Shofar as a Form of Prayer

  • Rav Daniel Wolf

Based on a shiur by Rav Daniel Wolf

Adapted by Michael Hattin


The previous shiur in our Rosh Ha-shana Journal examined the two primary views about the nature of the mitzva of shofar - whether it is to blow or to hear. This shiur will demonstrate that a careful reading of the sources indicates that the sounding of the shofar is, in fact, a form of prayer. We can point to at least five texts which lead us to this conclusion.


1) The Talmud (Rosh Ha-shana 26a), when discussing the various animals whose horns are fit for shofar use, disqualifies the horn of a cow. The Talmud's reasoning is that "Ein kategor na'asa sanegor," an accuser cannot become a defender. Since the shofar symbolically pleads our case before the Heavenly Court, it is inappropriate that it should come from a cow, which recalls the sin of the golden calf. Based on this principle, the Talmud goes on to question the acceptability of the garments of the kohen gadol (high priest), which included ornaments of gold. Is this not also a material which brings to mind the sin of the golden calf? But, the Talmud replies, since the golden garments are not worn "bifnim," inside the Holy of Holies (where the kohen gadol wears only garments of white linen), there is no disqualification. Similarly, since shofar is called "zikhron" (remembrance), it is regarded by the Talmud as being akin to the service in the Holy of Holies, and therefore a cow's horn is invalid. This startling conclusion - that shofar is considered "bifnim" - indicates not only that the Talmud regarded shofar as a form of prayer, but actually considered it to be a prayer as significant as the entry of the kohen gadol into the Holy of Holies!


2) The mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 26b) records two opinions with respect to the shofar's shape: the first opinion maintains that on Rosh Ha-shana we sound a straight horn of the ya'el (antelope), and on Yom Kippur of the Yovel we use the bent horn of a ram. R. Yehuda disagrees and holds the reverse view. The Talmud explains that R. Yehuda's view sees the shape of the shofar as being a reflection of the posture of the supplicant: on Rosh Ha-shana, when we approach God in prayer, a humble, bent posture is more appropriate. On the Yovel, when we proclaim freedom, an upright posture is called for. Thus, the very shape of the shofar on Rosh Ha-shana is understood to be a function of its purpose as a vehicle of prayer.


3) Rabbenu Tam maintains that the mitzva of shofar is one of SOUNDING, and that the listeners fulfill their obligation through the principle of "shome'a ke-oneh" - one who hears is considered as if he recited himself. Clearly, this notion applies only in the realm of blessings and prayers, which require a verbal recitation, and not merely the performance of an action. That Rabbenu Tam invokes it here suggests that he views the sounding of shofar as a form of "speech," or prayer.


Interestingly, although the Rambam believes that on Rosh Ha-shana the mitzva is to hear the shofar and not to blow it, he specifically states that with respect to Yovel, the mitzva is for each individual to blow the shofar himself (Hilkhot Shemitta Ve-yovel 10:10, 11). (The Yovel, or Jubilee year, when lands return to their ancestral owners and servants are feed from their masters' bonds, is ushered in by the blast of a shofar on Yom Kippur.) Although Rabbenu Tam does not address this issue directly, we may conjecture that here he would agree with the Rambam. Since the shofar of Yovel is not a form of prayer, but rather a means of announcement and proclamation, it stands to reason that "shome'a ke-oneh" would not apply, and therefore each person would have to sound the shofar himself.


4) The mishna (Rosh Ha-shana 32a) records a disagreement between R. Yochanan ben Nuri and R. Akiva concerning the insertion of the shofar blasts during the Musaf service of Rosh Ha-shana. R. Yochanan ben Nuri maintains that the sounding of the shofar should first take place during the third blessing, concerning the sanctity of the day. Further blasts are sounded during the "zikhronot" and "shofarot" sections of the prayer, respectively. R. Akiva, in contrast, insists that the shofar is first sounded in the "malkhuyot" section, which is to be juxtaposed to the blessing concerning the sanctity of the day. The details of the subsequent talmudic discussion are somewhat involved; for our purposes it is sufficient to note that the underlying assumption that shofar blasts are intertwined with the malkhuyot, zikhronot and shofarot sections of the Musaf prayer in one form or another, clearly considers the sounding of the shofar to be part of the prayer.


5) The Talmud (Rosh Ha-shana 33b) discusses the nature of the teru'a blast. Is it a series of three short sounds, or is it instead a staccato sound, or is it perhaps both? The Talmud goes on to equate these sound with types of crying. Is the "cry" of the shofar to be a series of short sighs or a staccato of wails? Here again, we see that the sound emitted by the shofar is understood to be a form of weeping, a sincere prayer issuing from the depths of the heart.

Thus, the primary sources offer ample indications that, in fact, the sounding of the shofar is a form of prayer. May our "kol shofar" this Rosh Ha-shana ascend heavenwards and be accepted with mercy.




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