Although this fact slips by many people, a shofar is essentially a musical instrument. It should arouse our longing for the rebuilding of the Temple, where trumpets and shofars were sounded.

The shofar is one of the many musical instruments of the Bible. It is made of a horn, traditionally that of a ram, and yes, it is also used for ritual and religious purposes. Like the modern bugle, the shofar lacks pitch-altering devices. All pitch and sound control is done by maneuvering one’s lip and tongue movements. Shofars come in a variety of sizes and even colors.

Let us look at some the appearances that the shofar makes throughout Scripture. One of its most prominent appearances was the “blast of the shofar on Mount Sinai” – when God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people. It was also used to announce holidays, the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:9), the start of a war (Joshua 6:4; Judges 3:27; 7:16, 20; I Samuel 8:3). Indeed, the most famous “wartime” appearance of the shofar is in the story of Joshua and the battle for Jericho. As the story goes, after the Jewish people surrounded the walls of Jericho, the shofar was blown, which caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. With this, capturing the city of Jericho was made easy.

The shofar was also used in festive processions (II Samuel. 6:15; I Chronicles 15:28), as musical accompaniment (Ps. 98:6), and as part of the official Temple orchestra. It should be noted that the “trumpets” described in the Bible, such as in Numbers Chapter 10, are a different instrument, described by the Hebrew word “trumpet” (Chatzotzra). The three different sounds that the shofar makes are known as the Tekia, Shevarim, and Teruah.

Shofar Mainly Associated with Rosh Hashana

Today, however, the shofar is primarily associated with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. In fact, the words “Rosh Hashana” are not even found in the Torah. The Torah simply calls the Jewish New Year “Yom Teruah,” meaning “the day of Shofar blowing.” It is customary to blow at least 100 blasts in the synagogue on Rosh Hashana, although the minimum requirement is only 30. The shofar is blown Rosh Hashana morning, during services and after the Torah has been read. It is also blown to mark the end of Yom Kippur, though this is more of a custom than an actual requirement.

It is interesting to note that when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown. This is a rabbinic enactment that was instituted just after Temple times in order to prevent widespread violation of Shabbat, as on Shabbat, it is forbidden to carry anything in a place that is not enclosed by an eruv – an imaginary boundary. The rabbis were worried that someone would forget to prepare the shofar before the start of the Rosh Hashana holiday and then be tempted to carry it to the synagogue for blowing. In order to ensure that this would not happen anywhere, the rabbis banned blowing the shofar on Shabbat everywhere. Only the first day of Rosh Hashanah can fallon Shabbat, hence there will always be a shofar blowing on the second day of Rosh Hashana. This year Rosh Hashana is on Thursday and Friday, which means that we are treated to two days of shofar blowing!

Echoes and Electronics Only for Emergencies

A person is required to hear the actual sound of the shofar. Echoes and electronic reproductions do not count. Therefore, one who hears the shofar over the radio or internet would not have fulfilled the mitzvah (commandment). In emergency situations, however, some authorities rule that performing mitzvot through electronically reproduced sound is preferable to not performing them at all. 

The one who blows the shofar is referred to as the Baal Tokaya. Being a Ba’al Tokaya is an honor, and as such, one is generally appointed to the position. The Talmud teaches: “The one who blows the shofar on Rosh Hashana . . . should be learned in the Torah and should be a God-fearing individual. He should be the best man available.” Ultimately, however, every male Jew is eligible for this sacred office, providing that he is acceptable to the congregation.

According to Jewish law, women and minors are exempt from the requirement to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashana, though they are strongly encouraged to make the effort to hear it, and they receive much merit for doing so. Indeed, women are exempt from any positive, time-bound commandment. In this case, the mitzvah of shofar blowing is a time-bound commandment because it can be fulfilled only during the day. There is no mitzvah to blow or hear the shofar blown at night. Although a woman is exempt from the mitzvah – and therefore may not blow the shofar for men – she may blow the shofar for herself and for other women.

Cow’s Horn Recalls Sin of the Golden Calf

According to the Talmud, a shofar may be made from the horn of any animal from the cloven-hoofed, ruminant mammal family, except a cow. This is because a cow recalls the sin of the Golden Calf, and we certainly do not want to remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf on Rosh Hashana! On the other hand, the ram’s horn is the most preferred horn to use. This is because a ram’s horn reminds God of the ram that Abraham sacrificed in place of his son Isaac, whom he was prepared to sacrifice as per God’s command. It is interesting to note that animal horns are made of keratin, the same material as human toenails and fingernails. An antler, on the other hand, is not a horn, but solid bone. As such, antlers cannot be used for a shofar because they cannot be hollowed out.

Although the Torah commands us to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana, it gives no reason for it. Rabbis throughout the years have offered their interpretations as to the purpose and meaning of the Rosh Hashana shofar blowing. Here are some of these teachings:

Rosh Hashana is not only the Jewish New Year, but also the day when we annually proclaim God as our King. Just as it is customary to sound a trumpet at a king’s coronation, so, too, we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashana.

Living Torah

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director, United with Israel

The shofar should arouse our longing for the rebuilding of the Temple, where trumpets and shofars were sounded.

As mentioned, the ram’s horn reminds us of the akeida, the near-sacrifice of Isaac, when Abraham obeyed God and was willing to sacrifice his son. At the last second, God explained to Abraham that He was just testing him, and so Abraham sacrificed a ram instead.

The shofar reminds us that when the Messiah comes, a great shofar sound will emanate throughout the world.

Wishing everyone a Shana Tova! A Happy New Year!

Rosh Hashana