Shofar-Facing Uncertainty

  • Rav Alex Israel

The shofar is veiled with a certain mystery. The Torah fails to reveal its precise intentions when it instructs us to sound the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana. All we hear from the Torah is a vague description of Rosh Ha-shana as "a day of terua" (Bamidbar 29:1) or "a remembrance of terua" (Vayikra 23:24), but how are we to interpret these phrases?


Let us examine some leads from Chazal as to the sources for shofar blowing. I think that we shall emerge with an interesting angle upon this familiar ritual.




The shofar is frequently mentioned in the context of war. In the Torah:


When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound the terua on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before the Lord your God and be delivered from your enemies. (Bamidbar 10:9)


This war context continues in Chazal. The Mishna proves the identity of the shofar from the battle against Jericho (Rosh Ha-shana 3:1). But what aspect of war are we relating to? Is it the triumphant victory of war? The fear of the battlefield? How would we define the function that the shofar is to play, and how would we categorize the emotion that the shofar should evoke?




For an answer, we shall turn to the Gemara. One of the most unusual proofs for the sound of the shofar comes from the biblical figure of the mother of Sisera. The Gemara is trying to identify the correct sound that a shofar should make and is interested in defining the word "terua:"


The Torah states: "It shall be a day of terua for you." The Targum translates the phrase as "yom yevava," a day of sobbing, based on the verse (Shoftim 5:28): "At the window Sisera's mother looked out, and cried." (Rosh Ha-shana 33b)


Who is Sisera and who is his mother? Why should Sisera's mother become the source for the sounds of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana?


The scene is the military victory of the Israelite army, under the leadership of Devora and Barak ben Avinoam. The enemy is Sisera, a formidable army commander who has wrought havoc for years in the north of Israel. Now God has assisted the Jewish people. Sisera's army is defeated and Sisera is dead. But Sisera's mother doesn't know this. Sisera's mother awaits his arrival. The prophet Devora tells the story in the following way:


Through the window peered Sisera's mother, behind the lattice she sobbed: "Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?" She too replies to herself: "They must be dividing the spoils, a damsel or two for each man…" (Shoftim 5:28-30)


Why is Sisera's mother crying? That morning her beloved son went out to battle. She expects him to come home at a particular time, victorious, just like every other battle that he had fought in the past. Sisera had never suffered defeat. Today, Sisera is late home. Why? The possibilities gnaw at her mind. She paces up and down, staring repeatedly out of the window, squinting into the distance for a distant image, a cloud of dust, which may signify the approach of his chariot. Hours go by and she hears no word. "They must be dividing the spoils," she says to herself, in attempt to reassure herself. But she knows it is just an excuse. All the worst scenarios are running uncontrollably through her mind. Where could he be? Could he have suffered defeat? Or maybe he is just choosing for himself one of the captive women? Or maybe, possibly … what? Sisera's mother cannot stand the tension. She bursts into a flood of tears.


We are all familiar with the scenario of the child returning home late. We have all experienced this, whether as concerned parents or as children at the receiving end of those impassioned speeches about how our parents were "worried sick," phoned the neighbors, etc.


What is that feeling?


I would put it in the following way.[1] It is the feeling of absolute uncertainty. It is the emotional turmoil of endless possibilities. We all know how to cope when we know what has happened. If, God forbid, someone is in a hospital, if a person has a car crash, we then have the ability to cope. But the situation of not knowing, of the endless possibilities, somehow manifests itself in frantic worry, a panicked rush of the worst thoughts. This state is truly unbearable. For some reason, when we sense a situation in which we entertain the possibility of the worst, but we don't yet know what has really happened, we are consumed with an inexplicable sense of dread. The experience of waiting for the doctor's diagnosis, for sensitive medical test results, is far more difficult than coping with the results, however good or bad.


Sisera's mother is experiencing that traumatic feeling of uncertainty, with its dark guesswork - the overwhelming sense of the unknown. These are her tears.


And this too is the voice of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana. When the books of life and death are open before us, and we are standing in judgement, all the options are open. What is God thinking about us? What shall my fate be this year? We stand on Rosh Ha-shana in an uncertain twilight zone hanging suspended between guilt and innocence, between life and death. This uncertainty, this lack of knowledge is the embodiment of tension on Rosh Ha-shana. We cry, just like Sisera's mother. And if we do not cry, the shofar cries for us.




