Sunday 12 September 2010

The Symbolism of the Shofar

Judaism has numerous symbols which are closely associated with its religious practices. By far, the best known of these is the shofar, the ram's horn. Over the past few days we have celebrated the festival of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and there is no event in the Jewish calendar more closely associated with the shofar. The link between Rosh Hashanah and the shofar is so strong that one of the alternative names for Rosh Hashanah is Yom Teruah, which means the day of the sounding of the shofar. With the dulcet tones of the shofar still ringing in our ears after hearing its blasts over Rosh Hashanah, it seems a good time to examine the significance of this symbol more closely.

The sounding of the shofar fulfils a commandment of Rosh Hashanah. The commandment is not to sound the shofar but, in fact, to hear the sound of the shofar. Moses Maimondes (also known as the Rambam), who was one of the greatest Jewish scholars of all time, said that the sound of the shofar serves to awaken the soul and to turn its attention to the important task of repentance. The ten days following Rosh Hashanah are the ten days of repentance until Yom Kippur when each person is believed to have his or her fate sealed for the following year.

Another reason given for the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is to remind us of the binding of Isaac, and the blind faith in G-d shown by his father, Abraham. At the last moment, Abraham was instructed not to kill Isaac, but rather to sacrifice a ram in his place. It was at that moment that Abraham noticed a ram nearby which was caught in a bush by its horn. The ram was duly sacrificed and Isaac's life was saved. This event was reputed to have taken place on Mount Moriah, the location of the present-day Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and is one of the reasons why Mount Moriah, the holiest site to Jews around the world, was chosen to be the site of the Jewish temples.

This began a strong link between the shofar and this holy site throughout the ages. During the days when the holy temple stood on this site, the shofar is believed to have been sounded each Shabbat. Since the destruction of the temple, the blowing of the shofar on Shabbat has been specifically outlawed by rabbinical decree such that, even if one of the days of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not sounded on that day. During the period that the Ottomans ruled over Jerusalem stretching for 400 years from 1517 to 1917, a law was passed prohibiting Jews from sounding the shofar in the area of the Western Wall. The Turkish rulers feared that this may be perceived as a call to war, and result in a Jewish uprising. This prohibition continued during the period of the British mandate which followed the Turkish rule. Despite the prohibition, many Jews somehow found a way to continue blowing the shofar at the holy site on Rosh Hashanah as well as on Yom Kippur at the conclusion of the fast. Some even sat in jail after they were caught transgressing the law.

Perhaps the most famous shofar blasts at the Western Wall were those heard soon after the capture of East Jerusalem and the holy temple mount following the Six Day War. These were blasts of triumph and of joy, not of war or calls to repent. Shofar blasts have been heard on other joyous occasions such as the arrival in Israel of Jews rescued from danger, or the triumphant return of Israeli soldiers from dangerous missions.

Even though the shofar emits fairly standard musical notes, somehow its notes are not simply standard to most Jews. I know that the sounds of the shofar manage to reach a place in my heart that no other sounds manage to reach. It seems like I am not alone in this feeling. The Rambam's reference to the awakening of the soul is part of this. At the conclusion of the Holocaust, a group of Jews went around Europe with the intention of reclaiming Jewish children who had been lodged with well-meaning gentiles and institutions by their parents in an effort to at least spare the life of their children. The children frequently did not know that they came from Jewish families, and proving that they were Jewish was often a difficult task. Amongst other tactics that were used to identify Jewish children, a shofar was blown in their presence. Very often, the reaction of the Jewish children to the shofar blasts was unmistakable, thereby clearly identifying them as Jewish. It was a familiar sound that reached places in their soul that no other sound could reach.

It is pertinent that the Rambam interpreted the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah to be directed at those who are not taking action and being apathetic. During the ten days of penitence, it may viewed as appropriate for the blasts to be directed at those who are acting in an evil or inappropriate way, as a sign for them to mend their behaviour and seek repentance. But this is not the case. The Rambam asserts that the blasts are directed at those who are not doing anything at all, those who are taking no action. The blasts are a bid to awaken their souls to convince them to do something positive.

The message is as relevant today as it was when the Rambam lived in the Middle Ages. Our challenges as a nation continue to test every fibre of our being. None of us can afford to sit back and do nothing. We cannot afford to allow things to be done to us. Now is the time to stand up and take action, both on a personal as well as collective level. In addition to personal repentance, action needs to be taken to to free Gilad Shalit and to progress towards peace with our enemies. It is also the time to take action to stand up for our rights as Jews, and to assert Israel's right to be a Jewish country in the community of nations. It is the time to identify and fight against those who call for our destruction, and who those who take action to destroy us.

I am truly honoured to have the shofar that was blown by late grandfather, whose blasts continue to find their way to Jews each Rosh Hashanah, including those of his great-grandchildren. My grandfather would have been so proud of what we have managed to achieve as a Jewish nation in the short 30 years since his death. As they did in those days, the sounds of the shofar still inspire Jews to take action. This is undoubtedly a large part of Jewish history, and a significant contributor to Jewish achievement to date.

As we hear the blasts of the shofar at the conclusion of the Yom Kippur fast at the end of this week, it is my prayer that these blasts will inspire us and our country to ensure that the undivided city of Jerusalem continues as the capital of the Jewish homeland. And I look forward to this time next year when shofar blasts will, once again, freely ring out at the Western Wall in anticipation of the rebuilding of the holy temple at this site.

1 comment:

afinkle221 said...

For more information about Shofar and other Holy Temple instruments, we have written extensively on the Shofar and have three websites

hearingshofar (dot) com

shofar221(dot) com

shofar-sounders(dot) com