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Why Blow a Shofar?

Blowing the shofar is all about the energy, the breath and wind of the human body and spirit, forced into the narrow passage of the horn. Somehow, this act has a central significance in Judaism.

In the past, I have connected the blowing of the shofar to G-d’s blowing of his spirit into Adam; by blowing the shofar we are connecting to Hashem’s creation of mankind, showing that we understand our mission is to imitate Hashem in elevating the world around us, contributing our focused energy into the inanimate, and thus raising it to a higher level.

But blowing “teruah” on Rosh Hashanah is so much more than this, and the Torah, using only a few words, tells us why.

What are these words?

  1. A memorial of horn-blasting (“Zichron Teruah”) (Lev. 23:24). Note that these are the only words used in the Torah for Rosh Hashanah that are different from the words used for any other holiday.
  2. The action word “Takah” which means doing something with great force.

So that is all we have. Three words that somehow are supposed to tell us what Rosh Hashanah is all about? And yet, they do. All we have to do is understand these words, and connect the dots.

Zichron:

Usually translated as “a memorial”, the word “zichron” comes from the verb “to remember.” Remember what?

The first time the Torah uses the word, it tells us of Noah, in the Ark:

And G-d remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and G-d made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged. (Gen 8:1)

See the connection between G-d remembering, and the use of wind?

G-d remembers His creations, and he creates a wind, creating space for life to renew. And what do we do on Rosh Hashanah? We reciprocate: we remember Hashem our G-d, and we blow, creating space for G-d in this world. More symbolically, while the recession of the floodwaters made a physical place for mankind’s existence, our blowing of the shofar creates a spiritual place for Hashem within our own hearts. The sound penetrates us, and fills us with awareness and with awe.

On Rosh Hashanah we do not merely emulate G-d by elevating the world around us. We go further than this: we return the favor by inviting Him into our world, into our bodies and souls, just as He invited Noah and all life back into the world He had created, the renewed earth.

The word “to remember” is found a few other places in the Torah as well – but only a few: G-d remembers Noah, and then Avraham, and then Rachel, and lastly He remembers His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when the Children of Israel are suffering in Egypt. In each case, the word “remember” precedes an action. It is like recalling a debt, and then paying up. The remembrance causes Hashem to act to restore and grow life: saving Lot for Abraham’s sake, giving Rachel Joseph as a son, and delivering the Children of Israel from Egypt.

So a “zichron” is a connection across the years. It is a way of mankind ritualizing the historical ties between the present, and the relationship and experiences that our ancestors had with Hashem. So, too, on Rosh Hashanah, the “zichron teruah” is the day when our remembrance of Hashem precedes action, just as Hashem remembered his relationships, and delivered on them. We take these two days in the middle of the season of repentance to remember G-d – and then we do just as He did: we act. We engage in life-restoring acts in the runup to Yom Kippur, to repair all the damage we have done in the previous year between us and Hashem, as well as between each and every person.

First we remember, and then, after Rosh Hashanah, we act. And even in the blowing itself, we recall and reciprocate G-d’s blowing to make room for resumed life on earth by inviting G-d back into a renewed existence in our hearts and souls.

Teruah

Teruah, a blast or horn blow, is an easier word to define than “zichron” because it only appears a few times: concerning Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur. And then “teruah” is used to describe how the horns should be blown for assembling and marching the nation (Numbers 10:6 and 31:6).

What stands out here is that the Torah specifically tells us not to sound a “teruah” when the assembly is to be gathered but not to march (Num. 10:7).

What does this mean? It tells us specifically that the word “Teruah” is associated not merely with alarm or assembly (both of which are found in the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah), but that a teruah is the signal to start a journey, to go on the march or to go to war. We do not merely huddle together and tremble. We go and we do something about it. The teruah is, among other things, a call to arms, a call to action.

So, too, on Rosh Hashanah. When the shofar blows, we are to unify and act.

