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The Mitzva of Shofar Blowing: Its Reason and Nature

  • Rav David Brofsky


I) Reasons for the Mitzva of Shofar:


The 14th-century Spanish Rishon, Rav David ben Yosef Abudraham, known by his work, the Sefer Abudraham, records that Rav Se'adya Gaon (10th century) enumerates ten reasons for the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana.  Many machzorim (prayer-books for the High Holy Days) include these reasons before the blowing of the shofar.  We will focus on three of them.


a. Coronation


According to Rav Se'adya Gaon, one function of tekiat shofar, as appears in the Bible, is to praise God and to crown Him as our King.  He explains that when a king is crowned, at the beginning of his rule, trumpets and horns are blown in order to announce the beginning of his kingship.  We, Rav Se'adya Gaon explain, also coronate God, through the blowing of the shofar, on Rosh Ha-shana. 


Indeed, Sefer Tehillim states (98:6), "With trumpets and THE SOUND OF THE SHOFAR, shout before the King, God;" and (150:3), "Praise Him with the BLOWING OF THE SHOFAR; praise Him with the psaltery and harp."  Furthermore, Bilam tells Balak, "Nor has He seen perverseness in Israel; God his God is with him, and THE KING'S SHOUT (teruat melekh) is in him" (Bamidbar 23:21).


The Gemara (Rosh Ha-shana 16a),[1] discussing the three central blessings of the Musaf prayer, also implies that this is a function of the tekiat shofar:


And you should recite before Me Malkhuyyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot.  Malkhuyyot, in order that you should coronate Me upon you; Zikhronot, in order that your remembrance should rise to Me with favor; and how?  Through the shofar.


Elsewhere, the Gemara (10b) relates a debate between Rabbi Eli'ezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, respectively, whether the world was created in Tishrei or Nissan.  The Gemara (27a) records that our prayers follow the opinion of Rabbi Eli'ezer, as we say in the Musaf prayer, "This is the day, the beginning of Your work, a remembrance for the first day."


Interestingly, the Torah never actually states explicitly that we blow the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana; rather, it simply describes the day with the term terua (Vayikra 23:23-25, Bamidbar 29:1).  The Torah only explicitly commands to blow a shofar on Yom Kippur of the yovel (jubilee) year, as it says (Vayikra 25:8-9):


And you shall number seven sabbaths of years for you, seven times seven years; and there shall be for you the days of seven sabbaths of years — forty-nine years.  Then shall you make proclamation with the SHOFAR OF TERUA on the tenth day of the SEVENTH MONTH; on the Day of Atonement shall you make proclamation with the shofar throughout all your land.


The Gemara (33b) derives that all of the laws of the shofar in "the seventh month" (even those regarding Yom Kippur of a yovel year) apply equally to Rosh Ha-shana. 


One might ask, is the relationship between yovel and Rosh Ha-shana merely coincidental, or do they share a common theme?


The Rambam, in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot (positive mitzva 137), writes:


And it is known that this blowing, on the yovel, is to publicize the freedom [of the slaves]… as it says, "And you shall proclaim liberty" (ibid., v. 10) - and it is not similar to the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, which is a remembrance before God; whereas this [yovel] is to release the slaves, as we have explained…"


According to the Rambam, we should not search for the meaning of the shofar in the laws of the yovel.


However, the Sefer Ha-chinnukh (published anonymously in 13th-century Spain), a work which systematically discusses the laws and reasons for the 613 mitzvot, offers a different reason for this mitzva.  The Chinnukh, as the author is known, explains (Mitzva 130):


The reason for this mitzva, according to the simplest understanding, is that God wishes to declare to His nation that everything is His, and that everything which He wishes to bestow will ultimately be returned, because the land is His…  The message of yovel is similar to that which earthly kingdoms practice, that the lord of the land periodically takes control of the fortified cities he has given to his vassals, in order to instill in them fear of their lord.


While, as we shall soon see, the Chinnukh himself does NOT believe that this is the reason for the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana, certainly, based upon this reason, one might suggest that just as the shofar on yovel comes to declare the kingship of God, so too the shofar of Rosh Ha-shana crowns Him. 


b. Repentance


Rav Se'adya Gaon, listing his second reason for the shofar, writes:


The second reason is that the day of Rosh Ha-shana is the first day of the Aseret Yemei Teshuva (the Ten Days of Repentance), and we blow the shofar… as if to warn: whoever wishes to repent should do so; and if not, he will suffer the consequences.


The prophet Amos's (3:6) description of the blowing of the shofar illustrates its potential impact upon a person: "Shall a shofar be blown in the city, and the people not tremble?  Shall evil befall a city, and God has not done it?"


