Calling All Souls: The Eloquent Shofar (Ideas #97)

There is no other time in the year when more Jews are in shul than for the shofar blowing on Rosh haShana. Even many Jews who do not identify at all with Judaism come out of the woodwork, sometimes travelling great distances to participate in this seemingly strange ritual.


The sound of the shofar is not particularly aesthetically pleasing, nor does it make its hearers wealthier or wiser. Neither is it likely that Jews make this effort to hear it out of a sense of obligation or even because of nostalgia. In fact, it is as if this phenomenon were caused by some sort of animal instinct. But perhaps this “instinct” is actually much more profound.


On the high holy-days, we are confronted with our own responsibility in our lack of communion with G-d. We are reminded that our selfishness has resulted in sins, which have prevented us from better developing our relationship with G-d. This, in turn, brings us to an analysis of what we have done wrong and how we can improve upon it. But this process of repentance is not our only response during the days of repentance. Even more than repentance, we spend a lot of time crying out to G-d.


Our cries do not intrinsically change matters (see Aikido, Yom Kippur and Sukkot - Ideas 52). Rather, they serve as an expression of how we feel during this time. They express our longing for complete closeness with G-d, knowing how unlikely it is for us to permanently remove all the impediments blocking this closeness. Our cries are expressing our fervent desire that things could be different.


The shofar seems to dovetail these cries of longing. The rabbis say that the shofar blowing is meant to remind us of human crying – so much so, that some of the halachot are based upon this similarity (Rosh haShanah 33b). The curious proof text is from the crying of an ancient warlord's (Sisera) mother over the death of her son. She is crying in longing for her son to return – for something that cannot be. (1)


So too on Rosh haShanah, it seems that we ultimately also cry for something that cannot be. We cry about the human condition that prevents us from having total communion with G-d. By definition, we will always be human and, as such, at least somewhat removed from G-d. Some of our spiritual greats have come very close to G-d, but even they – especially they – knew that there will always be some gap between even the most saintly of men and G-d.


Since expressing this inconsolable cry is far from our daily experience, we need assistance. It is for that purpose that we are given the shofar.  If we cannot express this very profound cry ourselves, we can at least let the shofar do it for us.


In the Torah, Rosh haShanah is not known as such, but rather as Yom Teruah (the day of the shofar blow). (2)  Moreover, the shofar is the symbol and the most outstanding halacha of Rosh haShanah. Thus, Rosh haShanah's very identity appears to be based on what the shofar is meant to express. If the shofar blow is the epitome of our longing for G-d, then that longing can be viewed as the essence of Rosh haShanah: With this cry, we show who we, the Jewish people, are. Through this cry, we crown G-d as the object of our truest desires.


There is a well-known anecdote that, at one time, if you did not cry in shul on Yom Kippur, people would ask you what's wrong, whereas today the opposite is true – it is when you do cry that people ask you what's wrong. Insightful men, as varied as the Slonimer Rebbe and Dr. Hyam Soloveitchik, confirm that, no matter how outwardly religious we have become, our generation has lost the living inner religiosity that characterized Judaism in the past. In other words, we have lost our ability to cry. Perhaps; but I do not believe we have lost our desire to cry. Indeed, it is for this reason that we love the shofar so much and maybe even more today than in the past. It may be that, especially in times when we no longer know how to express our emotions, the sounding of shofar becomes even more important.


In every generation, however, we all actually listen to the shofar with our souls. No matter how far a Jews gets from Judaism, his soul will always thirst for this cry of longing. At the same time, no matter how devout a Jew becomes, his soul will also thirst for this cry of longing.


At least once a year, the Jewish soul must hear the shofar.




(1)   Shoftim 5:28-30. According to a simple reading of the text, she cries before she clearly knows that he is dead, but it could well be that her soul already knows it, and so prompts her to cry in this way.

(2)    Since it is designated as Yom Teruah, it is likely that it is specifically the teruah that epitomizes the theme of the day and not the other type of call that is also blown on the shofar, called the tekiah, which is not meant to be a cry. (The third type of call, the shevarim, is a subset of the teruah.)