Takah

“Takah” is not used in the Torah directly with Rosh Hashanah itself; it is used elsewhere when blowing a teruah is mentioned, and our sages use it to explain the longer sounds we blow on Rosh Hashanah. So it is integrally linked with the day throughout Jewish history and tradition.

What does it mean? This word is fascinating, because though takah is only found a few places, it is used in different ways almost every time. (For the curious, it is used Gen. 31:25, 32:26, Ex. 10:19, Num 10:3-10 – the last being when it is twinned with “teruah” to link with blowing.) Working with the principle that a word in the Torah is defined by its first usage, takah is defined in the standoff between Jacob and Laban as Jacob is going back to Canaan with his wives, children, and possessions.

Jacob had takah his tent into the mountain, and Laban with his brethern takah in the mountain of Gilead.

The word here is one of deliberate, hard action: a strong driving force. Indeed, when one considers that every other case of a tent being pitched in the Torah uses a different verb “yate”, “takah” gains a very specific meaning: it is an act of building that is defiant and forceful in its nature. “Yate” is used when people pitch tents in a normal, peaceful way.

“Takah” by contrast, is a physically powerful act. It is the same verb used to describe Yael driving a tent-peg into Sisera’s temple.

So what does it have to do with Rosh Hashanah? I think the answer is found in the notion that our breath is the expression of our souls, the recycling of the spirit breathed into Adam. Solomon said “All is vanity” but the word for “vanity” is the same word as “breath.” Everything is breath. And breath is everything. Our breath, our spirit, is at one and the same time our vitality and our mortality. It is our life force, and yet it is sure to be snuffed out, in time.

When we blow, tekias shofar, we are driving our breath into the horn. It is not a natural act, nor is it easy. Indeed, the sound that comes out the other end is one that pierces us, touches us at the core of our being. It is a hard, defiant act. We are raging against the inevitable, using our breath to proclaim our lives and our vitality. And at the very same time, we are triumphally engaged in zichron teruah, triumphally enaging with our Creator. Takah is the state of each person during our lives, if we are trying to grow, to aspire to meeting challenging tasks and goals. Takah is doing that which is hard to do!

Our lives and our breath are here, now. It is hard to build and sustain them, just as it is hard to drive tent pegs into mountain rock (or Sisera’s temple). And both our lives and our tents are ultimately nothing more than temporary edifices.

The famous Unesaneh Tokef prayer tells us of the Great Shofar Blasting (takah). What follows? The still small voice…. if we listen for it. The voice of the divinely-shared spirit is there, a shadow reflection of the great takah. That voice is in the silence that follows, in the thoughts that run rings around each other in our minds.

Yet, we do not flag, we must not lose courage. And that is a challenge. Our futures are unknown. Despite our best attempts to limit uncertainty, we don’t know what awaits us tomorrow, next month, or next year. Our Zichron Teruah is a remembrance of history and our relationship with Hashem, allowing us to extrapolate from our distant and near past and continue to take blind steps into the unknown. Going forward in life is an act of faith. We think we know where we are, but we have no idea where we are going.

We are all doing that. With full knowledge that the only sure thing about the future is that we do not know it, we triumphally and desperately blow the shofar. Tekiyas teruah is an act of faith. Anchored to zichron, we know that there must be a future for us, because there is a past. Our zichron connects with Hashem and all of the reconnections and remembrances between man and G-d since Noah. Just as He remembered us, so too, we remember Him and make room for Him in every facet of our lives. And as with the Children of Israel when the horns blew the teruah, we gird our loins, and march into the New Year, united and resolved, and ready for action.

Footnote: Yate is also the word for planting a garden (Hashem “yates” the Garden of Eden, and Noach does the same with his vineyard and Avraham with a tree) It is an organic act, an act of living in harmony. The word is even used with Yehudah’s intimacy. “Yate” is the comfortable way.

Comments are welcome!