On the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul (this past Wednesday), Jews around the world began blowing the shofar (ram’s horn) in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah which will be celebrated in one month. What is the source of this custom?
Jewish tradition tells us that when Moses climbed Mt. Sinai for a second time after the sin of the Golden Calf, he was accompanied by the sounding of the shofar. Moses ascended to beg for forgiveness for the Jewish people and to receive the second set of tablets. All of this happened on the first day of Elul hence we mark the beginning of God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people by blowing the shofar. We will do so every day until Rosh Hashana.
For the Jewish people this forty day period beginning today and extending to Yom Kippur is a time that has been designated for forgiveness. We do our best to repair our relationship with God and with people. We cannot ask God to forgive us for offenses committed against other people---we must reconcile directly with them.
How did the shofar come to be such a powerful symbol?
Abraham is instructed by God to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. In perhaps the most dramatic moment in human history God tells Abraham to stop just as he is about to plunge the knife in to the neck of Isaac. God teaches us that we are to live for Him and not give up our lives to honor Him. Abraham looks up and caught in the thicket is a ram. Abraham takes the ram and offers him to God as a replacement for Isaac. Abraham has passed the test and demonstrated the depth of his commitment and loyalty to God and at the same time is taught a powerful lesson about life.
The ram’s horn recalls this incredible act of Abraham reminding us of his faith in order to inspire us to higher levels of faith and commitment. We sound the shofar and we are brought back to the great moment where Abraham, the great knight of faith, instructs us.
Another imagery that we find in Jewish literature is the shofar as a kind of spiritual alarm clock. When a person is physically asleep and needs to be up to go to school or work, they set an alarm clock. When a person is spiritually asleep he listens to the sound of the shofar. It is a wakeup call that reminds us not to sleep away our lives in a spiritual slumber. We must arouse ourselves and awaken our souls to God.
Others suggest that the sounds that emanate from the shofar represent the deepest cry of the human being. Crying transcends words. Words can only reach so far but a cry from the soul can open all doors of heaven. Sometimes we simply do not have the words to express ourselves so we cry to God to express the inner emotions and thoughts of our hearts in a way that can never be achieved through the spoken word. This is what the shofar is. Its sounds reach down in to the soul of man and reach up to the highest places in heaven.
The shofar reminds us of Abraham, it is a wakeup call and it is a cry from the depths of our soul.
Finally, the shofar is mentioned everyday three times a day in Jewish prayer. “Sound the great shofar for our freedom…and gather us in from the four corners of the world.” The shofar is the instrument that will announce the redemption. It will begin an era where the whole world will recognize God and live in peace. Let us pray that we are blessed to hear the sounding of the great shofar!