Similarly, the Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4) writes:


Even though the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana is a decree of the Torah, there is a hint in it, as if to say: awake, sleepers, from your sleep, and slumberers from your slumber; search your actions and repent; and remember your Creator…  Because of this, the entire house of Israel maintains the custom of increasing their charity, good deeds and involvement in mitzvot from Rosh Ha-shana until Yom Kippur, above the level of the rest of the year.


The Chinnukh (405) elaborates, describing the impact of the shofar sound.


Because a physical being will only awaken to certain things upon being called… on Rosh Ha-shana, which is a day designated from antiquity for judging all creatures… the sound of the shofar wakes the heart of all who hear it, AND CERTAINLY THE SOUND OF THE TERUA – i.e., THE BROKEN SOUND.  And not only should a person be aroused, a person should remember to break his evil inclination to desire the pleasures of the world and to sin WHEN HE HEARS THE BROKEN SOUNDS.


c. Prayer


Tekiat shofar fulfills a third function: it serves as a vessel or instrument of prayer.


The Torah (Bamidbar 10:1-10) relates the numerous functions of the trumpets in the desert.  For example, they were sounded in order signal the camps to move, or even merely to assemble the people (10:5-7).  It is in this context that we first encounter the Scriptural term "to blow" "li-tkoa" — from which the Talmudic word for a straight note, tekia, is derived.  It appears only as a verb in Tanakh; in fact, the Torah even uses the verb form of tekia to command us to blow a terua!


When the Torah describes the preparations before going out to war, it relates that the trumpets are also blown:


And when you go to war in your land against the adversary that oppresses you, then YOU SHALL SOUND A TERUA with the trumpets; and YOU SHALL BE REMEMBERED before Lord your God, and you shall be saved from your enemies."


The sounding of the trumpets in this context, apparently, is meant either to arouse the nation to repent, or, possibly, to serve as the vehicle of prayer itself! 


In fact, as we pointed out previously, the Ramban (Sefer Ha-mitzvot, Positive 5) derives from this verse that prayer in times of crisis is a biblical obligation.  So does the Rambam (Hilkhot Ta'aniyyot 1:1-3), who writes:


There is a positive commandment to cry and call out with the trumpets upon every crisis which confronts the community…  This is the way of repentance, that during a crisis they should cry and call out; they should know that their condition is a function of their bad behavior…  This is what will allow them to avert the crisis.  This is the way of repentance, that when a crisis comes, [the nation] should cry and call out, and all should realize that because of their deeds, their situation has worsened.


As we saw above, this may be the intention of the Gemara (16a), in which we see the shofar as the tool for bringing our remembrance before God.  (For more on the link between shofar and prayer, see and



II) The Nature of the Mitzva of Tekiat Shofar


What, halakhically speaking, is the nature of tekiat shofar?  Might this be related to our previous discussion? 


Technically, two components comprise the mitzva of shofar: tekia and shemia, blowing and hearing the shofar, respectively.  The posekim have struggled for generations to understand the relationship between these two parts, and to determine whether the tekia or the shemia defines the mitzva. 


In order to determine whether the primary component of the mitzva is the tekia or shemia, it seems that we should search for cases in which either the hearing or the blowing is problematic.


The Mishna (3:7) teaches that one who blows the shofar into a hole or pit has fulfilled his obligation only if he heard the sound of the shofar, not its echo.  Seemingly, this mishna strongly indicates that even if one properly blows the shofar, one must still HEAR its pure sound.


However, other sources indicate that this may not be so simple.  For example, the Mishna (3:8) teaches:


A deaf person, a mental incompetent and a minor cannot fulfill the public's obligation.  This is the rule: [only] one who is obligated in something can fulfill the public's obligation.


Regarding a deaf person (cheresh), one might ask whether the Mishna refers to a deaf-mute, who is generally exempt from all mitzvot, or a deaf person who can speak, who may be obligated in mitzvot not affected by his condition.  The Me'iri (29) cites two divergent opinions regarding this question.  This question may be dependent upon our discussion.  Rav Yonatan of Lunel (29a) rules that a deaf person who can speak MAY fulfill another's obligation.  The Shulchan Arukh (589:2) strongly implies that he may not.  We will return to this issue shortly.


The Gemara also extends this principle to women, who are exempt from shofar, as it is considered a mitzvat aseh she-ha-zeman gerama, a time-bound positive commandment. 


Seemingly, were the shemia really the focal point of the mitzva, it should hardly matter whether the person who blows the shofar is technically obligated or not.


In the Rishonim, we find evidence that there is a disagreement regarding this question.  For example, what is the proper blessing to recite over the shofar?



