November 20, 2018

Blowing the Shofar Is a Blast

"Go away!" Gabe, 15, yells at his two younger brothers, having been rudely awakened by a blast of the shofar.

Jeremy, 13, the shofar-blower, dives under the adjoining bed.

Danny, 11, the instigator, explains, "We need you to play Monopoly."

Normally, the shofar is not blown until the first day of the month of Elul, which this year fell on Aug. 9. It marks the start of the long process of introspection and self-renewal that culminates with a single long blast at the close of Yom Kippur.

But in our house, shofar-blowing began in late June, when Jeremy received three shofars as bar mitzvah gifts. They rest on the living room mantle beside the two that Danny already owns.

"Five aren’t enough," Danny says. "We need one for every person in the family."

While shofars double in our house as alarm clocks and noisemakers, failing to increase our popularity with our neighbors, they originally served as primitive communications and early warning systems.

The shofar is first mentioned in the Bible in conjunction with the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:16): "On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn, and all the people who were in the camp trembled." It was also sounded, among other biblical references, to proclaim the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10), as a summons to war (Judges 3:27), as a call to repentance (Isaiah 58:1) and to announce new moons and festivals (Psalm 81:4).

Later, the rabbis of the talmudic period decreed that the shofar be blown during the penitential month of Elul, every day except for Shabbat and the day before Rosh Hashana. They also specified that the shofar be a ram’s horn, in remembrance of the animal that was sacrificed in place of Isaac, or a horn from a goat or other kosher animal, except for a cow, on account of the Golden Calf episode.

But it is Rosh Hashana itself that is known as Yom Teruah, or The Day of the Shofar Blast. In Leviticus 23:24, God commands, "In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts." The commandment is to hear, rather than blow, the shofar, and it is traditionally heard 100 times on both days of the holiday. When Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, however, as it does this year, the shofar is blown only on the second day in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, due to the prohibition against carrying. That doesn’t apply to the Reform movement, which observes only one day and which allows carrying.

Curiously, while we are commanded to hear the sounds of the shofar, we are not told why.

Sa’adia Gaon, the 10th-century rabbi, offers 10 reasons, from proclaiming that God, in remembrance of creation, is king to recalling the binding of Isaac and the ram in the thicket to reminding us that the shofar will be sounded at the end of time, when the Messiah resurrects the dead.

And Maimonides, the 12th-century philosopher, interprets the commandment to mean: "Awake from your slumber, you who have fallen asleep in life."

And awaken we have, with a jolt. For the past two years, the shofar has roused us to a world of hideous evil and senseless destruction. On Erev Rosh Hashana 2000 (Sept. 28), violence erupted in the Middle East, the start of the current intifada. And less than a week before Rosh Hashana 2001 (Sept. 18), Muslim extremists ferociously attacked the United States.

This year, the shofar, with its eerie, piercing and surreal sounds, awakens us to a world of continued sadness, fear and seemingly irreconcilable conflict. To the knowledge that no matter how much we repent and resolve to improve ourselves, that no matter how many safeguards we erect or military strikes we carry out, tragedy can occur unpredictably and uncontrollably.

This year, the words of the "Unetaneh Tokef" prayer, "who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time, and who before his time, who by water and who by fire," are frighteningly real. And there is no guarantee, as we have painfully witnessed, that repentance, prayer and charity can avert the evil of the decree.

Nevertheless, we still need the shofar to summon us to repentance and prayer. But this year, in addition, we need the shofar to awaken us to new possibilities and new ways of thinking, to new hopes and new strengths. We need the shofar to pierce the darkness of the world and to help realize the Rosh Hashana blessing: "May the year and its curses end; may the year and its blessing begin.”

For our family, five shofars are a good start.