Hearing the Sound of the Shofar
The ritual most frequently associated with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (in most English translations of the Bible called the Feast of Trumpets*), is the sounding of the shofar (ram’s horn) in the synagogue. By Jewish tradition, a person who has not listened to the shofar has not observed the day. Hearing the shofar means obedience to one of God’s 248 positive commandments to Israel found in the Pentateuch, or Torah. Rabbis have said that the mitzvah (commandment) is not fulfilled by merely hearing the shofar, as if by accident, but that the hearer must listen with the specific kavanah (intention) of fulfilling the biblical commandment. To enhance this observance of Rosh Hashanah, various rabbis have suggested kavanot, or ideas implied in the sounding of the shofar, upon which to focus.
The biblical command to hear the shofar is expressed in Numbers 29:1:
And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation. You shall do no customary work, For you it is a day of blowing the trumpets [shofarim].”
The word “trumpets” does not appear in the Hebrew text, but is implied. Nor does the word shofar ever appear in the Hebrew text of the Torah in connection with the holiday Jewish people call Rosh Hashanah. In the passage quoted above, the holiday is simply called Yom T’ruah, a day of blowing. However, it means more than simply “blowing” a trumpet or ram’s horn.
Three basic trumpet calls are sounded in the synagogue during the Rosh Hashanah service. The first is the simple t’kiyah, one long, sustained blast. In ancient Israel, the t’kiyah was a reassuring sound. It signalled that the watchmen guarding the city were on duty and all was well. That sound periodically divided up the watches of the day and night.
The second trumpet call sounded on the shofar consists of three successive blasts called shevarim. In ancient times shevarim signalled some significant event—the changing of the guard, the arrival of an important person such as a king, or a call to assemble and hear welcome news. The sound of shevarim was less routine than the t’kiyah, but it was welcome because it meant good tidings.
The third trumpet call, however—the one mentioned in the Bible in reference to the Feast of Trumpets—is the sound of alarm. It consists of nine rapid bursts on the shofar, referred to as t’ruah. The sound of the t’ruah alerted Israel that they were under attack and that all the fighting men were needed to draw together immediately for battle. The t’ruah might also be sounded for some other calamity that required the immediate and urgent convocation of all the people. Thus in most of the Bible texts where t’ruah appears, the word is translated “alarm.” A simpler, better translation of the Hebrew phrase Yom T’ruah, usually rendered “Feast of Trumpets,” would be “Day of Alarm.” It has the advantage of being a very literal translation, and it also communicates more of the flavor and intent of the holiday.
To use the Bible’s own terms, then, Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Alarm. The question arises: Why should Israel be alarmed? The summer harvest season had ended. The barns were full of grain and the storehouses were filled with fruit. What more could be wanted or needed? The Torah (Pentateuch) gives the answer:
“When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God by not keeping His commandments, His judgments, and His statutes which I command you today, lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them…and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage…then you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand have gained me this wealth.” And you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, that He may establish His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day. Then it shall be, if you…forget the Lord your God, and follow other gods…I testify against you this day that you shall surely perish…because you would not be obedient to the voice of the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 8:10-14; 17-20).”
By instituting the fall festivals consisting of the Day of Alarm, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths (forsaking of secure homes to live in flimsy huts), God taught Israel an important lesson: With God on her side, she need not fear earthly calamities or earthly enemies. Likewise, she must not seek security in earthly things but in her relationship with Him.
Rosh Hashanah (Yom T’ruah) was a preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It was intended to turn minds away from the secular affairs of the summer season to focus on spiritual issues: God’s holiness, the people’s sin and the atonement God had provided.
Ancient Israel needed to be periodically alarmed—by the awareness of sin that separated her from God, and by her need for atonement. In the synagogue today the shofar sound of t’ruah should still alarm people. It should still register as the sound of an alert that points to the danger of remaining in sin without atonement. The Hebrew Bible says, “Your iniquites have separated you from your God” and “The soul who sins shall die” (Isaiah 59:2; Ezekiel 18:4).
For us Jewish believers in Yeshua the kavanah, or central theme upon hearing the shofar, is joy in the knowledge that we have already allowed the seriousness of our sins to alarm us; we have heard and received the good news—that God has atoned for sin, and that He delivers us from calamity through the sacrifice of our righteous Messiah.
*In the Bible this holiday is never called Rosh Hashanah (the New Year). It falls on the first day of the seventh month as Moses reckoned time. Biblically, the Jewish religious year began in spring, in the month of Nisan (the Passover season).