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The primal baritone burst of the shofar

What do you think about when the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah?
Illustrative. The horns of a male long-tailed sheepm akin to shofar. (iStock)
Illustrative. The horns of a male long-tailed sheepm akin to shofar. (iStock)

That moment when the communal representative mounts the bimah, holds the shofar, inhales and blows into the animal horn releasing a primal baritone burst, the mitzvah of the shofar finds its form. Some people close their eyes and others fix their stare. What races through your mind? What do you think about during the sounding of the shofar?

The physical instrument itself, the ram’s horn, conjures the moment in the binding of Isaac when the ram caught by its horns redirects Avraham’s religious zeal and spares Isaac the fate of being the sacrifice. Rabbinic scholars highlight the shofar’s necessary bent form as a model of humility and dismiss the use of a cow horn or one laiden with gold as unnecessarily bringing up the painful context of sin of the golden calf at an inopportune time.

The biblical context of sounding a shofar includes a call to arms, ritual in the Temple, the revelation at Sinai, the end of the Jubilee cycle where all financial debts are forgiven, and in the prophetic description of the ingathering of the exiles and ultimate redemption.

The rhythm that we generate in the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah derives its beat and frequency from among other biblical references to the broken cries of the unnamed “mother-of-Sisera” who learns of her son’s death. This curious association echoes the primal sobbing sounds of a mother confronting the enormity of her loss, yet this same son being mourned died as general of the Canaanite forces, who attacked ancient Israel in the biblical book of Judges. The complexity of this contextual allusion gains further nuance as our only reference to this behind-the-scenes character emerges through the lyrical song that the Prophetess Devora sings, extolling the victory of the Israelite forces in celebration of our military.

Together with this national context is also the personal. The person blowing the shofar, the warmth of the community that surrounds us, the void created by those who are no longer physically present, the thoughts that have developed throughout the days leading to Rosh Hashanah and those that have found their way to us through the words of the liturgy. Each shofar blast connects us to the sounds of years’ past and where and how we stood to hear them then.

The shofar contains all of this. An expression that while as primal and simple as can be, is invested with a complexity and layering that is limitless in its interpretation.

The biblical names for the holiday of Rosh Hashanah are “The Day of Blasts” and the “The Day of Memory” (in one instance merging the two calling it “The Day of the Memory of Blasts”). Memory is a recall of events whose greatness is its multifaceted nature. The concrete is gone. The fleeting has passed. While the memory may be faulty, it may be incomplete, it is also everlasting. Our identity, the heritage that we come from, the values that we hold dear, the ideals that we aspire to burst forth. The shofar and our memories create an everlasting emotional connection generated by the ephemeral nature of time and the massive context from within which we are born.

Engaging memories and the sound of the shofar is an invitation to an interactive experience. The sounds and memories should touch us anew each year. The stimulation should move us in a wholly original way. They are limitless and unique to each of us and only further enriched as we connect with one another and share them communally.

The sounds of the shofar join together with the liturgical call of Rosh Hashanah, “Today the world was created” — as we unleash the boundless, authentic, inspiration within each of us and come alive as human beings for the new year.

About the Author
Ilana is passionate about Jewish text, people and creative expression and blessed to be the Educational Director of Moed, uniting in dialogue and action Jews from all walks of life in the Carmel region of Israel to build vibrant Jewish experience. Ilana teaches Talmud and Halakha, is a member of Beit Hillel, a graduate of the Drisha Scholar’s Circle and was an Ira Marienhoff Fellow at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University, where she studied Medieval Jewish History.
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