Birkat Ha-shofar


The Rambam rules that the listener should recite the blessing "lishmoa kol shofar," "to hear the sound of the shofar" (Hilkhot Shofar 3:10).  While that alone may not irrefutably indicate how the Rambam understands the mitzva of shofar, a number of other sources do.  For example, he introduces Hilkhot Shofar by counting the mitzva "TO HEAR the sound of the shofar on the first of Tishrei." 


In fact, in a responsum (Teshuvot Ha-Rambam 142), he says explicitly:


The mitzva which is commanded is not the tekia, but rather hearing the tekia… and if the mitzva would have been the tekia [alone], each and every male would be obligated to sound [the shofar], just as each and every male is obligated in the mitzvot of sukka and lulav; and one who listens but does not blow would not have fulfilled his obligation… and similarly one who blows but does not hear — for example, one who covers his ears — would fulfill his obligation!…  [Rather] we only blow in order to hear… and therefore we recite the blessing "to hear the sound of the shofar," and not "on the blowing of the shofar."


The Rambam clearly maintains that the mitzva is to HEAR the shofar, not to blow the shofar.  He also raises another fascinating point.  He claims that since the mitzva is to hear, the congregation does not fulfill their obligation through the principle of "shome'a ke-oneh" (equating listening to a sound with making it) as the Gemara (27b) implies, but rather by simply hearing the sound of the shofar! 


The Shulchan Arukh (OC 585:2) rules in accordance with the Rambam (as well as the Behag, Ra'avya and Rosh), that one should recite the blessings of "li-shmoa kol shofar" and "Shehecheyanu," the blessing over new or seasonal experiences, before blowing the shofar.


Rabbeinu Tam (as cited by the Rosh, 4:10) disagrees.  He maintains that one should recite the blessing "al tekiat shofar" ("on the blowing of the shofar"), as "asiyyata hi gemar mitzvata," "its performance is the conclusion of the mitzva."  Rav Achai (She'iltot 171) and the Semag (Positive 42) also rule that one should say "al tekiat shofar" before blowing the shofar.


Seemingly, Rabbeinu Tam believes that the tekia is the primary component of the mitzva.  However, one might question this understanding, especially based on his explanation that "asiyyata hi gemar mitzvata;" instead, one might suggest he merely believes that one recites blessings over mitzvot when one performs the act (ma'aseh), rather than when its aim is fulfilled (kiyyum).  This might be supported by Rabbeinu Tam's position regarding the berakha over eating in the sukka, as well as his position regarding women reciting a blessing over a mitzvat aseh she-ha-zeman gerama, but this lies beyond the scope of this shiur.



The Stolen Shofar


The Yerushalmi (Sukka 3:1) questions why one may not fulfill one's obligation with a stolen lulav, but one may do so with a stolen shofar.  The Yerushalmi explains:


Rabbi Yosa said: "Regarding a lulav, it says, 'And you shall take for yourself' (Vayikra 23:40) - that which belongs to you, and not that from which it is prohibited to derive benefit.  But here [regarding shofar, it says], 'It shall be a day of terua for you' (Bamidbar 29:1) - in any way." 

Rabbi Lazar said: "There, he fulfills the mitzva with [the object] itself; here, he fulfills the mitzva with its sound, and no prohibition exists to benefit from a sound."


The Rambam (Hilkhot Shofar 1:1) writes, "There is a positive commandment TO HEAR the sound of the shofar of Rosh Ha-shana…" He even rules (1:3) that "one who blows a stolen shofar has fulfilled his obligation, as the mitzva is fulfilled through the sound… and the sound cannot be stolen."


Ruling in accordance with Rabbi Lazar, the Rambam once again demonstrates his view that shemia is the dominant component of the mitzva of shofar.


One might suggest that Rabbi Yosa disagrees with Rabbi Lazar regarding the nature of the mitzva of shofar, focusing on the tekia, as opposed to the shemia.  The Ra'avad, commenting on the Rambam, accepts the first explanation offered by the Yerushalmi, and writes (ibid., 1:3), "Even if a sound could be stolen, the verse says, 'It shall be a day of terua for you' — in any way." 


The Hagahot Asheri (4:14) cites the Or Zarua, who rules that a stolen shofar may NOT be used for the mitzva.  Seemingly, he believes that the fulfillment of the mitzva of shofar is no different than the mitzva of lulav, and that both mitzvot are fulfilled through an action performed with the object, the tekia in the case of the shofar. 


Each approach, in its extreme form, seems to fall short.  The Rambam, for example, does not explain why one must still hear the sound of the shofar from a person who is obligated in the mitzva (29a)!  Rabbi Aryeh Leib ben Asher Gunzberg (1695–1785), in his commentary Turei Even (29), discusses this issue.


