Blowing the Shofer in the month of Elul

    August 2008            
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The Sounds of Elul: Shofar Blasts & School Bells

By Yonatan Sredni

The countdown is about to begin. Much to the chagrin of students, but to the delight of their parents, the first day of school is on the horizon. Soon swimsuits and ice creams will be replaced by backpacks and school supplies. Anxiety and anticipation accompany the end of the summer vacation and the start of a new school year.

But a different countdown also begins these days with the onset of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is known as the month of Slichot (penitential prayers) traditionally said in the early morning before the weekday morning prayers. In the Sephardic tradition, Slichot are said from the beginning of Elul, while Ashkenazim begin a few weeks later, on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.

One tradition they both share is the blowing of the shofar (Sephardim during Slichot, Ashkenazim at the end of the morning service) each weekday morning throughout the month of Elul. These daily shofar blasts are meant to awaken one's spirits and inspire us to begin the soul searching in preparation for the High Holy Days.

Maimonides heard this message in the shofar's notes: "Wake up you sleepers from your sleep and you slumberers from your slumber. Search your deeds and return in penitence." (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4). In a sense, one could say that the Rambam describes the shofar blasts as a 'wake-up call' to all of us.

But there is something problematic with the 'wake-up call' analogy. I can remember once traveling from Israel to Los Angeles and arriving to the hotel quite exhausted and jet-lagged. I asked the front desk for a wake-up call and it not only woke me from my 'slumber', but startled me. Wake-up calls tend to do that. They are effective, but you wouldn't want one on a daily basis. Why then do we blow the shofar each weekday morning in Elul? If the intent is to startle us into action (repentance), wouldn't it be more effective if we did it just once or semi-regularly, and not every day? A daily wake-up call tends to lose its luster.

It seems to me that the blowing of the shofar each and every weekday morning for the duration of the month of Elul is not just to serve as a 'wake-up call', but more of an alarm clock. Just like we set our alarm clocks to wake up every day, so to the shofar of Elul rouses us each morning in the spiritual sense.

During the long summer vacation, children tend to stay up late and wake up late. Any parent will tell you that the only way to get your child to be ready for that school bell on the first day of school is to start enforcing a regular bedtime and normal wake-up time a few days prior. The hope is that the child will abandon their 'summer' routine and get back to a 'normal' early to bed, early to rise school year schedule.

The shofar of Elul acts much in the same way. In order to be ready to hear the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana, we start 'training' ourselves a month beforehand. Every day, day in, day out, the shofar acts as our alarm clock, getting us ready for the first day of the new year.

Whether it's the first day of school or the first day of the new year, we have to be ready to answer that bell - or blast.

The writer has an MA in Creative Writing from Bar Ilan University.


from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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