Animal or Art: The Symbolism of Shofar

  • Rav Moshe Taragin



"Ashrei ha-am yodei terua" (Tehillim 89:16): fortunate are those who know the power of terua, the shofar blast. The term "yodei terua" implies that the experience of shofar constitutes more than just the mechanical creation of sound; it includes layers of symbolism which demand examination and elaboration. Those "fortunate" enough or wise enough to appreciate this symbolism transform the experience from one of pure listening into a rendezvous with God, as the verse continues - "Hashem be-or panekha yehaleikhun," They will walk in the light of Your countenance, O Lord.

Without question, the shofar possesses connotations that are supernatural in nature, symbolisms which extend far beyond the limited human experience and the temporal context. First and foremost, shofar evokes the epic event at Mt. Moriah when our Patriarchs surrendered both their own identities as well as their personal moral code in favor of the will of the Almighty. This meta-historical event launched the history of a nation founded upon love of God, continually ready to sacrifice their lives on behalf of that love: "'You shall love the Lord ... with all your soul' - even if He takes your soul" (Sifri Devarim, 32). Showcasing the shofar on Yom Ha-zikaron (the Day of Remembrance) arouses the memory of that moment and applies the heroism of our forefathers to the merit of their descendants.

The Midrash notes an additional metaphysical factor to the shofar. Incredibly, the shofar converts God's treatment of our world from an absolute or ideal system of judgement (midat ha-din) to a more flexible and human system (midat ha-rachamim). As the Midrash continues, "Why is the shofar blown through the narrow end, while the sound emits through the broader end? To indicate that shofar transforms God's treatment from midat ha-din to midat ha-rachamim." Shofar possesses the capacity to alter the manner in which God manages His universe and judges it on Rosh Ha-shana. In each of these instances, the shofar, primarily through its symbolism and function, impacts areas far beyond the natural reach of humankind.

In addition to these supernatural connotations of shofar, it is clear that this instrument inspires meaning on a human or existential level, as well. Blowing the horn of an animal not only evokes the images of Mt. Moriah but also arouses within a Jew powerful emotions regarding the religious encounter in general and the experience of Rosh Ha-shana in particular.

The gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 27b) probes the validity of an inverted shofar, whose wide end was narrowed while the narrow end was expanded. The gemara invalidates this type of shofar because it defies the Torah's principle of "derekh ha'avarato" (Vayikra 25:9). By describing the blowing of shofar with the term of "ve-ha'avarta" (literally, "you should pass a sound"), the Torah demands that we blow the shofar in the exact same form in which it was removed from the animal. This gemara underscores that we are not merely employing a horn that was once attached to the animal. Instead, we are blowing the horn OF an animal and, to an extent, we are blowing AS an animal.

On this day of fear and dread, when our very lives and the fate of our nation hangs in the balance, we acknowledge the ultimate ineptitude of our own verbal prayers. How can we begin to capture with mere words the regal quality of the day, the regeneration of an entire universe, and the majesty of a transcendent King who judges each of His creations? Despite our most valiant efforts and purest intentions, we cannot but concede our very inability, the utter futility of human thought and language – noble as it might be - to capture the magnitude of the day. Therefore, we substitute an animal sound for a human voice; cognition is replaced by instinct, intelligence by nature. We recognize our rightful place as creatures amidst creation and, disappearing seamlessly into the natural landscape, we hope that our voice is lent greater echo by its inclusion within a broader assembly. Unable to transcend the crushing limits of our own humanity, we retreat to a less ambitious, but in many ways more effective, experience by adopting an animal sound.

Rashi (Rosh Ha-shana 27b) captures this attitude when he explains the principle of derekh ha'avarato: "[Blow] in the manner in which an animal carries the horn when it is still attached to its head." According to Rashi, we are not just mandated to remove the shofar and blow it in its native form. Instead, we are meant to create sound in a manner similar to that animal. Rashi reads "derekh ha'avarato" as a mitzva to both view and employ the shofar from the perspective of the animal. We are not merely blowing a shofar used by the animal to create its cry; we are crying as animals petitioning God to provide our needs, just as He endlessly nourishes the natural world: "You open Your hand and feed every living creature to its heart's content" (Tehillim 145:16).

An animal's request is not based on personal merit or behavior. It is instead the raw, visceral cry of a dependent beast looking to its master for survival. Gradually, we acknowledge our own lack of deservedness and the absence of any moral justification of the numerous requests we lodge. Instead, we mask our voices in animal tones so that our cry issues as a primitive, guileless, and panicked plea for survival. As the Yerushalmi (Ta'anit 2:1) exclaims: "Rabbi Ya'akov of Rome explained, Why do we blow animal horns? To ask God, 'Treat us as if we were squealing like animals.'"