Is our position on Rosh Ha-shana indeed one of paralyzed helplessness? Are we required to stand frozen and fretting, or is there a more active role that we can play?


To answer this question, I would like to study a chapter of Mishna. By surveying the development of a theme within the Mishna,[2] I hope that we will be able to sense some of Chazal's thinking regarding the philosophy behind the shofar.


Here are the relevant portions of the text of the Mishna in the third chapter of tractate Rosh Ha-shana:


Mishna 2: All kinds of shofar are valid [for Rosh Ha-shana] except that of a cow, because it is a "horn." R. Yossi said: But are not all shofarot referred to as a "horn," as it states: "When they sound a long blast with the ram's horn" (Joshua 6:5)? [3]


3. The shofar of Rosh Ha-shana was of a wild goat, straight, and its mouthpiece was overlaid with gold. There were two trumpets at the sides. The shofar sounded a long note, but the trumpets a shorter one, for the mitzva of the day is the shofar.


6. A shofar that is split and was glued back together, is unfit. A shofar which shattered into pieces and is glued together is unfit. If there was a hole in the shofar and it was filled in, if it hinders the sound of the blast of the shofar, then it is unfit. But if not, it is valid. [4]


7. If someone blew a shofar into a well, or an underground room [5], or into a large cask, and one heard the sound of the shofar, one has fulfilled his obligation. But if he heard the sound of the echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation.


Likewise, if one was passing by a synagogue, or if his house was close to the synagogue and he heard the sound of the shofar or the reading of the Megilla - if he concentrated his mind on it, he has fulfilled his obligation. If not, he has not carried out his duty. Even though they both heard the sound, this one focused his mind, whereas the other person did not.


8. "And it was that when Moshe held up his hands Israel prevailed and when he lowered his hands Amalek prevailed" (Shemot 17:11). But could the hands of Moshe win a war or lose a war? Rather, this comes to tell you that whenever Israel looked upwards and committed their hearts to their Father in heaven, they prevailed, and if not, they fell…


This is the essence of the chapter of Mishna that outlines the laws of shofar. Let us examine this chapter and try to understand its content.


We shall begin with the most prominent question that this chapter raises: What is the final mishna (#8) doing here? How does it relate to the shofar? It is a nice sermon, but it would seem to havelittle connection with the command of sounding the shofar. Is this true?


I would claim that the key to answering this question is to identify the structural pattern that underlies the chapter as a whole. The mishnayot here are ordered in a particular way that reflects the thinking behind the mitzva of shofar.




How so? Note how the Mishna progresses thematically.


Mishna 2: the origin of the shofar

Mishna 3-5: the appearance of the shofar

Mishna 6: the physical shofar - does it have to be a single unit?

Mishna 7a: the sound of the shofar - objective (authentic sound or echo?)

Mishna 7b: the sound of the shofar - subjective (the question of concentration)


Through this simple breakdown, we can identify the journey that the Mishna takes us through. We begin with the physical, and end with the intangible. Note how the mishnayot begin with the origins of the shofar, then progress to its physical appearance and its physical integrity. Our attention then shifts higher, away from the physical object that is the shofar, to its sound, and the degree to which that sound is heard with accuracy. But the Mishna progresses further to a higher level: the effect that the shofar sound has upon the listener and the degree to which the listener is connecting with the sound. The Mishna raises the question: Is the listener focusing upon the notes he is hearing? Is he concentrating upon the sound?


All the mishnayot are attempting to determine and circumscribe the correct and valid performance of shofar blowing, yet there is a progression. It is a movement from the concrete to the abstract, from the objective to the subjective. Now, upon the backdrop of this analysis, we may be able to understand mishna 8.


We read mishna 7 and we develop an understanding that one must have a certain kavanna, intention, in order to fulfill the mitzva of shofar. At a simple level, we can see this mental focus as a basic need for the fulfillment of any mitzva. But especially with shofar, which is performed by somebody else, the person hearing the shofar must be aware that the sounds he is hearing are indeed a shofar and that through the hearing of these shofar sounds he will be fulfilling a Torah obligation. Indeed, this is how the mishna should be perceived.




