The Importance of the Shofar


By Sarah L, Staff Writer

The sounding of the shofar, in Hebrew, “Teruat shofar,” is the only unique Biblical commandment for the observance of Rosh ha-Shana. Numbers 29:1 says, “On the first day of the seventh month hold a sacred assembly and do no creative work. It is a day for you to sound the trumpets.” Although the Hebrew word “shofar” – usually translated as trumpet – is not used this verse, it is implied through the word “teruah,” which refers to an audible “blast.”

Why is this ancient instrument – made of a hollowed-out ram’s horn – so special? Biblically, the shofar is used in one of five circumstances. It can be a battle cry, a proclamation, an expression of celebration or worship, or a call. The fifth usage is unique to Rosh ha-Shana. In honor of the coming holiday, this article explores these five Biblical uses of the shofar and how they come together in the celebration of Rosh ha-Shana.

The first way that we see the shofar used biblically is in the context of a military campaign. In Joshua 6:15-16 the Bible recounts,

“Now on the seventh day they rose early at dawn and marched around the city in the same way seven times. Only on that day did they march around the city seven times. Then on the seventh time, when the priests blew the shofarot, Joshua ordered the people, ‘Shout, for the LORD has given you the city!’”

This passage in Joshua, describing the fall of Jericho before the Children of Israel presents the shofar as a weapon. Whether its power was psychological – each day building the morale of the Israelites and simultaneously demoralizing the defenders of Jericho – or whether truly spiritual, is unclear from the passage. What is clear is that it is a symbol of victorious battle which is “sponsored” by God Himself.

The shofar is also used to proclaim an event, for example the New Moon. Psalm 81 says,

“Blow the shofar at the New Moon, at the full moon for the day of our festival.” Psalms 81:4

The celebration of the New Moon, in Hebrew “Rosh Hodesh,” was announced in ancient Israel after two reliable witnesses reported that it had risen. In the ancient world, communication was arduous. A messenger could be sent between cities, but it could take weeks to disseminate information this way to an entire population. Blowing the shofar on the other hand was an easy and efficient way to pass along a time-sensitive message.  Thus, the shofar was used to proclaim throughout Israel the emergence of the new moon and the beginning of the new month.

Thirdly, the shofar can be a means of expressing celebration, exultation or worship. 1 Kings describes the coronation of King Solomon, a joyful event.

“Then Zadok the priest took the horn of oil out of the Tent [of Meeting] and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the shofar and all the people said: ‘Long live King Solomon!’ All the people went up after him, while the people were playing on flutes and rejoicing with great joy, so that the ground shook at their noise.” 1 Kings 1:39-40

Psalm 150 adds a second dimension to this usage, describing worship, possibly in the context of Temple ceremonies.

“Praise Him with the blast of the shofar. Praise him with harp and lyre.” Psalm 150:3

These two verses show examples of the shofar’s use as an instrument of ceremonial celebration and worship. In Solomon’s coronation, the blowing of the shofar is a sort of “seal” on an official proceeding, as well as an expression of celebration.

Psalm 150 expresses joyful worship of God for his greatness. The writer of this psalm is unknown, but it is possible that he was a priest or Levite serving in the Temple.

Finally, the shofar can be a summons. Isaiah 27 describes the ingathering of the exiles saying,

“On that day a great shofar will sound. Those lost in the land of Assyria will come, also those scattered through the land of Egypt: and they will worship the LORD on the holy mountain in Jerusalem.” Isaiah 27:13

This verse speaks of the return of the Jewish exiles to the Land of Israel. Whether or not the shofar in this verse is metaphorical does not really matter. The author uses it as a symbol of a summons, meaning that the shofar was probably used this way in Biblical times.

The other context in which the shofar is an instrument of summons is at Rosh ha-Shana, where it is a wake-up call to repentance. Hearing or sounding the shofar is the only specific commandment given in the Torah regarding Rosh ha-Shana and the Biblical name for the holiday – Yom Teruah – is derived from this commandment. According to Jewish practice, the shofar is blown at least 30 times – and sometimes more than 100 – throughout each day of the two-day festival of Rosh HaShana!

Some of the other circumstances during which a shofar is blown also come together at Rosh ha-Shana. Rosh ha-Shana, as the beginning of the New Year (and incidentally the New Moon as well), is a new beginning. Thus, sounding the shofar at Rosh ha-Shana is a proclamation of the new year as well as a call to repentance.

What all of the above contexts have in common is their use of the shofar to gain people’s attention. Whether as a proclamation of the New Moon, the announcement of a new king in Israel or a call to reckon with one’s mistakes and repent for them, the shofar is meant to be heard, loud and clear.

Today, as Rosh ha-Shana approaches in the Land of Israel, Israelis will begin to hear the sounding of the shofar on street corners throughout the Land. This rich piercing sound is also rich in Biblical meaning. Are there any other Biblical applications of the shofar that you know of?

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4 Comments on “The Importance of the Shofar”

  1. For years, I have wondered why the Jewish New Year is considered to be on Rosh Hashanah instead of the first of Nisan.

    Sh’mot/Exodus 12:2 “This new moon is the beginning of new moons for you; it is the first new moon of the year for you.”

    In parts of the world, the first of the year apparently used to be observed in March, which is evident from the names of the months in English: September (7), October (8), November (9), December (10), making January the 11th month and February the 12th month. I don’t know when “New Year’s day” was changed to January 1 or why, or when the wrong numbers were assigned to words (the names of the months) with intrinsically different meanings, or how this was pulled off without anyone pointing out that the words already meant different numbers. The original meanings of the names of the months would be more in line with the biblical New Year commanded in exodus.

    I recently read somewhere that Rosh Hashanah is actually the climax (high point) of the year, but I still don’t understand why it is celebrated as the “New Year.”

    1. Hi Deanne, surprisingly, there are actually four different “New Years” in the Jewish calendar, including both Rosh HaShana and the first of Nissan. Each “New Year” is the beginning of a cycle for a different aspect of life. Rosh HaShana is when the Jewish year changes (this year from 5783 to 5784). The sabbatical years commanded in the Torah begin at Rosh HaShana, possibly leading to the modern application.

  2. I wonder when the decision was made to change the year at Rosh Hashanah. Was that a rabbinical decision? Do you know when it started or why? I know it isn’t based on something biblical. I’m just trying to understand the origin of it.

    1. Hi Deanne,
      I’m not sure exactly when observing Rosh HaShana as the New Year became mainstream. It was first mentioned as such in rabbinical texts around 200 AD. There were a lot of disputes between different Jewish sects surrounding the Hebrew calendar during the preceding era (Second Temple Period and just after) and it makes sense that the subject of Rosh HaShana arose during these disagreements before eventually being settled sometime before 200 AD. Again, this is a conjecture, but I hope it is helpful in any case! Blessings.

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