Viewing our shofar sound as an animal bellow casts light upon a well-known gemara. The Mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 26a) cites the position of the Sages allowing any shofar other than the horn of a cow to be used. As the gemara elaborates, "Ein kateigor na'aseh saneigor" (lit., a prosecutor cannot become a defender) – meaning that a catalyst of sin cannot be employed toward its absolution. The cow precipitated the Golden Calf disaster and hence cannot assist the achievement of atonement. However, the application of "ein kateigor" to blowing the horn of a cow can certainly be questioned. Indeed, gold may not be introduced into the Holy of Holies since it was the material from which the Calf was fashioned. Blowing the horn of a cow, however, does not necessarily interpose the animal itself into the mitzva ceremony; it merely employs its detached horn. Should "ein kateigor" apply?

Based on the earlier profile of shofar, this gemara seems more logical – and even compelling. Blowing a shofar constitutes the creation of an animal voice and the substitution of that innocent, primal voice for our cultured and adulterated one. Therefore, the Sages could not allow that animal voice to be the voice of a cow – a sound which still rings with the frolicking chants of the Golden Calf.

Yet, alongside this native or animalistic feature of the shofar lies a different and contrary function. During Musaf we recite the verse, "Haleluhu be-tziltzilei shama, haleluhu be-tziltzilei terua" (Sing to Him with blaring strains; sing to Him with strains of the shofar - Tehillim 150:5). This verse highlights an additional feature of the shofar – a musical instrument meant to enhance our praise of the Holy One. In fact, as the Mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 26b) comments, when the shofar was blown in the Temple on Rosh Ha-shana it was accompanied by the sounds of trumpets. This ensemble produced an esthetic musical mix which enriched God's coronation and the accompanying ceremony of the Temple. Here shofar is not presented as the primal native cry of a defenseless and helpless beast. Instead, it serves as the artistic accompaniment to human song, ultimately creating a superior lyric.

An additional gemara further establishes the "enhancing" role of the shofar. The aforementioned gemara disqualifying the horn of a cow because of the "ein kateigor" principle questions the useof a gold shovel to transfer coals on Yom Kippur. After all, shouldn't we eschew the use of gold and the invocation of the memory of the Golden Calf? To this the gemara responds that "ein kateigor" applies only to ceremonies of beauty and splendor, not to more perfunctory or practical services (such as transporting coals). Tosafot infer the obvious: since "ein kateigor" DOES indeed apply to shofar, it must be viewed as an aesthetic and beautifying process. Shofar adorns our dialogue and enhances our song by providing aesthetic accompaniment to our human, artistic hymn. It certainly is a candidate for the principle of "ein kateigor."

In fact, two interesting laws appear to reflect this enriching function of a shofar. The gemara in Rosh Ha-shana (27b) describes the minimum size of a shofar thus: "So that the body of the shofar will protrude on either side of the fist which grasps it." The gemara in Nidda (26a) assesses this amount as a "classic" tefach in length, and Halakha indeed concludes that practically, the shofar must be at least a tefach long. Why, then, did the gemara in Rosh Ha-shana not define the shofar's length in classic and quantitative terms? Why did it opt to describe the shofar in non-conventional and indirect terminology?

Viewing the shofar as an instrumental accompaniment helps clarify the gemara's intent. A musical instrument contributes to an aesthetic not merely through its sound, but also through its appearance. Viewing a melodious sound skillfully produced by musical instrument constitutes part of the wonder of the overall experience. The length of the shofar is not merely quantitative and wasn't designated in purely numerical terms. Merely coincidentally is its length measured as a tefach. Substantively, however, in its role as a trumpet, the shofar must be long enough to be visible even as it is clasped by the hand of the player. Therefore, the gemara articulated its size in terms of its consequent visibility and not in terms of it sheer length.

A second expression of this principle can be located in the Ramban's comments regarding structural flaws in the shofar. The Mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 27a) invalidates a split shofar. Many Rishonim offer different opinions as to the basis of this disqualification. The Ramban, in his derasha to Rosh Ha-shana, claims that the split renders it "inoperable" so that the shofar loses its status as a halakhic "kli" (utensil). Just as a utensil with a hole is no longer deemed a halakhic "kli" and subsequently cannot become tamei (impure), similarly, a shofar which loses its status as "kli" can no longer serve to facilitate the mitzva. The Ramban's analysis lodges a powerful statement about the identity of shofar: beyond being the horn of an animal which can be used to produce sound, it must also be seen as a musical instrument possessing human and artistic utility. Once it has been stripped of this quality (in this instance, through a hole), even if practically it can still produce sound it can no longer serve the role of a "musical shofar."

