. This decorated surface was protected by another layer of transparent glass. Because of the form it was concluded they were bottoms of cups placed near the deceased. The iconography depicts for the most part scenes from the Old or New Testament. However, one series used symbols that could have only been addresses to members of the Jewish communities.

4th century gold-glass base from the Jewish catacombs of Rome, Italy. Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Photo Ticia Verveer.

This fourth century CE glass base decorated with gold leaf has been acquired in 1966 through the generosity of Jakob Michael, New York, in memory of his wife, Erna Sondheimer Michael. It was restituted in 2008 to the heirs to the Dzialynska Collection, Goluchow Castle, Poland, who were the owners prior to World War II.  It has been purchased in 2008 by Dr. David and Jemima Jeselsohn and re-deposited with the Israel Museum on long-term loan.

At the center of the upper register appears the ark with open doors, which reveal the Torah scrolls, flanked by two birds perched on a globe, with a menorah in the middle, under the ark. On either side of the menorah is a crouching lion facing the ark. The ritual objects occupy the spaces on either side of the menorah, the palm frond (lulav), a citrus fruit (etrog; “the fruit of a goodly tree”; traditionally interpreted as Citrus medica), and the ram’s horn (shofar).

Gold medallion decorated with a shofar uncovered in a public building of the Byzantine Period near the southern wall of the Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Photo Ticia Verveer.

A rare hoard containing a unique gold medallion decorated with a menorah was uncovered in a public building of the Byzantine Period near the southern wall of the Temple Mount. The gold medallion, depicts a seven-branched menorah with a three-legged support. To its left is a shofar  and to its right, an unidentified element, perhaps a bundle of palm and myrtle branches, or a stylized representation of a Torah scroll. The precise function of the large medallion is unknown.

The Ark covered by a curtain and a menorah flanked by a shofar and an incense shovel. Detail of a sixth century mosaic pavement from Synagogue of Beth She’an. Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Photo Ticia Verveer.

Rosh Hashanah reminds of God’s creation of the cosmos at the beginning of time. The Torah describes the festival as Yom Teruah (the day of blowing the horn) or Yom Hazikkaron (the day of Remembering). Not until the Talmudic period, this day was called Rosh Hashana, literally the “Head of The Year”. The New Year marks a new beginning, a time of teshuvah, the Hebrew word for returning to our inner source of holiness and transcendence.  Called “the birthday of the world,” Rosh Hashana feels like a time of new beginnings and emphasizes our personal relation with God.

I would like to wish you all Shanah tovah, may you be inscribed for a good year in the Book of Life.

Lintel fragment decorated with a menorah flanked by a shofar and an incense shovel. Golan, Israel. Photo Ticia Verveer.
About the Author
I have had the privilege to work as a professional archaeologist on a vast number of archaeological sites in the Middle East, Sahel and North Africa. I write about Jewish history, culture and heritage, from ancient texts to modern politics.
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