Mishna 8, however, takes things further. It gives us an image of a nation at war. An untrained slave army faces a formidable foe – Amalek. What is the key to their success? It is the focus they have. If they focus their minds upon God and their commitment to Him, then they win. If they lose sight of God, then the tables turn and they begin to flounder. Kavana is the key. But here kavana is not the technical awareness of obligation nor the understanding that the sounds are those of the shofar. Rather, the kavana here is an orientation of commitment and subjugation to God, a realization that when the future lies in the balance, our success relies upon God.


This brings us full circle to our opening image of Sisera's mother. Here, again, everything is up for grabs. The future is unknown and undetermined. What will be the deciding factor as to which way the war will go?


In our mishna, the deciding factor is whether the nation will have their minds fixated upon God. Where will their kavana be?




Perhaps this mishna provides the missing piece in the puzzle which is shofar. The chapter has discussed the physical attributes of the shofar, and its sound. But how does that sound produce an effect of "zikkaron" (remembrance) [6] before God? How does the shofar connect with God at all?


Our mishna presents a classic scene. There are three "actors", three players: 1. Moshe, 2. the people, and 3. God. The people need salvation. Their future existence lies in the balance. By Moshe's symbolic raising of hands, they are directed to connect their hearts to God. This brings them sure success.


In our synagogues, there are also three "actors": 1. the ba'al toke'a (shofar blower), 2. the congregation, and 3. God. The imagery is totally parallel. The people's future lies in the balance, undetermined at this point. The people stand in shul on the Day of Judgment in need of a future of life and prosperity. God is the key to their success. How do they achieve this? By means of his shofar, the ba'al toke'a directs the people's minds and hearts to God. If this is effective, the people are saved.


I feel that even the visual imagery is similar. Moshe stands on a mountain, above everyone, but surrounded by them, holding up his hands. The ba'al toke'a stands on the bima in shul, a little above everyone, but surrounded by them, directing the hearts of the community towards heaven.




We have presented two images of the shofar. One represents the problem; the other gives a direction for a solution.


The shofar as depicted in the image of Sisera's mother represents the desperation and tension that prevail in a situation in which "the books of life and death are open" before God. Where our future is unknown, an intense feeling of trepidation holds sway.


Our second image that of Moshe in the war of Amalek. By understanding the connection between this image and shofar, we can see the shofar as a compass, directing our hearts and minds, our heartfelt prayers and our desperate pleas, heavenwards to God, directly. In this image, a certain reassurance prevails, whereby we feel that if only we can hold our focus, if only the shofar will direct our minds, then we are certain that the outcome will be a positive one, that we will emerge from uncertainty to a future of life and progress.


In conclusion, let us pray that our current uncertainty will herald life and that our current confusion will lead to peace. May the shofar guide us towards true prayer, and may God hear our prayers.




1. I heard the approach that I have adopted here from Rabbi Josh Berman of Beit Shemesh.


2. The method that I will use here is a literary one. The assumption is that Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi, when editing the Mishna, composed the chapters in a particular order according to certain themes. The analysis of the literary structure of the Mishna is a relatively new field, but it is one that I have been drawn to over the past year. In our study of the Written Torah, we are familiar with the usage of literary methods, developing Torah thoughts from the very structure of parashiot, the literary development of theme, and the use of language. Similarly, I believe that despite the halakhic nature of the Mishna, we can identify certain philosophical and religious motifs via the very fabric of the ordering of the Mishna. For more on this line of thinking, see the series of articles by Rabbi Avraham Walfish in Herzog College's periodical Netuim. Rabbi Walfish has written on this chapter in his article in Herzog College's recent book, Al Derekh Ha-avot. I have taken a slightly different approach here.


3. The first mishna of the chapter deals with the ceremony of the sanctification of the new moon and is not relevant to the theme of shofar.


4. For the sake of brevity, I have skipped two mishnayot which digress to talk about the blowing of the shofar on fast days, etc. They continue the discussion regarding the relationship between the shofar and the trumpets.


5. See the Ritva, who suggests that this happened during the Bar Kochba rebellion when the Jews had to hide in secret underground passages to escape the attention of the Romans. Historians have verified that this is the historical context of our mishna.


6. See Bamidbar 29:1 and Vayikra 23:24.