Ultimately, this feature of shofar can best be summed up by quoting a fascinating derasha cited by the gemara (RH 26a). In Tehillim (69:30), King David, feeling persecuted by his enemies, confesses that "I am destitute and hurting." Yet, he also declares, "Hashem, your redemption will ennoble me." His spirits having been lifted by that broadcast, David continues, "I will praise You with song and elevate You with my gratitude, and this will surpass either an ox or a cow" (namely, this song will exceed any animal offering). The gemara notes the juxtaposition of the word "shor" (ox) to the word "par" (cow). By conjugating the two proximate words, the compound word "shofar" is produced (shor-par = shofar). Based on this verse, Rabbi Yossi argues with the Sages and allows the horn of a cow to be used. The Sages had claimed that the horn of a cow is labeled "keren," not "shofar," and thus cannot be used on Rosh Ha-shana. Rabbi Yossi responds that in this verse the horn of a cow is actually designated as shofar (shor par = shofar), and hence it, too, may be blown on Rosh Ha-shana. To summarize, Rabbi Yossi saw in this verse an indirect reference to shofar and drew halakhic conclusions from this coded reference. The resulting meaning of this verse yields the previously described notion of shofar. Shofar enhances our praise and song of God so that they become more appealing than sacrifices. Namely, by adding the shofar to our human voice and lending that song a decorative flair, it may exceed the tribute contained in sacrificial offerings.

These dichotomous features of the shofar - the native animal cry and the sophisticated instrument - epitomize the contrasting features of Rosh Ha-shana and especially our emotional response to this charged day. From a certain perspective, we are utterly silenced by the awe of enthroning the King of Kings. Which tongue could fully describe and which imagination could amply capture the magnificence of the Almighty as He recreates afresh an entire universe? Alternatively, which moral conscious would dare rise to its own defense seeking vindication in the eyes of the Judge of the World? We shrink in the presence of this grandeur and retreat from the hope of personal "deserved" exoneration. Our only response is to wilt into the natural animal kingdom, assuming its voice, and hoping that we will be spared by the same general, undifferentiated pity which God showers upon His creatures. Profoundly aware of the polluted tongue we bear, painfully broken by the acknowledged limits of our own mortality, embarrassed by our feeble and flawed morality, we abdicate our human pretense and flee from society and its conventions. We grab the horn of an animal and begin to howl in unison with that artless and pure world.

Yet, Rosh Ha-shana is also redemptive of the human condition. It affirms all the potential of Man as pinnacle of creation and particularly of "chosen Man" and his specific mission within creation. As the Midrash to Tehillim writes: When God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden (on the first Rosh Ha-shana), He immediately awarded him with some form of Torah – some form of light. Rosh Ha-shana prompts the ability of Man to appreciate the Divine glory, to transcend his own conditions and actually augment the glory of God. Recall King David's personal reawakening when recognizing that "God's redemption will ennoble me." Rosh Ha-shana celebrates the human religious experience and highlights its beauty, and, for our part, we burst out in a song accentuated by the instrumental accompaniment of the shofar. Precisely because the unadorned human voice is insufficient to capture the illustrious hues and textures of this day, we upgrade that voice with the orchestral sound of the shofar.

It is our custom to recite the 47th chapter of Tehillim seven times prior to blowing the shofar. The chapter begins by describing mighty and awe-inspiring scenes. God's arrival is heralded by international hand-clapping ("kol ha-amim tiku kaf") as the mighty King of the entire world appears. The prospect of God trouncing the disobedient nations is considered ("yadber amim tachteinu") while the transcendence of the moment is encapsulated in the famous verse, "Ala Elokim bi-terua Hashem be-kol shofar" - God ascends in terua, the Lord, in the blasts of the shofar. The chapter depicts a loud, foreboding and overwhelming environment in which the corrupt are vanquished, and virtuous followers of God can only stand in silent awe.

As the chapter unfolds, we witness the loud trumpeting slowly giving way to the soft strains of music: "Sing to God, Sing to your King, for He is the King of the entire world; sing, O wise ones." Recovering from the vertigo of the first scenes, we offer a sweet melody to our King, hoping to distill and savor the sweet charm and beauty of our encounter with God.

These two responses - as antithetical to one another as they may seem – form the cornerstone of our "existential" Rosh Ha-shana. These two dimensions are borne by the shofar - a tool which can both rethe human response to one resembling an animal's, as well as gift it with celestial splendor.