The shofar (שופר) is a Jewish instrument most often made from a ram’s horn, though it can also be made from the horn of a sheep or goat. It makes a trumpet-like sound and is traditionally blown on Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.
Origins of the Shofar
According to some scholars, the shofar dates back to ancient times when making loud noises on the New Year was thought to scare off demons and ensure a happy start to the coming year. It is hard to say whether this practice influenced Judaism.
In terms of its Jewish history, the shofar is often mentioned in the Tanach, Talmud and in rabbinic literature. It was used to announce the start of holidays, in processions and even to mark the start of a war. Perhaps the most famous biblical reference to the shofar occurs in the Book of Joshua, where shofarot (plural of shofar) were used as part of a battle plan to capture the city of Jericho:
"Then the LORD said to Joshua… March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams' horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have all the people give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the people will go up, every man straight in. (Joshua 6:2-5)"
According to the story, Joshua followed God’s commandments to the letter and the walls of Jericho fell, allowing them to capture the city. The shofar is also mentioned earlier in the Tanach, when Moses ascends Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
During the times of the First and Second Temple, shofarot were also used along with trumpets to mark important occasions and ceremonies.
The Shofar on Rosh HaShanah
Today the shofar is most commonly used on the Jewish New Year, called Rosh HaShanah (meaning “head of the year” in Hebrew). In fact, the shofar is such an important part of this holiday that another name for Rosh HaShanah is Yom Teruah, which means “day of the shofar blast” in Hebrew. The shofar is blown one hundred times on each of the two days of Rosh HaShanah. If one of the days of Rosh HaShanah falls on Shabbat, however, the shofar is not blown.
According to the famous Jewish philosopher Maimonides, the sound of the shofar on Rosh HaShanah is meant to wake up soul and turn its attention to the important task of repentance (teshuvah). It is a commandment to blow the shofar on Rosh HaShanah and there are four specific shofar blasts associated with this holiday:
- Teki’ah – An unbroken blast lasting about three seconds
- Shva’rim – A teki’ah broken into three segments
- Teruah – Nine rapid fire blasts
- Tekiah Gedolah – A triple teki’ah lasting at least nine seconds, though many shofar blowers will attempt to go significantly longer, which the audience loves.
The person who blows the shofar is called a Tokea (which literally means “blaster”) and it is no easy task to perform each of these sounds. Scroll down to the end of this article for a link to a video demonstrating the four shofar sounds of Rosh HaShanah.
There are many symbolic meanings associated with the shofar and one of the best known has to do with the Akedah, when God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. The story is recounted in Genesis 22:1-24 and culminates with Abraham raising the knife to slay his son only to have God stay his hand and bring his attention to a ram caught in a nearby thicket. Abraham sacrificed the ram instead. Because of this story some midrashim claim that whenever the shofar is blown God will remember Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and will therefore forgive those who hear the shofar’s blasts. In this way, just as the shofar blasts remind us to turn our hearts towards repentance, they also remind God to forgive us for our trespasses.
The shofar is also associated with the idea of crowning God as King on Rosh HaShanah. The breath used by the Tokea to make the sounds of the shofar are also associated with the breathe of life, which God first breathed into Adam upon the creation of humanity.