Furthermore, it is unclear why the Rambam (ibid, 2:4) rules that both the person blowing the shofar and the person listening must have in mind to fulfill the mitzva, and the person blowing must have in mind to fulfill the obligation of the listener, if the mitzva is fulfilled merely by listening! 


The Rishonim differ as to how to interpret a passage in the Gemara (28b) in which Rabbi Zeira says to his friend, "Have in mind, sound [the shofar] for me."  Some (Rosh, 3:11) maintain that the Gemara must be understood according to those who believe that commandments must be fulfilled with intent (mitzvot tzerikhot kavvana).  Others (see the Ran's discussion, 7b) insist that one needs intent in order to fulfill another person's obligation of shofar. 


One might suggest that Rabbi Zeira merely reminds his friend to blow the shofar for the public properly, not merely "to play around."  He is not referring specifically to the intention to fulfill one or another's obligation.  Some interpret the Rambam in this manner.  In any case, the Rambam's position still remains difficult. 


Alternatively, those who focus upon the tekia, such as Rav Achai, the Semag and Rabbeinu Tam, must explain why a deaf person would be unable to fulfill the mitzva.  Furthermore, they must also find difficulty with the Mishna's assertion that one who blows the shofar into a pit and hears the echo has not fulfilled his obligation!  If the mitzva is truly fulfilled through the tekia alone, then one should fulfill one's obligation in these cases.  Finally, they must confront the Rambam's question: how can the principle of shome'a ke-oneh apply to a mitzva performed with one's body?


The Acharonim grapple with these questions, and offer numerous solutions.  Some attempt to adhere to the extreme positions, suggesting, for example, that although the mitzva may be TO HEAR, one must still hear a halakhically recognized kol shofar, which can only be produced by a person obligated in the mitzva of blowing a kosher shofar.  Alternatively, some suggest that although the mitzva is fulfilled through the TEKIA, one must still produce a sound that may be heard.  The Maharam Alashkar (Responsa, 10), for example, explains that "for who that state there is a mitzva to blow… nevertheless, one must blow in a way that the sound reaches his ears, as we find regarding the recitation of the Shema and similar mitzvot, that although the mitzva is reading, it must be a reading that is audible."


Others suggest a more moderate approach, explaining that all must agree that BOTH the tekia and shemia are integral components of the mitzva of shofar.  Rav Yosef ben Moshe Babad (1801–1874), author of a commentary on the Sefer Ha-chinnukh known as the Minchat Chinnukh, writes (405):


See what the later commentators have written regarding this mitzva, that both the hearing and the blowing are part of the mitzva, and one without the other is insufficient.  For one who hears from someone who is not obligated, e.g., from women and the like, does not fulfill his obligation.  Thus, the mitzva is not only hearing; one must also blow, and thus he can fulfill his obligation only via someone who is obligated.  Similarly, blowing without hearing is not sufficient, as is explicit in Tractate Rosh Ha-shana: "One who blows into a pit…"


Rather, it would seem that the Rishonim cited above disagree as to the PRIMARY aspect of the mitzva, not as to which is the ONLY component of the mitzva. 


One of the most intriguing and innovative suggestions is offered by Rav Yonatan of Lunel (24b).  He explains:


It does not say: "And you shall blow the shofar," as it says regarding lulav, "And you shall take…" (Vayikra 23:40); rather, [it says] "zikhron terua" (ibid, v. 24) and "yom terua" (Bamidbar 29:1); therefore, if one hears the sound from his friend, it is a "yom terua," and it is a "zikhron terua."


Apparently, Rav Yonatan of Lunel believes that the mitzva, fundamentally, is neither to blow nor to hear the shofar.  Rather, the mitzva is to create "a day of terua," which is accomplished by a person obligated in the mitzva blowing a kosher shofar. 





Returning to our original question, we might consider the view of those who maintain that the PRIMARY reason for the mitzva relates either to the shofar's role in the coronation of God or its role as an instrument of prayer.  According to this approach, one might be inclined to focus more upon the blowing of the shofar and less upon hearing the shofar.  Alternatively, those who view the sounding of the shofar as a call to repent may be more inclined to focus upon the "hearing" of the shofar.  The Rambam, for example, who explains that the shofar is a "wake-up call" to repent (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:4), also strongly asserts, as demonstrated above, that the mitzva lies in the shemia, not the tekia.


Rav Yonatan of Lunel's suggestion, that the Torah commands us to transform Rosh Ha-shana into a "yom terua," can accord well with the themes of fear and joy we discussed in an earlier shiur regarding the nature and experience of Rosh Ha-shana ( 



[1] All citations are from Rosh Ha-shana unless otherwise noted.