Among the coins and other archeological treasures discovered in a ruined Byzantine public structure near the Temple Mount’s southern wall in 2013 was a gold medallion (inset) inscribed with a menora, a shofar and a Torah scroll, reflecting the historical presence of Jews in the area. The items are thought to have been abandoned in the context of the Persian conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE. Hanging from a gold chain, the medallion is most likely an ornament for a Torah scroll. (photos from Ashernet)
Fleeing the Nazis, the Pesten family found themselves adrift in some nowhere land in the Soviet Union, wandering through the mud of Uzbekistan, remembering all the adventures they had met since deciding to pack their bags and flee. They felt a yearning for home and some envy for friends who stayed. No one knew yet about the concentration camps and gas chambers. In reality, there was no time for longings or regret, as they had to wake up early every morning and search for food.
The woman of the family, Hanna, was worried. It was only a few days before Rosh Hashana and there was no food in their temporary home. She wasn’t only concerned about that. She was troubled that, in this remote place, they wouldn’t hear the shofar and its blasts of t’kia, sh’varim and t’rua. She would miss the holy shudder she always experienced in those exalted moments of the shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana.
The situation was not yet hopeless. She walked the long distance to the nearby town until she came to a massive garbage heap. She wasn’t deterred by the foul stench. She began to sift through the garbage for hours, although it seemed like an eternity. Would she even find what she was looking for?
The pounding of her heart increased by the minute until, with a broad smile, she pulled out of the smelly heap, the rotten head of a ram that had been slaughtered a few days earlier and was providentially still there.
The slender moon of the end of the month was slowly traversing the gloomy skies of Uzbekistan. The angels looked down from heaven in amazement at a tiny, frail woman, who was bent over, sitting on a low stool, cleaning a curved ram’s horn with a small metal wire as she quietly sang a melody of thanks to G-d. She kept scraping without stopping and without fatigue. Then, with tremendous effort, she finally managed to completely remove the inner bone from the shofar.
That year, the stirring sounds of the shofar blasts echoed through the narrow lanes of Uzbekistan. Due to Hanna’s devotion, the community of Jewish refugees merited that this beloved mitzva was not missed. (Story excerpted from Jewish Tales of Holy Women by Yitzhak Buxbaum.)
Thankfully, here in Canada, we don’t need to do what this brave woman did to hear the shofar. On Rosh Hashana, we only need to go to a synagogue, Chabad House or community gathering. This year is called the year of Hakhel (Gathering), which takes place every seven years after the year of Sh’mita, where everyone would travel to Jerusalem for the festival of Sukkot and be in the presence of G-d when the Holy Temples stood. This year, it is even more auspicious to gather together on the first days of the new Jewish year, which begins at sundown on Sunday, Sept. 13, and continues through Tuesday the 15th.
So, why do we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana? The Talmud writes that G-d commands us to recite verses of kingship so that we may crown Him upon us, verses of zichronot (remembrances) so that He will remember us for good. And Rabbi Abahu adds that we blow the ram’s horn to remember the Akeidat Yitzchak (the Binding of Isaac).
There are three physical acts associated with the shofar: there is the blowing of the air, the lips that touch the shofar and the physical shofar itself, receiving the air and producing a sound.
The air is known as the hevel (breath) of the mouth. What is this hevel? It’s not just air, it’s something much greater. A person blowing the shofar gives over his entire self, this is the self-sacrifice. What is being produced, however, is not my or the shofar blower’s air, but the sound of the shofar itself. In fact, the blessing recited is “Lishmoa kol shofar,” “To hear the sound of the shofar.” Although human air is producing it, we refer to the sound as coming from the shofar. The person blowing the shofar is not of prime significance, his breath is greater than his limited self.
Our sages explain that the shofar is produced by the hevel from the depths of the heart. The word hevel is comprised of the same letters as the word halev, the heart. When a person speaks, their hevel/breath is affected by the five motions of the mouth that are used to create different vowels. When the shofar is being blown, the mouth is not involved. When one speaks, it is their voice that is heard. With the shofar, there is something much greater going on, much deeper.
According to the Jewish mystics, the letters comprising the word hevel (and halev) represent the five books of the Torah. In lev (heart), the letter hay is equal to five, followed by the numerical value of the remaining letters of lamed (30) and vet (two). These are the first and last letters of the Torah. The hevel of the heart is so much more than words. The sound of the shofar can’t have anything added to it that will make it appear more beautiful – it is pure and is capable of bringing pure spirituality down from above.
The shofar is greater even than prayer. Rosh Hashana is called Yom T’rua, Day of Blasts, not Yom T’fila, Day of Prayer. Prayer may be straight from the heart, especially on the holy day of Rosh Hashana, the first day of the Jewish year, but it is our mouths that form the words. The breath of the shofar is spirituality; there is nothing physical intertwined with it.
We can ask, “Why do we need a shofar at all? Why do we not just shout out loud without uttering any words?” It is because we want to remind G-d of the great near sacrifice of our father Abraham and our patriarch Isaac to arouse G-d’s mercy on us on Rosh Hashana as He did for them. It is the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana.
We find in Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer that the ram, which our sages teach us was “caught by its horns in a thicket,” (Genesis/Breishit 22:13) is the one that was used. Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa adds that it was a special ram. Its skin was the belt used by Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet); its left horn was blown at Mount Sinai upon our receiving the Torah, while the right horn will be blown with the coming of the Moshiach. It will usher in a time of peace in Israel and throughout the world.
May we all be written and inscribed for a year filled with many blessings for our families and communities, “ktiva v’chatima tova.”
Esther Tauby is a local educator, writer and counselor.