This week’s Parsha is Parshat Shoftim. The Parsha discusses appointing a system of justice in one’s city in order to maintain the rule of law and also the rules of undertaking a battle, in addition to other important rules relating to Jewish life such as the rule of Jewish kingship.
However, I would like to focus on the fact that this week also symbolized the start of the Jewish month of Elul, the month leading up to the Jewish New Year and High Holiday festivals. The month of Elul also marks the start of the custom to blow the Shofar (ram’s horn) each day in the lead up to Rosh Hashanah.
The Shofar is integral to the way we, as Jews, celebrate Rosh Hashanah, our new year. The history of the shofar and its use in Jewish ritual and practice is fascinating.
The Shofar is mentioned a number of times in the Torah, in both a symbolic and ritual setting. Ritually, the shofar was used to announce the arrival of the new Jewish month, the Jubilee, announcing travelling in the desert and wartimes and during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayer services.
Outside of ritual, the Shofar was sounded by Abraham after the binding of Isaac, it was blown by Joshua when capturing the city of Jericho and it was used by King David in the orchestra of the Temple. It was also sounded during the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai, where the Shofar resonated from the thick cloud covering the mountain causing the people of Israel to tremble in awe.
According to Talmudic discussions, a shofar may be created from any horn of the Bovidae family (except the cow), but the preference is given for using a ram’s horn.
Ashekenazi and Sephardi traditions have very little digression in relation to the construction of shofars and both traditions have a preference for ram horns for ritual use.
However, Yemenite Jewish tradition uses the long and distinct horn of the kudu. These extremely long and often curly horns are about 3 to 4 times the length of a traditional Shofar, but are Kosher for ritual use. They are an impressive sight to behold and sound a deeper note than other traditional smaller shofars.
According to Jewish law, a shofar that is to be used for ritual purposes may not have any cracks or holes that would affect its ability to issue sound. It must also not have any extra adornments like gold or silver plating, as such extra aesthetics render it impure for ritual use.
The actual commandment on Rosh Hashanah is for the shofar to be heard by the congregation. Hearing must be live and in person, with specific cases in the Talmud disqualifying echoes heard via a cave or tunnel from being accepted as ‘hearing’ the blasts.
The purpose of this shofar blowing is to rouse the listener to the Divine and remind them that just as an instrument is in its natural form when a sound is produced by human breath, so too G-d is the Divine creator who breathes life into each human beings.
The pure and natural sound of the shofar symbolises an untainted wholesome sound of the horn thus encourages all listeners to lead lives that will focus on the things that are pure and simple and important. It also rouses people to reflect on their year and repent, atone and acknowledge their wrongdoings with a commitment to change themselves with new resolutions.
The four cries of the shofar, the Tekiah, Shevarim, Teruah and Tekiah Gedolah reflect this idea. The Tekiah, with its long unbroken sound, rouses the soul for reflection. The Shevarim, its 3 short cries awakens us to the broken nature of our world. The Teruah almost emits despair with its 9 short sharp cries, symbolising how fragile we as humans are before G-d. But the final blast, the long Tekiah Gedolah with its seemingly never-ending unbroken cry helps to ground us back to earth as we steady our souls for the year and tasks ahead to work on fixing ourselves and humanity.
During Rosh Hashanah, when we stand before G-d and are judged for the year ahead, the shofar is a reminder that we are standing before G-d and we are at G-d’s mercy. Just as we are all created equal before G-d, it is the shofar’s piercing natural cry that reminds us that we need to wake up, repent and look deeper within ourselves.
As we enter this month of Elul I hope that each of you reflects on yourselves and readies yourself for the Jewish new year which is just around the corner! Look out for some exciting programs we are planning at the ARK Centre to get us into the High Holiday spirit!
Chodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,